It had been pouring rain all morning at Windansea Beach on the San Diego coastline. Cynthia Perez stood under a thatched hut of desiccating King Palm fronds that stood just twenty yards from the water near a group of smooth, caramel-colored rock formations. Perfect A-frame waves broke there all day long, converging into one sharp point. These were thick, heavy waves that the local surfers appreciated, but on this day, the only one on the water was a passing sea lion following a school of anchovies.

Cynthia turned and looked up the hill at the blue Honda Civic hatchback stuffed to the brim with the belongings that represented the sum of her material life. She laughed quietly at the thought. From the time she was a little girl, she had been taught to think and act like a servant. She had never felt comfortable playing this role. It wasn’t enough anymore to be governed by household chores, her dead-end Walmart job, and the need to referee her family’s fights and keep her kids out of trouble. She crossed her arms and gazed at the horizon. In a city she had come to know like the back of her hand, Windansea was the only place left that still felt like home. Here, at least, she could hide from the rest of the world and dream of a better life.

She shoved her hands in the pockets of her gray hoodie and tried to remember the last time she had felt vital. She was 36 years old and carrying a little bit more weight than she cared to admit, but she was still pretty, with shoulder-length black hair, dark brown eyes, and a warm, weary smile. There was plenty of time left to learn how to depend on herself.

Her friend Clara had a room in her L.A. home waiting for her. Cynthia wouldn’t contact her husband Ray and the kids until she was settled in up north. She figured she loved her family as much as anyone else, and she would miss them, but declarations of loyalty and respect didn’t mean anything without reciprocal action. Empty words didn’t count for much. She took one last look at the turbulent sea, said “Peace out,” and strolled up the hill, thinking of how pretty the glittering highway would look in the mist.