I didn’t want to go into that little boutique bathing suit store last week. I had to. I needed a present for my friend’s birthday, and the girls had decided to give gifts with a beach theme. My assignment was a sun hat, and I had heard that this store had a fabulous assortment of big floppy hats in great colors, with the SPF sun protection that is all the rage. I tried on a bunch of hats, pursing my lips and making funny faces in the mirrors, until I found the perfect hat for my friend, bright pink and wide brimmed. Like shoes, it’s fun to try on hats. They don’t judge. I headed to the cashier desk with two floppy hats.
“Do you need a bathing suit?” the saleswoman asked as I was checking out. “If you do…now’s the time. We’ve been very busy.”
“How much are bathing suits nowadays?” I asked. It had been a while.
“We have some beautiful tankinis,” she responded.
“Well that sounds fun,” I thought to myself, “ ‘tankini’ sort of rhymes with ‘martini’, and I sure like those.” Then I realized “martini” rhymes even better with “bikini”, and this thought sucked the fun right out of the store.
“How much are they?” I asked solemnly.
“Well, they’re around $80 to $90 for the tops. And if you need a bottom, it’s another $80 or so…”
“Some people don’t buy bottoms?” I asked, imagining walking bare-assed down the beach.
“Some people have enough bottoms.”
“Some people have more than enough bottoms,” I thought.
The idea of buying a bathing suit made me testy. I had to pee and I had just eaten lunch. I had stepped on the scale that morning after a weekend full of drinking margaritas and eating guacamole, and it wasn’t pretty. I was beginning to feel a rumble in my stomach as the chia and flax seeds that I ate the day before started to work their magic. There was no way I was going to try on a bathing suit.
“I’ll be back next week.” I said quietly, and handed over my credit card. And then I thought of an old New Yorker cartoon that I had taped to my desk for years:
“Or never,” I thought, “how about never? Is never good for you?”
Never is better when it comes to buying a new bathing suit, because like a root canal, it’s both painful and expensive. I started to sweat as I pictured my pale body squeezing into those brightly-printed suits, tucking in my breasts and my underwear, simultaneously sucking in my stomach. I pictured the inside of the dressing room, the florescent lighting, the awful “fat” mirrors. My thoughts raced. Would it be too much to ask to size bathing suits so one didn’t have to “go up a size?” Who the hell was buying all those tiny bikinis? “Please, lady, let me out of here!” my inner self screamed, as I politely thanked the saleslady and ran for the door.
In the car, I sucked on my water bottle. “You’re 53. Get over it,” I thought, “your bikini days are over.” Truthfully, my bikini days were over before they even started. I was never really bikini material. In fact, there were only two times in my life that I wore a bikini, and I’m not sure either one really counts. The first time, I was eight. The second time, in college, I was a bit anorexic. I’ve got a fading Polaroid from then that I look at every so often with amazement. But it’s not the bikini body I stare at when I see this picture. It’s the toothpick-sized arms.
And that’s the thing. I know rationally that the happiest times in my life were all the other times- the times I couldn’t wear a bikini. Like when I chased my future husband to Miami Beach one winter vacation in law school. Mike didn’t give a hoot about my bathing suit when we spent time together sitting on the beach for hours, talking. He fell in love with me then despite my one-piece (and I, him, despite his pale skin), and I think I will always love him the most for that.
The pictures of the summers of my life show me wearing all sorts of one piece bathing suits, looking tan and happy. The pink striped one I wore visiting friends on the Cape, the brown one I wore having cocktails on the deck of a beautiful sailboat, the turquoise one I wore picnicking with my family at a pond in New Hampshire, the flower print one I wore making sand castles with my daughter on Nantasket beach, and the black one with the white piping I wore teaching my kids to swim in my mother’s pool. I don’t remember the bathing suit I wore on my honeymoon, but I can say for sure it didn’t come in two pieces.
Of course I know that that being able to wear a bikini is no indication of happiness. I know exactly how unimportant it is. But right here, right now, at the beginning of another bikini season, I still feel that if someone asked me if I would give my left arm to be able to look good in a bikini this summer, it would be a pretty close call. So much for rationality.