I’ve never considered myself to be well-versed in the language of travel. I can remember the finer details, but they only leave a faint impression. For me, the experience is defined by my emotions, not the other way around. However, looking back on my childhood, I treated vacations as a semi-conscious experience, enjoyed in the moment and then mostly forgotten, with nothing but the feeling to be savored. The goal was to numb my mind as a means of escapism. And in 2014, my family desperately needed an escape.
Near the end of May, my mom was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. She wouldn’t have her first surgery until July and until then we wouldn’t know whether or not she needed chemotherapy (we would later find out she didn’t). Suddenly normality had an end date. In the meantime, we continued on with a sense of caution, trying not to dwell on the worst possible outcome.
Myrtle Beach, S.C., was poised as our temporary escape. We had spent many weeks in the summer by the different lakes of Northern Michigan, but never had we stayed by the ocean. My sister and I were excited; our dad was afraid. We weren’t very good swimmers and shark sightings were common. But we were going with family friends who’d frequented the area. We would be safe and, most importantly, have time as a normal family before the inevitable.
Not everything could be frozen in time. I was having my own development; I was beginning to grow into a woman. I had been getting periods for a few months now, I got my first bottle of tinted moisturizer, I graduated to bras from PINK. I was growing aware of my own sexuality, but I was still a child and I wanted to stay that way. It was a delusion, thinking I could maintain control.
Myrtle Beach had a pulse unlike anywhere I’d ever been. Vacations for us were usually spent in the isolation of a cottage or private resort. I’d never seen such a wide range of experiences all occurring within a few feet of each other: strolling families with tiny children, college-aged friends stumbling drunk, adults struggling with addiction and homelessness. Of them all, I was most oblivious to the attitudes of young adults, mostly the men, but I could feel their electric energy as they cruised down the road next to the hotel. It both scared and excited me.
The hotel itself was bare, but we didn’t mind. We spent most of our time by the ocean and hotel pools. The beach itself was expectedly remarkable. The saltwater stung my eyes, but I kept going back in until I could barely see and my skin burned. We drank non-alcoholic piña coladas and pretended they were real. Mom and Dad floated with us down a circular lazy river, again and again for hours.
Across the road, a green-painted cafe with soft booths and air conditioning balanced out the excitement of the beach. Smiles and soft South Carolina drawls greeted us when we entered. We made conversation with the waiters and other customers, where we were from, where we were going and what grits are exactly.
It was sweet. It was almost real, my mind subdued at last. It was the road around the hotel that awoke me from my dreamlike haze.
Night or broad daylight, it made no difference. We’d be walking between our hotel and our friends’, tankinis on and towels draped around our shoulders.
Cars honking as they whizz by.
Who are they honking at?
Male passengers lean out of the car.
Are they looking at us?
Who are they yelling at?
“Dance for us!”
“Don’t wear your bathing suits near here anymore,” warned our parents as they herded us inside. It happened anyway, every day, multiple times a day.
I had never been sexually harassed before. I didn’t even know what those words meant. But I felt them and I was embarrassed and confused. Is it wrong to be wearing this swimsuit in public? Didn’t they notice that our parents were right next to us? Didn’t they know we were children, just 12 and 14 years old? I had so many questions, some of which still I don’t know the answers to and probably never will.
Beneath my discomfort, a sense of pride blossomed. I knew their words were not motivated by kindness, yet I felt almost complimented. I wondered if those reactions meant I was pretty. Insecurity inspired my thoughts; as a child just starting puberty, I relied on others for confidence. But as I gained awareness of myself and the realities facing me, the pride slowly melted away, leaving nothing but shame.
Though lacking the vocabulary to describe it accurately, during that trip I realized the pervasiveness of anonymity in public spaces; the sound moves quickly and the source escapes into the crowd of people or into the air with a speeding bike or car. You may never see their face, but you’ve been violated.
It would be nonsensical to blame Myrtle Beach as an entity or even as an idea. Its quick and loose atmosphere doesn’t cause catcalling, rather people abuse those qualities. I don’t know exactly why, maybe they forget their conscience in the neon lights and warm air. Feeling invincible, they make others feel powerless.
My hesitation in public spaces is not a result of this one vacation, but it was the catalyst. I could never go back to the limbo, teetering between childhood and puberty. It was like the universe was telling me, “you’re on your way to womanhood.” With that, my female body would forever be treated as a part of the public space. I can’t go about lackadaisically. I can have fun, but only as far as my sex will allow me.
Elizabeth Wolfe is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.