The Time of My Life

On Wednesdays the City of Miami Beach screens a movie on the wall of the Frank Gehry-designed New World Symphony Building, and, depending on what the flick is, my husband and I join hundreds of other Miami Beach residents in the park opposite the building to watch it. This Wednesday’s had been on our calendar a good, long time, because it was my favorite childhood film, Dirty Dancing.

At first, it seemed like the movie was going to get rained out–for the first half hour or so we huddled under a large umbrella, and everyone booed the warnings of the official in charge who notified us that if it started to really pour, “we’ll have to take the equipment inside.” But in a summer miracle, the rain stopped, the almost full moon came out and the audience cheered when Johnny Castle insisted, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

I have seen the movie countless times, seven times the summer it came out and dozens more at sleepovers after. My husband, Emilio, had never seen it all the way through. Both of us were surprised and delighted by how good a movie it really is. “That was back when they cast actors who looked like real people,” Emilio said, watching Jennifer Grey cha-cha-ing away, proudly wearing her old nose.

What amazed me was how well the film captured the feeling of summer…the long days when anything can happen, but often, nothing does. I realize now that the movie represents a liminal stage, not just for Baby Houseman, who, in case you’ve been living under a rock since 1986, is the protagonist of this coming-of-age story. But as her voice-over tells us at the start of the film, as she and her family pull up to Kellerman’s Catskills resort, it was a time of transition for the entire nation as well. “That was the summer of 1963, when everybody called me Baby and it didn’t occur to me to mind,” she recalls. “That was before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps, and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad. That was the summer we went to Kellerman’s.”

Dirty Dancing came out in 1987. For me, that was the summer I was twelve, when we stayed on Cape Cod for two weeks, and the ticket taker at some museum we visited refused to believe that I was under thirteen and deserved the reduced, children’s rate my sister was getting. That was the summer before the Iran-Contra affair, before Baby Jessica fell down a well and was raised up again, and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as Patrick Swayze.

The movie brought back all of that. My embarrassment when the museum ticket taker finally said to my mother, “well, if you insist she’s 12, I believe you; she’s a big girl, that’s all.” I was four feet 11 inches tall, and weighed about 100 pounds. I was not a big girl. But I already looked like an adult, albeit a short one; my bra size was 34B, which the ticket taker must have noticed, staring skeptically at my chest over the Nantucket basket handbag she kept on her desk. I remember hoping that the heat in my face didn’t mean I was blushing noticeably, and wishing I could look as lithe and slender and innocent as Jennifer Grey. And I remember the days that followed, when I abandoned museums to devote myself to jumping waves with my little sister,  and to hoping against hope that I could convince some responsible adult to drop me off at the movies to see this masterpiece I had already seen once but needed to drink in further, to imprint on my consciousness.

The nostalgia for that summer, mixed with the joy that I’m no longer twelve, hit me as I sat there watching the movie, leaning against my husband, trying to shift my pregnant belly into a position that wouldn’t make my sides ache. 1987 was one of many summers that run together when I was morphing from being a child into a young adult, and now here I was again, sitting on the grass, gazing up at Patrick Swayze, primed for a long summer of waiting and gestating–no travel, no cannonballing into pools, no pina coladas–transitioning between being an adult and being a parent.

As we walked back from the theater, I heard two men talking behind us. I caught the words “pancreatic cancer,” which is how Patrick Swayze died, and my ears perked up at the coincidence; Emilio had just said, “It’s so sad, they were all so young and now Patrick Swayze is dead, Jerry Orbach is dead, Jennifer Grey’s nose is gone.”

“Well,” one of the strangers behind us continued. “I was already in love with him by the time the movie came out–I’d had a crush on him since The Outsiders.” I wanted to turn around and say, “Dude, I was in love with Patrick Swayze before everyone else, too–I’d had a crush on him since North and South was on TV!”

I decided not to intrude on the moment, and on his memories. But still, I liked  knowing that one summer we had both loved the same man from afar with a passion that was rivaled only by its innocence, by the hope that real love waited for us several summers ahead.

When I look back on the summer of 2011, I wonder if I’ll remember it as the summer my hands swelled and I took long walks to the Standard to use the pool, the summer the Marriage Equality Act passed in New York, the summer before my first child was born, and everything changed.

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