Pre-teen spring break on Hilton Head Island. My mother had ordered me a few swimsuits via Victoria's Secret; a bikini that was cut too high for my voluptuous thighs and two, one-piece suits that were equal misfits for my too-much-too soon body. But I convinced myself I looked fly in these revealing Lycra ditties. I had to. My sometimes best friend was gonna be on this trip and she was one of those gorgeous sticks with floor-length hair that held perfect highlights achieved through the old lemon juice and sunlight trick. She wore Victoria's Secret bikinis too. She didn't overflow out of them like I did. But my overflow had her beat in the breast department, so that pretty much made us even.
This girl and I had much in common. We both loved boys (and men), the Grateful Dead, jewelery–dolphin-shaped rings and hemp necklaces with clay beads–drinking, smoking, pretending we did drugs, and lying to seem older. We were two peas in a pod on the numerous disfunctional-family vacations we shared. But Hilton Head Island sticks out from the rest of these trips for three reasons: we smoked a lot of cigarettes, I shaved my legs for the first time, and as the highlight, I purchased a tie-dyed SPRING BREAK HILTON HEAD t-shirt. It featured Janis Jopin, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia and Jim Morrison all drawn together in a swirl. I wore that shirt until my mother had to turn it into a rag for dusting all the cherrywood furniture that she got after her divorce. You never forget a shirt like that.
We hadn't yet figured out how to pass as 18; 17 was the highest we had achieved. So we needed to figure out how to obtain cigs. After all, we were “addicted”, as we had confided to each other at the airport (“I need a cigarette so bad! I am totally addicted. -Tell me about it! I am seriously an addict.”) Thankfully we nailed the cigarette problem on the first day of the trip, after wandering into a souvenir shop and spotting single cigarettes encased in tiny glass tubes, a magnet adhered to the back of each, and with thick red writing that stated, “In Case of Emergency: BREAK GLASS”. A cheap-o souvenir for your chain-smoking Aunt's fridge back home. We bought tons of these at every souvenir shop up and down and off the beach. I don't think any cashier ever believed we would actually break the glass and smoke them. We did. They tasted like ancient pencil shavings and we loved it even as we gagged. Why didn't we just bum smokes from the millions of wasted college kids stumbling about? We needed our own supply, of course. Those loosies were one of the tools that allowed us to become the characters we were attempting to portray, essentially heavy-drinking, chain-smoking, filthy-mouthed sex fiends. With a bit of hippie mixed in. These types of women (from what we knew) always had their own smokes in their faded hackeysac, cloth purses. A better question to ask might be why they put real cigarettes inside those silly glass tubes?
With the ciggy problem fixed, life was good. We had two weeks ahead of us, no school and a whole beachfront to use as our personal stage. Midway through the first week, I realized I needed to shave my legs. A few months previously, a school friend took pity on me and came over, put NAIR on my legs and sent me on my womanly way. She said it would be easier to shave after having started off with NAIR. She was a smart, hairy Italian and I am guessing her mom had taught her this trick. I hadn't actually shaved after the initial NAIR consultation, probably due to laziness.
I was nervous about having to shave now, yet sure I could handle it. I borrowed my mom's yellow BIC and got in the tub, soaped up a stem and went at it. A few strokes were executed successfully and then I drew a deep sharp ssslice up my leg. It took a second for the blood to reach the surface and ribbon out through the water. I was reeling from the sound the cut made. It took me a few heartbeats to gather myself, get out of the tub and apply numerous wads of stiff, grey hotel toilet paper to my wound. I waited while applying pressure, then pulled the paper back to see a fresh bloodstream flow up. I quickly covered it up again.
My mom didn't want me shaving and she would know if I showed her the cut. But I didn't want to bleed to death and at the time, that felt like a possibility. I summoned up the courage and a “convincing” cover story, and went for help. I pulled the toilet paper away and showed her, all the while rattling on about how I slipped and fell on her razor, which was sitting on the side of the tub and it cut me and…and I knew to quit while I was ahead.
She didn't buy my tale. She assessed that I didn't need stiches, got the bleeding to stop and fixed me up with gauze and bandaids. Next, she delivered a typical speech: “…Now I don't want you shaving. You are too young and trust me, you want to wait. Once you start shaving, you are shaving forever. The hair comes back thicker and darker and you have to shave more and more to keep up with it. Stay a kid a bit longer, wouldya?”
This struck me as backwards. I was old enough to wear a hi-cut bikini from Victoria's Secret with an underwire top to support my B-cup breasts, but I couldn't shave my legs? I smoked 5 souvenir cigarettes a day, wore foundation, concealer, liquid liner, mascara, lip liner and lipstick, owned at least 3 Grateful Dead albums on CD, had started my period and perfected placing the maxi pad just so in order to never stain my underwear…but I couldn't shave my legs?
Standing in the Guggenheim, looking at that one photograph brought all these memories back to me. Just one life-sized photograph of a girl in an orange bikini forced me to instantly relive a part of my childhood that I had buried so deeply it had effectively disappeared.
Art can leave you defenseless, and maybe that would be my definition of “good Art”. But definitions ain't my style. I simply feel that Art on its best days acts as a looking glass, a catalyst, a story teller, a shovel, a spotlight…and not just something groovy to look at, and then pass by with a shrug. Art holds you up, arrests your attention, and says, hey, hang on a sec, have you thought about this?