Summer of ’79

Twelve is arguably the hardest age. You are perched on the cusp of understanding things you’d 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.

15 thoughts on “Summer of ’79

  1. I am glad that “nothing” happened.
    But really, everything happened, didn’t it.
    Sometimes I think 12 is so much harder for girls, than for boys because of the obviousness of the changes. The difference in the way people…men…look at girls is both disturbing and unnerving.
    Both either way, when that corner is turned, there is no going back to innocence.

  2. This reminds me in many ways of how I feel now as I exit the world that age 12 opened up to me:

    “You are precariously balanced the cusp of understanding things you’d probably rather not understand. Your body, so familiar for so long, suddenly seems strange, even alien. It’s far too easy to feel a sense of dissociation….You remember who you were. You think you know who you want to be. But who you are now?”

  3. Memories like these make aging a relief; and parenting an adolescent now made clear realizing adults saying”no” is the gift we can provide.

  4. Such a tough time for girls. I assume even more so now than when we were young. Yes, something happened, but while not good, it did give you cause to think and be more aware.

  5. So scary. So terrifying. Sometimes I think of things that might have happened when I was a young teenager, babysitting and then the mom’s boyfriend came home, or something, and it terrifies me. Even if nothing happened, it’s still terrifying.

  6. I think we all have a moment like this…a moment when adult topics are thrust upon you before we are ready. I suppose as parents all we can do is postpone it as long as possible & to impress upon our children that we will never make them feel small if they need to call us for help, to listen to that nagging voice inside & act upon it.

    I’m having a hard time picking just one example from my own history. The time my pediatrician gave me my 1st pelvic exam because I was having stomach pains, my mother not in the room (out of character for her). I later realized that my mother had asked her to do it, but didn’t clue me in. The time an older boy followed me home from school, pressuring me for a kiss in the park, when I relented, there was an immediate hand on my crotch. My best girl friend, bringing weird (WEIRD) adult story magazines to school & sharing them with us.

    Countless times society told me to keep quiet, to keep it in, to forget it, because you’re somehow culpable, though you did not ask for it, or want it, that this is what “normal” people DO. Those times you feel yourself swept in the moment, thinking “This needs to stop” but you can’t find your voice.

    You’re not alone, that doesn’t make it better, but maybe that feeling you have from reliving this story can be carried on the collective weight of our shoulders. We all know it.

    And I think we desperately need to talk about this, to empower kids to have a voice when they most need it. Thank you for sharing this. <3

  7. I think perhaps we can do a better job than our mothers (parents really, but I can’t even IMAGINE talking to my dad about stuff like this) did by being upfront about sexuality and the changes it brings. My mom did a good job with the biology of it all (she was after all, a physiology prof), but didn’t ever really talk about feelings or other potentially *whisper font* nastier stuff */whisper font*. Of course, I now have boys and have no idea what to say to them except that if it feels uncomfortable, it is wrong.

  8. I had something similar happen around the same time, but it was a relative – again, it wasn’t anything actionable, but it was creepy and disturbing.

  9. Wow. I feel like I’ve had the wind knocked out of me reading that.

    Sorry you lived that experience. While some men may stare uncomfortably, that’s just amazingly wrong. Thank God nothing more happened.

  10. We get pulled out of childhood by the roots, don’t we. For me it was hands, dirty and hard, on a bus. A woman next to me saw the hands. And did nothing. I think that was the worst of the whole incident.
    Beautifully told, Sarah, and a wonderful launch for thinking about how we raise kids and what the world they enter will do to them. I wonder what this moment is for a boy – probably both different and yet the same.

  11. Last week when you posted this, my nine year old daughter was at her friend’s, having her first ever sleep-over outside the family. She had called around 8:30, tearful and homesick, but not asking to come home.

    There is no way to predict exactly where danger lies, and over-protectiveness can be unhealthy, too. I’ll never forget my sister saying to me one time that we were “lucky” that we hadn’t been sexually molested by our father. What a bizarre thing to say, I have always thought. Based on what? Statistics, or something else? Pity I didn’t delve further at the time, but I was nonplussed.

    I can’t really remember being twelve. Thirteen was…shall we say “pivotal” for me. Though I can’t really think of a time when an “actual” adult – as opposed to an older person who was a derelict or something – took advantage of me in any way.

    I waver between preserving my children’s innocence and being the one to open their eyes first so it can be done gently and with explanation. That’s quite a luxury that I take for granted.

  12. I somehow don’t remember anything, from around 11 to 17. Oh bits and pieces, little fragments, but mostly nothing.

    You do make my heart stop, by the way. And often.

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