July 2 and 3 — Mission Beach
Three girls from Temecula Valley High School, Paige, Ramona, and Tarah, agree to talk with me. Tarah is 16 and will be a senior in the fall. She has driven her parents’ car from Temecula, about an hour north of San Diego. In summer, the girls try to come to the beach once or twice a week.
Paige, 17, will also be a senior next year. She has auburn hair, brown eyes, and a petite 4-foot, 11 1/2-inch figure. She describes herself as “really short” and “kinda tan." Actually, she has the most beautiful tan of all the young women I interview. Her clear skin teams up with the sun for a stunning effect. She’s wearing a two-piece swimsuit of blue, white, and purple with flowers — a bikini she bought with $35 of birthday money.
Paige seems reluctant to talk about her appearance and personality. She thinks that her best feature is probably her smile. Her friends come to the rescue:
“Paige is the sweetest person in the whole wide world,” Ramona says. “And she’s shorter than me, she’s the only person that’s shorter than me, so I love her. She’s really cute. She’s got the best tan in the world. I’ve known her probably since the beginning of last school year." She agrees that Paige’s best feature is her smile.
Tarah echoes the "really cute girl” routine but adds, “Fun to be around. Fun to look at guys with.”
All have manicures and pedicures — sometimes self-applied but often professionally done. They dismiss the cost as “not all that much,” even though most of them lack both an allowance and a job.
“I have to have lotion," Paige says. “If I don’t have lotion. I’ll freak!” She sports a blue pedicure and matching manicure.
Describing her relationship with her parents (her mother, a homemaker; her father, employed by Pacific Bell), Paige says, “We’re friends... I pretty much tell them everything.”
But she didn’t tell them about the last time she cried — five days ago. Asked the cause of her tears, she says, “Over boyfriend problems.”
One of her friends asks, incredulously, “Already?” “Well,” Paige says, “we were getting back together, so-o-o...”
She didn’t cry in front of him. “Just at home by myself.” She confided in her best friend, Elizabeth.
“He didn't do anything bad, but I didn’t know if I was making the right choice, getting back together with him, and I was really stressed out, and when I’m stressed, I cry.” For Paige, the saddest song is “Nobody Knows" by the Tony Rich Project. “It’s about a guy that lost his love,” she explains, “and he is feeling a lot of pain inside. He misses her so much, it’s so sad.” When girls in Paige’s school become pregnant, “they drop out and take care of their babies.” She thinks the school has counselors to help them but is unsure. “I think so. They try to keep it low key.”
Asked whether she could tell her parents if that happened to her, Paige says, “Yeah, I’d have to."
Paige’s goal is to attend San Diego State to become a physical therapist or a nurse. When she looks for a husband, she’ll aim for "someone who’s sweet and has a good job—and funny.” Funny, as in a sense of humor, figures large among the qualities of prospective husbands.
Ramona, 16, an entering junior, has reddish-brown curly hair, brown eyes, “and I’m short, but not as short as Paige. I’m five two, and I don’t know, I try to get a good tan.”
I remark that she tends to get a few freckles and ask whether that bothers her.
“Not really,” Ramona says, “because I do pageants. Right now, one of the big things — Miss Teen USA — is freckly, cute, down-home girls, so that kind of helps me.”
Ramona thinks that her best feature is her smile. “Because I had three and a half years of braces, so it better be pretty good.”
I comment on her nice figure. Why didn’t she mention that?
“I’m picky,” Ramona says. “Like, if I was a supermodel, I’d still think I was fat. I don’t care what I eat or drink. I go to the gym and work out. I run, lift weights (not the big ones, just five-pound and eight-pound). My dad is, like, big, but my mom is really skinny, so I work out because I don’t want to end up like my dad.”
What’s in their small white cooler with the blue top, I want to know. It’s filled with carrots and regular sodas. The girls are also sharing a bag of Cheetos bought along the way.
Ramona wears a red, white, and blue two-piece suit, both top and bottom divided into red and white stripes on one side, blue with white stars on the other. It cost about $20.
“I always shop the price-reduced at Frederick’s of Hollywood,” she says, “and it’s usually a lot more expensive, but it was on sale, so I was happy.” She tries to get at least one new swimsuit every summer but hasn’t yet bought one this year. Ramona’s beach towel — navy blue and white with eagles — extends the patriotic motif.
I comment on Ramona’s unusual manicure.
“Actually, this is a French manicure,” she says, “so it’s got the white tips.” It set her back about $25 and requires a $12 fill every two weeks or so. Asked about beauty products, she says that she likes Oil of Olay and St. Ives: “all the facial masks and stuff. Everything I can get my hands on.” She buys cosmetics in Temecula. “Sometimes I get them sponsored, like, from my pageants, from beauty-supply stores, but most of the time, it’s me or my pageant director."
How many pageants has she been in?
“Ooh, I don’t know. I’d say at least ten. Yeah. I just finished one the other weekend, and I won it, so I’m kind of excited about that.”
Ramona wants to go to college somewhere in Texas or Tennessee because she hopes to be a country singer someday and would like to be close to Nashville. The saddest song she’s ever heard is Patty Loveless’s “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye?”
“I was thinking about a music school,” Ramona says, “but I really want to go to a four-year university. I was thinking University of Texas or some school like that, like a Division One school hopefully, because I love sports and I love watching all the sports I want — a school with good teams."
With a 4.0 grade point average, Ramona should be able to go to the college of her choice.
Daughter of a homemaker and a quality-control technician for Hudson RCI, Ramona looks for a life partner “who’s athletic. Like Troy Aikman [quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys]. If he looked like Troy Aikman I’d marry him right there, but I like outdoor, funny, but not lazy, like, athletic, and really sweet, of course. Somebody who believes in love and romance, not just the kinda guy who...you know, one day...and the next girl.”
How important are looks?
“It’s not that big a deal,” Ramona says, “but of course, to notice him he’s gotta be cute."
Regret colors her voice as she admits she doesn’t have a boyfriend now. “I’m seeing somebody, but we’re not that serious.”
One good reason Ramona doesn’t want to gain weight is “because I just paid, like, $800 for a cheerleader’s uniform, and I want to make sure I’ll fit into it by the time I get it.”
When I express shock at the uniform’s cost, Ramona modifies her price — but only slightly: “Not that much. I think it was, like, 700-something. The uniform was $500. And then you pay $240 for the letters, et cetera.”
Later, other teens will explain to me that the uniforms are custom-made, that “they measure every part of your body” so that the uniform fits you and only you. Each letter costs about $10, and by the time you write Temecula Valley Hi and add name and class year — Ramona 99— you’ve racked up $240 more in costs.
Tarah is of German and English descent, daughter of a retired Texas oil-field worker and a Navy mother. She comes across as more reserved than the other two, with an edge of sadness that makes her seem older. At five foot four, she is the tallest of the trio, with golden-brown hair and green eyes. Her face is paler than her body; her complexion, not totally clear.
“I used to bum a lot,” Tarah says, “so I put tons of sunscreen on my face.” She wore braces for six years. “I don’t wear my jewelry on the beach, but I have toe rings and an anklet.” She’s also wearing two small stud earrings in each earlobe. I ask whether the toe ring opens. How is it possible to remove it?
“Sometimes you have to get it fitted on and then you put lotion to slip it off,” she says. The ring is a fine silver band, and she’s worn it about a year.
“And my other ones, they broke, so... See, I have a toe-ring tan right there.” Tarah’s nails are coral pink. She wears very small beads like those the Campfire Girls of my childhood used for making headbands. The several colors of the beads complement the purple, green, yellow, and white of her two-piece swimsuit. Around her neck she wears a fine gold chain with linked hearts.
“My boyfriend gave me that,” she says. “I don’t have my ring on that he gave me.” On the beach, most girls put aside all or part of their jewelry and wear their hair up.
The giver of the locket and ring has been Tarah’s boyfriend for a year and a month— “a long time.” She says that she cried yesterday. “Usually, it’s over him, but lately it’s because of stressing out because I’m moving. I was going to move, and now I have a place to stay with some of my friends.
“My mom cries a lot She doesn't want to move. She doesn’t want to leave me, actually.”
I ask whether her parents are splitting up.
“Mom’s in the Navy and is being transferred to Washington, D.C.”
Tarah doesn’t want to change schools for her senior year, so a compromise has been reached. Her mom will move. Her dad will stay in the family home, and Tarah will live with friends for a year.
Future plans include attending junior college (half an hour from Temecula) and transferring to a four-year university, preferably San Diego State, to study criminal psychology. Tarah admits that she’s still not sure.
“I want to know how the criminal mind works,” she says, “and why they do the things they do, and I like dealing with people, so it could be fun.” When Tarah was younger,
she entered one beauty pageant, but that’s not really her thing. Instead, she’s a cheerleader and a pole-vaulter. She holds three records—for her school, the stadium, and her league.
“I’ve jumped nine feet two inches before,” Tarah says, “but I can do higher."
I ask about injuries. She’s “spiked” herself and pulled muscles “and stuff like that."
Tarah considers her eyes her best feature. As for her best personality trait, she says, “I'm mildly crazy, like to have fun.” Paige and Ramona are happy that Tarah’s not moving — very happy.
All the girls cry when they’re angry, but Tarah says, “I cry over everything. When I’m mad I cry. When I’m sad I cry. When I see a nice commercial on TV I cry.”
But the main cause for tears she says “Mostly my parents and boyfriends. It’s been hard having a relationship so long, hard sometimes.”
“Hard," I ask, “because of his pressure to have sex?”
There’s a sharp intake of breath from Ramona, then an explosive response. I look her way.
“It wasn’t shock," Ramona says. “It was just funny. No comment.”
Tarah says that her family doesn’t do things together so much lately.
Ramona interrupts: “I saw the first cute guy on the beach.” I ask which of the two passing guys.
“The one with the black shorts.”
“I’m interfering with your day at the beach."
“No,” Ramona says, “it’s okay. I just had to point that out."
I say that I’ll take a couple of pictures and be on my way. In the few seconds it takes me to remove the lens cover and focus, Ramona has whipped out a compact, freshened her makeup, and let her hair down. “Doing” pageants is a 24-hour job, and letting her hair down transforms her.
Another day at Mission Beach. My challenge is to locate girls in the right age bracket. A young woman I approach tells me she is 26. I learn to look for a mouthful of braces: orthodontia is a rite of passage into adolescence.
In this way, I encounter three girls from Ramona, all 15 and going into their sophomore year in high school: Holly, Alice, and Deena. They have come to Mission Beach with Holly’s older sister, who works in San Diego.
Holly has long, straight blond hair, blue eyes, and a wide smile that reveals the telltale braces. She’s wearing a two-piece Mossimo suit of green, blue, and purple. Her fingernails are green and her toenails purple. She wears an adjustable toe ring, twisted around to look like two; tiny dolphin earrings; and a matching necklace. I wouldn’t have guessed that she’s five foot eight. Asked her best physical feature, she hesitates until Alice prompts her, then says, “My legs.”
“She’s really thin,” Alice says. “Very thin.” Holly weighs 125 pounds and comes from a tall family.
Holly doesn’t know her best personality trait. Again, Alice helps out. “She’s easygoing." The girls have been friends about three years.
Asked what her parents do. Holly stonewalls: “I’d rather not say.” Nor is she willing to give her address. “Why do you need it?” she asks. I begin to suspect that I’ve fallen into a nest of CIA agents' daughters. The other two will echo Holly’s refusal to give their parents’ occupation, but the lure of snapshots and the prospect of seeing themselves in print is too much. Deena finally agrees to sacrifice her privacy on the altar of curiosity. She writes down her address so that I can send three sets of prints and stories to her for the group.
About family activities, Holly is more forthcoming. “We go to church, so we do a lot of church things.” And she names “Amazing Grace” as the saddest song she’s ever heard. Deena chooses “The Dance” by Garth Brooks, and Alice, “One Sweet Day” by Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey.
“We go to the beach a lot,” Holly says. “We go on a lot of family trips.” Last year, the family spent a month in Europe— about a week each in France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Holly’s favorite part was skiing in Austria. At home in California, she skis, plays soft-ball, water polo, and volleyball.
Unlike Temecula’s students, pregnant teens in Holly’s school continue their studies. Most have the baby, but she’s heard of some who choose abortion. “You see a lot of these Southern pregnant girls walking around school,” Holly says.
At some point. Holly, who answers mostly in the monosyllable “yeah,” asks, “Why don’t we talk about Alice?”
I tell her that we will in a minute and observe that she must be a very private person. She agrees, “Yeah, I am.”
Alice describes herself as having long blond hair and blue-green eyes. Her hair is much darker than Holly’s. She’s five feet six inches tall. Before she can answer my question about her best physical feature. Holly interrupts — more than willing to talk about someone else. “Her butt.”
“And her best personality trait?”
“I don’t know,” Alice says. When I suggest that her friends must know. Holly takes up the challenge. “You can tell her anything and totally trust that she’s not going to tell anyone else.”
Deena adds, “And she’s fun to be around. She makes everything fun.”
I ask how many have boyfriends.
“Currently, none,” Alice says.
I suggest that that will change.
“We don’t need a boyfriend over the summer," Alice says.
“Yeah,” Holly adds, “we’re.. .looking at the beach." I think that Holly’s answer may be an evasion, that there’s a subplot related to cute guys and adolescent yearning.
I ask about the last time she cried. Is it Alice’s or Holly’s voice on tape saying, “Oh my gosh! Tuesday”?
“Over what?" I probe.
“Because it was sad?” “Yeah!” In spite of that word, I now decide it’s Alice talking. I ask if she ever cries when angry. “Yep! I’m a big crybaby.”
I tell them that the girls I talked to yesterday most often cried over boyfriend problems.
“I don’t cry over guys,” Alice says. “That’s ridiculous! They’re not worth it.”
I say that she sounds like a feminist. Is she?
“No, I just won’t cry over them. I have a lot of other things to think about.”
Screeches erupt from the other two. “You’ve cried…”
Alice concedes, “I’ve cried over guys. I’ve cried over guys. I have, but I don’t...now I haven’t in the longest time because...”
Is it because she has no serious relationships? I ask. I tell them how Tarah found a long relationship “nice but hard” and how the girls from Temecula seemed confused about resuming relationships. One of the girls agrees, “That’s a huge problem."
When I remark that I think a long relationship may lead to pressure from the guy to have sex, Alice speaks up: “No. They’re protective. And when you first start dating them, they pretty much know if you will, and if you give them the idea that you won’t, they pretty much won’t bother asking because they know you won’t.”
I ask whether most of the young men they see are church members.
“Actually,” Holly says, “I was dating the pastor’s son off and on for three years.” That would have made her 12 when she started dating.
“He went to our church," Alice says. “He goes to the same church I do.”
“And you don’t?” I ask Deena.
“No, I go to a different church.”
“But the three of you live close to each other?”
“Yeah,” Holly says, “yeah.”
I ask Alice what activities her family shares.
“We, like, have...So I’m the youngest out of five, so, like, everyone’s already grown and moved out, so it’s, like, on rare occasions we sit down and have dinner with the family. Everyone, sometimes, comes over, and my sister’s married, so their husbands and their boyfriends come over a lot. My sisters take me out a lot. We go, like, to the fair and stuff.”
“And do you mind telling me what your father does?"
Alice does mind. She will only say that her mother works. Time to change subjects.
“What do you think happens to the body after death?"
“After death?” Alice asks.
“Have you ever thought about that?”
“To the body or to the soul?” Alice asks. “Whatever you want to be done to your body.”
Holly says, “You’re either buried or cremated.”
Deena asks, “You mean what happens when you’re buried?”
I say that some religions believe in the resurrection of the body.
“You mean reincarnation?” Holly asks.
I mention the Catholic belief in the glorified body in heaven.
Deena says, “We’re Christians. We don’t believe anything but what our church...We believe that we’re gonna go to heaven and we believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and I don’t know..."
“So I guess that, at your age, you don’t think very much about that?”
“M-m-m, no!” Deena agrees.
I change the subject again. “What’s the most fun about coming to the beach?”
“The people,” Alice says. “Watching what other people do. And laughing. We laugh a lot when we’re here, at people.” Turning to Deena, I ask, “Is that a nickname?”
“No, it’s real.”
“And you don’t want to give me your address?”
“No, I don’t.”
Deena makes a point of saying, “We’re the graduating class of 2000.”
I ask whether she has followed the CBS series on that.
“Yeah,” Deena says. “My grandpa sent me some articles in a newspaper about it."
Asked to describe herself, she says, “I’m, like, five four.”
“You’re the shorty of the group.”
“Yeah. I’m the chubby one too."
Her friends loyally protest, “You are not.”
“And I have dirty blond hair, and I have mostly green eyes. Sometimes they change to blue. And...I don’t know...” Deena wears green nail polish. “And my toes are purple," she says. Her swimsuit is yellow, orange, purple, and blue. She doesn’t know the brand name.
“You guys,” Deena begs, “talk to me. Help me.”
“What are we on?” Holly asks. “Her best feature, her boobs.” Then she edits herself: “She has large breasts."
Alice says, “And her best personality trait is she’s, like, totally fun, she’s, like, she always makes everything fun and, like, she’s hilarious.”
“And if we ever have a problem,” Holly adds, “we just go to Deena, and Deena will go take care of it. Hey, you know what? She speaks her mind."
“So you’re very direct?”
“Yeah,” Deena says. “I don’t care what people think about me.”
Deena may have learned this strength from dealing with two older brothers and “a dad who’s like them.”
Deena fingers her gold stud earrings, and I notice that they’re asymmetrical — three on one earlobe, two on the other.
“Does everyone wear those little ones now?” I ask.
“Yeah. The big old hoops are really out. Those are, like, ’80s. Little hoops and little studs.”
Among the activities Deena’s family engages in are camping trips. “Like the desert sometimes,” she says, “or the river...the Palm Springs desert. We’re supposed to go to the Grand Canyon this summer, but I don’t think it will happen.” I ask whether that’s because of tourist restrictions in the parks.
“No,” Deena says, “just because my parents are busy with work and stuff.”
But not too busy to talk with Deena, who can’t remember the last time she cried but sometimes sheds tears “when my brothers are mean to me. It makes me sad. I remember, I cried last week because my brothers were mean, and I don’t know, it just makes me sad." “Mean in what way?" Deena says, “Like, he just calls me names. ’Cause he’s got friends over and tries to act cool.”
Alice says that she cried last on Tuesday.
“I don’t know. Everything. I just started crying.”
Holly explains, “ Alice cries like that. She’s emotional. And if something’s stressing her, she just cries and it makes her feel better.”
Educational plans for the girls are reasonably firm. Deena plans to attend junior college first — probably Palomar or Grossmont — and after that, transfer to a four-year institution, but she doesn’t know yet what she wants to be. Alice has her sights on a step-up program that involves two years at Palomar, followed by the University of California at San Diego. She gets good grades but doesn’t really like any subject and doesn’t know what to major in. Holly likes science and “had a lot of fun in biology.” Deena likes modern dance.
The girls use Cover Girl makeup and Maybelline. They chatter about glitter worn on
the eyelids, the cheeks, the lips. “And they have this body glitter for hair,” one of them adds.
Alice is a cheerleader and Deena is on a spirit squad that gives halftime performances. When I ask how they can manage to pay for their uniforms, they say, “Fundraising. The team does it." Activities include car washes, rummage sales, and bake sales.
Alice says, “A lot of people can just work it out, you know. There are some of us that need help. The only people that get money in their account are the ones that do stuff, so it’s all fair.”
Deena, who has called herself “the chubby one," has “a little, like, cardio machine in my bedroom that I work on my legs and stuff.” She also walks with her mom sometimes.
July 4 and 7 — Ocean Beach
The beach is densely packed with bodies. I walk some distance trying to find teens not with their families, but I have no luck. I decide to check out the town more thoroughly and get answers to questions raised by my interviews. On the sidewalk, I see two young women — a blonde with braces and her friend. The blonde’s attention is riveted on a guy she finds attractive. Her friend urges, “Go on, talk to him. Talk to him.”
But risking rejection isn’t easy, and she hangs back. A third friend joins them, and I approach. Bad timing. When I ask to interview them, they say, “We can’t do it right now.” The blonde looks at her friend and says, “Oh my God! He’s talking to another girl.”
They propose a 4:00 p.m. interview. “Too late,” I say. We compromise on 3:00 at the bookstore. Well before 3:00, I’m waiting, but by 3:15, they haven’t shown up, and I take the bus back to downtown.
Returning to Ocean Beach on my last day, July 7, I already know the town. I stop briefly in Dr. Jefe’s Body Piercing to ask the cost of a tongue piercing: $25 plus $26 to $40 for the jewelry. Bellybutton piercing is similarly priced. A young blond woman in a long loose dress has a large silver stud far back on her tongue. It gleams and glistens as she talks and laughs. Frankly, I’m surprised that such an establishment can stay afloat, here at the edge of the ocean. Are customers locals or tourists? I want to know.
Apparently they are an even mix. Vacationers sometimes get the urge to do something to remind them of their trip to the beach. I stop at Strands Nails to price French manicures and am told that $18 is standard. Ramona remembered hers as $7 more than that.
I try walking the beach one more time and am rewarded by discovering Carmen, 17, sunning all by herself on the sand. She’s attractive in a big boned, Sophia Loren sort of way. Asked to describe herself, she says, “Oh, that’s tough. I can say what other people have said. Just that I look very Italian and I’m darker and I have a strong physique. You know. I’m thicker than most girls.”
Carmen is about 5 feet 7 1/2-inches with brown hair and eyes. “Everything on me is brown,” she says. “Well, the sun makes my hair really light, so it’s starting to get gold.”
Regarding her strongest personality trait: “My best girlfriend thinks I have an uncanny ability to make conversation with people I don’t enjoy being around. Just able to talk with people. You know, even if we have nothing in common or they’re much younger or much older. They can’t get much younger without being children. I got that from my dad, though. He’s always been the first one to talk to someone, and he has no qualms about starting a conversation with a stranger.”
Carmen is easily the most mature of the girls I interview. At 17, she is entering her second year at Cal State Northridge — a feat accomplished by starting school before five and skipping third grade. Except for living at home in summers, Carmen is financially independent. She holds a scholarship in jazz performance (she’s a saxophonist) and works 25 to 35 hours a week outside of classes in the academic year. The only “give” in her schedule is sleep time, so she has to watch her health. “It’s hard sometimes,” she says, “but for the most part, it’s doable.”
Being a performance major, Carmen explains, requires five or six years to earn a degree because most courses carry only one credit but meet three or four times a week. Long hours in rehearsal add up to a full schedule. Asked about the odds of making it in performance. Carmen says, “We’ll see. It’s a lot of fun, but I don’t know if it’ll be where I want to make my money."
Meanwhile, Carmen’s father — a doctor in the Navy who runs a yacht brokerage with his wife and who is described by his daughter as “very sensible” — is “looking for a doctor for me and things like that. And I guess I’m looking for love first, and if the money’s behind it, then that’s much better. I wouldn’t look for money and then love.”
Right now, Carmen says she’s serious about her boyfriend — a 25-year-old drummer who lives in Ocean Beach and hails from Pennsylvania. He attends a private music school in Los Angeles. Her father “thinks these musicians are shifty characters that don’t have any money, work all hours of the night, just sleep all day, and see, that’s his, what he views, and I’m trying to show him that, no..."
“Well,” Carmen concedes, “[the musician’s life] promotes a lot of bad things: drugs and promiscuity...”
Carmen is a Catholic and goes to church every Sunday. Two weeks ago, she went with her mother, but her parents work 14 to 15 hours a day, and most of the time, attending Mass as a family isn’t possible.
Turning to the subject of marriage, I ask whether she has any eligibility requirements. Carmen says that her husband must have a healthy body and be taller than she is. “I’ve dated someone who was my height, but it was awkward because most women’s shoes have heels. I don’t know what it is, but something about being taller than the guy makes you feel that now you’re the guy. So I don’t like that. So, taller than me, and I don’t like out of shape...if it had to be out-of-shape, I’d rather have it be overweight rather than underweight because underweight is unhealthy.”
Her drummer is about six foot three and “looks like a typical beach boy. Dark, but blue eyes and blond hair. I’m looking for someone who’ll love me unconditionally, and it’s kinda hard to have that and someone who can support you."
Asked about a projected age for marriage. Carmen says, “It’s even feasible now. Just because I think if you’re in a relationship for years and years and not married, it’s the same thing as the ring. So if you know the person, go ahead and get married. You’re going to be with that person for the rest of your life, title or no title.”
Carmen says that this is the second time she’s fallen in love, and the last time was less than a year ago, “but the person I was in love with just wasn’t ready, he had a lot to worry about on the inside of him before he could start loving someone else. But this person. I’m trying to say everything — to say, ‘No, I don’t love this person.’ You know, I’m trying to think about it as realistically as possible, but I can’t.”
This is how Carmen fantasizes her wedding. “It should be in a beautiful stained-glass church and be in Latin, but really old-fashioned, not an $8000 wedding dress and $300 cakes, but really old-fashioned and very Catholic.”
Although she’s “thought a lot” about having children, she says, “I definitely don’t want to jump into it young. It’s hard to say because I believe that there’s a lot of.. .that would need to come first.”
Carmen recognizes that, “My parents are strong believers in family is everything. You have your family first and then you worry about other things.” She adds, “I — I have a feeling I will, but not for many years. I’d have to be in my late 20s before I’d get very serious about children. Perhaps, too, adopt because it’s not their fault they’re orphans. If I have a chance to help...I mean, what's the difference between raising that child or my own child, except that my child would look more like me."
Because her husband would have “50 percent of the say,” that would be another factor influencing any decision.
Carmen’s parents live in a big house in Point Loma, but the base closed down and they will have to move within the year. “But they want to keep a big house,” Carmen says, “because they’d love to have us all live there, but a bunch of 30-year-old children can’t live in the house.”
Even the family members left at home don’t “get to” have meals together because of her parents’ work schedules. But they did manage one recent outing.
“Yes, on the Fourth of July, we went out on a boat to watch the fireworks. A lot of my brothers and sisters are older, so they live in different places and they have their own families, so it’s hard to get us all together. My younger brother Just turned 16. He and I are, like, pals. He couldn’t make it to the beach today because he had summer school, but him and I are the only ones pretty much (and I’m gone during the school year) that are still in the house. During the summer, we do various things as a family, but my parents work all day and they have a boat business, so they don’t get home until 8:00 or 9:00.” Carmen explains that she has “accidentally taken on the maternal role” for her younger brother. “like, I do the meals and the driving, and I guess I’ve had to start telling him, you know— I don’t tell him the birds and the bees, he knows that — but I do tell him girls like it when you say nice things. Like nice compliments and notice them. But girls don’t like it when you burp in front of them. You know, I just tell him some of the mannerisms between female and male. ’Cause when I think about it, how else are they gonna find out except the hard way? A slap across the face or something, but I just hope he never gets a girlfriend.”
Asked to name women she admires. Carmen chooses her piano teacher. “My mother, I can’t really use her because she’s a woman that believes in keeping the house clean for the husband and not having a job, and I don’t admire that. But she has a lot of qualities in raising children and things like that that I admire, but..."
Analyzing her own response. Carmen says, “...it’s not really her belief systems but her abilities that I admire.”
The last time Carmen remembers crying was after watching a movie. “It was a love story, but it didn’t do anything for me. It wasn’t the movie, but it just got me thinking about...the long term. It wasn’t a sad cry or a happy cry—an emotional cry.”
“Were you confused?”
“I think so. Not knowing what’s gonna happen.”
I ask whether she’d be able to tell her parents if she became pregnant before marriage.
“I wouldn’t let it happen,” Carmen says, “but I think so. See, they’re very old-fashioned and it would be really hard. I would need their help, you know, and I’m pretty independent. We don’t speak a lot even though we love each other very much — my parents and I. We just don’t sit down and have long chats on anything. They don’t know too much about me, but they understand, you know, that I’m not a teenager. So...I would have to tell them.”
“And what do you think happens to the body after death?”
“The body or the soul? The body dies.”
“Do you believe in the resurrection of the body? We say that in the Apostles’ Creed. Isn’t Catholic doctrine that the glorified body is reunited with the soul?”
“Sure, but as long as you have the soul, I don’t think it matters what body you have — if you change into a different one for another life or spend eternity in a different body, it doesn’t really matter, but I wouldn't want to switch souls.”
July 5 — Pacific Beach
The first group of teens I find are not sunning on the beach. Instead, they’re up on the boardwalk wearing jeans shorts and tees. All are 13 except one, who will celebrate her 13th in 19 days. All live in San Diego and are in the eighth grade at Mesa Verde Middle School. They have been friends for about three years.
My first surprise comes when I ask their names and learn that three are Ashleys, and the fourth, Brittnie (yes, spelled like that!). They suggest that I use surnames for two Ashleys, but I decide to use pseudonyms for their surnames to protect their privacy.
The girls were out all day on the Fourth of July, so despite lavish use of sunscreen, they are sunburned. That explains why they wear shorts instead of bikinis.
Ashley Earl is five foot seven with blond hair and bangs. She has hazel eyes and is “like... working on a tan here.” Her vulnerable, waiflike quality contrasts with Ashley Carson’s ebullient energy. All of the girls except Ashley Temple have two holes in each ear. Ashley Karl explains that she’s not wearing earrings right now. “I lost my other ones,” she says.
Although Ashley Carson is the youngest of the group, she seems to be its leader. She wears small studs in the upper holes and tiny mushrooms in the lower ones. Ashley Temple says, “I don't have jewels ’cause my mom won’t let me. And I have [my ears] pierced —just one.”
“I want my bellybutton pierced,” Ashley Carson says, “and my tongue pierced.” The voices of the others turn shrill in a unanimous longing for pierced tongues and bellybuttons.
“I want them pierced,” Ashley Carson says, “but my mom won’t let me. When we’re 18...”
Five long years, I think: time for the fads and their minds to change.
“My sister’s bellybutton’s pierced,” Ashley Carson says.
“Why would you want that?”
“Because it looks cool,” Ashley Carson says, cool being definitive.
Ashley Karl’s mom is going to work for Mesa Verde school. She says her dad is a concession worker at ChimneySweep. When I ask about her best physical feature, she says, “What’s that?” Her friends all talk at once. “On your face. On your body.” “I don’t know,” Ashley Karl says.
“I think her legs,” Ashley
Carson volunteers. “She has long — nice long, tall legs.”
“And your best personality trait?”
“What’s that?” Ashley Karl says again.
“She’s funny,” Ashley Temple says. Brittnie agrees: “I think she’s really, really funny. She always makes me laugh.”
Ashley Carson supplements what’s been said. “She’s a really nice, caring person. She’s funny too. She’s really nice. Oh! she’s a good basketball player. And a good cheerleader.”
The last time Ashley Earl cried was probably “when my squad won the grand national [championship] in Florida.”
“Tell her ’bout that,” her friends urge.
“Well, I’m on a little squad called the Champion Cheer Outlaws,” Ashley Karl says, “and we’re undefeated. Oh yeah. At our national competition we came in, we had the highest score out of 68 teams. And then we got, like, this five-foot trophy, and we came in first in our division, and so then this year we’re gonna compete again, so we’re conditioning in the summer, and we practice Fridays and Sundays.”
I remark on the financial cost of being a cheerleader.
“Oh yes,” Ashley Karl says. “And we have to raise money. We’re getting crop tops, and it’s $150.”
“So how do you earn the money?”
“Well, I sold cookie dough and pizza,” Ashley Karl says, “and I’ve made $125. And then I also play basketball, and so does Ashley Temple and Ashley Carson.”
Brittnie says, “I’m in summer school. Science, and it’s hard. Me and Ashley Carson and Ashley Temple and maybe Ashley Karl are gonna be biochemists.”
Ashley Carson says, “That’s where you make, like, makeup and nail polish and, like, nice, smelly stuff like shampoo and lotion.”
“I think you’d be a good judge of all that.”
When it comes to makeup, Ashley Karl favors Clinique and Cover Girl, choices endorsed by her friends. Karl has two swimsuits: one is two-piece with flowers—blue, white, and green: the other is black, two-piece, with shorts. Ashley Carson has a “black one-piece Roxy that cost $60. Kind of a netty material. It has shorts. And a black one-piece with diagonal white stripes, a Mossimo.” Ashley Temple has a two-piece Roxy, Hawaiian print. They don’t try to match their beach towels and suits.
“I have a Roxy towel,” one of them says. “It’s blue and it’s got flowers on it, and then the flowers are a rainbow. It’s got a green Roxy sign.”
I ask whether they came to the beach on the bus.
“No, my dad dropped me off,” Ashley Carson says. They agree that when they have kids, they’ll take them to the beach every week.
I ask whether anyone is learning to surf. This touches off another tidal wave of excitement.
Ashley Earl says, “I have a surfboard. And it’s orange. And I put a whole bunch of...”
“My brother has a surfboard.”
“My sister’s boyfriend has one, and he’s going to teach me how.”
“My brother surfs.”
I remark that surfers must be really brave. It looks dangerous.
Ashley Earl says, “Yeah! There’s sharks out there, and I’m scared of them. They catch ’em out on the pier...”
“Caught a six-foot one yesterday,” another says.
“We’re staying in that house right there,” one girl says, pointing.
“Yeah. They’re going fishing," Ashley Earl says, “...macaroni?” Instant correction from her friends: “Mackerel. ”
Ashley Carson is a compact, talkative five foot one with a heart-shaped face, blue eyes, and shoulder-length brown hair she likes to wear “in a half-up, half-down and a ponytail. I call ’em little ponies.” She wears a white T-shirt with a blue design, blue-jeans shorts, and a brimmed white hat with a blue-and-white band.
Carson’s mother teaches high school and her father, middle school. She has a brother, 16, who “kinda likes to bully me around because it’s only he and I. Sometimes he’s just trying to play, but it hurts. And sometimes he’s not playing and it hurts. And so sometimes I cry over that a lot.”
“Then it’s not hurt feelings? It’s physical?”
“Yeah,” Carson says. She tells about an incident that happened yesterday.
“I cried yesterday. My brother, he had a football and he took it apart, and there was, like, a thread on it, and he whipped me, and I had a big welt on my leg, and I cried ’cause it hurt really bad.”
“Did somebody come to your rescue?”
“No, because my mom was down at the beach and then everyone was kinda gone, but he said he was sorry.”
In answer to a question about family activities, Ashley Carson says, “Well, my family — sometimes we’ll go out to eat together. And then, like, during the summer we’ll go on vacation. And..."
“Does your brother go with you?”
“Yeah. I don’t think he likes to.”
“And then sometimes we watch TV together. And, like, my dad and my mom are different religions. My mom’s Methodist, and my dad is Catholic, and so me and my brother are Catholic, and so sometimes me and my brother and my dad will go to church, like, on Christmas. Or Easter, just those occasions.”
Ashley Carson’s mom “goes to the Clinique lady at the mall, and I just use some of her [beauty products]. And then also, right now, if you kind of look around, some people wear glitter.”
There’s a chorus of assent. “Body glitter. It’s cool.”
“I have some on my eyes,” Ashley Carson says.
In strong sunlight, it’s barely perceptible, but I make appreciative sounds and ask, “How do you get it off?”
“You just wash it off.” (Because the girls are so excitable and tend to talk at the same time, it’s difficult to differentiate their voices on the tape recorder I’m using.)
“...and they have that glow-in-the-dark stuff you put on your face and your scarf.”
“It must cost quite a bit to get all that,” I say.
“No, not that much. It costs a little bit.”
“Of course, if you can dig into your mom’s supply...” “Yeah.”
“Does your mom ever get mad at you when you do that?"
“Yeah,” Carson says, “when I use some of her, like, the more expensive things like face things, like the face washes and stuff like that. They cost more, and she gets a little mad at that. Otherwise, she doesn’t care.”
Sometimes the girls go to the beach in La Jolla. I ask whether Carson is on vacation now with her family.
“No, I’m with Ashley and Ashley.”
Carson’s nomination for the saddest song she ever heard is “I’ll Be Missing You,” which she assigns to the Notorious B.I.G. Actually, the song is by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans, a tribute to the Notorious B.I.G.
Ashley Temple’s father is a doctor and her mother, a dental hygienist. She’s five foot two with blond, straight hair. “But I have frizzies right, like, in my hairline. I have blue eyes, I have freckles, and I have lots of moles, and I hate ’em. And I had to get three removed, and now I get to get more, and I’m so happy because I don’t like ’em.”
I remark that the mole on her cheek would be a beauty spot if she lived in India.
“Everyone makes fun of me,” she says mournfully.
I tell her that her hair is going to be curly when she’s older, but that’s unwelcome news: Ashley Temple wants straight hair.
Two of the Ashleys — Temple and Carson —are planning a party next week (for their June 18 and July 24 birthdays) at Ashley Carson’s house. “She has a trampoline, a basketball court, and a swimming pool,” Ashley Temple explains.
“And we were gonna get an Astro Jump — those things you jump on,” Carson says, “but they said we had enough, so...”
“And we wanted to rent a pool table,” Temple says, “but we don’t think you can do that.” “’Cause the guys we go out with, they like to play pool.”
Ashley Temple’s family sometimes goes to the movies together. “And we go out, like, to eat and sometimes we eat dinner together at home, but sometimes [our schedules] are different, and we go on vacation.” “So you don’t regularly have dinner together?”
“Yeah, we do. We do it every night. And then, but I don’t go to church. Only, like, on Christmas and Easter. Like, Mom wants to go, but I don’t really want to because you can’t spend the night at people’s houses on Saturday ’cause Sunday, but...”
Brittnie begins her self-portrait after saying that her mom’s a hairdresser and her stepdad, a house painter. “He paints mansions.”
She describes herself: “I have brown curly hair, but sometimes I make it straight.”
“My mom does it ’cause she’s a hairdresser. And I have blue-green eyes and freckles. I have freckles. Oh, I don’t like them.”
I tell her about Ramona's views on freckles — a plus in the Miss Teen contest, so she doesn’t mind them.
“Oh, not me!” Brittnie says. Her friends say that Brittnie’s best feature is her smile, and her best personality trait is her “heart, big heart. She’s nice. She’s also sweet. And if you’re sad, she gives you a big hug and makes you feel better.”
Brittnie says, “And if they get hurt, I kiss it and make it better.”
Going to dinner with her mom and stepdad is one family activity, Brittnie says. “ ’Cause my stepdad, he takes me out. And he pays for it.”
“We go out to breakfast too. Me and my mom. And she always writes down the restaurants she likes. And she writes down the ones she doesn’t like.”
“Do you go to church?”
There’s another ripple of excitement when I announce that it’s time to talk about boyfriends.
“Do you want to know his name?" Ashley Temple asks. “Like, his name’s Mike.”
“How long has he been your boyfriend?”
“Did you meet him at school?”
“At Ashley Carson’s house.”
Ashley Carson can scarcely contain herself. “You know what? Can I tell a story? I grew up with him. I’ve known him for 11 years. He’s my neighbor, and we’re good friends too, but she's his girlfriend.”
Brittnie says, “My boyfriend’s name’s Todd. Since the 23rd of June. Wait...the 18th of June.”
“My birthday,” Ashley Temple says.
One of the girls looks at Ashley Earl and says, “She has an amazing one.”
Ashley Earl is obviously pleased. “My boyfriend’s named Adam, and I’ve been going out with him for five months and two days.”
“What’s so neat about him?” “I don’t know. He’s my best friend. Well, he’s nice, but then sometimes he’s mean, but he’s joking. He’s really hot."
“What does that mean?”
“He’s really, really cute.”
Somebody says, “My boyfriend’s really tall.”
“Mine’s, like, shorter than me, a little bit.”
All of these boyfriends would be husband material if the pairs were older.
“What are you going to look for in a husband?”
Ashley Carson says, “Personality. The person who treats you nice.”
“Can I tell you what my mom told me?” Ashley Temple asks. “She said, the way they treat their mom is the way they’re gonna treat you. So, if they’re mean to their mom, it isn’t good.”
Brittnie changes the subject, her news too marvelous to wait “We’re getting pagers— me and Ashley Carson and Ashley Temple, we’re getting pagers today. I’m getting green or blue or purple or clear.”
“We’re so happy.”
“And I’m getting dark maroon or clear or black or...I don’t know.”
“Or clear gray."
“Is this to keep in touch with friends?”
“Yeah,” Brittnie says. “Because my mom and dad are divorced and my dad lives in Newport and then I’m not allowed to use the phone too much because it costs money because of long distance, and you can just do pager talk.” “That’s where you just put in numbers,” Carson explains, “like I love you is 1-4-3.” (I is 1; love is 4 letters; you is 3.)
“You can just do that instead of putting in phone numbers,” they explain. Nobody explains why it couldn’t just as easily mean I hate you, and none of the paging companies I called knew how to crack the code. It seems to be a fabrication of the teens.
At first, Brittnie can’t remember the last time she cried. Then: “We all got in a big fight. We had to go to the counselor.”
Everyone cried that time. “We thought our friends were being mean. And then we kind of realized that everyone is mean to each other, so it’s okay ’cause we’re friends now.”
“Yeah,” Carson says, “we had to go to a counselor, but it was cool because we got to miss a lot of periods.”
— Madeline DeFrees From 1936 until 1974 Madeline DeFrees was a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary; she published her first book of poems From the Darkroom (1964), under the name Sister Mary Gilbert. DeFrees is author of six books, including When Sky Lets Go and Magpie on the Gallows, tier work has been honored by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. She has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including the University of Montana and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.