I took my girls to the park the other day. It was a little cold – barely 70 degrees. Two teenage girls walked by me in bikinis, headed down to the nearby beach, not a goosebump on their tanned, toned flesh. I looked down at myself. I was wearing a cardigan and orthopedic flip flops. How are they not freezing their unwrinkled asses off? I thought. Silly kids.
I shook my head and turned back to my book. Not more than a minute later, a handful of shirtless teenage boys walked by. Huh, that’s weird. Why are all these kids half-naked?
Then, liked greased lightning, it struck me….the shirtless boys were following the bikini-clad girls. Duh, Nancy Drew. It’s summertime, and that means summer romances are in full bloom. Everybody, I mean, everybody’s in love.
I remember my first taste of summer love. It happened when I was 13 years old. His name was Johnny. He was a dancer at a resort in the Catskills, and he was AMAZING! It all started because he had this friend, Penny, who got knocked up by Robbie the creep and she needed an abortion….wait, wait, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. I should back up a bit, put things in context for you….
It was the summer of 1988, when nobody called me “baby” and it definitely occurred to me to mind.
I hadn’t had a real boyfriend yet. Just a long list of celebrity crushes which included the likes of Bo Duke, Gopher from “The Love Boat,” Gilbert Blythe from PBS’s “Anne of Green Gables” (god rest his hunky soul) and Joey McIntyre. The list was about to get obliterated, though, because 1988 was the summer I saw “Dirty Dancing” for the first time, and it blew my Gilbert-Blythe-lovin’ mind.
Thirteen is a bad age for a lot of people, but especially for me. I was dorky in the most tragic way possible. I still played with Barbies. I read a lot of books. I once used a beige eyeshadow in place of foundation because I thought they were the same thing and then went to a babysitting gig that way. I carried a watermelon through my adolescence.
All I wanted was for a boy to like me. I thought if that happened, then that would mean I was normal and everything would be fine. I just didn’t have a clue how to make it happen. Then I saw Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey dancing on a log together and somehow felt they could help me.
I’m not even sure why exactly. On the surface, there wasn’t a lot I could relate to. I had never been to a resort. I had never asked my dad for money to help a dancer I just met get an abortion. I couldn’t even stay out past 9 p.m.
But Baby and I did have a few things in common – the awkward hair; the awkward conversations with guys; the pretty, popular older sister. I was tired of being me, just like Baby was. I wanted something exciting to happen. I wanted to feel like an adult. (I also wanted to know about sex, and this movie was the closest I was going to get to figuring that out short of watching porn. “Basic Instinct” hadn’t come out yet.)
Baby gave me hope. And if she could bag a hunk like Johnny, then I was her disciple. I got a copy of the movie for Christmas and watched it every day like it was an afternoon special. I lived and breathed the gospel according to Frances Houseman.
I figured the first step was to improve my look. Somehow I got it in my head that if I looked more like Baby, all my boy problems would be solved. (It didn’t occur to me that the whole still-playing-with-Barbies thing might have had something to do with it.) So I cut my jeans into shorts, bought knock-off Keds, and begged for a perm. My mom would only let me get one if it was an Ogilvy home perm, just like the ones she had been giving to my grandmother in our kitchen every six to eight months. What teen girl wouldn’t love to have her not-fully-grown-out mullet permed to look just like her grandmother? The effect was less Jennifer Grey and more Rosie O’Donnell.
Needless to say, it didn’t work. I had no choice but to spend my summer nights watching Baby and Johnny dry hump all over the Catskills. When I got a little tired of that, I would act out alternative Baby/Johnny story lines with my Barbies. Sometimes Johnny would go to the Peace Corps with Baby. Other times she would stay at Kellerman’s with him and they would teach dancing lessons together. Either way, it didn’t matter, because they had sex and therefore were in love, and they would stay that way for the rest of their lives. Amen.
That’s what’s weird about this now. As an adult, I feel like I totally missed the whole point of the movie. I didn’t get that it was just a summer fling. I honestly thought Baby and Johnny ended up together, raising a bunch of curly-haired, spaghetti-armed children.
I didn’t realize until recently that Baby and Johnny never even said “I love you” to each other. I had to go back and think through the dialogue in my head (which wasn’t hard since I spent nearly three years committing the film to memory), but it’s not there. How and why did I miss it?
Because all I knew about sex at that age was that you only do it with someone you are in love with and are preferably engaged/married to. That’s it. Ever. It didn’t occur to me that people might have sex for other reasons. That’s because 13-year-olds don’t know shit about adult relationships.
Here’s another example of my naivete. Around this same time I saw the movie “Great Balls of Fire” and thought it was totally reasonable for Jerry Lee Lewis to want to marry his 13-year-old cousin. Thank god the internet hadn’t been invented yet, or I might have wound up with one of those “Dateline” predators.
My own daughter will turn 13 next month. I considered watching “Dirty Dancing’ with her. I haven’t seen the movie in almost two decades. But I don’t think I will. Not because I have a problem with the whole coming-of-age-burgeoning-sexuality thing. I just don’t think she will be interested. Unlike me at that age, she’s happy with who she is and isn’t in a hurry to grow up. And I’m not in any rush to change that.
Also, if I watch the movie now, I won’t be able to watch it the same way. Part of me still wants to believe Baby and Johnny made it after all. I like that ending better.