The day I put my bikini away

I grew up never going to the beach, until I learned the power of being a tall girl in a small swimsuit

Published March 18, 2017 7:30PM (EDT)


“I love the beach, but the beach hates me,” was my mother’s mantra. And with that, I rarely visited the Pacific Ocean that roared and crashed just five miles from my house.

The sun will kill you, she insisted. It will burn you and suck you dry. You will get spots and cancer and the salt water will sting your eyes, and the sand will never get out of the rug.

My mother was a redhead with blue eyes. She wore large straw hats when she gardened, and as far as I knew, did not own a swimsuit. Solutions like beach umbrellas, sunscreen and long-sleeved coverups were available, of course, but once she made up her mind she couldn’t unmake it. She was not a beach person.

In high school, I started riding my bike along the San Gabriel River channel, a straight concrete shot of about four miles, to visit the neighboring town of Seal Beach. My friend Shelly lived on Third Street, just a few blocks from the ocean.

Her house was magic. A stained-glass window liquified the sun to blue streams on the living room floor. Her stepmother kept a steady supply of seashells in glass bowls and yogurt topped with granola and fresh fruit.

A mother and baby dolphin, painted by a local muralist, swam across Shelly’s bedroom wall. On long afternoons we listened to “Life in a Northern Town” by the Dream Academy, waves whooshing in the pauses between repeats. We weren’t in England or the north, and we lived in two separate towns, but the song made us catch our breath. We listened quietly, cheered when the crowd in the song cheers for the Beatles, and then fell into silence again.

I was mere miles from my Rossmoor doorstep but at the literal end of the path, the continent. In a decade we’d be at the end of the millennium and already felt that cosmic pressure, answering essay prompts like, “Where do you see yourself in the year 2000?” Like the waves themselves, the future washed over my feet with relief and anxiety. Cool, glistening, and full of hidden kelp that tangled my feet. California waters were dark.

*  *  *

I wasn’t a popular girl in high school. Awkward and artsy, I managed to escape being asked to any dances save my disastrous senior prom. But in my bathing suit, I was a tall and willowy clean slate with mile-long legs and breasts like half-oranges: not huge but cheerfully proportioned. When I put on a bathing suit, I could draw the attention of men and boys without having to talk to them. Their admiring looks were enough to get me started on my long, tedious education on the uneasy power of male-female dynamics.

The first swimsuit I bought was a white, black and silver speckled bikini. I had never been good at putting together outfits and hated buying shoes for my wide, size-10 feet. But with one hook of a strapless top, I looked good. The silver squares caught the light, and I wore that light with pride.

Soon I discovered that by visiting the department store clearance rack, I could gather up a number of bronze and snakeskin bikinis, teal bandeaus and strappy cherry-printed numbers with ties brushing my thighs. As I walked the sands of Seal Beach, Sunset and Huntington, I learned that seven dollars of fabric could wield tremendous power.

I’m light-skinned and burn easily, but I started to train myself into getting tan, gradually lowering the SPF number as the season progressed. When I reached SPF 4 and took on the sheen of a roasted marshmallow, I felt I had accomplished something, a teenage OC girl rite of passage.

To prepare for my beach days, I took to “laying out” in my own back yard on the chaise lounge in my original metallic bikini. I listened to music on my Walkman cassette player as our pet desert tortoises crept across the lawn chewing on fallen hibiscus petals. The occasional crepe myrtle petal flew into my hair.

One day I sensed a presence, a shadow over me. It was my father at the window, inside the house, holding a camera. He had been snapping pictures.

“What are you doing?” I asked him through the screen.

“Just curious,” he said. “I wanted to see how you were put together.”

I said nothing. Shame prickled my body, and my stomach sank in the same way it did when I had discovered the old Playboy magazines in his dresser drawer years before. When I first found them, I was thrilled, then scared, then numbed by the doe-eyed nude blondes I’d visit occasionally out of sense of somber duty. I was a woman now, not even immune to the gaze of my own father. The terror of my body had arrived. It had been seen, scrutinized and recorded on a film negative that would later be developed and placed before me on the kitchen counter. On that 4 x 6 glossy rectangle, my metallic speckled suit appeared suddenly ridiculous against the forced-caramel skin of my stomach and slightly pink tinge of my thighs. Something about my breasts and hair seemed tired, stuck on. I was a mousily sluggish centerfold.

I never sunbathed at my house again.

From that point forward, I didn’t want my father to notice me at all. Even on the night of the prom, the evening everyone stands in their front yards with their parents taking pictures, I hid in the bathroom fussing with my 50-color eyeshadow set. I didn’t want him to see me with my smoky plum eyes and teased hair. I was just short of 18, almost the age of the women in the magazines at the bottom of his dresser drawer.

I wore a black sequined, royal purple dress with a black bow at the waist and shoes I had dyed purple. When my date and our friends arrived in a borrowed Mercedes, I rushed down the driveway to spend the evening with a boy I would later find out wished he’d taken someone else.

For years I did not want my father to hug me, and when he did, I made sure the embrace was shallow and quick. I was afraid of my breasts making contact with his body, and even on my wedding day I did not make eye contact with him as he readied to walk me down the aisle.

* * *

I was afraid of my beauty while nurturing it. I wanted to hide from men while also pleasing them. Perhaps the fact that I didn’t know how to talk to them saved me from seeking their attention in a promiscuous manner. I attended a college with coed dorms and never laid a finger on a man or encouraged one to enter my room. But I walked the hallway smiling at everyone, wearing sweet floral sundresses without bras.

One male dorm-mate asked me what the deal was with that. “Because the straps poke out,” I said. “No one’s looking, anyway.” I didn’t think I was lying. The dress in question was a long ivory silky number with orange, teal and hot-pink paisleys and a thick sash at the waist. A bra got in the way of the flow, so I opted out. I was not large-breasted, flirtatious, or sexy. I was away from home for the first time, safe.

“No one’s looking?” he muttered. “Uh huh.” I crossed my arms and looked down.

I felt ashamed of my body but also of my innocence, which betrayed my ignorance of the male mind. Did all men have dark thoughts about women? Or was it just my father? I wanted to start a new life with men but found myself being used in spite of myself.

My freshman year I developed a crush on a dark-haired senior, Tom, who lived directly across the hall. He had a girlfriend in England whom he often fought with on the phone late at night after drinking. There was not much to see in him aside from his dark hair that hung over his eyes, his deep voice and the fact that he held an editorial position at the university paper. Mostly, he was close by and willing to interact with me without much effort on my part.

One night he charged into my room, angry with his girlfriend. He yanked my miniature Christmas tree from my shelf and hurled it across the room, ornaments shattering. He stormed back out, and I cleaned up the mess without a word.

Another time he sauntered over to my room to gaze at my Picasso print of “The Three Musicians” longingly.

“That would sure look good in my newspaper office,” he sighed.

I let him borrow the poster. As the school year neared its end, I asked him to return it. “Sure, tomorrow.” he’d say. He said it every time I asked. On move-out day, I reminded him once more. “Going to the office now,” he said, and disappeared. I waited there in my empty room, car packed. Of course Tom never returned. As I drove the 91 freeway back home for the summer, the first summer after my father left my mother, I hated myself. The sun blasted through the car window onto my bare thighs. It was in the high 90s, but suddenly I wanted to cover up.

* * *

Last spring, for the first time in my adult life, I visited California on my own, landing on an LAX runway bordered with wild orange poppies. I attended a writing conference in Los Angeles while bouncing from relative to relative and reprocessing my traumatic associations with freeways, faultlines and memory.

On a bit of a whim the last afternoon of my visit, I asked my mom if she and her longtime best friend Gary wanted to accompany me to Seal Beach. No swimsuits or water: just walking along the pier.

“Oh, I don’t know,” my mom said, her once-red hair framing her face in a ring of wisps escaping from a bun. “The parking has just gotten so expensive. Only the rich can go down there these days,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “It will be my treat.”

My mother and Gary and I took the 10-minute drive and paid three dollars for parking. My mother couldn’t believe it, thinking for decades that not only was the beach dangerous, but cost-prohibitive. She looked around in wonder as seagulls swooped around the electric wires and waves beat against the barnacled pier.

“This is so fun!” she exclaimed. She was 80 years old and visiting the charming beach in her own backyard for the first time in perhaps 20, 30 years. Maybe longer. Gary, a slight man in thick glasses and a cardigan, eight years my mother’s junior, quietly walked alongside us with occasional remarks about the history of Seal Beach and its Naval Weapons Station.

We strolled to the end of Seal Beach Pier, the site of a few ill-fated high school dates, and, eventually, long walks with my husband-to-be, who would propose at water’s edge. Middle-aged men, most of them Hispanic and some of them playing soft music through portable radios, fished off the pier with buckets at their feet. Sadly, the once iconic Ruby’s Diner at the end of the pier was gone, replaced with a chain-link fence and building detritus. When we got to the fence, we turned around and walked back. The sun had started to sink to the west, which was not, amazingly, the ocean. Seal Beach faced south.

“I should do this again,” my mom said. “Gary, shouldn’t we do this again?” He nodded, scratched his gray beard, and gazed out at the water.

I offered to buy them coffee at a shop I didn’t recognize. To my mother, this was another major purchase, but she assented -- plain coffee, black. Fancy drinks were always out of the question.

We sat on a bench on Main Street. My mother wore an oversized white T-shirt printed with puppies and kittens: a gift from the Humane Society, a place that receives her constant donations. Like my mother, I wore my hair in a bun, wispy hairs flying in the seaside breeze. Ever since turning 40, I’ve felt a little more attractive, happy with my tall stature and the way my glasses rest on the high cheekbones I used to think made me look like a child with a scrunched up smile and big nose. I have gained a bit of weight around my middle but now look people solidly in the eyes and when conscious of the second-halfness of my life, imbibe air as if it were the Holy Spirit baptizing my every cell. I allowed the cappuccino, too, to wash over me, the fears that I’d held in my body for so many years escaping like steam through the lid’s tiny window.

Now the power of my body is in the deciding. Deciding to fill it with good things and sweet things, adorning it with scarves the color of beach sunsets. Driving my body to an airport, putting my body on a plane and a car and bringing it into the rooms of people I love and people I decide to forgive.

Across the street, the ice cream and candy shop from my youth, Grandma’s, is gone, replaced with a Cold Stone Creamery. Businesses change with the generations, and although it’s sad when families hit hard financial times, I’ve never understood the almost angry nostalgia with which people regard new establishments. This new shop will be as important to the class of 2020 as the other was to the class of 1990. The lives that are the center of the universe spin on, memories made and memoirs written in these repurposed spaces.

A teenage girl walks out with a cardboard cup of ice cream. It’s too cold for bathing suits, but she works at what a SoCal girl on the beach is expected to do: look beautiful. She wears frayed shorts and a beige shawl-like sweater and short UGG boots. Streaks of green-dyed hair, now a mainstream look, twist into her elaborate ponytail. I’m almost the age my mother was when I began to spend hours at the beach seeking validation in my body while trying to escape it. I have a teenage daughter now whom I’m trying to teach to love her body. I watch what she eats with vigilance, not afraid of her gaining weight, but losing it.

The girl crosses the street toward us, her shawl caught up by licks of wind. She’s alone for now, but will most likely meet up with friends who’ve veered off to other snack shops. She turns the pink spoon upside down and scrapes off her ice cream with her teeth, something I learned to do when I was young so I wouldn’t smear my lip gloss.

“That’s a pretty girl,” my mom says as she passes, and I nod.

The sun drops even more, gold brushing our eyelids. I place my hand on my mom’s shoulder as she wraps her hands around the cup and the gulls screech at the waves. I doubt she’ll return until I visit California again. But today we’re here, enjoying life in a southern town, sipping and breathing. Today, the beach loves us.

By T. Runyan

T. Runyan is a poet and author living in Illinois.


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