It’s balmy in December–why not go to the beach with University of Baltimore MFA grad student Terri Steel, as she recalls the teenage vacation to Ocean City that altered her identity for good.
Our bare feet dangled, Aerosmith blared, and Route 50 was a blur beneath us as Sara and I headed to the beach in the back of her older brother Pete’s new 280ZX. I knew I was there as Sara’s guest as a last resort. All the other moms had said, “ABSOLUTELY NOT!”
Who in her right mind would permit her 13 year-old-daughter to go to the beach for two weeks in Ocean City, Maryland, without parental supervision? For once, I was the lucky one. My mom had left a few weeks before, after 15 years of suffering an unapologetic wandering husband—with no goodbye and no warning—leaving us kids on our own with our father. We would have been better off in the care of the family dog, but she took him along. All Dad cared about was drugs, scoring women and his ever-increasing bald spot, covered by strategic comb-over. He hadn’t been home in days. So I could say yes to the invitation without a second thought.
I only had one problem, money. There had been a severe lack of cash and household goods since Mom left. Groceries, cooking, and cleaning were all things we had taken for granted. When the fridge was emptied, my older brother Michael disappeared and our younger brother found solace in the arms of his friend’s parents. I was desperate for a way out too. Sara’s invitation was just that. With her popularity, our alliance could change everything in middle school halls. I saw her as my big break, my good luck, my savior.
I dialed my mother at work again, something I had done several times a day since she left.
“Terri, I told you not to call me here!”
“I know, Mom, but I need some money. My friend, Sara, has asked me to head to the beach for a couple of weeks. Her parents are paying for everything, but I’m going to need a few dollars for food and stuff.”
“Terri, you know I don’t have any money! Ask your father and don’t call me at work anymore. You’re going to get me fired if you keep this up!”
The phone went dead. Finally, after weeks of clinging to hope that Mom would return to take me with her, I decided I was on my own—at least for now.
I called Sara. “My parents said yes,” I told her.
“Great! We leave in a week. You can spend the night at my house the Friday before because my brother wants to get an early start. Make sure you pack enough clothes and bring some spending cash.”
“Okay, no problem. I can’t wait! I’ll see you then.”
I hung up the phone determined.
I managed to swipe a twenty off my father’s dresser a few days later when he stopped by to shower. It wasn’t much, but I figured I could make do.
I still had one problem. I needed a bathing suit. My body had waited for Mom to leave before going into unannounced puberty. I had grown up and out. Hair sprouted, pimples peaked, pits leaked and nothing fit anymore. Miss Mary, my neighbor, took note.
“Jesus, Terri,” she said, “can’t you get your father to buy you some decent pants?”
When I bent my head in shame, she got out her sewing box and added several inches of material to the hem of my jeans. Then she left the room and returned with a pair of tweezers to pluck my unibrow—a dark caterpillar connecting beady brown eyes.
To get the suit, though, I would have to go to extreme measures. I prepared by shaving my bikini line and then sauntered into Sears and Roebuck. Past pretty ladies spritzing perfumes, past shiny shoes and handbags of every shape and size, I meandered down aisles certain that each pair of pupils watched me move. I reached the juniors department with sweat dripping from my stringy bra down my torso. I steered my way to the bikinis in the back, panic climbing my spine.
I was no Girl Scout, not anymore anyway. I had always dreamed of the day Mom and I would together be free of Dad’s suffering ways, but when she left, the good girl in me went with her.
I tried to act casual, glancing through suits and inspecting their colors, touching hangers gingerly, sliding the fabric between my fingers like I had watched Mom do.
At the half-off-rack, I grabbed a turquoise two-piece that glimmered with silver sparkles in the light, slipped into the dressing room and put it on. The fit was perfect. I checked the tag, 12 dollars, originally 24. I reasoned that if I were going to steal, I could at least be frugal. I slid off the suit, balled it up and stuffed it in my purse, dressed quickly and exited the stall before I could change my mind.
My feet leaden, I walked as though this moment equaled my final freedom. Scenes of capture rolled through my mind: the cops handcuffing me; Mom shaking her head; Sara mumbling to herself, “I knew I shouldn’t have invited Terri McCubbin to the beach.”
I fought back tears, tried to steady my breath, and concentrated on each step until I got closer to those looming doors. A ray of hope flitted across the white floor tiles. I was almost out. Glints of sunlight danced just beyond the glass. In a flash I was through and free!
I had taken the first step to steering my own destiny.
* * *
The night before we left for the beach, I got my first taste of Sara’s family life, as plump Italian aunts pinched our cheeks and fed us slices of rum-soaked birthday cake they had brought from Palermo, all while chatting wildly in Sicilian. They had arrived just in time to celebrate her upcoming fourteenth birthday. Her parents beamed. The next morning we piled in the car. Sara’s little brother, Frankie, sat across from Pete in the front. Sara and I slid between suitcases, coolers and beach bags in the back hatch, and waved goodbye to her family as they screamed, “Ciao! Ciao, bellas!”
Once on the highway, Pete popped the hatch, and Sara and I settled in, the yellow highway lines leading us to teenage paradise.
I had never felt happier.
Sara’s parents had arranged for us to stay at a new hotel along the boardwalk, right in the center of all the action, The Plim Plaza. Rattan rockers graced a sprawling front porch with yellow-and-blue striped awnings where a girl could shade herself from the sun as she watched gulls dip, picking up abandoned French fries in the sand. I could hear the surf in the salty air, the waves rolling in like breath and I felt the tension, pain and confusion of my home life melt away. I was here. I am here. I belong.
We unloaded the car giddily, running the carpeted halls and swinging open doors to our room, which was adjacent to the room Sara’s brothers would share. A bathroom connected the two. Pete headed out to get ice, beer, and sodas for the cooler while Sara and I started to unpack.
“Is that all you brought?” She looked at my pathetic supply of clothes, two tattered t-shirts and a pair of jean shorts.
“Hey!” I said, “Look at my new suit!”
“Terri, you’re going to need some more clothes. Here, take these,” she said tossing over three pair of corduroy Levi’s in shades of chocolate brown, emerald green, and light blue, “they’re a little tight on me anyway.”
I stared at the gift, amazed. Levi’s were the “it” pants. I had only one pair, saving for a year to make the purchase; these now showcased three extra inches of material from Miss Mary’s generous stitching in order to reach my ankles. I didn’t dare bring them along. I watched star-struck as Sara unpacked an endless supply of blouses, shorts, bathing suits, sandals, and Levi’s, folding all and placing them in drawers. I placed my things in a drawer as well and we both put on our suits and headed out the door taking little Frankie with us.
On the beach, a shift occurred: We were in neutral territory. With my stolen blue bikini, Sara and I appeared as equals and I began to feel like one. We laughed the same, smoked the same, flirted the same, and no one seemed to know my secret—that she was the fortunate one, the one who still had a mother who acted as if she cared. A mother who called every night religiously to make sure that we were safe in bed exactly at 11 p.m. I know, because precisely at that time, Sara and I would ask the cute 20-something boy working the front desk to kindly transfer the call down, while batting our eyes and giggling, so we could hurry and get back to the boardwalk.
Our days were glorious, our nights even better. For two long weeks we rose at noon, put on our suits, headed to the beach, swam and tanned until 4, then dressed for dinner. We dined extravagantly, sitting on red leather chairs, eating steak and pasta, watching Pete, just 17, order more wine. After dinner, we put Frankie to bed and parted ways with Pete. For the rest of our evening, Sara and I roamed and flirted beneath bright neon lights and dinging bells coming from pinball machines, passing blinking arcades and screaming girls clutching skinny, bronzed boys while swirling on the Tilt-A-Whirl. When money ran out, we had Sara’s parents wire more. It wasn’t a problem. There were no problems, until Sara began to wonder why my parents weren’t calling me.
“Terri, how much money do you have left?”
“Two dollars,” I said. I had been proud of how I had lasted so long on so little. With all the temptations along the boardwalk, it wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but I had spent less than two dollars a day since our arrival, while watching Sara purchase everything her heart desired. I loved seeing her pull out her wallet and just say yes. It made me feel like I was part of that purchasing power too.
“Two dollars?” Sara returned. “Terri, you have to call your parents and tell them you need more money. That’s not going to get you through the next couple days. Where the hell are they anyway?”
How do you tell your friends that your mom disappeared? That she thought she was losing her mind. That maybe she had, just like her mother, your grandmother, did all those years ago. That if you weren’t careful, you could end up crazy too. How do you explain that you can now do whatever you want, whenever you want, because no one is watching?
It wasn’t something I understood yet myself.
“Sara, I’ll call if you want, but it’s no use. No one is going to send me money and no one is worried about where I am or what I’m doing. My parents are not like yours.”
She shook her head puzzled, then ushered me into a five and dime and bought us matching necklaces, white shells threaded together with a leather string.
* * *
Sara and I remain best friends. It has taken me almost 40 years to tell her about the stolen bathing suit. I suppose a part of me will always strive to make a good impression on the friend I thought I never deserved. The truth is, I have never really completely understood how I got so lucky.
And I figure, why press my luck?
Memoirist Terri Steel is an MFA student at the University of Baltimore. A mother of three–and grandmother of three–she looks forward to her upcoming graduation and first book release in May.