The great horror of my adolescence, a time spent in the subtropical sun, was not skin cancer but pregnancy. To have one's life circumscribed by shameful and premature motherhood spelled, for girls like me — virgins in bathing suits, swanning along the beach in gorgeous tans and sophisticated sunglasses—a sort of early death.
And so the closest we could come to being naked in front of a man was to wear a bikini. Bikinis had been around in Europe for twenty years, but in South Africa they only came into the light in the early sixties. There we were, girls in our new bikinis, plunging into the sea under the eyes of men, and then emerging from the water, hair streaming, salt stinging, to stretch out in the sun without conscience.
Day after day the sun shone, friend to all but the whitest-skinned among us. They were pitied like the sick, huddled as they were under hats and umbrellas. For the rest of us, oiling our skins in the sun like fine leather, working for the flawless cappuccino tan that was the ne plus ultra of real beauty in that world, there was no more thought given to wrinkles, mottles, or lesions than to Medicare and assisted living. In fact, we lived in happy ignorance of anything but good from the sun, children that we were of the Southern Hemisphere with its glorious beaches and endless summers.
Those were the lovely years for me, sprung at last from my girls' school and pretending to be in control of my life. In fact, I was only in control of the few men whom I had managed to enthrall. Until that point, and for all the years of my adolescence, I would go down to the beach every Sunday morning as to a school in its own right. In the large Indian Ocean port in which I grew up, the beach itself was the chief proving ground of a girl's future. There, clustered around the wall — Jews on North Beach, Gentiles on South Beach — she would practice for a husband, trying to distinguish herself among the writhing mass of semi-naked, semi-chaste youth, all of them jousting, feinting, preening, until they were old enough to pair off formally and announce their engagements in the newspaper.
Watching those pairs, I was nothing but wary for my own future. To be nailed through the foot before you'd even had a chance at the real world. To be caught, still lithe and tanned and oiled, so that in a year or so you'd be sitting under an umbrella, first one baby and then one or two more, a nanny tucking up her skirt to wade into the surf with a bucket. Well, this was almost as much of a horror to me as the unmarried mothers' home itself.
What I wanted for myself, what I had dreamed of all through childhood, was a future far away, in what I had always thought of as the real world. Ideally, it would include basking on yachts in the Mediterranean, dining alfresco in strapless evening gowns. Ours was a society that had always looked north for glamour, mostly to Europe, and often in terms of the films we'd seen, the photographs in magazines.
And so, when my first shot north arrived with an invitation to spend a year in America as a foreign exchange student, it seemed perfectly normal to have my mother outfitting me as if for a grand European tour. How were any of us to know that I was plunging into a world of wraparound skirts, Peter Pan collars, penny loafers, and Bermuda shorts? How could we have imagined that an eighteen-year-old virgin, accustomed to a world in which older men took her dinner-dancing at night clubs, would feel as brazen there as a streetwalker in her high heels and backless frocks?
What I wanted for myself, what I had dreamed of all through childhood, was a future far away, in what I had always thought of as the real world.
Home again after the year, back on the beach and out of clothes at last, I found I had graduated from the wall to the sand. I was newly thin, having lost the weight I had gained in America, and a few extra pounds as well. Let no one say that losing weight does not change one's life. It does; it has. For the first time since childhood I was in possession of my body in a way that did not require special breathing.
Meanwhile, I began to collect men on the beach, careful to fall in love with the one I would be least likely to marry. I bought myself an old Morris Minor and drove here, there, down to the beach whenever I liked, drunk on my newfound independence.
When my best friend married and built herself a house up the coast, she found herself beset by marauding bands of monkeys, and the surrounding bush infested with deadly black mambas. Even the beach was useless: without shark nets, no one but a fool would have swum in the sea. And so she moved back into town. Before she'd married, we'd often spent the afternoons at her pool once the wind picked up on the beachfront. It was a lovely pool, set high in the garden, with lawns rolling downhill, and a view of the sea. Often there'd be others, too. And tea would be served. We played host and guest, with little of the swagger and throb, the vast roiling theatre of the beach to the game.
My unmarriageable lover scorned these afternoons. It was the beach he loved, windy or not. Sometimes, in the late afternoons, when the families and vendors were gone, we would walk to the end of the pier to see what the Indian fishermen had caught. If the surf was calm, we might swim out as far as the shark nets, coming back in, wave after wave, to lie on the sand and catch the last long rays of the sun. And already I'd be homesick for what I hadn't yet left behind.
"There's madness in his family," my mother would warn me when I came home. She understood quite well the romance of the beach. When she and my father fell defiantly in love, he would take her down there at night with a picnic basket and a bottle of champagne. So how could I expect her to believe that, for me, defiance was one thing, marriage quite another? How could I admit to anyone how alarmed I was becoming myself at the approach of a time when I would be finished at university and marooned down there at the bottom of the world?
Meanwhile, there were long walks along the surf, spontaneous excursions up the coast for oysters and crayfish. Sometimes, when it was hot and still, we'd go swimming at night, the sea still warm and black as ink. People said it was dangerous, and probably they were right. But, floating out on the swells, invisible, with the sound of the surf and the lights of the city across the water, it seemed like an idyll out of time and place.
And then, one day, I was stopped by the sight of a newcomer. He was pale and freckled, nothing like the tanned, muscled habitués of our world. He had stretched himself out on a deck chair some way off and was reading Kafka's Amerika. I still don't know why the sight of him provoked me as it did. People were always bringing books down to the beach, often to show off. But this man's showing off had a sneer to it, a sort of challenge. I had to go right up to him and stand between him and the sun before he would even lower his book and look at me.
That evening he drove me up the coast in his Alfa Romeo, ninety miles per hour on the wrong side of the road. As we hurtled through the darkness, he talked quite easily. He was leaving for America in a few weeks, he said, he had only come down to the coast to say goodbye to his parents. Would he miss them, I asked? Would he miss all this? Oh no, he said, sweeping me easily around the dance floor, he already had tickets for next year's season at the Boston Symphony, a whole life there to look forward to.
A small scholarship carried me to Boston, marriage to the reader of Kafka, and five years of graduate school in New York. For the months before I had left, my unmarriageable lover had tried to stop me from going. He took me by the shoulders and stared fiercely into my face, asking again and again if I knew how ordinary my life would be in such a world, how tethered, how loveless, how cold and unworthy.
But the future had taken hold of me with an equally fierce grip, and I couldn't give it up. And even though I knew he was right — even though I knew there'd be nothing again like the glorious world I was leaving behind — still I kept telling myself, the plane lifting from the runway, that it could never have lasted anyway.
Excerpted from The Romance of Elsewhere: Essays by Lynn Freed. Courtesy of Counterpoint Press and copyright of the author. All rights reserved.