When I hear the word costume, I think of a pink dress I bought the summer of 1993, when I was eleven, going on twelve. Back then I still considered perfect the only adjective suitable for something I really loved, and I loved this perfect dress. It was cotton and secondhand, with a loose empire waist like the baby-doll dresses all the models were wearing in Sassy magazine. Yellow flowers bloomed across it, as wild and insolent as the honeysuckle that lined the driveway leading up to the rental house my family occupied for a week that summer. Behind the honeysuckle were dark green patches of poison ivy, and beyond the ivy, a grove of trees. When I hear the word costume, I think first of that perfect dress, then the honeysuckle, and the constant threat of poison ivy’s dreadful itch. Then everything else surges back: family secrets and summer vacation; burgeoning lust, excitement, shame. The backdrop is a bucolic Martha’s Vineyard, by way of New Jersey, and if the map unfolds, past the ocean where my family goes swimming, a series of dashes arrow in on the war in Yugoslavia.
After two years of marriage, my mother and stepfather, Dan, had decided it was time for their combined seven children, who’d spent previous holiday gatherings circling each other around the buffet table with the polite wariness of old dogs, to coalesce into some semblance of a united family. My mother and Dan rented a three-bedroom house on Martha’s Vineyard for the first week of August. Perhaps the idea was physical proximity would inspire closeness. Or, it was all they could afford.
Despite the high hopes my mother and stepfather had for our new family, I still called my four older siblings my “real” brother and sisters, and my real brother and sisters were all dismayed by the close sleeping arrangements. John, the oldest, was twenty-eight. He was the smart one, a poet, who lived in Austin at the time. Mary, nearly twenty-six, was the oldest girl. John affectionately referred to Mary as the “weird one.” She, like Marilyn from “The Munsters,” was weird because she was normal: a blonde, blue-eyed aberration among our olive-skinned set, who was employed as a grammar school art teacher, and did not smoke and rarely drank. That summer Mary was engaged to her high school sweetheart. Planning their wedding left no time for the trip up to Martha’s Vineyard, or so she said.
Patty, twenty-four, and Kathy, twenty-two, were both thin and beautiful and had boyfriends. They did not want to abandon their boyfriends for an entire week, and I overheard them complaining: why must we leave our mother’s big house, located just one block from the beach, drive six hours north, endure an hour-long ferry ride, and pack ourselves into a three-bedroom house located smack in the middle of a dry town?
“What’s a dry town?” I asked.
“No liquor stores,” they shuddered.
Dan’s children, Scott and Julie, were seventeen and nineteen respectively. Like my stepfather, Scott and Julie were short and near-sighted. I felt neutrally toward Scott and Julie, as accepting of their presence as I was of the inevitable vegetable my mother heaped beside her special breaded chicken on my dinner plate, but I didn’t know any different.
My mother let me bring along a girlfriend named Ann. Ann made an ideal traveling companion. She was quiet, with shiny hair I envied, thick glasses I did not, and was the only girl among my school friends who never made fun of the combat boots, hand-me-downs from Kathy, that I wore nearly every day.
Ann was not our only extra guest. Kathy invited her boyfriend, Ford, who spent the trip wearing baggy swim trunks decorated with Campbell’s soup cans. I didn’t know about Andy Warhol yet, and considered the shorts an utter monstrosity.
My brother John brought along his friend Nadija.
Nadija was a last minute addition. He was a friend of John’s from Austin, where John was a graduate student and Nadija, a teacher. He and my brother had spent June and July at my mother’s house in New Jersey “on sabbatical.” How delicious the phrase sounded on my tongue! How much more auspicious than my own “summer break.” My mother had offered Nadija my bedroom, shuffling me up to the attic.
Nadija was thirty-one, three years older than my brother, and published. That summer, before we left for Martha’s Vineyard, Nadija had held court on mothers’s front porch, talking poetry and semantics and girls, my brother impressed and red-faced, my sisters arguing, self-consciously flirtatious, between themselves.
At midnight on August 1st, my mother, Dan, Ann and I departed for “the Vineyard,” as we’d already started calling it—anticipation breeds familiarity, however undeserved. Our suitcases went in the trunk and a stinky red cooler was wedged between Ann and me in the backseat. I balanced my boom box on top of the cooler, and Ann and I sandwiched it with pillows as we tucked in for the overnight drive. We arrived just in time to catch the first ferry from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven.
Nadija had a flight booked to Croatia for the next day. He planned to spend that August as he’d spend the past several Augusts, visiting his family. But the night before he was to leave, Nadija received a phone call. The fighting had increased, his parents forced to relocate, and his younger brother, avoiding the draft, had gone into hiding. No one knew where the younger brother was. So the next morning, Nadija, grief-stricken and without a place to go, drove with my brother and two sisters to Martha’s Vineyard.
I felt sad for Nadija, but overjoyed for myself. Over the summer I’d fallen madly in love with him. As Nadija had passed the afternoons on my mother’s porch, translating poems, I’d often snuck back into my bedroom to snoop through his things. I pressed my nose against the armpits of his shirts on the floor and flipped through the photo albums in his suitcase. I studied the many girls pictured alongside Nadija inside those plastic sleeves. None of them, I decided, matched Nadija in looks or sex appeal. The girls seemed pale next to his goldeny Eastern-European complexion, passive dolls tucked inside Nadija’s massive arms. His eyes were black and shiny and scrutinizing, theirs a dull blue. One photograph in the album was new. My sister Kathy, a budding photographer, had taken it one day and developed it in her darkroom. Nadija was bent over a book in one of my mother’s wicker porch chairs, calf muscles stacked like bricks inside his crossed legs.
Other times I crawled into the bed Nadija had left unmade, running my hands over the floral pillowcases, imagining Nadija’s black hair coiling with sweat in his sleep. These pillowcases—formerly just mothball-scented fabric pulled out of my mother’s cedar chest—now held the hot indentation of a man’s body. Did he sleep in the nude? I gasped and shot up from the bed, filled with the teasing, miserable, ecstatic pain of an old bee sting or mosquito bite.
At night in my mother’s attic, where I’d been relocated, I listened to 106.3 on my boom box. I kept a blank tape in the tape deck ready to record my favorite songs as my favorite DJ, Matt Pinfield, announced them. One night Matt and another DJ discussed grunge, and the name with which the generation that had created it had newly been anointed: Generation X. They hashed out the details of the Generation X demographic, deciding finally it applied to anyone born between the early 60’s and early 80’s.
“…Which would make those Generation X’ers, uh, now between the ages of eleven, and uh, thirty-one,” Matt Pinfield said. An ocean breeze swept in through the attic window. I twisted around on the old daybed left over my stepfather’s bachelorhood. Never mind twenty years separated Nadija and me, we were in the same generation. Generation X. X, drawn in the sand over buried treasure; X, when married with O, meant a kiss; three X’s in a row turned the kiss into an illicit dalliance.
The parameters of Generation X set forth by Matt Pinfield have since been refined. By the time I was in high school, people born in the early 1980s were corralled into a sub-generation, called Generation Y. If Generation X became the generation known for pro-choice ad campaigns, Douglas Coupland and a general ennui, Generation Y could not even muster that. Generation Y was personality-less, the letter itself, Y, too ambivalent to pick a side, vowel or consonant. Did it matter if we’d been born last into a family of much older siblings who sat, nose-ringed and flannelled, hearts pounding with earnest philosophies, minds wary of the “nuclear paradigm,” chain-smoking on the porch below the attic window as we fell asleep listening to Radiohead and Pearl Jam?
It may not have mattered to the cultural talking heads who bisected me from my siblings and Nadija, but it mattered to me. So when I went in search of the dress on that first full day of our family vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, stakes were high. The dress I would wear to greet Nadija needed to be adult enough for him to view me as an equal, and cool enough to represent our (shared) generation’s movement. Of course, it also needed to fit within the budget my mother had given me for spending money.
On our first morning on the Vineyard, my mother counted us off on her fingers as she inspected the bedrooms. She and Dan would take one room. Ann and I got a room to ourselves—something I did not understand at the time was a gift. I saw it only as another barrier between me and my real siblings, who would all be sharing the third bedroom. I knew they’d stay up late into the night, folding themselves into a row of sleeping bags along the mildewed carpet, complaining and laughing. Scott and Julie were assigned to the living room couches.
My mother unpacked the sweating cooler into the rental house’s fridge, singing along to the Nina Simone CD playing out of my boom box. Ann and I prepared for our three-mile walk into Oak Bluffs. This solo jaunt was a big deal. Back home in New Jersey, my mother hardly ever let me off on my own for long. At an age where most of my friends were making pocket money babysitting their younger siblings or other children in the neighborhood, my mother still hired someone to look after me on evenings she went out with Dan.
“This is beyond mortifying,” I’d inform her whenever she called the sitter.
“It’s mortifying that I love you and want you to be safe, huh?” she’d say.
But something about our arrival in Martha’s Vineyard had relaxed her, or made her want to relax. On a paper napkin she drew a map into town, kissed me on the forehead, and Ann and I set off.
It was on Circuit Street, the main drag of Oak Bluffs, where I found the perfect dress. I burst out of the Army-Navy store’s fitting room—which was a bare white stall curtained off by strips of old woolly blankets—and awaited Ann’s approval.
“It’s kinda big,” she said, her skinny shoulders shrugging against her halter top. I dismissed Ann’s opinion. She didn’t get the look I was going for, nor did she know, as I forked over twenty-five precious dollars, that I had in my mind already paired the dress with my black combat boots and Nadija’s enormous brown hands belted around my waist. I didn’t know yet that a chubby girl with huge boobs is only doing her figure a disservice by padding it with oversized clothing. I didn’t know how to ignore clothing fads or generation-defining monikers, or about the great divide between what I longed to climb into and under, and what really fit.
Ann was right; the photos from family vacation that year prove the dress was, in fact, way too big. In one photo, taken at our big dinner on the last night in Martha’s Vineyard, I have an arm slung around Ann, unaware of the fold of pink fabric dunked into her plate of spaghetti. In another, I am on the beach, foot paused atop a soccer ball, wind puffing the dress like a balloon as I stare moodily at someone out of frame.
On our first day of vacation, we’d all walked to the nearest beach, located in Oak Bluffs. We spread our Mexican blankets and boogie boards and my boom box along the sand, only mildly aware we were the only white family on the crowded beach. Kathy’s boyfriend Ford turned as red as the Campbell’s soup cans on his swim trunks. As we packed it in for the day the other families applauded our departure. It was only later that we learned we’d swaggered pale-bellied smack into the “The Inkwell,” a half-mile stretch of the Vineyard’s miles of beaches that black families claimed for themselves.
“But we’re Sicilian!” my mother protested over dinner that night. Though my mother was born and raised in northern New Jersey, to English-speaking parents, and by 1993 had yet to travel anywhere more exotic than Key West, she lapsed into a bewildering kind of Italian accent whenever she got excited. “We come-a from-a-da Moors! You know, black!”
That being Sicilian meant we were part black was news to me. But I loved summer days, the hotter the better, and I tanned easily, turning very dark, and so did my sisters. They lay on their towels coated in baby oil and rotated like rotisserie chickens under the sun.
Nadija, I noticed, was also very tan. We’d caravanned ten miles to a friendlier beach. Kathy ran to meet the soccer ball rolling toward the dunes, kicked it towards me and fell, twisting her ankle. She wailed. Nadija rushed toward her, scooping her valiantly into his glistening brown arms.
“She needs immediate medical attention,” Nadija shouted. John lit a cigarette. Patty rubbed more baby oil on her legs, and my mother snapped pictures of the ocean—which looked, disappointingly, just like the ocean back home in Jersey—with her throwaway camera.
Nadija cradled Kathy in his arms while the rest of us packed up our things. He carried her along the grassy path leading out to the parking lot. Ford, smothered in zinc oxide and wringing ocean water from his swim trunks, followed Kathy and Nadija, and I trudged after Ford, carrying my boom box.
The next day it rained, so we attempted a group outing to the Vineyard Haven bookstore called Bunches of Grapes. We were turned away at the bookstore’s awning by men in black suits clutching black umbrellas. President Clinton, the First Lady, and Chelsea, enjoying their first customary presidential retreat to the island, were browsing inside.
“See that?” my mother said through the screen door later that evening. John, Patty, and Kathy huddled together out on the deck, cupping their hands over their cigarettes against the rain. “The Clintons followed us all the way to Martha’s Vineyard. How’d they know we were gonna be here, anyway, huh? Which one yas spilled the beans?” My siblings ignored her.
“Gimme a cigarette?” I whispered through the screen door. They ignored me, too.
The phone calls Nadija placed to his family in Croatia went unanswered. It continued to rain. The driveway below the deck went muddy and flooded. I left my notebook lying open for Nadija to find. Inside it I’d written several poems. One poem was called “Wartime” and likened an exploding bomb to a sunset burning out over the sea. A man and woman watched the sunset, locked in embrace. Just in case he didn’t get that one’s significance, I’d written another poem called “Tea,” describing a cup of tea he’d brewed for me one July night back at my mother’s house in New Jersey. I didn’t sign the poems. I wanted Nadija to run through the damp rooms, shouting, “Whose genius is this?”
Nobody said anything about the new dress I’d bought in Oak Bluffs, but I knew it had secret powers. I could smell its power in the air, same as I could smell barbecue smoke wafting from nearby rental homes or the musky BO from Kathleen’s unshaved armpits. (That summer Kathy had given up shaving, just as I’d finally been allowed to buy my first razor. I was always one step behind.) Yes, the dress exuded power, and I could see its effects over my mother as she looked at me with a fear I didn’t understand. Out of nowhere she would say the oddest things, like, “Is there anything you want to tell me?” or “Hey, you. See these arms? They’re always open. Got it, kid? Always open.” Other times, she didn’t say anything at all, she just looked as me like I was dangerous, and eventually I started to feel dangerous; I wondered about the damage I might do.
There were words I was learning that week along the Vineyard I’d never heard before. Refugee camps. Guerrilla troops. Neo-nuclear dynamics. Iambic pentameter. The Serbs pushed back against the Croats, and more bombs fell. Nadija’s forehead creased as he tried in vain to reach his family. John attempted to distract Nadija with a story about an old professor they both knew, and Nadija ignored him, gazing moonily at Kathleen, who drifted down the muddy driveway arm-in-arm with Ford. Ford’s sunburn was beginning to peel. His skin flaked off like glaze from a stale donut. If Kathy’s love for Ford perplexed anyone more than me, it was Nadija.
At night I tried to join my siblings and Nadija on the deck, but they shooed me back inside. On the damp mattress I shared with Ann, I examined the ceiling. It was lined with veiny fractures. A daddy longlegs marched up the wall. Ann slept easily, legs flung over the mildewed sheets, her glasses folded on the wicker nightstand.
On our last night of vacation we all ate out together at a restaurant. The restaurant was big and quiet enough to accommodate us, and we took several photos. I wore my pink baby-doll dress from the Army-Navy store. In the restaurant’s bathroom, Patty helped me sop up the spaghetti sauce from my dress and offered me her pot of lipgloss. “Now blot,” she said, and I did. Before we left the restroom, we blew kisses into the mirror. During dessert, Dan made a toast and my mother kissed him on the cheek. Then Nadija made a better speech, and everyone raised their wine glasses in salute, even me. (“Here, have some for Christ’s sake, just don’t let Mom see,” my sisters had said, passing me the carafe.) After dinner, John, Patty, Kathy, Ford and Nadija walked into Oak Bluffs for drinks. The rest of us—my mother and Dan, Scott, Julie, Ann and I—headed home.
The night, our last on Martha’s Vineyard, could end this way. Successful. As normal as we’ll ever be.
But once we’re back at the house, I start pacing. Everyone else changes into pajamas; I stalk back and forth across the kitchen linoleum. I won’t even unlace my boots. On the other side of the screen door, mosquitos dart towards the light bulb. The air, sweet from honeysuckle, is still heavy with the threat of rain. An occasional breeze startles the trees, shaking fat raindrops over the driveway.
I say I want to go for a walk. Is it oh-kay-uh if I go for a walk? I say it in a sighing tone, anticipating my mother’s disapproval. But Julie surprisingly comes to my aid, saying she’d also love some fresh air. It’s settled. The stepsisters will go on a walk together and bond. My stepfather flips through an ancient New Yorker, my mother cracks open her Anne Lamott book like this time she really intends to read it. Ann opts to stay behind. Julie and I take off down the driveway.
I know where we’re going. At least, I know where I’m going—to the bar in Oak Bluffs where my siblings are holding Nadija hostage. Though Oak Bluffs is three miles away, and she is eight years older than me, Julie acquiesces. Julie is 4’10.” I am 5’6” and still growing. At eleven, there is something I do know. I know there is something in my height, and my large frame, that people will bend toward. So we walk. Julie marches double-time to my long strides. I am wearing my perfect, sauce-stained dress, and she is tipsy from the wine our parents permitted her to drink at the restaurant.
“Where are we going?” Julie asks again. I realize she is more than tipsy.
“Just a little farther,” I say. Actually, it’s another mile and a half, and by the time we reach Circuit Street in Oak Bluffs, it is 1:30 in the morning, and the bars are closing. The lampposts tick off. Drunken college kids, suddenly excised from their gin and tonics, yell expletives at each other. Their neon polos and white pants glow in the darkening street. Couples steal off together into the August night. The occasional Island Taxi funnels through the mob, blaring Carly Simon.
Outside of the bar, I find a wrought-iron stoop for Julie and me to sit on while we wait.
“Let’s sit here,” I tell Julie. “Those guys’ll be out any minute.” “Those guys” was a thing my sisters said, they way my mother said “yas”. Julie agrees.
We sit and wait. The crowd on the street begins to swell. Any minute now, Nadija will exit the bar, and I intend to tell him, It’s time. Let’s not fight it. You’re perfect. Let’s go down to the beach, where the dune grass sways like a woman in love, and we’ll roll around in the sand, I’ll sing any song you want, I know them all—
“Hello, ladies.” A man, a stranger, rocks back and forth on his heels before us. I ignore him, as I’ve seen my sisters do.
“Hi,” Julie says.
The man wears khakis and a short-sleeved plaid shirt and definitely doesn’t own a Pearl Jam album, or if he does, it’s in an annoying way, like how the marching band at school plays Queen before a soccer tournament.
“What are you ladies doing tonight?” the man says.
I turn to Julie pointedly, going, “So anyway, what were you saying?” Julie looks at me like she gets it, but when the man persists, “What’re your names?” she takes his hand and says, “I’m Julie.”
He stares at me. “And you?”
I grab Julie’s arm. “Let’s go,” I say, dragging her off the stoop.
Julie and I descend into the mass of bodies on Circuit Street. At the curb I turn around, ready to yell at Julie for talking to a stranger, but the person tugging at my perfect dress isn’t Julie, it’s him.
“What’s your problem,” the man says, pulling at my dress. The dress rips, just a little bit, along the empire waist, a few inches above the red sauce stain.
“Hey,” I protest. The crowd around us gapes open like a mouth.
“What’s the big deal, I just think you’re cute,” he continues. He is still holding onto my dress, his breath dragging across my face, and then suddenly he topples backwards. My brother, out of the bar and down the steps, has grabbed the man by his plaid collar.
“Hey fucker, that’s my little sister.” John shoves the man up against a car, and Nadija jumps in. They are ready to draw blood and loosen teeth. After all, a war is raging.
Then I see my sisters. Kathy is sobbing. Patty, who looks scared, puts her arm around Kathy’s shoulders. I don’t know the reason behind their behavior, only that I have caused it. As Julie reappears, wandering towards us like a stupid lost lamb, my neutral feelings about her vaporize. Ford, for once being effective, pulls John and Nadija off of the man. And an Island Taxi rescues us all back to the rental house.
I don’t remember who’s blue Jeep it was, and I don’t know who from the drunken tribunal selected Patty to be the messenger. But there we were, Patty and I, sitting in the Jeep’s backseat in the driveway below the deck. Around us the country-darkness was alive with cicadas and rustling branches, honeysuckle stitched like a hem against the dark swatch of trees.
“We all just want to protect you,” she began. “We think it’s time you knew, though.” She said, “That scene—outside the bar—it brought up a lot of memories. For Kathy, and all of us. You know how that happens?” I thought I did know. I thought about how sometimes I cried at night, listening to a certain song on my boom box, aching from the inside out.
And then Patty told me a story, about before I was born, when the four older children were little kids.
“Really little?” I interrupted. It is hard to believe that anything of interest could really have happened without your having witnessed it, so I pictured my siblings looking exactly as they did now on the Vineyard, but in miniature, like angst-ridden garden planter gnomes.
Patty nodded, “Oh, yeah. Really little.” She continued. Our real parents were still married, and the family of six, my mother, father, and four siblings, still lived in northern Jersey, in the same town where my mother and father had grown up. A normal family cycling through their suburban routine of stickball and bike rides and Sunday dinners with relatives. The neighbor across the street was “off.”
“You know, messed up.” Patty tapped at her forehead. Between his house and my family’s, there were two lawns, two curbs, and an asphalt street—to a little kid, a whole world. One by one the neighbor invited them across the street, down into his basement, their underpants dropping to the cement floor as he poked and prodded.
“Even John?” I said.
“Yes, even John,” Patty said. After a pause, she added, “He was first.” My stomach felt like it did when I was very hungry, when even breathing was a cruel reminder of hunger, as all that air filled you up with something you needed but not with what you craved.
Patty continued. “Kathy was the one who told Mom and Dad about it. And then we moved away. We all wanted to live down the shore anyway, we always said that.”
“And then Mom and Dad split up,” I guessed. Patty hesitated, saying finally, “Well, no, that’s a different story, for another time.” For the first time, I was glad not to know. I wanted to be like them, but I too was a different story, for another time.
Then Patty said everything was all right now, everyone was fine. But everyone wasn’t fine, I knew, as we climbed out of the Jeep and walked up the driveway, through the screen door and into mayhem. Kathy was still crying, Ford rubbing at her shoulder. Julie sat quiet and guilty at the kitchen counter. My brother ranted at no one, “Who in the hell let her go out walking for miles in the middle of the goddamn night? Huh? Who?”
My mother, awakened by the commotion, was boiling tea in her nightgown. Her voice was thick with sleep or something else. “John, stop yelling.”
“Stop yelling? Who can hear me?” He yelled though the screen door, “Wake up, everybody! Wake up!” No, we weren’t fine, everyone drunk and arguing and undone, and it was because of me. My newfound lust entrenched alongside their old regret, same as the honeysuckle wrapped around the poison ivy in the driveway, inextricable.
In the living room, the television blared. Nadija sat on the couch, his elbows resting against his massive thighs. He called me into the room. On the TV, two newscasters stared grimly out from behind their desks. I stood before him. He took my hands in his. What I wanted.
“You poor kid,” he said. Kid. But that was a word that no longer fit.
Nadija said, “You poor little girl. But how lucky you are, so many people looking after you.” His bloodshot eyes went wet around the rim. “I look at you, and I miss my little brother so much. I just wonder where he is.” He squeezed my hands. I shifted in my ripped dress. I wanted to change. Oh, the shame of it. No costume, no dress, is adequate armor against that first ambush of war and unrequited love, where nothing, ever, is fair.