A beach is a good place for not thinking. There’s no work at a beach. Everyone’s there to hang out. Normal rules of life are suspended. That makes the beach safe, in a weird way. Especially for growing girls. When I was a growing girl, I spent a lot of time at the beach. That was in the ‘70s. The ‘70s were good years for not thinking.
I took the bus there faithfully every day, ignoring the weather. Days when the marine layer didn’t burn off were sad. Colder. Barren. Fetid ocean wind spilled down the east-west running streets. I wore beach clothes, stuck to the north-south streets, so there was less traffic. So there were fewer hassles. The sand was quiet on those days. I lay there and tuned out, just blanked out for hours. Then I’d head home. On a muggy afternoon with no shoes on, I would be sweating inside, but my feet, thighs, ears were chapped, stiff with chill. Running to catch a bus.
Before I started taking the bus to the beach, I hung out there because I had to. It was summer after sixth grade, and Mom wouldn’t let me stay at home alone. The apartment we had then, in Rolando Park, was too hot anyway, and there was nothing to do outside and no place to do it. Plus, I didn’t have any friends out there. Plus, the beach was cool.
Mom was going through a lot of misery over the divorce, and her best friend lived in a condo right on the boardwalk in Mission Beach. They’d sit in there on soft beige couches with the breeze blowing the drapes in, sipping iced tea for hours. Virginia’s two daughters were one and three years older than me. We slipped in to use the bathroom but were supposed to stay outside. You could tell from my mom’s face whether it was okay to come in yet. If it was all shaky and unglued, you’d better stay away. None of us wanted to see her face looking like that, so we generally just stayed away.
We got dark tans. We used a lot of tanning lotion. This was before the days when you could buy SPF4 for your legs and SPF8 for your chest and SPF 15 for your face. We just smeared lotion all over ourselves all day long. Sherry and Susan were darker than me by nature, and by the end of the summer Susan had graduated to using baby oil, the mark of a true beach bunny.
We probably spent five hours a day on the sand that summer. I lost weight, because Mom didn’t bring food or give me money to buy it. We kind of had to wait for Virginia to offer us lunch, and she didn’t always. Not that I cared. I liked my stomach flat.
After a while, Mom quit falling to pieces so often. I started hanging out at the beach out of choice. Not that I particularly liked it. It was just better than the alternative. Susan and Sherry had been going to the beach for years, so they knew people and they knew the rules. I just settled right into their way of doing things and kept my mouth shut about being poor and living east of I-5. With that fascism peculiar to adolescence, I cast off my non-beach self every time I put on a bikini. I was not a little girl who liked to play with dolls and draw pictures. I was temporarily elevated to Sherry and Susan’s level, the world of beach sirens who talked about boys and clothes and music.
Beach rules were like the rules of a strip-joint. When you were on the sand, it was like being onstage: you were in public view, but immune. No one was supposed to touch you. They stared, put their towels down three feet west of yours, lay on their stomachs and stared straight up between your legs. They walked up and asked the time or what you were reading or where you went to school or if you wanted a beer, but they couldn’t touch you.
We lay there on our towels, turning at 30-minute intervals. Sherry and Susan’s portable radio was steadfastly tuned to FM pop stations. This was in the days before punk, before New Wave. Boys could like heavy metal, but only “loadie chicks” did. We professed a taste for the Beach Boys, Elton John, Seals and Crofts. The bands that played at patio parties along the bayside, gathering crowds on the sidewalk and sand, stuck to fast three-chord surf music and old rock-and-roll. Everyone danced by themselves.
We filled our hours on the sand with grooming. Growing girls’ hair lengthens at a phenomenal rate, withstands any amount of tangling, braiding, ponytailing. We wore ours long and loose, maybe pushed back from our faces with headbands or tiny barrettes, or cut at the front into “wings.” A degree of sun-bleaching was necessary to one’s credentials as a beach bunny. To bleach your hair, you waded into the water and bent over until your head was submerged. You straightened up and flipped your hair back, sending arcs of crystal drops flashing though the air. You returned to your towel and dug a big-toothed comb out of your straw or canvas bag. You combed your hair back, trained the front sides into two tubes framing your face. These tubes of finer under hairs bleached out more quickly, coarsening them, which made them stiff, which made your hair look fuller.
Over our tiny crocheted or seersucker cotton – never nylon Spandex – string bikini bottoms we wore balloon-like cotton shorts, with the legs and waistband rolled, so they curved around more, rode up our cracks. Instead of shorts we might wear a light cotton skirt, A-line or pleated, printed with flowers, or a spaghetti-strapped shift, or a T-shirt-like terrycloth dress. Over the nubby breasts sticking out the sides of our string bikini tops we wore skimpy “French cut” T-shirts, eyelet cotton camisoles, or the oldest faded tropical print shirt (tied up to reveal taut belly). We tied our sweaters around our necks, not our waists, loosely enough to show our shell necklaces or tiny charms on gold chains. Shoes could be Dr. Scholl’s or Bass sandals, plain white canvas sneakers, Sperry Topsiders, jute-soled espadrilles, or plain rubber zoris. If you wore zoris, the older the better; you wore them until the heels broke off.
On the boardwalk, we charged around in almost nothing, up to Hamel’s, down to Mission Beach Liquor, pouring it on with sunglasses, slicked-back hair, lazy hips. Just to see what would happen. Testing things out, the way 12-year olds do. They ogled, jumped in our path, whistled, howled. Oooh, jailbait. But they didn’t grab.
It smelled like seaweed, spilled beer, car exhaust. The sun’s heat, held close by the dirty wwhite clouds capping the sky, coaxed spilled beer and last night’s urine smells from the sidewalks. Susan and Sherry, more confident girls, raced down the boardwalk on roller skates, scattering the wall-sitters clutching cans of beer. Me, clumsy with wobbly ankles, the self-consciousness of a body new with adolescent hormones, walked along, eyes forward.
The plan might be, see if Lenny who lives up the boardwalk in the house with the stained-glass door was home, and see if he would give us a joint. Usually, he wanted to smoke it with us. The plan might be, go to Hamel’s and rent bikes with Susan’s allowance. The plan might be, lay out on the sand by the condo, to see if certain cute guys would show up.
I could only sustain an interest for so long. Often, I wished to just go inside Virginia’s condo and read or sleep. The condominium shut out the ocean sound and salt wind. It glowed with soft light from ceramic ginger jar lamps. Everything was white and beige and pink there. There was a seashell motif in the guest bathroom. Virginia lived in mortal fear of wet clothing and sandy feet. We washed our feet at the outside shower, by the sauna.
Sherry and Susan met a guy with pot. After the usual hushed conferences – was he okay to know? Was he safe? – Sherry turned to me with a strange grin and said, “Well, it’s time to smoke a doobie in the sauna.” I had tried the stuff before and didn’t like it. “You don’t even have to smoke. Just come in and you’ll get a contact high.”
The sauna smelled of mildew and hot wood. There was some water in a redwood bucket, but someone had misplaced the ladle, so we couldn’t pour water on the coals. Sherry and the guy sat on the top bench in the corner. “Let’s take our tops off,” Sherry said.
“No,” said Susan, the younger.
“Don’t wanna show your mosquito bites?” Sherry said.
Susan said she’d tell Mom. Sherry told Susan she would not. Susan stormed out. I remember the sudden leap of excitement in the pit of my stomach as Sherry unfastened her top. I remember feeling flattered when the guy said, “Why don’t you take your top off, too?” We sat there giggling, taking turns allowing the guy to nibble on our breasts and mouths. While Sherry and the guy pawed each other there on the upper bench, I leaned back and watched. Later there was a pounding at the door. Susan was back, bored at being alone.
“Well, come in then,” Sherry said. She unbolted the door.
Susan leaned in the door. “Put your tops back on,” she said. She was crying.
The thing about the marine layer was, it flattened the light and trapped the stink down on the ground, where we were. We were walking down the stained sidewalk. The cement warm and sticky beneath our bare feet. Susan was walking beside me. Sherry and two boys were walking behind. Sherry hugged her brown arms, rough with goosebumps, swung her torso back and forth. “Ooh! I’m cold! Kurt? Give me your shirt?” She fell back, bounced up behind Kurt, raised the striped Hang Ten T-shirt from his back.
“Lay off!” Kurt shrugged her off. The other boy lagged a step, looked at Kurt’s back. “Hey, where’d you get those scratches from?”
“I was breaking in some chick last night.”
“She was going crazy, man.”
The boy slicked sweaty hands through his long, sea-bleached hair. “Lemme see,” Sherry said. She put her hands on Kurt’s brown back, slid them around his sides. She locked her arms around his waist, matched her legs to his. The pair walked lock-kneed, lost balance. Kurt bent forward, lifting Sherry off her feet. She squealed. I don’t know what I thought of this. I don’t know what I thought of any of it. I think I just watched them, to see how I should be.
One day Susan and Sherry wanted to hang out on the boardwalk by the condo. There were some cute new guys due by. Brian was in a pink LaCoste shirt, corduroy shorts, Topsiders. He had a soft baby-blue sweater tied around his neck. Matt was a dark boy in loose, white cotton clothes. His tan was so intense that he glowed, sitting astride his rusting white Vespa. He had big cheekbones. He asked me if I wanted to go for a ride.
“Put your arms around my waist, and lean the way I lean,” he told me. We rode north, tracing the inlets and outlets of the shoreline. At Tourmaline he stopped the scooter at an overlook. Pacific Beach spread south in front of us. He stayed astride the bike. So did I. I kept my arms around his waist. My heart thudded against his back, jolted by my own daring. I slipped my arms under his nubby Mexican cotton sweatshirt. He twisted around and put his tongue in my mouth.
After that it was understood we were together, though we never made plans to see each other, never called each other on the phone, never touched in the presence of others. I remember making out in someone’s living room. Some ratty house in Mission Beach. His fingers tentatively rubbing my knee, thigh, his body rigid with fear at his unexpected success. The jabbing of fingers trying to get into my too-tight shorts. The friction was painful. I didn’t want to be impolite by bringing it up. My hand wriggling inside his cotton drawstring pants. No more than that, with Matt.
Somewhere in this time period, located in this same summer, is a living room, dark, with couch cushions scratchy on my bare, sunburned legs. I don’t know who I was there with. We were waiting to get high. We were waiting for someone to show up with the beer. I was crammed next to some guy on the couch. I don’t remember who any of these people were or how I got there. I suppose I didn’t really listen to what was being said or say much. I kept my mouth shut. Except for joints, beer bottles, tongues. I just went along with whatever was happening. I didn’t really care.
There was a lot of stereo equipment. The main activity was thumbing through the record albums and eight-track tapes. There was probably talk about waves and surfboards. Some guy showed up with a six pack. We all got one. We did bong hits. I hated pot, I smoked it anyway. I loved the sound of a bong, that deep bubbling noise as you draw the smoke through the water in its base.
I felt more comfortable when the kissing began. This was home territory. I don’t remember the mouth I kissed, nor the body attached to it, nor the move, the big move, to the bedroom. I remember that outside the horizontal slatted glass window a big hibiscus bush shielded us from the neighboring house. A flowery, ocean stinking breeze ruffled the torn curtains. Across the floor from the foot of the bed was a big TV. Reflecting on it was the murky image of his pale and muscular butt.
This guy, blonde-haired, was energetic, goofy with excitement. He would stand up, then leap forward onto the bed, trying to plunge his penis straight into me in one movement. I didn’t like this game. I didn’t like him. I didn’t want to have sex with him and I wasn’t sexually aroused. I did it anyway.
In fact, I was busy trying to fool him into thinking I was aroused. Later I stood in the kitchen of the house and drank big gulps of ice water until my stomach ached. I had said I was thirsty, but I had planned to leave. I had planned to put on my clothes, walk through the kitchen and out the back door. He had said he would go with me into the kitchen. I told him to just lie there and relax. He said we were alone in the house. I didn’t have to put on any clothes. Then he said, “Don’t get dressed.” So I didn’t. Because he said so. “Hurry back,” he said.
A whole afternoon spent having sex with a stranger. One of a few, I guess. I don’t know how many. I put them behind me without a second thought. I put a lot of things behind me without a second thought then. I knew, the way you know these things when you’re 12 and spend afternoons in bed with strangers, that it was best not to think about what I was doing.
Or 13 or 14 or 15. I did not do it often, but I did it for years. Cut class, caught a bus, cruised the beach. I wandered up through the jewel streets in Pacific Beach, fantasized about the plush homes in Bird Rock, picked flowers from bushes around Windansea. Or I walked south along the boardwalk, crossed to the bay side, continued north to the Catamaran. Those little vacation houses with the low cement walls around the patios. I was in one of them once, one with stained glass, driftwood, cotton paisley spreads on the ratty couch. Another skipped day of school. Another man in another can. Herbal tea. Some hash. Slow sex on a waterbed. Refusing him my phone number afterward.
Between Windansea beach and Marine Street fingers of sandstone jut into the water. At low tide the strips of sand between the fingers make good private places for sunbathing. Another ditched day, I found myself there. Someone walked across the rocks above me. His shadow glanced over me. I looked up and saw a slender man, very tan, with long, long black hair. One silver ring in his ear. He walked on.
He returned. “Mind if I sit here and smoke a joint?” He looked like a pirate. He laughed when I told him that. By mid-afternoon the day turned shitty with thick clouds. Goose pimples rose on his chest, paler brown. He wanted to get his shirt from his van, parked up on Nautilus Street. He invited me along.
After we’d made love in the back of the van, it was raining outside. We stayed inside, smoked another joint – me fighting myself into it. There were houses and people just outside, just across the median strip and sidewalk and the small front lawns. The pot made me worry about the people just outside, about the lateness of the hour and missing my bus back home, about stepping back out into that world, out into the worried-looking overcast daylight. We stayed in the van for a long time. Finally, I had to pee so bad I knew it would mean running a block uphill to the gas station on La Jolla Boulevard. The pirate wanted my phone number. I told him no. I didn’t go back to Windansea for a long time.
I got off the bus earlier than usual once, wanting to walk across the big clean curve of bridge between the Islandia and the roller coaster. It was a sunny, hot day. I accepted a ride from a man in a beige van. He had long blonde hair in a ponytail. I thought of him as old. He must have been in his 30s.
Me with fever blisters on my lips, hair in a dozen messy braids, bruised thighs. I was tired of walking and my face was burning. He complimented me on my tan. He asked if I liked to lie out where it wasn’t too crowded. Of course I did. We went to a private spot I knew in Bird Rock, an empty lot between two houses. Soon he wanted to go someplace more private.
So we went to Fiesta Island. He stopped for beer on the way, at that liquor store on Turquoise. I drank a beer down, right there in the van. I looked at his thighs, white and smashed fat against the driver’s seat. A grown man’s thighs. I put a hand on one. He was surprised. He was happy. I suppose now he was thinking, “This is going to be easier than I thought.”
I rubbed his thigh while he drove. He made jokes about how crazy I was driving him. Fiesta Island was deserted. It was hot and barren on the sand. Later: humping sweatily in the van, wondering if we were visible from I-5. Sand scratching my sunburned back. Later: him taking pictures. Snapping the shutter quickly.
He was nice. I felt like I could do anything, and he’d just laugh and smile and say “sure.” That was a mood that came on me then sometimes. I made up names, family histories, stories about who I was and where I lived. Those were my beach rules. I could do anything. Say whatever I wanted. Without being told I was “weird.” Of course, I know now that if that anything and whatever is likely to include sex, a man is not going to tell you you’re weird.
I never let them drive me home. Inevitably there would come the point where I would ask the man the time, gather my things, take off down the sidewalk. It would be the end of the day, and I would just be a tired, tired child, racing to catch the last bus east before dark.