The Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
The summer I was sixteen, my father rented a house near Ocean City, Maryland. My parents had been divorced practically as long as I’d been alive, and my father had remarried when I was seven or eight. I’d understood from very early on that I’d be seeing him and my stepmother for a few weeks every summer, and, alarmingly obedient, even docile, I was only beginning to feel the tiniest bit cranky that these yearly trips were required of me. I grew crankier still when I found out that the house was this seventies monstrosity with bright orange panelling hidden in and amongst some severely mosquito-ridden woods. I’d expected it to be a beach house. And why not? Ocean City, see? I felt cheated from the first moment I saw the rental unit, though no one had ever said a word to me about its proximity or distance from the beach. Sixteen-year-olds are especially adept at feeling cheated, aren’t they?
It was a week during which more than one of my expectations was defied. My much older half-brother and half-sister were visiting my father, their father, at the same time as I was, an unprecedented occurrence, and they taught me more than I think they’d intended. My sister bought me a string bikini in a shop on the boardwalk even as I protested that I could never fill out such a thing. But she knew better. To my astonishment, I looked good in it. Damn good. And when the next morning I put it on and stood before my father, I saw shock in his eyes, and I felt oddly powerful. It was the first time I realized that my body could be used as a tool. My sister, I think, had been hoping to shock my father all along. Though I’m not completely sure of that; I never asked her. In my family we leave lots of things unsaid. Especially the important things.
Later in the week my sister dressed me up in some Middle Eastern pants of hers, these billowy red cotton pants, and a halter top, and I looked and felt like Jeannie, the genie of whom Captain Nelson dreamed. My sister then proceeded to transform my face with the aid of some gold eyeshadow and the deepest of red lipsticks, and together we drove to the boardwalk. That night I turned heads. Strangers’ heads. Oh, yes, my sister was teaching me things. As was my father, though Lord knows his things were different from her things. In the mornings, he was taking me out for driving lessons on the private roads leading to the rental house, and as I recall, he was incredibly patient as a driving instructor, which stood out, it really did, because even at nearly eighty, he is not a particularly patient man.
I knew that at sixteen I understood nothing about the opposite sex and only the tiniest bit about driving. But I also prided myself on my ability to pick up subtle (and not so subtle) emotional cues from others. So when that August I witnessed several sharp and bitter exchanges between my father and stepmother, I assumed their marriage was in trouble. I watched my stepmother drink more than I’d ever seen her do before. I caught the sarcasm, the cold silences, the terse words. Until I couldn’t stand to catch anything more, and I retreated into my room to read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Its ambiguity suited my sixteen-year-old self, innocent but desperate to be taken for jaded.
Now I know that sixteen-year-olds, no matter how savvy in isolated and often irrelevant ways, lack so much in the way of context. I saw things, sure. I judged them accurately. But I was missing some of the puzzle pieces, and a few of these were corner pieces, pieces essential for anchoring the whole damn puzzle. My stepmother had had breast cancer. That I did know. She’d undergone a mastectomy. What I didn’t know was that her cancer had returned. Fear was motivating her drinking, and my father’s helplessness in the face of the disease was behind each and every unkind word he uttered. He wasn’t used to being unable to control things.
My stepmother died two years later. And only after her death was I able to understand the week I spent in Maryland and marvel at the awful juxtaposition of my body blossoming into womanhood, becoming something I could manipulate, and hers turning the tables on her, manipulating her, betraying her. Do you appreciate the irony inherent in my developing breasts at the same time as she was forced to give hers up in order to save her life, only to have to cope with the knowledge that she hadn’t managed to save anything after all?
Context. It’s essential.
I wrote this piece in 2008, many blogs ago. Today the same brother is visiting me, and together we spoke on the phone with my sister. Suddenly I was reminded of this long-ago, pivotal summer.