Nikki St.G., my BFF and partner-in-crime through high school, had come from Honolulu with her bitchen bathing suit, so I bought one like it from a surf shop in San Diego, only mine was sky blue with white hibiscus flowers – the fabric wrong-side-out, natch – and white piping on the edges to show off my tan. The bottoms were little bikini shorts, held up by a tied shoelace sorta thing, the gathered top offering a tilted bowlful, like breakfast. Not sexy-sexy, more surfer beach girl, but what was moving under that loose, faded cotton could get your attention.
We had a calculus class together in our first (and only) semester of college, five days a week at 8:00 a.m. I think we were in the classroom three times. The other few days we even bothered to drive past the building (at 60 mph on the freeway heading west), we would glance over and swear the door was locked. (INC)omplete, one of several. Not on the treadmill, oh, no. We were on expanding spirals.
Which then spun off in opposite directions and I lost touch with Nikki but kept wearing that bathing suit, even made a replica when the fabric wore thin, then out. With careful fingers and a seam ripper, I disassembled it into pieces that became a pattern, fraying edges stuck with sharp silver pins. Then the routine: baby oil and iodine applied while naked, tie on the new top and bottom, grab a towel and flip-flops, get to the beach. Fell in love with The One along in there, early on, a very handsome man in a courtroom or a bar but in a pair of swim trunks – a gasp, eyes watering, nnnngh in the back of the throat. Several dozen other hungries thought so too.
On a hot July beach day a few years later I was still wearing that old bathing suit. I’d lost My Love, married and left a short-time husband, moved far and dry away, then back again, child on my hip, longing for the ocean. My girl was afraid of the waves, so we sat in a small scoop in the wet cement sand, I her breakwater, and played in the cool slop and froth, sunscreen on her, sunburn on me. I had found him again, intersecting phone connections, my lion man. He was coming tonight; I couldn’t think of anything else. Squinting in the glare, swirling the gold flecks in the charcoal sand soup, daydreaming of his chest, his lips. Lying on the lumpy towel with a beach chair shading Amy’s napping head and sweat curls, that flowered fabric strung like a tightrope over my belly from one jutting hipbone to the other, heartbeat visible under my skin. I didn’t know it then but that man was mine for life, sunburn for sunburn, matching Ray-Bans, my puzzle piece.
Nikki died. Others have too, many who didn’t even test the limits Tom and I did, who gave up the cigarettes and scotch that we clung to a few years longer. There’s no rhyme and no reason; we’re just still here and they’re not.
Between skin cancer and gravity, not so much skin is visible now when we walk into the surf. No blue-and-white two-piece, no sunburn that shrinks my skinshell a half size and plumps my lips, smoothing my wrinkles except at the eye corners where it cuts them in with a scalpel. But whatever those other people see when they look at us, still strong but old now and pale, he sees that sturdy girl with love in her blue hibiscus eyes, and I see the man with the dark mane, whose out is my in, whose hand fills my glove, my perfect fit.