‘94: The Summer I Learned to Live By Listening to Sunset Boulevard

The summer between freshman and sophomore year of high school my parents decided to pull a cruel maneuver on me. They didn’t enroll me in Girl Scout summer camp or send me to collect rainbow trout samples on the White Mountain Apache Reservation with the science nerds back home. Nope, what they did was relocate the entire family to Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco–paradise to every basic bitch in Orange County, but for me, it might as well have been a death sentence.

My dad’s produce company had come up with the bizarre idea of introducing mangoes into the American fruit market. It was a ridiculous concept at the time. Most Americans had an easier time describing how a solid rocket booster on the Space Shuttle worked than how to properly cut a mango. That this was going to be an uphill task goes without saying. That I should be the vestal virgin martyr given to the gods so that Americans could learn to eat a fruit that people around the world could handle for millennia was a travesty.

Puberty…wait…let’s be honest…life had been my sardonic companion for some 14 years. Boys never looked at me. I’d grown up a bit of a giant, a foot taller than the nearest boy, and strong to boot. It never failed that at every birthday party, I was placed at the back of the line to hit the piñata. It didn’t matter that the kids in front of me were older. Or that they were more adept with gross motor skills. Or that they were vicious, wild animals. All that mattered was that I was a renowned towering menace to paper maché. So yeah, I beat those piñatas. I beat them like I was in the fighting for Olympic Gold and they were my main competition standing in the way.

But, finally in 1994, by the grace of God almighty herself, I was finally proportionate. I’d stopped growing. All my bits and bobs were in the right place. All right, boobs, I lacked. But there were definitely nipples. And below that, hardcore abs developed from years of ballet and gymnastics. No one but me ever saw them, Mexican girls don’t get naked in front of each other, but you have my word that they were there. The waist to hip ratio gave Greek mathematicians pause for having called the golden ratio golden. My hips and ass were truculent in comparison with American beauty standards of the early 90’s, but seriously ahead of the game. If not for my translucent freckled skin, I’d have been a hottie with a body. As it stood, I was awkward, but doable…in theory. And about to turn fifteen that June.

My parents, killjoys of killjoys, wanted to take me away from my tiny hamlet to some middle of nowhere beach resort town, filled with white, beefy, college boys on summer break who would repeatedly remind me of how I’d probably have to end up paying someone to take my virginity, like in an alternative 90’s sitcom/1950s beach romp mashup. Moondoggie/Jordan Catalono was going to be asking for bank too.

I made one request of my parents before we drove to the airport. I needed supplies. Christopher Pike horror paperbacks. And music. Now, I needed this music to show off how cool I was, just in case some moody Iowa kid on a graduation trip found me in the sand and asked me what I was listening to. I needed to be edgy. Mysterious. So I went to the mall and bought the soundtrack to “Reality Bites” and the symphonic orchestra version of “Sunset Boulevard,” with Patti Lupone as Norma Desmond. Looking back on it, I might not have thought that one through too well. It would be another two years before I’d be listening to Kristen Hersh and The Breeders and Ani Difranco. But for the moment, I was exceptionally clueless.

Equipped with my mankiller kit (basic music, children’s pulp fiction and a one piece bathing suit that never saw the light of day under a Hard Rock Café t-shirt), I acquiesced and relocated with my severely and decidedly uncool parents to Mexico. And lest I forget, the sisters aged 9 and 7. Names are unimportant. I wanna say they were named Juanita and Chencha? I could be wrong. But let’s go with that.

The flight from Tucson to Puerto Vallarta was auspicious in a way. The plane was filled with middle aged, salt and pepper haired women. All white. And all wearing the same pin. A little pink triangle. Where I come from in Nogales, we didn’t run into these folk so out in the open, so it made sense that my parents were clueless, but I knew what I was seeing. I was more sophisticated than my parents. They were rubes and I was cosmopolitan.

This was flight full of middle-aged lesbians on their way to Mexico. Cool urban lesbians who would flaunt their womanhood in front of macho Mexicans like my father. I sat down in my chair and buckled my seatbelt while my parents talked.

“Richard, do you think this is a tour group? Seems like a pretty big group of women.”

“If you can call them that,” my father answered my mother from across the aisle, a smirk on his face.

“Be quiet!” I admonished the both of them in whisper. “You’re embarrassing me.”

“Well what are they, smarty pants?” My father used his outdoor man voice.

“Lesbians,” I whispered, trying not to bring more attention to myself.

“Lebanese?” He shouted, looking around. “They don’t look Lebanese.”

I leaned passed my mother and looked him straight in the eye, running a finger across my throat to gesture the death I would impose on him for embarrassing me, and then slowly mouthed the word, “Lesbians.”

He squinted his eyes trying to read my lips, paused for a moment, and then shouted, “Lesbians?” At which point every woman on the plane woohoo’d.

Bring it on, Puerto Vallarta. Bring it on.

The summer of 1994, I learned a lot. Like how if you take off your brand new $85 Birkenstock sandals too close to the shore, they will inevitably disappear into the sea, and you will cry, and your mother will tell you that that is what happens to girls who are too dumb to value their things. I learned that college age American kids have a fetish for throwing things into hotel pools from great heights. Chairs, mattresses, vomit. That my parents liked to party as though Jimmy Buffet concerts were going out of style. That even the most spectacular jungles and seaside could become mundane after a while. And that it didn’t matter if all my bits and bobs were in the right place, no American boy would ever look at me.

I spent my days laying on the beach, reading Christopher Pike and blasting music out of my headphones. Or in the back of an open air Jeep, reading Christopher Pike and blasting music out of my headphones. Or hanging around mango sheds, reading Christopher Pike and fighting with my parents because I’d run out of batteries for my walkman. If the goal was to be a surly teenager, I not only met it, I mastered it. I was the surliest of surly teenagers.

Twelve days had passed and it was now June 13. The night before, O.J. Simpson had spent his night in Bel Air, sharpening his machete, allegedly. And I was shooting daggers out of my eyes. If I had to eat fresh papaya and drink freshly squeezed orange juice for one more breakfast, I told my parents I would be throwing myself off the ledge into the pool. Part of my anger was the fact that I felt so ignored. I wasn’t old enough to hang out with the adults, and the American kids on vacation couldn’t see me at all, and my sisters were five and seven years younger than me. My parents expected me to enjoy the experience enough that it would make up for the fact that I had no one to talk to at all. I might as well have not even existed, except for the occasional, “Turn that music down, you’re going to go deaf!” remark.

By June 15, everyone knew what O.J. had done, allegedly, and the news was so cataclysmic that if you rode down Puerto Vallarta’s main drag with your car windows down, you got an uninterrupted CNN feed as it emanated from every open air bar. O.J. was on everyone’s lips. O.J. was the only thing that mattered. O.J., O.J., O.J. It didn’t seem to matter that it was my birthday, and that I’d never turn 15 again.

Ok, yeah, it might have sounded a little melodramatic, but I’ve yet to meet the 15-year old girl who can’t make hay out of some minor injustice, and this was as good as any. I extrapolated the current tragedy…if no one saw me now, would they ever see me? I was pretty sure the answer was no.

After a big seafood lunch at a place called La Palapa, my parents dropped me off at the hotel that was now our summer home. They asked me to watch my sisters, but I didn’t care if either of those brats got swallowed by the sea. If I couldn’t be counted on to watch my pair of Birkenstocks, allegedly, how could my parents think I had enough sense to care for whole live human flesh?

I sat in my hotel room, alone, crying and listening to Patti Lupone as Norma Desmond. Only she knew how I felt. Banished, taken out before her prime, forgotten, abused, driven to madness. Ready to kil…

The phone rang, so I picked it up. “What?”

It was my mother, “Vene, come down, we’re having drinks and everyone from the company just got here from Nogales.”

“No. I don’t need to be surrounded by heathens. Especially not today!” I hung up the phone and threw myself on the bed, face down.

Two minutes passed and the phone rang again. “Vene, don’t be silly. Come down, the weather’s great!”

“Ha!” I mocked laughed. “The window is open up here. I can feel the weather. And it feels the same as it always does. Even on this…this…special day!”

I hung up again and slammed my face into my pillow, trying to summon the tears that Norma could any time Joe was about to leave. Even worse than my birthday being forgotten was that my sister’s birthday had been celebrated two days before. She was a child. Still cute. Still worth celebrating.

I realized that it was time to put away childish things. My youth was behind me. Mirth, behind me. Dreams, behind me. And then the phone rang for a third time.

“What…do…you…want?”

“Um, is this Vene?” An unknown voice. An American’s voice. A man’s voice.

“Yes, this is whom you are speaking to. May I please know the name of the person who is calling?” I was nothing if not formal.

“Oh, this is Josh. Me and my buddies saw you in the lobby and we asked your parents where you were.” They saw me? They noticed me? They asked for me? I smelled a rat.

“You and your buddies wouldn’t happen to be visiting from a neighboring leper colony, would you?”

“No, ma’am. We don’t play leper. We play rugby for University of Minnesota.” I held a hand over the receiver. I looked in the mirror next to the TV blasting CNN. I screamed and shimmied at the same time.

“Well, what is it you want then, Josh?” My Norma Desmond was spot on, people! Spot on!

“Well, we were hoping you might come down and have a drink with us.” Pause. Pause. Long Pause. “Vene?”

“I guess that would be fine. I just need to finish this chapter of my novel.”

“Um, ok. We’ll be here in the lobby. Can’t miss us. Giant, grain fed Lutheran boys.”

“Thank you, Josh. I’ll be down shortly.”

After a mandatory running around the bedroom/dancing/flapping my arms, I rummaged through my closet and found the perfect dress…the one to rule them all. It was strapless and floor length, burgundy with just enough stretch at the abdomen to hold itself up. I didn’t bother with a bra because, well, there were no boobs to hold up. But I curled my hair and put half of it back with a flower. I practiced my grand entrance in the mirror. A stone cold stare that Vivien Leigh perfected as Scarlett entering Melanie’s party. When I felt ready, I headed down 15 flights in the elevator. As the elevator rang and the doors opened, I told myself, “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille.”

There they were, just as promised. Fifteen grain fed, Lutheran, Midwestern boys. They rushed me, picked me up over their shoulders and carried me out to the patio overlooking the pool. All while singing happy birthday. Waiting for me on the patio were my parents, my father’s business associates and families, and my bratty sisters. And a giant cake with sparklers on top. I’m not gonna lie. My Norma Desmond failed me.

The boys put me down and then kissed me each on the cheek, one by one. Some went twice. Now this is the point in the American teen rom-com where the icy but fragile girl softens and runs to her parents and cries and all is well. But I had my pride. So instead, I greeted the new guests as though they were my adoring fans and allowed them to kiss my hands as they offered salutations.

Now you may be wondering who these boys were, exactly, and why my parents would be so casual about allowing them to manhandle me as such. Turns out my dad found the guys in the pool. And he offered them a couple rounds of beer if they’d wish me a happy birthday. It had taken so long for me to come downstairs that they went from beer to tequila and had gotten a bit blotto, allegedly.

The festivities did not end there. My father made reservations at a Casablanca themed restaurant in town. Big fans circulated on the ceiling. Waiters in white tuxes carried trays above their heads. And rattan chairs took up grand spaces in rooms filled with piano music played by a black pianist. Fortunately, there were no Nazis asking for tunes from “ze Fazzerland.”

My dinner companions were my parents and sisters, the cardboard company rep and his wife–a youngish couple from Utah, my dad’s business partner and his wife, and their three teenage sons.

The maitre d pointed out our table as waiters stood behind each woman and girl to pull out their seats and push them back under. I, as the guest of honor, was pointed to the chair at the head of the table. The chair was giant and rattan and a little intimidating. But in Norma Desmond regal form, I stood in front of the chair. The waiter pushed it under me, and I felt it catch on the hem of my dress—my strapless dress that was held up by nothing but elastic. Before I could stop him, he pushed the chair all the way in and I was sitting completely topless in front of my guests.

I bolted up and freed the hem from the chair. I covered my nipples, but the night was lost for me. I had to sit at the head of that table in that grand restaurant with my head in my hands, my cheeks burning with shame, just wondering who had caught a glimpse of my chest. I didn’t eat. I didn’t drink. And I didn’t toast. Norma Desmond would have been very disappointed with me.

On the way back to the hotel my parents told me I needed to loosen up. They hadn’t seen. And I didn’t have the guts to tell them. Had I told them, they would have told everyone they ever ran into for the rest of time and turned my humiliation into a cocktail party story. It was just easier to let them think I was surly.

I came home after that summer with a head full of braids and a bit of a tan. I knew all the words to Sunset Boulevard by heart. And I’d survived the most embarrassing thing I could possibly have imagined. Things seemed less scary after overcoming loneliness and being surprised by people I thought were the most predictable losers in my life. I’d gotten out of Nogales, and come back a bit wiser and a bit more mature, allegedly.

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