Today is one of the first 90 degree days of summer, and I know what I have to do. I have to buy a swimsuit. I have to buy a swimsuit because it is June and 90 degrees outside and I don’t even have an old swimsuit laying around and last evening we went out on a boat with our neighbors and thank goodness we were moving along the the water the whole time and there was a slight breeze because I wore what has become my uniform. The one thing it seems my closet is packed full of. Black cotton sweatpants.
Which is how I find myself, weeks before my 50th birthday, in this freezing cold department store in Kentucky. In the swimsuit section. In a dressing room next to Miss Kentucky.
To be fair she’s only a Miss Kentucky contestant, but still. The sales ladies are all giddy with excitement, crowding in like it’s a contest to bring her another suit, the right suit. Girl! they exclaim, Pink is your color!
I try to remember the last time I bought a swimsuit that was not black, or some version of black, and I cannot. When was the last time I bought a suit I loved, or even liked? When was the last time I bought a suit without a “control” feature around the belly, without the words “Look 10 lbs thinner!” or “Miracle Suit” writ in giant bold letters on the tag?
In an effort to get dressed and undressed as few times as possible, I’ve dragged 9 swimsuits into this dressing room. Six them are black. As in ALL black. They look hot. 90 degrees worth of hot. They look like a woman in mourning. I think about my sweatpants. I think about Miss Kentucky, next door with her pinks. I hear her yell, Nooooo, stop it! No pictures! and I suddenly feel sorry for her, because Miss Kentucky or no, who in the world would take photos of a woman, any woman, in a dressing room.
I recall the last picture I saw of myself in a swimsuit. The suit is black with one small green stripe and one small blue stripe across the top. My son took the picture a few years ago right after I’d jumped off a catamaran into the Mediterranean Sea. I am in the water and waving to the camera, and I’m wearing my black “Miracle Suit!” that seems to absorb every blazing ray of the sun and with a mid-section so tight, so restrictive around my ribs, I cannot take a single breath without feeling like someone has wrapped me in a giant ACE bandage.
Before I try on a single suit I yank my clothes back on and take all of the black suits back onto the floor and hand them to the sales lady. She gives the sad frown face, lips puckered, and takes them from me, irritated I’m sure that she has to return them all to their racks.
I roam the floor alone. I pull suits off the rack I’m not sure about. I go for the colors. I start over.
Back my dressing room, freezing cold with its white slatted door and its bright lights, I hang 14 suits of all manner of color — mostly, I note, blues and teals and greens — around my closet-sized room. How little, I think, this room looks like my actual closet. How bright it feels, how like someone I used to know. I touch the suits, one by one, feeling their silky textures and the strength or weakness of their straps. I tug on the bra-parts and wonder how they might hold up in water. I decide to decide, before I try on a single one, that I love every last one of them. And only then do I get to trying them on.
I don’t know where that black Miracle Suit! went. I knew I’d never wear it again, it was that miserable, especially in the high midday sun, and most especially when it got wet and felt so glued to my body I wondered how much muscle I would need to peel it off. I suspect this suit found its way to the Goodwill. I didn’t need a suit. I had solved the problem. I stopped swimming.
In my dressing room I count how many times I’ve worn a swimsuit, how many times I’ve jumped in the water and felt free, in the last 5 years. The last 10. The last 15 years.
I do not need both hands to count.
In the dressing room next to me, Miss Kentucky has had enough with the swimsuits. And there are more photos, but I understand it now. Stop it, grandma! she yells. That’s my fat part! The sales ladies laugh and tell her how good she looks in ALL of the suits, so good she should just buy them all!! Grandma laughs, agrees. Grandma takes more pictures. Grandma tells her that oh honey, she can take as many suits as she wants because that way she will be able to make choices when it comes time for the stage. Because that way she can wait until she sees what all of the other girls are wearing and decide at the last minute what will make her a winner with a Capital W!
The sales ladies cheer along with Grandma. I never hear Miss Kentucky say another word.
At the checkout counter, I lay out the 3 suits I’ve chosen. You did good! the lady says. I pull out my credit card and I tell her I have never, never in in my life, bought 3 swimsuits at the same time, but she does not respond and as I watch her ring them up, one by one, I suppress the urge to change my mind; the urge to take two of them back; the urge to take ALL of them back; the urge to be sensible and find those black suits again; the urge to keep looking for the Miracle. I think about 90 degrees and the Summer before me. I think about my piles and piles of black sweatpants and how I have let them take over my wardrobe. How I’ve let them take over me.
And when Miss Kentucky and her grandma get in line behind me with their armfuls of pink suits and their happy chatter, I hear myself saying to the sales lady, with a confidence I do not yet but so hope to feel: Three new suits because it’s my birthday. I’m turning 50. Happy birthday to me. And I turn around and wish Miss Kentucky good luck.