Twelve is arguably the hardest age. You are precariously perched on the cusp of understanding things you’d probably rather not understand. Your body, so familiar for so long, seems suddenly strange, even alien. It’s far too easy to feel a sense of dissociation at twelve. You remember who you were. You think you know who you want to be. But who you are now? There’s nothing to be found down that path, only a frightening blankness.
My twelve-year-old body was still boyish. But I had long and wavy white-blonde hair, and hints of incipient curves here and there. You could look at me, close your eyes, and see the woman in me. You could do that. Because the adult is contained in the twelve-year-old; you need only play with angles of light in order to find her.
That summer I caught men looking at me for the first time, and I was as entranced as bewildered by their gaze. I’d study myself in the mirror, try to see myself as they saw me. Instead I saw the same old girl I’d always seen, no matter how I squinted at myself or maneuvered my body, sticking one hip out in what I thought was a suggestive pose but was really only a comical one.
That summer I visited my sister, who was living with a woman. Both fascinated and repelled, I studied the couple’s interactions for clues as to my own identity, because twelve is above all narcissistic. I found nothing there that resonated, nothing that I might want to cradle and nurture. I left the pair no wiser than when I’d arrived. In fact, my sister and her girlfriend had frightened me. Raised by a single parent, I didn’t understand why men and women would want to clutch at each other in the middle of the night, much less why women and women might wish to do the same.
That summer I went on a trip with my mother, and for the first time, she left me alone. She was tired, always tired, and in a foreign place, she found it easy — in a way she’d never been able to do at home — to free me to wander, to explore. Which might have been a wonderful thing, except when it turned out to be, in fact, a terrible thing.
I befriended a boy who seemed to be taken with me. I didn’t understand his relentlessness, and I found his fawning over me fake and faintly nauseating. He was Southern, and given to exclaiming, “You’re so bee-ute-ee-ful, Say-rah.” I really just wanted another kid to explore the grounds of the hotel with me, or to dive off of the edge of the pool with me, so I tolerated his talk. One day his father and stepmother invited me to their house on the island. Their house! On the island! Who owns a house on a Caribbean island? This was novel, so with my mother’s permission, I agreed to the visit. The boy’s father suggested to my mother that it was a long drive to their house, so perhaps I should spend the night, and they’d bring me back to the hotel early the following morning. My mother would never have allowed such a thing back in the city; she didn’t even know these people. But something about the warm breezes on the island, or, as likely, something in the fruity alcoholic drinks she was growing fonder of by the day, calmed her fears.
So it was that I went with this boy and his family to a spectacular home on a spectacular beach, and the boy and I sat in the living room, where he introduced me to the seamier side of Richard Pryor and to Playboy, all in one afternoon. We ate an unremarkable dinner, after which the stepmom, who was quite young herself, gave me some towels and showed me the bathroom. She thought I might want to take a bath. Night had fallen, and I was a little scared of these people, the newness of them, and I wanted to go back to the hotel, to my mother, but I was too embarrassed to say so. So dutifully I undressed for a bath, wrapped a towel around myself, and walked down the hall to the bathroom, which had been lit with what seemed like a thousand candles, but was probably only six or seven. They were ringed around the bathtub, and they concerned me as much as anything else had.
I ran the bath and stepped into it. I poured some of the fancy bubble bath sitting on the edge of the tub and sank down into the soapy water. That’s when there was a knock at the door. “Yes?,” I called nervously. It was Brian’s father, who proceeded to walk into the room. I did my best to hide everything but my head. “Are you comfortable?,” he asked. “I’m fine,” I answered. But he didn’t leave. “I’m fine,” I repeated, louder. He nodded, but made no move to depart. “My son is right,” he mused. “He has good taste. You really are beautiful.” Shocked, I could not speak. Inside myself I pleaded with him to go away. Inside myself I screamed at him to go away. But none of my anguish made its way out of my throat and into the steamy air of the bathroom. Finally the man shook his head as if freeing himself from reverie, and cleared his throat. Then: “Well,” he murmured, in a voice throaty and absent, “if you need anything…” He turned and left, shutting the door too quietly, the gesture helping me understand that he feared being caught with me.
That night I did not sleep. I stood guard over myself, my self, my body. Even a twelve-year-old could sense that there was danger here, danger to be averted. I cried some, as I saw 2am, then 3am, arrive via the bedside electronic clock, its little black plastic pieces flipping over and over again with a dreadful inevitability. I remember the way the ceiling fan patterned the popcorn ceiling. I remember the white wooden window shutters slatted open, sending in the occasional breeze laced with oleander or frangipani or some other cloyingly sweet island flower.
Nothing ever happened, although in some ways the something that might have happened already had happened, hadn’t it? Morning came, and the family drove me back to the hotel, and when my mother asked me about the time I’d had, I shrugged. She looked at me strangely, but she didn’t press me. I was grateful for that. I avoided Brian and his family for the rest of the trip.
And I stayed quiet for the rest of that summer, the summer of 1979. There was much to process. I’d learned that there are many ways of being, and that some of those ways would require me to protect myself. That my body was more valuable than I’d known. That danger lay in candle-lit baths, in men who didn’t know to give a child some privacy, in back issues of Playboy, and perhaps mostly in my own body, which was just beginning the long season of its betrayal of my innocence.