Summers, my dad took his two weeks’ vacation from the bank and drove our family southeast through corn and tobacco fields to Emerald Isle, North Carolina. We stayed on the sound-side of the island, in a small cottage on stilts, and each morning we hauled our chairs, coolers, and my mom’s heavy beach bag through a vacant lot, spiked with sandspurs, to the ocean. While dad unfolded our chairs and cracked open his day’s first beer, mom rummaged through her bag and passed out library books she’d picked for the family. I remember entire vacations spent reading, moving only with the rolling tide, and watching my dad’s pale banker’s body bake red until skin peeled from his shoulders like worn pages.
One summer, mom handed me a copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I was wrong for this book in every way, namely because I was a boy and too young. I’m almost certain it was the summer of 1986 because I have a clear memory of taking chapter breaks to watch Ivan Lendl lose straight sets to Boris Becker in the finals of Wimbledon. I was nine-years-old, and a huge fan of Lendl.
It didn’t take long for my mother to realize she’d made a mistake. I quizzed her over fried seafood platters about training bras, periods, and belted sanitary napkins. I pointed out girls on the beach who I considered “developed” and chanted under my breath at the flat-chested, “She must—she must—she must increase her bust!” It all became too much for mom when she caught me in the bedroom embracing and kissing my pillow just like Margaret and Nancy Wheeler. She took the book away before I could finish it and become the fifth Pre-Teen Sensation.
Looking back, I don’t know what I got from reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I didn’t understand all of it. I don’t mean just the parts about being a sixth-grade girl. I couldn’t follow what it meant to identify as Christian or Jewish. All I knew about religion was that I was Episcopalian and it was important to go to church on Easter. I wish I remembered the book better (I never did finish it) and that I could say it shaped my understanding of women. It didn’t. I will say that it made an impression. It taught me long before I’d even thought about girls that they were something to fear or at the very least be nervous about.
I’ve often wondered if mom had an educational motive that summer, an invitation to ask questions about sex in the guise of a young adult novel. I sure as hell hope not. She is the same woman, after all, who a few vacations later handed me Gerald’s Game by Stephen King, a story about bondage gone gruesomely wrong. I’d like to think that she never read either book.