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This past summer, in Biarritz, on the Atlantic coast of France, I was staying with a local family and their 16 year old daughter. The daughter’s name was Théa, and as we spent the lazy days of July together, she became my good friend. When we weren’t exploring the small Basque town, we were at the beach. Port Vieux, La Côte, La Grande Plage, these were the beaches that appeared on a little map Théa had given to me. I became familiar with these shores and loved our days spent there; the atmosphere was happy and comfortable.
Yet there was one stretch of sand that we had not visited; located further north than the other beaches, this foreign turf, marked by a red bullseye on my map, was our next destination.
The name of the beach was Milady.
One day, Théa decided that we were to go to Milady, because after all, her Californian accomplice should and would visit every beach in Biarritz like a true touriste. At high noon, we walked through the cobbled town, wearing gauzy sundresses, the sun beating down on our bare backs. We were scheduled to meet two of Théa’s friends at Milady; their names were Margot and Marine; Margot had a new boyfriend she was dying to tell Théa about. It took us about twenty minutes to walk from town to Milady –– I was eager to jump in the ocean, tan, and read my book on the warm sand. When we finally reached the steps leading down to the beach, I squinted against the ocean and my eyes adjusted upon Milady.
All about the beach, topless tan fat ladies speckled the sand like roasting sausage patties. This was no new surprise to me; nudity is the norm in France. However at Milady, bare buttocks and breasts were everywhere. Old and sagging like brown slugs, the women glob together on folding chairs to spread meaty charcuterie gossip. If the shade starts to crawl over their doughy bodies, they quickly move their chairs to a sunnier spot, squabbling and re-greasing themselves. It’s as though oiling-up and bronzing till sunset has become their sole duty in life.
I turned my attention away from the women and took a good look at the ocean. It was an unhealthy turquoise color, more green than blue, and was saturated with people. The waves were not waves of water but waves of humans –– screaming children, jolly old men, and pasty tourists bobbing like apples in the current. On the beach, flattened bodies caked in salt were frying to a lobster-red. You could tell who was foreign and who was a native just by the level of sunburn; Germans were the most susceptible. Nordics too.
Théa and I walked down the steps to the beach. Looking for an available plot of sand to plop down on, I felt eyes on me. I looked around, scanning the hordes of tanned faces until I spotted two men on the beach staring at us. They were Italian, maybe 35 or 40 years old, and they were pointing greasy fingers at us. What were they saying? I asked Théa, who spoke a little Italian. “Oh, it doesn’t matter,” she replied, casually, as if this happened to her all the time.
Vulnerable to their lusty gaze, I sat timidly on my blanket. The two older men’s eyes hung on Théa and me, their mouths calling out to us in dark Italian slang. I wanted to crawl into my sundress, to bury my head in the sand, to dive in the ocean. Instead, I took out my book and started reading.
Where are you hiding, Dolores Haze?
Why are you hiding, darling?
(I Talk in a daze, I walk in a maze
I cannot get out, said the starling).
Nabokov: I was your Lolita being gazed upon by Humbert Humberts, a nymphet being chased by older men. The words mixed uncomfortably in my mind, crashing and blending with the French ambience of the beach.
Lolita, light of my life, feu de mes reins. Mon péché, mon âme. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip down the palate to tap, à trois, contre les dents. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Suddenly I heard a chirpy “Salut!” I put my book down and looked up. There were Margot and Marine, two fellow nymphets. We exchanged hellos and kisses and ça vas and mercis and whatnots. Théa began to speak in rapid French with her friends, taking breaks to explain to me things I did not understand. Margot thought my accent was very cute, and Marine tried to speak some English with me.
The hot sun glared in the turquoise sky. I wish I had brought my glasses. Our group made lighthearted conversation about boys and kissing and bathing suits, squinting painfully at one another and laughing nervously. Margot took out a cigarette. Marine produced a lighter. Margot and Marine; what were their secrets?
I looked back at the Italian men. I could sense their eyes on my back, on my hair, on my waist. Anxiously, I began reading Chapter 5.
I was consumed by a hell furnace of localized lust for every passing nymphet . . .
“Would you like going for a swim?” asked Marine. “Oui!” I responded, although the water did not look too appealing. Margaux stayed on the beach to guard our belongings from thieves while Théa, Margot and I went down into the water. You had to watch out for thieves, “voleurs,” in Biarrtiz. If you went for a swim and came back up 5 minutes later, your things would be gone. A general sense of mistrust and unease hovered in the hot briny air. I was tense. There was a tart taste in my mouth from a previously consumed cherry gelato. My hands were still sticky from the dessert.
We proceeded down into the waves, flowing with the soup of human bodies. Théa and Margot wanted to swim out far, so I followed them, narrowly avoiding body surfers and boogie boarders and nude old women. The Atlantic is very different from the Pacific –– the current is stronger, the smell is fishier, and the water is saltier. It is so salty that you are caked in a flaky white film from head to toe when you get out –– you can lick it off of your arms.
We swam out very far, where the big waves weren’t crashing. I began to feel my skin burning and the salt pinching my face. Residue from last night’s storm floated on the surface. I looked at the mountains and the sky, at the villas on the hill and the umbrellas on the beach. The Italian men had gone.
One summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea.
I swam back.