[During the last full summer of World War II, my father was hired to play cocktail and dinner music at a luxury hotel in Atlantic City, an ocean resort in New Jersey. My mother and I therefore came to stay with him for eight weeks, in a rented furnished apartment on Pacific Avenue, around the corner from the hotel. It was the summer I turned thirteen.]
I had my period. That meant no ocean, because of the sanitary pad. But I was meeting my girlfriend from high school at the beach that day. And I didn’t go in the water anyway when I was with her, since she didn’t like getting her hair wet. I looked at my two suits thoughtfully. Both were clean and dry. The newer white one with black dots must have shrunk a little after washing, because now it fit perfectly. But I didn’t want to risk getting rusty brown streaks on it. I put on the old one from last year — black with white dots.
It seemed to have become very tight in the crotch. Could I have grown so much in just the month we had been here? Disinclined to discuss this potentially distressing subject with my mother, I reached around to the back of the suit, released the shoulder straps from the two buttons that held them in place, and tied them around my neck. This lowered the front of the suit considerably but felt much better. I pulled the back down over my bottom as far as I could.
Then I packed a beach bag with a thermos of juice, an extra sanitary pad just in case, and a book to read until my girlfriend arrived. I also took two towels from the pile of clean ones in the front room and the most recent copy of one of my mother’s magazines. She was in the bathroom, engaged in some private beauty ritual. “Did you find your beach robe?” she called. “It’s in the front closet.” Dutifully, I slipped into the robe, tied it firmly around the place where I was supposed to have a waist, put on my canvas beach shoes, called out, “Bye, I’m going now!” and clattered down the stairs to the street.
When my mother and I had first gone to the beach with my father, we took Indiana Avenue to the Boardwalk, so he could collect the mail at the hotel, both for us and for the other two musicians who worked for him. The hotel was on Indiana. Afterwards, we had continued to take Indiana out of habit, whether my father was with us or not. But the stairs from the Boardwalk to the beach were actually nearer Illinois Avenue. So after a moment’s hesitation, I turned right, not left, from the apartment building door — and headed for the intersection of Pacific and Illinois.
It was very hot. The pad between my legs impeded my progress. The tie holding shut my beach robe began to loosen from rubbing against the magazine and towels in my arms and fell to the ground behind me. Exasperated, I bent over to put the bag, towels and magazine down on the sidewalk, yanked off the robe, bent over again to retrieve the tie, stuffed it into a pocket of the robe, wadded up the hateful garment and piled it on top of the magazine and towels. Then, bending down a third time, I retrieved everything, slung the beach bag over my shoulder, gave a little tug with my free hand to one side of the rear of my suit where I could feel it had slid up after all that bending over, and turned the corner.
The sun beat down on Illinois Avenue, a long empty vista of street leading straight to the Boardwalk. There were no cars and no other people afoot. A delivery truck pulled into a driveway between two buildings forced me off the curb; intent on balancing towels, robe, magazine and beach bag, I continued towards the beach next to the sidewalk but not on it. Halfway down the block was where the Traymore began, only recently the newest, most modern hotel in Atlantic City, but now where soldiers and sailors were sent to recuperate from the wounds of war. And because the day was glorious, there they were outside, seventeen and eighteen and nineteen years old, lined up in their wheelchairs and casts and bandages along the entire Illinois side of the building — to get some sun and inhale the delicious sea breezes and see the sights of fabled Atlantic City. But at ten-thirty on this particular morning, the only sight to see was me.
So here I come, moist from heat and clenching my thighs together to keep the pad in place – just thirteen years old, but with rounded belly and plump behind, the budding curves of my brand-new breasts jouncing out of the polka dot suit at top and sides, and the partly uncovered cheeks of my bottom wiggling and waggling as I pass. The first wolf whistle pierces the silence. Who could it be for? I look over my shoulder to see if someone is behind me, but there is no one, and I hear male laughter. I walk a little faster, which means more frequent steps, more jouncing and bouncing. More whistles, and whoops now, and yells. And much more laughter. I dare not turn my head sideways to look, but I know that these aren’t the wolf whistles Betty Grable gets. And then I hear: “Shake it but don’t break it, baby!” My cheeks burn, I can’t breathe. “Shake, shake, shake it.” A chorus of voices. A whole army. Cupping their hands around their mouths so I can hear better. “Shake it but don’t break it baby shake it but don’t break it baby shake it but don’t break it shake it shake it shake it!”
I must not turn back. And I must not run. I must pretend it isn’t happening, I am just going to the beach to meet my friend, and it isn’t happening. The line of chairs and wheelchairs stretches ahead of me nearly to the end of the block. I can feel the back of my suit riding higher and higher with every step but I absolutely must not reach around and tug. I must keep my eyes fixed ahead, and walk with my head up, and try not to hear what I hear, and eventually it will be over. I am getting closer to the Boardwalk. Soon I will be there. I only have to bear it a little longer. Then one male voice salutes my departing behind with something new — a jingle I recognize from grade school. But it’s about me. “Jelly in a dish, jelly in a dish.” Other voices take it up. “Shake, shake, shake like jelly in a dish.” Jelly in a dish, jelly in a dish, with every step I take towards the Boardwalk, I am jelly, jelly, jelly, jelly, jelly in a dish.
I will not die of this, I tell myself. I will not die. I will force myself to take deep breaths and keep walking and eventually I will get to the ocean and the whistles and whoops and laughs and jeers will stop and it will be over and I will never walk on Illinois Avenue again.
I turn right at the Boardwalk and out of the sight line of the side of the Traymore, the sound of gleeful male voices (“shake it, baby, shake it!”) still echoing in my mind. Quickly, I put everything on a bench, wrap myself as tightly as I can in the beach robe, slide the tie into the loops that are too high and make a knot right under my breasts, but that’s all right, anything is all right, as long as I can completely cover myself up so that none of me shows, not one bit. I will not ever let any of me show, I will hide all of my flesh so that no one can ever see it and I will absolutely never, not ever, tell anyone about what has just happened and I will never ever let it happen again.
After dinner that evening, I tell my mother I need a bra. She says I don’t, no brassiere will fit. I demand to know how she can say that, there are bras that fit really huge fat women so there must be one that will fit me. She says that’s not what she meant, that I am still “too small” for a normal cup size. I say how do we know until we try. She says there is nowhere to try here. I say there must be a bra store on Atlantic Avenue, the commercial street for Atlantic City residents. She says stores on Atlantic Avenue carry only garbage, a brassiere is an important purchase, and if I am going to carry on like this she will see what we can do when we get back to New York, maybe Best & Company will have something, but not before then and that is the end of it, do I understand? I say I understand but is it a promise about Best & Company and she says it’s a promise.
I never wore the black suit with white polka dots again, or the beach robe. While my period lasted, I went to the beach in shorts and a shirt, even though my mother said I was being ridiculous. Then for the rest of the summer, I wore the white suit with black dots. It covered what it was supposed to cover and hid what it was supposed to hide. To be safe though, I put the shorts and shirt on over it for walking back and forth on the streets, or sometimes one of my older summer dresses. I always waited until my mother was ready to go, and we always took Indiana Avenue.