Revive the Archive: Todd Dell’s “Senior Week” (1974)
There’s something about the ocean at night. It’s not the grey stretch of foot printed sand that fades into an endless horizon of churning black water. It’s not the moon’s silver reflection on the sea’s dark waves. It’s not even the gaudy chaos of light and noise emanating from the crowded boardwalk. I guess you’d call it atmosphere. That’s what the Wildwood Chamber of Commerce and all the hotel owners call it in the travel brochures. They show us pictures of sand, sunshine, and chesty young models playing volleyball around the hotel pool. And they include a two-page fold-out of a nondescript brownish tan room with inoffensive reproductions of somebody’s high school art final framed on the walls.
They only hire homecoming queens with clear skin and blue eyes to answer the phones and smile sweetly when they hand you the room key. They paint all the trim in soothing, eye-pleasing shades of aqua and lime. And they call this conglomeration of plastic sea creatures and decorative fishnetting — atmosphere.
Now it seems to me that the world must be in pretty sad shape when people start paying for atmosphere. I had always thought that atmosphere was something that enveloped certain experiences of your life and made them special, that it was something you felt. I never realized that it was a marketable commodity with a price tag attached. It seems sad that people have to work, and swear, and oil for fifty weeks a year just so they can relax in a deck chair for a couple hundred hours. It seems even sadder that they have to pay for a place to rest. But, I supposed those hotel owners and boardwalk hawkers have to make a living somehow. And as long as folks keep demanding, you really can’t blame anyone for skimming a little profit off the top of the supply. So they all got together and built themselves an atmosphere. And every year, hundreds of thousands of world weary tourists, traveler’s checks in hand, migrate to the land of neon, horseshoe crabs and two dollar-a-bottle beer.
High school seniors are no different. They hand us our piece of paper, we check the spelling, somebody cries, and then we stumble over ourselves getting into Camaros and Volkswagens (crammed with seven to twelve co-ed passengers and luggage) and we “head out for the shore.” It’s gotten to be such a tradition that all of Wildwood sets aside a month and calls it “seniorweek,” then they double their orders of Stroh’s and black T-shirts.
Well, there I was, supported solely by a boardwalk rail, reasonably numb from tequila sunrises drunk in a bar notorious for accepting your older brother’s expired driver’s license as proof of age. The ocean breeze was wreaking havoc on my shoulder length brown hair, tied in place by a red bandana. Like the “illustrated man” the arcade lights painted moving multicolored reflections across my bronzed skin. I adjusted the ceramic bead on the leather strap around my neck as I glanced into one of the thousands of boardwalk mirrors. Through my bloodshot haze I studied my reflection, and slowly smiled. I was happy with what I saw. I was clad in the accepted (if not mandatory) garb of the All-American beachfront male, ridiculously tight Levi’s and a black concert T-shirt.
I directed my admittedly limited focus to the boardwalk crowd. At first, a wave of disbelief shook my mind clear. Somewhere, in those first few seconds of focusing my thoughts, I saw it. It was a blur of movement, a churning mass of noise and color. People were sliding by, weaving into the seemingly uniform mesh of the crowd. People were moving in waves. Of course, I knew these were hundreds of individuals, but just for a moment, they appeared to be one single entity on a pilgrimage to a desired end, only to arrive and turn back again. It was truly an ocean of people, and before my head could clear completely, I thought I caught a strange scenario being played out. It bore a resemblance to a cult worship ceremony. It was a group of people, who stood in awe of the ocean, and they came to pay homage to it, to emulate it in a pathetic neon caricature. And the ocean, rolling to its desired end, stopped to observe this tribute, then slowly receded into itself and turned back again. But I couldn’t handle the degrading ramifications of this tragic social comment, so I fired-up another cigarette.
As I inhaled on my fifth Marlboro in the past half hour, I noticed her. Granted, at my age, and in my condition I was noticing most every female that sauntered past. But somehow, she seemed different. I only had two more nights left in Wildwood and I vowed I was going to pick-up someone who wasn’t from my own school for a change. It’s funny, if I’d have seen her two weeksearlier in school, I might not have noticed her. But at the shore things are different, or at least they seem to be, and at that particular time I wasn’t in any frame of mind to quibble. She looked at me, quickly turned away, then glanced again, to see if I was still watching her. I’d seen this performance a hundred times before, and it usually led to nothing. I can recall so many pointless evenings of following someone around a shopping mall on that off chance that a sideways glance would lead to the infamous “pick-up.” However, they always found their boyfriends or gazed longingly backward as they left with their parents. It was at best a fleeting ego boost, at worst, an adolescent frustration over my own gullibility and wasted time of an almost “romantic” frustration over what might have been. Experience had proven this “bait and chase” essentially futile, but the lure of that “chance” was seductively inescapable. So, even though I knew that any cynical Psyche major would have a field day with my peer-accepted, preprogrammed response, I let my body slump back on the wall, felt my eyelids sag half-closed, took another hit off my cigarette and decided to play “let her know I see her looking.”
She appeared to be sixteen or seventeen. She was blonde, small, well-built, with a look that the boardwalk jocks would call “sluttish”, but was, in reality, very sexy and alluring. She didn’t walk, per se, she seemed to glide, to ride this boardwalk crest of humanity. Her body, firm and lithe, seemed to dance across the boardwalk. Her tanned, smooth skin contrasted beautifully with the wavy mane of blonde hair that fell around her shoulders and framed her face. Her jeans were well-worn and tight. Her white top, slightly draping over her shoulders, drew taunt on her well-rounded breasts, then fell earthward, barely covering her flattened stomach. She seemed to be at ease with her sensuality, and moved with the graceful street rhythm of a counter-culture heartbreaker. There was an air about her. I guess you’d call it atmosphere. My mind was racing with a thousand thoughts, some of them respectable, when she abruptly turned towards me.
I had initially become aware of her sensuous aura simply because she stood out in the crowd. But now, as she headed in my direction, the more subtle aspects of her seductive charm began to envelope me. I saw the misty blue eyes, the petite gold chain necklace and, as she drew closer I cause a trace of perfume that caused me to draw up and shift my stance in an uncomfortable expression of weakness. I wondered if she noticed my obvious discomfort in her presence. I was more than a little scared, I really didn’t know how to go about this. Up until now sex had always involved good old Lisa, who sat behind me in American Government class, ant the pathetic little white trash that shot pinball in the shopping mall arcade. As she hesitated a few steps in front of me I started rehearsing my responses one by one. I was still attempting to maintain my composure (and fighting back the urge to scream “I’m Yours” or something equally tacky) as I inhaled again on my cigarette, which, I discovered had gone out minutes ago. I hastily flicked the butt over the rail, panic being the better part of discretion, and turned back into her. I saw my initial estimate had been wrong. If this little nymphette claimed to be older than fifteen I was going to ask for picture ID. While visions of the inevitable kiddie porn jokes and innuendos about cradle robbing danced through my head, I then remembered some of the older, but far uglier conquests my roommates had brought back to the hotel room and I didn’t feel so bad. I also remembered the twenty-dollar bet we had on the nicest looking pick-up, and my confidence surged. Surged, that is, until she spoke.
“You got any ‘ ludes for sale?”
“Huh?” I managed to choke out.
“Do you have any qualudes you could see me? I’ve been down this damn boardwalk forty times tonight and I can’t find any.”
Despite the wash of disappointment that echoed through my mind, I did a quick mental inventory of my stash back in the hotel room. “Yeah,” I answered, “but not on me. If you can stand walking a couple of blocks I think I still have four or five.”
She paused a minute, considering my request. Suddenly her eyes danced to life and she smiled as she responded. “Why not? There’s nothin’ happening here tonight. Let’s go get wasted.”
I couldn’t help smiling too. Fine with me, I thought, and after congratulating myself a couple hundred times, I started moving through the hustle of the boardwalk crowd. She followed. I wanted to offer my hand and lead, but…I decided against it. We got to the street with relative ease. I looked at her again, There are thousands of girls that look like Miss America from a distance. But she had something special. She may have been young, but she was one of the sexiest things I had seen in a long time.
“What’s your name?” She asked.
“Rick.” I ventured discreetly.
“Hi Rick, I’m Melissa. Where ya’ from?”
“Up near Reading, Pennsylvania…little town called Collegeville.” I stopped speaking for a second, and somewhat apologetically continued. “You probably never heard of it.”
“I heard of Reading. I’m from Camden, Jersey…just a coupla’ minutes from Philly.”
“Yeah, I’ve been there.”
“What’ave you been doin’ tonight?”
“A little social drinking, nothing intense.”
“Yeah, me too, up at a bar on Grant Street. The Sundowner.”
Terrific, I thought, that was the bar I got refused entrance to because ‘I didn’t look old enough.’
She spoke again. “You down here for senior week?”
Now, I was aware of the stigma of naiveté associated with the high school senior, and this seemed like a challenge to me. I was beginning to wish she would just shut up and just let me look at her. I hesitated somewhat, but finally managed to a quiet response. “Uh hm. I just graduated last Friday.”
“How long ya’ down here for?”
“Couple more days. This is the place.” The hotel, in all its plastic splendor, towered in front of us. Her hair and face seemed somehow older, almost streetwise in the green and gold bath of light from the hotel sign. It was clear she had been in this situation before. We climbed the wrought-iron hotel stairs and I fished for my key. Once inside, I gave silent thanks that none of my roommates were there. I quickly picked up some of the scattered clothing and threw the bedspread over the displaced pile of crumpled sheets and folded pillows we called a bed. I took a yellow envelope off my bureau and opened it.
“How many do you want?” I asked.
“Whatever you can spare.”
I gave her all five, knowing that my roommates had brought more in case of emergencies. She looked down. Funny, I knew what was coming next.
“I don’t have any bucks.” She said quietly.
“Yeah, I figured.”
No one said anything for a second. Then, she slipped her arms around my neck, and slowly drew my body closer to hers. When she kissed me, I didn’t resist.
“Wait,” I said, breaking away. “I’ve gotta’ put something on the door so we’re not barged in on.”
“Sure.” She smiled. I practically sprinted to the door. I tied my bandana around the outside door knob. I locked the door, and turned back towards the bed. She was already disrobing. I kissed her again.
Six a.m. came with Mark, one of my roommates, stumbling through the door. He, seeing us, bid a hasty and apologetic retreat. We were alone again, alone and awake.
“Hi,” she said. Her hair now sprawled across the pillow in a hundred directions, her makeup was smeared around her eyes.
“I want to thank you for…” She began, but I stopped her.
“How long ago did you runaway?”
“C’mon, you’re a runaway.”
“God, I hate that word.”
She hesitated. “About three weeks ago.”
“When did the money run out?”
“About a week-and-a-half ago.”
I reached for my wallet.
“No, don’t. Please,” she said softly. “It would make me feel like a whore.”
“That’s not it at all,” I protested. “I just want to make sure you have something…so you can eat.”
She shook her head. “I just wouldn’t feel right.”
I looked at her long and hard. “That didn’t seem to matter last night.”
From the immediacy of her response I could tell I had hit home. “That was different. I…look, I’ll just split right now, okay?”
I shook my head. “No, not okay. Hey, look were you bullshitting me about living in Camden?”
“Good, then tomorrow, when we leave, we’ll drop you off there.”
“No.” She lowered her face.
“Because there’s nothing in Camden, now. There’s nothing left.”
“Sure there is.”
She looked me square in the eyes. “No. You don’t know the situation.”
“Look honey, I admire your independence, but…”
“I’ll just take-off not, all right?”
“Look, I’ll scream rape.”
“Sure, and you’ll end up back home so fast it’ll make your head swim.”
She was silent for a second. “What do you care about me going home?”
“I don’t. But I do care about you staying here. This isn’t the safest of places, y’know.”
“I can manage.”
“But for how long? There are a lot of strange people out there.”
“Yeah, I think I met one.”
“Oh, very funny. Christ, I’m not a boy scout, this isn’t my good deed for the day. I have this bad habit of caring about the girls I sleep with. I’m sure I’ll grow out of it eventually, but for now…Look, I like you. You realize how dangerous it is out there?”
“So who are you, my father?”
“Melissa, c’mon. You hear about it every day. Runaways, hitchhikers, young girls being raped, or murdered. You can’t protect yourself.”
“Obviously you grew up on the ‘backstreets of Collegeville.’”
I glared at her.
“Okay, I take it back. I’m really flattered that you care, but…”
“Nothing could be that bad. Why risk this much? Tell me, what’s wrong at home?”
As soon as I said it I wished I hadn’t. She obviously didn’t want to talk about it. I don’t think she even wanted to remember. She turned away. I put my arm around her.
“I’m sorry,” I said. But, I knew I’d lost. I decided to give it one last try…
“Hey look, I got some friends in Allentown you can crash with. They’re party people, and they got plenty of room. They can put you up for a month or so. It’ll give ya’ time to sort your head out…Kinda’ find yourself.”
“Allentown,” she said sarcastically, “that sounds like a barrel of laughs.”
“It’s not too bad,” I smiled. “It beats the hell out of Collegeville.”
She thought for a moment.
“No,” she said. “I’m gonna’ head for Florida, I’ve never been there.”
I sighed at the futility of my arguments. “And there’s nothing I can say to change your mind?”
“Then do me a favor, at least let me buy you breakfast.”
“Sure,” she smiled, and headed for the shower.
Well I bought her breakfast, and after a little coaxing, lunch and dinner, too. And that night, I gave her a place to sleep and someone to hold onto. The next day, as we packed the car, I noticed her blue eyes were a little clouded and I watched a tear fall on the powder blue Wildwood sweatshirt I bought her. She handed me a folded sheet of hotel stationary and told me not to read it until I got home. She hugged me, kissed me goodbye, and pretended not to notice the money I slipped into her back pocket. Then, she walked away.
Once she was out of sight, I opened the letter. It didn’t really say too much, just “goodbye,” “thanks,” and “I love you.”
Well, we made it home alright. Everybody paid Mark because he picked up a homecoming queen from Lancaster. My parents couldn’t understand how I spent three hundred dollars in one week. I started working at a grocery store. I got a letter telling me who my college roommate would be.
Funny, how he was from Camden.
I never saw Melissa again. But, in August I got a postcard with a Ft. Lauderdale cancellation. The address read simply, “Rick Stevens, Collegeville, Pennsylvania.” And it said, “I finally made it. I’m living with a guy down here, and you’d like him, he’s a lot like you. Take care and party on! All My Love, Melissa.”