Suzanne needed some notepaper, and instead of driving into town she decided to skipper the family motorboat to a general store on the other side of the bay. After lunch we walked over to a small private dock along the beach. The white motorboat was like everything else in her family’s winter home — sleek, expensive, and a bit over-done in the ways of the nouveaux riches.
Suzanne jumped into the boat.
“Penny, when I start the motor, untie the rope from the cleat and jump in.”
“OK,” I replied confidently, even though my boating experiences were limited to a family fishing boat on the Tama River and rowing a rowboat in the moat by the Imperial Palace. They both moved by muscle power and were not nearly so elegant. I knew, however, that the boat had to be untied from its mooring. I unwound the rope from the cleat, jumped in, and seated myself across from Suzanne. She revved the engine and we were off.
She ran the boat parallel to the shore for a while then headed across the water towards a faintly visible land. I watched the view behind me expand, like a camera pulling back on a scene. The white, sprawling house was half hidden by rows of orange trees that ended on one side by a clump of tall trees covered in Spanish moss. The long streamers of moss swayed in the wind against the angular lines of dying branches. On the other side the orange trees disappeared into thickets of bushes and wild grass that covered the land as far as the eyes could see. Along the orange trees a narrow strip of green lawn ran parallel to the white sand. The waves broke gently on the beach in thin white lines. In the humid air of Florida, the scene soon became hazy reminding me of a Chinese landscape painting I had seen somewhere.
It was a balmy day in contrast to the cold, sharp weather we had left behind in Boston. I was on my first Christmas vacation at Dana Hall. I had only been there for three months when it was time for a winter break, and Suzanne had asked me to join her and her family in their Florida home just north of Fort Lauderdale. The house was situated on a spit of dry, grassy land that grew oranges. The air was thick with moisture, and the sweet smell of oranges mingled with the smell of the sea. Aside from a few bungalows where their colored help lived, there was no other house for miles around. The main house was a one-story white house that formed a flat “V” around a blue swimming pool. From a large living room at the tip of the V we could see the white beaches, and beyond it a large expanse of blue water, and beyond the water in the distance an outline of the mainland. It was an idyllic place.
As we got close to our destination I could see a store-like building of weathered wood surrounded by several small houses. The store stood above a concrete wall about five feet high that ran along the water’s edge. Steps coming down along the wall ended at a narrow wooden dock with posts for tying down boats. The sign that faced us on the back of the ramshackle store advertised itself as a general store. As the boat neared the dock Suzanne said,
“I’ll bring the boat along the dock, can you jump out and tie the boat?”
Even though I was now at a finishing school being finished off as a lady, I grew up a tomboy. Jumping off a moving boat posed no difficulty, and I tied down the boat securely. The store didn’t seem busy — ours was the only boat.
It was hot and dusty on the mainland. Unlike the idyllic setting of Suzanne’s home on the peninsula, this place had a smell and a look of a poor neighborhood that made the day seem hotter. During the short walk from the boat to the store I could feel the sweat begin to mingle with the humid air. There was no relief inside the dark store. Suzanne and I walked toward the front of the store that turned out to be larger than I had expected. The shelves flanking the aisles contained everything from soap to motor oil, and were taller than I was. As we walked by a young clerk Suzanne said, “Hi, Bob.” Bob stared at me in silence. I followed Suzanne, and as we turned into an aisle I saw him still staring at me. I figured he had never before seen an Oriental and ignored him. As Suzanne began to look at various notebooks, I said,
“I need to use the bathroom. Do you think there’s one in the store?”
“In the back, next to where we came in.”
I found my way through the empty aisles to the back. In the corner of the store, I found two doors: one said, “Whites only” and the other said, “Colored only.” I was dumbfounded. I had heard that the two groups didn’t mingle much in the South, but I didn’t realize they had to have separate bathrooms. Then, I was puzzled — which one was I supposed to use? I didn’t think I was colored, but was I white? What if I went into the Whites Only and someone found me and complained? A public scene would be mortifying. I couldn’t go into the “Colored Only,” either. I could see the disapproving faces of James and Hanna, Suzanne’s colored housekeepers. They didn’t seem to approve of me in any case — at least, they never smiled.
I couldn’t decide what to do. I stared at the doors. Embarrassed, I walked away and picked up something on the shelf in front of me. I looked at it, put it back, walked back and stared at the doors. Nothing had changed. There were two doors, and I still didn’t know which one to go into. I really needed to relieve myself. Not only that, my tight shorts were getting tighter. I had on a pair of black and white striped shorts that were really short, barely covering my butt, and so tight there was no room for the expanding bladder. I looked at the two doors one more time, walked past them, and stood with my back to the wall. I looked around to make sure no one was watching. I then unbuttoned my shorts, pushed the zipper down, and pulled out the shirt to cover the unzipped opening — that solved the tight shorts problem. And, I walked away. As I went in search for Suzanne, I noticed two water fountains. I scrupulously avoided looking at them even though I suddenly felt thirsty.
“Did you find the bathroom OK?”
“Yes,” I said.
I didn’t ask Suzanne about my bathroom dilemma. Instinctively I felt the topic was out of bounds. If I had asked, she probably would have said, “Silly. Of course you should use the Whites Only.” But then she might have said, “Gee, I don’t know.”
Suzanne walked toward the cashier and turned to me.
“Well, I’m done. Did you want anything? No? Let’s head home, then.”
When we got to the dock, I noticed the water level had gone down and the boat floated a foot or so below the planks. Suzanne jumped in and said,
“Get the ropes.”
I untied one rope and threw it into the boat. When I walked over to the boat with the other rope I didn’t think it was a good idea to jump in. The boat had drifted, and there was a foot-wide gap. Add to that the vertical distance and my landing would be hard enough to unbalance the boat. So, with the rope in one hand, I bent down and put one foot on the boat. The boat started to drift away. I stood with one foot on the boat and one foot on the dock. Suzanne looked up from the motor and yelled,
I hesitated. The boat kept moving away.
“Jump! Jump, now!”
It was too late. My weight was no longer on either foot and it was impossible to jump. I could only stare at the water as the boat drifted, and my mid-air splits got wider and wider. Then I was in the water. When my head cleared the surface, I heard,
“Are you OK?”
I began to laugh. Suzanne began to laugh. We laughed and laughed while I paddled toward the boat. Suddenly I thought, “This is a great place to relieve myself.” The sudden warmth around me in the cool Florida waters made me shiver. But, I was relieved, and in more ways then one.