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?