It was June, 1969. I’d finished my first year of college and wanted to spend the summer down the shore, as I had every other summer of my life. I did not want to spend it in the ’burbs with my parents. It’s a bit hard for me to remember why I disliked my parents so intensely during those years. In retrospect, they were the best parents anyone could hope for, but we’d butted heads often during my teen years, mostly over our differing values. The main thing that had infuriated me back then was that they’d become part of the White Flight from the city I grew up in and deeply loved–Plainfield, New Jersey. That struck me as unconscionable. They moved us to a lily-white suburban town that would never feel like home to me. To make matters worse, in order to be able to afford that new home, they sold our little Point Pleasant bungalow, putting an end to our Jersey Shore summers. (It was only later that they told me how heartbreaking it had been for them move, but that for the safety of the family, they felt it was necessary. Unknown to me, our house had been broken into at least twice, leaving my beloved ninety-year-old, wheel-chair bound grandmother vulnerable to an intruder. Only then did I understand).
But that summer of ’69, I still needed the Jersey Shore, so I put together a group of my friends and we traveled the hour to Point Pleasant and settled in for the summer.
I am changing a few names in this story for reasons that will become obvious. I might also be changing a few minor facts, only because I can’t guarantee the veracity of my memory. But I do know that five of us started the summer together. Four, including myself, were students at what was then Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) in New Jersey. The fifth was one of my long-time best friends from Plainfield. That was Linda, a girl I’d always envied for coming from a family where she could safely argue politics and religion at the dinner table, two topics that, in my house, would inevitably reduce me to tears of frustration.
Another of my long-time Plainfield friends, Zan, joined us. Zan also attended Glassboro with me, where we’d grown even closer. Zan was the kooky one among us. Kind and sweet, she rarely met a person she didn’t instantly love, but she was also . . . unique. One of my favorite memories of her is the day she walked across campus from her dorm to mine wearing only a trench coat and nothing else (if you’ve read my early book, Secret Lives, you may remember my character Kate doing the same thing. I owe Zan for that scene).
During my freshman year at Glassboro, I’d grown close to “Suzy”. Suzy was one of those light-hearted people who could find something funny in every situation and who constantly made us laugh. Early in our freshman year, she’d fallen in love with a guy I’ll call Pete, and they were already talking marriage. My Glassboro friends and I envied her for finding ‘The One’ so quickly.
The fourth young woman I’d managed to rope into spending the summer with us was “Maggie”. Maggie was a real sweetheart, quiet, calm, and pretty in a fresh, Ivory soap sort of way. The only virgin among us, she’d dated a bit in college but had found no one special.
The five of us found a second story attic-like space to rent several blocks from the boardwalk and beach. There was no air conditioning, but few places were air conditioned back then. We were used to the heat and didn’t care a bit.
Finding jobs at the beach in the summer was ridiculously easy. My four friends all found afternoon and evening jobs on the boardwalk, while I landed an early morning job in Marie’s Restaurant in the small downtown. Never a morning person, I came to hate that job, but I stuck it out. The location of my bed—tucked into a corner of the main “living room” space–was a problem, because my housemates stayed up late talking and listening to Janis Joplin singing “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart” and I couldn’t sleep. I remember griping at them, to no avail.
I was pretty miserable that summer, and not only because of my early morning job. I’d fallen head over heels in love during my freshman year. The guy—I’ll call him Red—and I had started out as friends. Both of us had been raised as devout Catholics and were grappling intellectually and spiritually with our doubts. There are few things that can bind two people together more than a spiritual connection. We grew together in our politics, too, incensed by what we viewed as a pointless war that was a genuine threat to him and the other guys on our campus as the draft lottery loomed. I was in love with him, body and soul. The only problem was that he had a long-time girlfriend “back home”. He never lied to me about her. Our relationship grew, but the girl back home had a hold on him that seemed unbreakable. I knew he was spending that summer with her, hundreds of miles away from me. Yet not a day went by that I didn’t scan the streets, searching for his beaten up white VW van in the vain hope that he would show up to profess his love for me.
My memory of that summer is that my four friends and I got along very well, but in retrospect, I think I must have been a bitch on wheels because of the emotional pain I was in over Red. I only know this because once the summer was over, Zan told me she forgave me for being so difficult. “I know you missed Red and it must have been really hard for you,” she said. Darling Zan. Everyone should be lucky enough to have such a compassionate friend.
It was a strange summer, in retrospect. A summer of deep friendships, hard choices. . . . and a singular moment that ultimately bonded us with the rest of the universe.
Many events stand out in my memory. We met a man on the boardwalk and he became a presence in all our lives, a thread that ran through the entire summer. He was twenty-six-years-old, which seemed quite old to us at the time. I will call him James. James acted as a sort of big brother to us all, a kindly, mostly benign presence, (though he did connect more intimately with Zan, who cleared it with me first, making sure I had no designs on him myself. Lovesick as I was, I had no designs on anyone other than Red). I don’t remember exactly when the truth about James came out, but we eventually learned that he was married to one of our old high school teachers. We were shocked and also a bit disgusted by his lack of respect for a teacher whom three of us had known personally. Yet, we never did discard him that summer. He remained a sort of counselor to us all. And trust me, we needed a counselor.
Shortly into the summer, Zan’s grandmother and aunt showed up to spirit her home. They’d received a letter from Glassboro stating that Zan would flunk out if she didn’t take a couple of summer classes. She was the first of us to fall and we were all sorry to see her go.
At the restaurant where I worked we had a regular customer, Stu, a man in his early seventies who would come in every morning with his ninety-five-year-old father for breakfast. I loved chatting with Stu as I watched him tenderly feed the older man. One morning, as I walked the few blocks from our house to the restaurant, Stu was driving by. He pulled over and offered me a ride, and I happily got into his car in my white uniform and red apron. We chatted about his dad as we traveled down the street. Suddenly, though, he asked “What do you have on under that uniform?” He reached over and before I could do a thing about it, plunged his arm up the skirt of my uniform.Allthe way up. I managed to open the car door and flee, running the rest of the way to the restaurant, trembling and tearful and very nearly throwing up. When I told the female owner of the restaurant what had happened, she chewed me out for being stupid enough to get into a car with a stranger. I hadn’t thought of him as a stranger but rather a kind old man. Lesson learned: Do. Not. Trust. Men. Period.
We were quite cut off from news in our insular little beach world. We had our transistor radios, but no television, and at that age and on vacation, we weren’t interested in reading the newspaper. Somehow, though, we knew that two men named Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were planning to do the unimaginable: walk on the moon.
Suzy managed to borrow a teeny television set from someone and we gathered around it in our living room, moving the rabbit ears back and forth as the grainy image came on the screen. I remember our silence. Tears surprised me when we heard Armstrong’s words about a “giant leap for mankind” and watched the two ghostlike figures bounce across the moon’s surface. I’d spent the last couple of years angry at my country. Suddenly I felt proud. ‘Proud’ most definitely felt better.
Suzy was getting sick in the mornings. It was James—older, maybe not wiser, but with more lifer experience than the rest of us–who was first to tune into the reality. Suzy and her boyfriend Pete had always used condoms, she assured us. Well, almost always. There was that one time . . .
She found a doctor at the beach and in short order learned that she was pregnant. A baby would mean dropping out of school, but she and Pete had planned to get married anyway. They would just marry sooner rather than later, she said, with her usual Suzy smile. Torn between worry and excitement, she called Pete with the news.
“Soak a tampon in kerosene and insert it,” he told her. “That’ll take care of it.”
There was no talk of marriage. Pete just wanted the ‘problem’ to disappear.
Devastated, Suzy talked to us late into the night, trying to figure out what to do. Back then, abortion was illegal in New Jersey, but I don’t think she ever would have considered it anyway. A few days later, she left the shore to move back home with her parents, knowing she would continue her pregnancy, Pete or no Pete.
A few weeks later, we met two guys on their way to Woodstock. They asked to “crash at our pad” for the night, which we allowed (having apparently learned nothing from my lesson with the old man in the car). Sweet Maggie was attracted to one of the guys. Without Zan and Suzy, we were down to just three of us, and we’d moved into a smaller space. This was the ground floor of a tiny house, the living room divided into bedrooms by flimsy walls that didn’t reach the ceiling. Maggie’s bed and mine were separated only by one of those dividers–which was why I could hear everything going on in that bed, even with the pillow squooshed over my ears. And that was how I heard her turn the guy down when he tried to talk her into taking off her panties. From my side of the wall, I cheered her on: Maggie was not losing her virginity to some guy on his way to Woodstock! The next morning, she worriedly told me that he’d ejaculated through her panties.
“Can you get pregnant that way?” she asked.
I laughed and reassured her she was fine. I wish I’d been right.
The whole experience had been too much for Maggie, though. I think it was the way we were living that got to her. No parents around to make us feel safe. Guys coming and going. It was just too crazy. So Maggie became the next to leave. And then we were two: mature, solid Linda and me.
Then Linda decided it was time for her to leave as well. She wanted to have some time with her family before returning to school in September. As for me? No way was I going home. I was holding onto summer and the Jersey Shore with all my might.
I’d been working in the restaurant with Katee, a young woman a year older than myself, and we decided to move in together for the last couple of weeks of the summer. Katee was a cute, petite blond from Wisconsin. We found a postage stamp of a room in Trento’s Boarding House, nearly across the street from the boardwalk. The corner room was just big enough for our twin beds and a shared dresser, but it had two walls of windows, and all night long, when we weren’t listening to the Stones singing Honky Tonk women on our radios, we’d hear the music of the merry-go-round through the window screens. Katee had a maturity that centered me, and of the places I lived that summer, the little room at Trento’s was the calmest and the most sane.
At summer’s end, I returned home briefly, then went back to school. I resumed my unhealthy relationship with Red until his dabbling in drugs became too much for me. Still, it would be many years before I finally got him completely out of my system. I dropped out of college a couple of months later, suffering from panic attacks and phobias. I needed the time off to regroup, find myself, and ultimately, grow up. When I returned to school several years later, I sailed through my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I’ve never regretted taking that necessary break.
Linda, the smart, intellectual, grounded member of our motley crew, went on to become a lawyer. No real surprise there. We’re still good friends, though we don’t see each other nearly enough.
Suzy went into a home for unwed mothers, but lost her baby halfway through her pregnancy. We lost touch with her and never heard from her again. I hope she’s had a happy life. I toy with the idea of looking her up, but I think I would only be a reminder of one of the hardest times in her life.
Maggie got in touch with me early that fall, when she realized she was pregnant. She could not tell her parents what had happened. The thought of an abortion devastated her, yet she could see no other path. She was very early in her pregnancy. In order to get an abortion, she would have to convince three psychiatrists that she was suicidal. I drove her to the appointment where all three men sat and listened to her sob out her story. I’m sure they didn’t buy a word about her “virgin pregnancy,” but for one hundred dollars each–a huge sum for a college student in 1969—they were willing to furnish her with the documentation she needed to get a safe abortion. I lost touch with her after I left school.
Zan dropped out of Glassboro shortly before I did. She held odd jobs here and there and finally moved to Florida, where she returned to school in her mid-twenties and became a serious, committed student. Shortly before her graduation, though, she was murdered in her home, a loss I will never get over. I’ve written more about Zan here.
I lost touch with Katee, unfortunately, but I think of her every single time I hear merry-go-round music. I wonder if that music has the same effect on her. I hope so.
I doubted any of us had many positive feelings about men after that summer. Red had strung me along, toying with my emotions. James had spent the summer hanging around five nineteen-year-old co-eds when he should have been home with his wife. The father of Suzy’s baby proved himself a cad. Old men who were kind to their fathers could still be lechers. And men with power could forever alter the life of a young woman for a hundred bucks and an hour of their time. Thank goodness we had Neil and Buzz!
So here it is, July 20th, 2019. It’s so hard to believe that it’s been fifty years since I stood around a tiny TV set with my friends watching what seemed like a miracle. I’m still moved when I see a replay of that grainy image, whether it’s on my computer or our big screen TV. But it’s not just the miracle of that moment that gets me; it’s the memories from that summer and the bond between young women that I will never forget.