A few years after my parents divorced, when I was 15, I went to Florida to visit my cousin Shelly for spring break. By myself. I mean there was no reason to stay home. My older brother had escaped to college and my dad had giddily remarried a younger, less complicated wife who he was busy having too much fun with, and my mother, who’d spent a good portion of the two years after the divorce curled up on the couch, recovering from “nervous exhaustion,” had recently gotten a job waitressing at The Big Boy, and now was talking about going back to school, which would leave me in charge of my younger sister a few days a week. I was waiting for things to get back to normal, waiting for my mother to be the mother she’d been before, the mother I wanted her to be. I was confused about how to be in my life. How to be me. I didn’t know what to believe in anymore. But Florida? The land of sunshine and surfer boys? And my cousin Shelly? Shelly was legendary in the extended family, the beauty, the charmer, cool without even trying, everything I wanted to be. I imagined spending a week with her would transform me into her and change my life. And Shelly was fun. Fun I could believe in.
She met me at the Palm Beach airport in a string bikini top and a little flowered sarong and flip flops, her long silky hair swishing over her golden shoulders in the hot Florida breeze. I was wearing painter’s pants (because I thought they made me look thinner than I was) and a loose fitting t-shirt and clogs. I’d spent the morning trying to tame my Farrah Fawcett hair into full layers but it was limp and the layers were all pointed in the wrong direction so it looked more like a bad Carol Brady do. Shelly threw her arms around me and eyed me up and down and asked me if I’d brought my bikini. Bikini? I shook my head and sucked in my slightly rounded belly, studied her smooth, tanned one and she said we’d have to do something about that.
Her red convertible was double parked out front. She wiggled by, and smiled and winked at the airport personal who swooned, and then she leapt over the driver’s side and slid in behind the steering wheel. I leapt over my side and caught one of my pant loops on the door lock. I would have to work on my leap and learn to wiggle.
“Ron’s car,” she said as she sped away from the curb, her hair dancing in the wind, mine twisting and tangling into a mess.
Ron was my Uncle Ron, her dad, a real estate tycoon and favorite of my Grandmother Elsie’s (my mother’s mother) which was why he was a tycoon (according to my mother) because her mother had favored Ronnie and given him all the love and attention and money from my dead grandfather’s estate that my mother would never see.
“Do you have your license?” I asked.
“Ron trusts me,” she said and winked and sped out of the lot.
First stop was a bikini shack. The owner was a sun-aged, bottle blond who knew Shelly. They both ruffled through the racks and then handed me a few teeny tiny pieces of stretchy cloth to try on and even though I couldn’t imagine baring my pale skin and less than perfect body in any of them, I chose a black one thinking it would make me look slimmer. She insisted I put it on with a little matching sarong as a cover up. As I tied the sarong high on my waist and glanced in the dressing room mirror, I searched for transformation, thinking maybe my clothes had been the problem and vowing to burn everything I owned.
“Put it on Ronnie’s tab,” she said to the owner as I followed Shelly flouncing out the door.
“Carol got promoted,” Shelly said as she tore down the two-lane highway. “She’s the manager now.”
Carol was Shelly’s mother, Uncle Ron’s ex-wife, the one he’d left behind for his own younger wife many years before. When they got divorced, my family was so solid that we all felt sorry for Shelly. My mother said Aunt Carol would never land on her feet. But here she was the manager of some big corporation.
From now on I would call my parents Stan and Miriam, I thought, as we pulled up to one of those roadside cocktail lounges with neon beer signs and window awnings that looked like droopy eyelids trying to shut out the daylight. Inside was so dark, I couldn’t see a thing until my eyes adjusted and I glimpsed a thin woman in a little black skirt and apron leaning on the bar. When she looked up, I could see the wear on her face, as if her skin had grown tired of putting itself out there for her and was sucking back into the bone. It was Aunt Carol and she nodded at me, said a faint hello and took another long drag on her cigarette.
“We’re going to Dexter’s,” Shelly said. “He’s having little beach party.”
Carol nodded. “You have fun,” she said. “I’m closing up tonight. Don’t wait up.” She squished her cigarette butt in the ashtray.
Dexter was Shelley’s new boyfriend. He was older. He already had a job. I’d never even had a real boyfriend, nor had I ever been to a beach party. I pictured one of those big fancy lion statue flanked houses with a long winding driveway edged in fussily trimmed boxwoods and beautiful people sipping colorful drinks with those little umbrellas and talking yachts and waves and other beautiful people talk. This was even better than I’d imagined. This was fun. This was what I was in Florida for.
The whole drive to the party, I stared out the window, searching for the water, but all I could see were flat roofs, mazes of asphalt and miles and miles of curb.
Inside, not such beautiful people were drinking bottles of Bud and smoking cigarettes. Where were the surfer boys? Where were the fancy drinks? Shelly left me in the front hall to find Dexter. While I stood leaning against the wall and trying to look cool, she and Dexter melted into an old faded velour sofa with threadbare arms. I inched my way into the party and then down a narrow hallway where others were coming and going. I was curious. I was bored. I was lost. I was lonely. At the doorway to a baby blue room, I stopped and looked in. The walls were lined with people slouching. For a second I worried about how bad my bathing suit looked on me but everyone was practicing being oblivious, the room quiet except for a hiss and crackle. I peered in further and by the side of the bed I saw a guy hunched over an upside down milk crate holding a spoon over a Bunsen burner.
“You wanna?” the scruffy-looking guy said and lifted the hypodermic needle into the air.
My heart pounded through my ears as I stared at the long sharp point catching the sunlight, shooting threads of light on the ceiling and thought about Shelly and wondered if this was what made Shelly cool. I kept staring at the point, thinking about how desperate I was for my life, for me, to be something else and as I stared I noticed a tiny window and through the window I saw a piece of the sky, the edge of some clouds drifting by and I thought about how small we all were compared to the sky. Then I thought: What does one decision by one small person matter in the larger scope of things? But staring into the sky also made me think of other possibilities beyond this day, this party, this time in my life and as I backed away and went to find Shelly and tell her I couldn’t stay at this party, couldn’t stay in Florida, all I could think was that I couldn’t wait to get back home, to my own flawed life. Couldn’t wait to tell my mother that I was sorry that I’d put so much pressure on her to be the mother she couldn’t be anymore and that she should go back to school (even if it meant me watching my younger sister after school), and that as bad as things seemed, they could be worse. Much worse. And I couldn’t wait to get out of this bikini and back into my own clothes.