When my mom made a reservation for me with the airport limo service I think she was expecting me to be shuttled to Portsmouth in a shared Econoline. I walked out of the gate at Logan airport to find a liveried chauffeur holding a sign with my name on it.
I had already been negotiating an image problem. I’d been given an acoustic guitar from my dad as a high school graduation present. I was going to spend the summer working on a small, rustic island off the coast of New Hampshire where there would be numerous candidates for tutelage on the instrument. Some of them were likely to be cute. And I did want to learn to play it. But I thought of myself more as Madonna than an Indigo Girl. Carrying the guitar made me look like a hippie. Showing up to the ferry dock in a black stretch limousine would at least mitigate my looking like a vegetarian.
It was June of 1989. I was seventeen years old.
My job was going to be making beds and cleaning toilets for a conference center housed in an erstwhile and 19th century resort hotel, on an island so small that one must round it 6 times in order to run a 5k. It is owned and operated by the Unitarian Church, a community within which I was raised, a religion that promotes casual dress in a fight against elitism.
On this island showers are rationed to two per week if the rain is plentiful enough to fill the cistern. The young people who are hired for the summer to maintain the island and serve the guests are neither employed for their chic wardrobes nor their grooming. On the day the kids show up to take the ferry to their summer jobs, having just left their high schools and colleges, the dock is filled with unshaven youth who maintain the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. A dignity manifest in old Volvo station wagons and battered convertible Saabs.
My chauffeur opened my door to let me out before fetching my guitar from the trunk. I was wearing wide-leg, hand-dyed, suspender pants made by the independent label, Ercoli, out of Philadelphia. I was wearing steel-toed Doc Martens.
Jake and I had broken up before the summer after high school, knowing that a long-distance relationship at age seventeen was stupid. I enjoyed my new independence. I enjoyed dance parties and cigarettes and beer. I enjoyed having buddies and inside jokes. I enjoyed the abundance of physical affection. Everyone was always entwined in some peculiar combination of the familial and the flirtatious, spooning on the line between platonic and impassioned like, I think, you can only respectfully do as a teenager, though I have adult friends who disagree.
Lucas was a blonde eighteen year-old who had grown up in Paris. An enfant terrible in this inclusive setting, he garnered some disdain for his Parisian arrogance and garnered some more for not seeming to give a shit. We were the only two kids stomping around the island in Perfecto jackets (mine was really Wilson’s Leather and not Schott and was purchased at the Oxford Valley Mall in a size 42 so that it would look like I was wearing a boyfriend’s).
Lucas worked in the dining room, one of the crew of waitrae, a gender-neutral moniker coined by the Unitarians, who are casual about dress but not about equality. He was always spinning trays and strutting the hall and I remember that the sass in his voice cut through the more humble clatter, making its way out onto the front porch where I could often discern it on my evening rounds.
I’d begun to listen for it. Lucas’s attentions were on me after his fiery relationship with another bilingual redhead from the previous summer had cooled (though we’d later learn through tears and her bulwark of girlfriends that she was still hot for him). I was feeling that tingle of mutual admiration and luxuriating in the confidence it brings.
I love that day when the unconsummated flirting has the gravity of downhill running. That day that you can feel the inevitability of it ending in a kiss and it’s so hard to savor the ease, you can’t help but hasten the finish.
Every Wednesday night was Lobster Night. Guests were served whole crustaceans and the tables had centerpieces of stainless steel bowls to collect their spent shells. On these evenings the housekeeping staff helped the waitrae. We walked the dining room aisle with empty 5-gallon paint buckets and collected the fragrant puckey. We carried the filled pails out onto the rocks and tossed the carcasses back into the ocean, flailing a free arm to ward off hovering seagulls hungry to pick through the detritus and poop it back out onto our heads.
Wednesday nights had become a favorite because I got to work with Lucas. We’d trade nametags and exchange French idioms. After the work was over and we were all covered in sweaty salt and fishy smells, once the tables were bleached and the dishes sent to the dish machine, waitrae and housekeeping ran down the grand front stairs of the hotel en masse, down the gracious front lawn, and down the long, stone pier, and jumped into the cold water, fully clothed. The Waitrae Plunge.
It was glorious, feeling the air after the sweltering kitchen, the running after all the walking and standing, the camaraderie of the idiosyncrasy, the gleeful self-consciousness of the adult guests watching.
I’d gotten really into lingerie as a teenager and my trove of it, brought to the island, was another wardrobe anomaly. Our Wednesday night uniform was a white button-down over a white t-shirt with black trousers. Some collared shirts were ripped off during the sprint as another expression of freedom. We were therefore soon left dripping and exposed and I knew in that moment my clearly visible white lace Christian Dior balconette bra sealed the evening’s devotion from a French-American towheaded teenager.
We were paid $9.50 a day, plus room and board. Our money went into an account from which we were able to draw funds as petty cash at the front desk. We had tabs at the snack bar and gift shop. At the end of the summer we were given a check with the balance of our earnings. I left the island with $3.98. I’d spent my whole salary buying champagne and additional lacy panties on the one day-off we received a week. I won the superlative of Highest Snack Bar Bill of the summer.
I believe this Wednesday night I’d hosted one of my elitist, black-tie champagne parties. After two years of Quaker school and now a Unitarian summer, I was frankly tired of comprehensive encouragement. The philosophy had robbed me of roles in school plays and solos in choir concerts, I thought, for which I was obviously more qualified than those who won them. I hope that I was kind to people, to all the people that summer, but I craved some time on the tiny island where I got to choose my clique and bar interlopers.
My small party ended up far out on the rocks overlooking the ocean, Lucas and I entangled under and drunkenly shouting at la belle et la grosse lune! La Super Lune! We had rolled off the line between the familial and flirtatious and landed squarely in the sexy territories. We soon landed in his bottom bunk, after his roommate sportingly vacated the room.
It was the first time I’d had sex with another person in the three years I’d been having sex. For all my confidence and precocious panties, a combination of panic and Freixenet paralyzed me and for all our energy and chemistry, I just lay there, a willing but lethargic lover. Lucas encouraged me sweetly but I remained passive.
Weeks later when Lucas turned his affection to a guest I remembered this languorous moment with burning shame, like I’d not put my petty cash where my mouth was. It really was a momentary lapse but it shook my pluck and tipped the scales of confidence whose balance had made our game so much fun to begin with. I saw it in real time go askew and my desperation to right it as quickly as possible only hastened his lift and my density.
The ease of the summer was lost.
This would prove to be the first of many times that I was unable to gracefully let go of something I barely held onto to start, the first of many times I’d demonstrate my tenacity. It was a blip for him, but I carried it to college, thinking that Bennington might be alright after all, since he was going to UVM. I’m sure I talked of him as my boyfriend when I got there, thinking that I could make it true, given some time.
I was seventeen. Three weeks of my life were a much larger percentage of it than they are now. They were enough to make a boyfriend. At least in my head.
Lucas and I ended up living in London at the same time fifteen years later. I would meet him and his wife for drinks on occasion and every time I did she would get upset and maintain that I was still in love with him. No barstool deliberations could persuade her how preposterous the idea was. Firstly, Lucas was way too much for me to handle, too extroverted, too much a salesman. Secondly, I, doubtless, had some other idée fixe occupying my attention. And thirdly, I was never in love with him. It was a summer romance that I tried to muscle into fall.
When that didn’t work I moved to Florida and gave up seasons altogether.