Photo by Chris Joel Campbell

Summer of 1980

Awakening to the power of my body

The summer after seventh grade, my family took a rare, two-week vacation to Santa Cruz, a beach town about an hour south of San Francisco. We had never taken such a long vacation. We had never rented a whole house. And we’d never spent more than a day or so at any beach location domestically.

A few years earlier, when my father had moved the whole family to Saudi Arabia, we would take “R&Rs” in Europe, and those vacations were longer, but somehow they had a different quality. We were in hotels, first of all. We were on foreign turf. And, we were more tightly scheduled, with a lot less freedom.

The summer after seventh grade was different. My father must have been working. He joined us on the weekends. My mother was sort of pent up in the house, by her own choosing. She tended to burn terribly in the sun and would most likely have avoided it. It probably didn’t help that bright light is never great for hangovers, so that would also have been a consideration. I don’t remember her on the beach at all during those two weeks.

What I do recall is having long stretches of unscheduled time to myself. I don’t know where my three siblings were. Younger than me, they were probably digging in the sand, playing in the surf, or exploring the boardwalk. We rented a house on a corner across the street from Santa Cruz Main Beach, also known as Boardwalk Beach for the amusement park that runs along its eastern edge.

I had turned 13 the previous spring. I was still a kid, starting to notice boys, I guess, but less as agents of attraction than as intriguing, slightly scary, slightly gross creatures. I had heard the word “boner” for the first time the previous year. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but it made me feel shy, nervous, very alive, and very curious.

A boy named Dave Skvarna with curly blonde hair had taken to calling me “SS” at P.E., short for “sex symbol.” I was strangely disengaged from all this, however. “Hey, S.S.,” he’d say as he passed me on the way back into the girls’ locker room.

It never occurred to me that he was flirting with me. To be honest, I wasn’t sure, and still don’t know to this day, if he was mocking me or flirting with me or something else altogether. Incredibly, it didn’t occur to me for a second that he was actually referring to my body, that he might have found it attractive.

I had no awareness of my body in those days. We were kids. I felt like a kid. My friend Gina and I had braces and spent large swaths of time walking around the block to avoid her step-mother, a strangely uncommunicative, woman from Mexico who appeared to be indigenous. We lived in Upland, California at the time, near Los Angeles, and the anti-Mexican bias was horrific and constant. Gina professed to hate her step-mother and made shockingly racist remarks about her. It confused me. I ignored it.

The summer after seventh grade, we moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area, leaving Upland and LA behind, where we’d spent only a year anyway, having moved there from Saudi Arabia. It was a confusing time.

The beach house was on a corner, with a large front and side yard of mostly flat, close-cropped lawn. A huge, squat, twisty conifer of some kind occupied pride of place in the middle of this lawn, sheltering the entrance to the house from the street.

I had a new bathing suit. It was a one-piece, striped number with pastel lines that met in a chevron in the front and was slightly shirred, emphasizing the waist and various other curves, I suppose. It had a long, string kind of mechanism that criss-crossed in a couple of places over an otherwise very low back and eventually tied in a bow. The legs were high-cut. The bust plunged in a “V.” I don’t remember choosing the swimsuit. I don’t recall where it came from.

I do remember — very well — wearing it, however. I remember gradually becoming aware of the power of a fetching swimsuit on an as yet completely innocent and very nubile body. I remember gathering my towel and probably some sunscreen and dashing across the street. I remember the low stone wall and then the stairs leading down to the beach. I found a place where the sand was somewhat flat and a little cooler, where the surf had been not too long before. I dumped my things and peeled off my clothes — my tee shirt, my shorts. I flung off the flip-flops.

Within five minutes, I was bored. I stood up, looking for something to do. Looking for my siblings? Perhaps. I don’t know.

I was walking along the water when I became aware of eyes on me, many eyes. I looked up. I was being stared at. Men were staring. Their eyes were avid, hungry, bright. First, they scanned my body. Then, they invariably sought my eyes. Some veered closer. I looked down in terror, afraid for a moment that something was wrong. No, my swimsuit was on… I felt clumsy, ashamed. I flushed scarlet and crossed my arms over my chest.

As the days passed, I grew accustomed to men and boys scrutinizing my body. Their eyes burned me. I pretended to ignore them. I tried to act nonchalant. But, I was hyper-aware each time it happened.

One day, a boy approached me in the waves. He was tall and thin, with dark hair. He said he was 16. I don’t know what else he said — very little, I think. Then, he asked me out on a date. My first date. I was thrilled. It didn’t occur to me that not only did I know nothing about this person, but I didn’t even feel particularly charmed by or connected to him. It didn’t seem to matter. He was a representation of a boy, a harbinger of the romance to come. I was thrilled. A real date. It was momentous. Of course, I said yes.

When I got back to our rented house, I told my parents I had a date with a boy named Wade that night. It must have been a Friday. My dad was with us for the weekend. I don’t know what I expected to happen. I was oblivious. Of course, they said no in no uncertain terms. They said absolutely not. Looking back, this was probably one of the only times they actually set down a rule, stood up, and protected me from my own idiocy and from the external world at large.

They said no, flat and final. I didn’t take that of course. No one was going to swipe my first chance at a date, a real date. I was fixated on this. I also recall not wanting to be embarrassed by my parents, not wanting to be treated like a child. This boy Wade, with the wet, sandy hair that obscured his eyes and the wiry body, was coming to get me that night, and I was going. That’s all I knew.

When my parents realized my resolve, they raised their voices. They yelled at me, and I yelled back. They made it clear I would not set foot outside the house, and then they literally barred the door with their bodies. My mother sat weeping at the card table by the door. My father stood in the window. I don’t know if Wade came. I think he did. I think my father stepped outside and told him to go away, but I don’t recall. That part is lost.

All I know is that I learned that my body, and my candy-striped bathing suit, had power, immense power. It had the power to attract the opposite sex. It had the power to strike fear into the hearts of my parents. By the end of summer vacation 1980, I knew how to wield that power. I enjoyed the eyes of the men and boys on me. I felt their thoughts as well as their eyes travel the length of my legs. I didn’t need to look to confirm they were staring at me. The way their eyes felt resting on me was enough.