By the time I started high school, I had lost interest in going to Ocean City with the family. The cottages we used to rent had been razed, replaced by a two story motel with a chlorinated pool. Down on the boardwalk at Ninth Street. under the big white Esskay clock, I sometimes saw a boy I knew from home, but mostly, I observed. Boys carrying serape blankets draped around their shoulders were looking for girls to make out with on the beach. “Just can’t wait to put down a mean make,” my friend Suze said. Intrepid couples slipped under the boardwalk for their assignations, though that seemed pretty risky to me, with all those cigarette butts, splinters and paper trash discarded by boardwalk consumers of ice cream, caramel popcorn, and the best French fries in the world, sprinkled with vinegar and salt.
What every Baltimore teenager longed for was a n unchaperoned week (or even a long weekend) in Ocean City with friends. Lots of friends. Six to a hotel room meant for two. Coke or coffee and doughnuts for breakfast, and maybe a slice or two of pizza for lunch. Dinner was on the fly, as well— takeout or a Dairy Queen burger. And there was beer. Lots of it. And there was sex—or what passed for it, in my crowd. The girls didn’t talk about it much, but you knew, or thought you did. The guys might’ve been just as secretive, or else, they could’ve exaggerated how far they’d gotten with a girl. Most of us had to wait until we had graduated from high school to get permission to go to the O unchaperoned. Most of those sojourns by the sea are vague in my memory all but one.
My girlfriends and I lined up summer jobs, but put off our employers until the end of June, and we were ready to cut loose after our first year of college. My friend Robie, a tall slender blonde with a quirky sense of humor and a major smoking habit, drove a little red Ford her parents had bought her when she decided to go to college in Baltimore instead of an out of town school. Five of us squeezed into the car. We blasted the radio and sang along as we motored out of Baltimore down to the Bay Bridge and across to the Eastern Shore. Suddenly, cornfields lined both sides of the highway and then I half-noticed black teenage boys walking along the road, shirtless, wearing overalls and straw hats.
The boys we knew were a year or two ahead of us, all dayhops at the local Jesuit college, and we had planned our Ocean City getaway with them. There was one couple, Maureen, a statuesque blue –eyed blond and Ralph, whose older brother had dated a high school girlfriend of mine. The boys were led by another set of brothers, both middling lacrosse players . Richie was fair, dark-haired and nervous. Eddie, a year older, had dark Mediterranean skin and a hint of red in his chestnut hair. Eddie was super smart, a math whiz of sorts, and quick-witted. He drank more beer than any of the other guys, and never stopped talking, when he wasn’t singing. A devotee of Tony Bennett, he knew all the words to the most obscure old songs, verse and chorus. He fancied himself a student of literature as well, and quoted Aldous Huxley (in the future man would be a “ mixture between an imbecile and a sewing machine.”) and Evelyn Waugh. He was fine when he had three or four beers, but when he went past seven or eight he got sloppy. I preferred him sober.
The four-day stay was fun—for awhile. There was lots of beer, and there was dancing on the beach and in the motel rooms to music from someone’s portable radio. Some made last minute bargains so that a girl and a guy could have a little private time—never more than an hour. There were unwritten rules: don’t hog the room, don’t leave your towel on the bathroom floor, hang up your swimsuit if it’s wet, and if the beer runs out, get more, if you had a fake i.d. If not, find someone who did, and never forget the ice to refill the cooler. The girls stayed in two adjacent rooms at the Stowaway, whose management didn’t care if you had too many in one room. The place had barely survived a hurricane a few years before when the roof was ripped off by a fierce wind, so I guess they figured a bunch of twenty year olds couldn’t do much worse. The renovated Stowaway looked pretty flimsy, but it was a clean, well – lighted place (I’d been reading Hemingway ) and the police knew its reputation for drawing college kids. The cops routinely swooped down after 1 a.m. to caution us “Keep the noise down, folks .” The guys were ensconced nearby at the French Quarter, which had a better pool and nicer towels and maid service.None of us swam in the pool. Few of us ventured into the surf. I spent a lot of time waiting for Eddie. Not much of a drinker, I sat on a blanket on the beach, carefully covering up my pink and white-checked two-piece bathing suit with a t-shirt after I’d been in the sun for forty minutes. My mother had warned that the sun would ruin my fair skin, and she had nursed me through bad sunburns when I was in my early teens. By nineteen I’d learned my lesson. I sat and smoked Newports, and nursed a lukewarm diet Coke.
More than once, I waited for Eddie for hours even though he’d gave me the time and place the night before. Sometimes he turned up, always with his group of followers, three or four of them in tow. I couldn’t get him to separate from them. I wanted a walk– a long walk along the shore our feet in the water, maybe holding hands as we walked by jetty after jetty and talked about elegant mathematical solutions, Aldous Huxley, and Camus.Sunday morning the two of us sat down to a full breakfast — he had “pancakes and sausage, orange juice and coffee,” because that’s what Tony Bennett sang—“Why mess around with strife?” I had black coffee and toast. What I wanted was not the simple life but a great big love affair, and what Eddie wanted was a brief encounter, no strings. I wanted long walks, gazing into one another’s eyes, staying apart from the rest of my friends and his, drinking red wine out of glass goblets and watching the orange sun set over the bay. He wanted to be with his boys, making sure there were always a couple of cases of Bud on ice. I never said what I wanted because I really didn’t know the words for what I wanted. My notions of romance came from the movies—Natalie Wood and Steven McQueen, Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde. My notions of sex came from a paperback marriage manual that Suze had bought in a downtown bookstore. It contained such useful information as, “When the man is on top during intercourse, the woman might wrap her legs around his waist and when he reaches orgasm, squeeze his buttocks.” Eddie’s ideas about women seemed to come from his friends. They flitted from one girl to the next. If the girl was easy, the guy took what he wanted and moved on. If the girl withheld her favors, the guy moved on. None of them, least of all Eddie, was ready for what I had in mind, grownup love and grownup sex.
On Monday night, I went straight for someone’s tequila , drank it straight over ice with salt around the rim of the glass. I soon found myself climbing up from the bench along the edge of the boardwalk to the rail above it and trying to tightrope walk in my inebriated state, then quickly losing my balance and falling. Robie caught and steadied me, walking me back to the Stowaway where I passed out on one of the twin beds. I awoke the next morning in the bathtub, cuddled up with pillow and blanket. I tossed my makeshift bedding out of the tub and took a hot shower, then slipped into my best Bermuda shorts and a white halter top that I thought showed off what little tan I had.
Tiptoeing past my sleeping friends, two to a bed, I walked next door to the French Quarter and knocked on the door. Eddie’s brother answered my knock, and I told him to get lost. The radio was playing softly and it looked as though no one had slept in two of the beds. Eddie was sitting on the third bed, and the sheets were rumpled and twisted. He was wearing a clean white towel wrapped around his waist. His skin was golden brown from the sun, and his arms and chest muscled from the construction work he was doing that summer. He had trouble looking me in the eye. I sat next to him, took his hand and leaned against him. He smelled of Ivory soap and cigarettes. He lit a cigarette, not bothering to offer me one. He couldn’t be with me, he said, because he’d just spent the night with my friend Suze. Suze! Suze of the golden hair, green eyes and high cheekbones, small breasted but with the world’s best legs. She had an older boyfriend she’d been sleeping with for two years, and she’d left him back in Baltimore at his well-paid, full time job. How dare she! How dare Eddie!
We were supposed to go out to dinner at English’s Chicken House that night, a date we’d made the first day at the beach. “The least I can do is take you to dinner,” he said.
“Oh, sort of a consolation prize?” I asked him. “Forget it, Eddie. The Chicken House is off!” I hollered. I stomped out of the room, making sure to slam the door extra hard.
It was a stunning sunny day. The ocean’s perpetual rhythm was in the background, calling me in for a swim, but all I wanted was catch a bus home. I wanted to sleep in my own room, in my own bed, without six or seven people tramping in and out all night long. I wanted to eat real food for breakfast instead of making do with cigarettes and coffee. I saw Eddie a couple of times after that and I tried to be cool, standoffish. When my parents went away for the weekend, he came over and spent the night. It was what I’d wanted for so long, but he left before dawn the next day, hitchhiking back to his house. I longed to be with him, but then sometimes told him I was busy when I wasn’t.
A few days before I left for Michigan, we sat on my back steps looking out into the small backyard. I only half heard the cicadas’ long hum in the background. Eddie said he couldn’t trust me because I was on a quest for experience. Who isn’t, at nineteen, I asked him. He said he was afraid that if we kept on, I might get pregnant and trap him. I was incensed. Why would he think I wanted to get married when I had college and my whole life ahead of me? Why would he think I would want to be with an alcoholic in training? I knew all about contraceptive foam, and Suze, once we’d made up, showed me how to use it.
We wrote to each other that fall, letters full of ordinary details and literary allusions. When I came home for Christmas break, he surprised me by meeting me at the bus station. He wore a coat and tie because he was working holiday hours at a department store to make extra money. He dropped me at my hosue and then went back to work. A weke later, he invited me to a college dance and to the ratty downtown apartment he and the guys had rented, where they went to drink. The furniture was losing its stuffing through slits in the old upholstery, and the bathroom was the dirtiest I’d ever seen. The last night I saw Eddie was two days after New Year’s at an impromptu party at Robie’s house. He brought another girl who told me she was studying to become a beautician. She was sweet and dumb. I wore my little black dress and felt overdressed, when I had aimed for sophisticated. Eddie ignored me, and then for a moment, he met my eyes. I smiled a tight little smile, then turned and walked out. You win, I thought. I went on with my quest for experience, never glancing back. What sticks with me most are those silly lines from Tony Bennett and Aldous Huxley, and my fear of walking tightrope on boardwalk railings, nothing more.