“You have to walk out so far, and it never gets any deeper.”

By | July 12, 2010

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Season In recent years I’ve come to prefer navy as my color of choice for swimwear. Partly because navy isn’t black, the standard swimsuit color for fat women, and partly because I think of navy as a charmingly retro — even outdated — color choice. My favorite swimsuit of last year was navy with an anchor print, which came from Just My Size; my favorite swimsuit of this year is navy with tiny white pindots, from JC Penney. There were years in which I didn’t have favorite swimsuits, before I had a gym membership that gave me access to a pool, before my husband and I bought a condo on a beach. But now I do. And they are all navy.

I wear my navy swimsuits to said beach regularly in the summer. Though I’ve lived in the Boston area since 1995, approximately 87% of my statements about my life here still begin with “Where I grew up –” or “On my home planet of South Florida –” or “In the mad tropical jungle that spawned me –” or are sandwiched between the modifiers “up here” and “down there”. I grew up with two citrus trees and multitudes of blazing hibiscus in the backyard, with a definition of “winter” as something that happened for approximately two weeks in January, if at all. These two places are very different. I love them both for different reasons, though truth be told I had to leave Florida before I could realize what made it wonderful.

In the summer, I have come to love the beach because it reminds me of Florida, a place I cannot fathom moving back to willingly, but which I miss nonetheless, like some horrible ex-lover you can’t help but remember fondly in spite of everything that was wrong with the relationship. I love my beach, up here, because it reminds me of Florida without actually taking place in Florida. New England beaches are unexpected and curious spaces. People up here, even in the hottest weather, simply don’t walk around 90% naked as people in Florida do. It’s a cultural thing. So going to the beach and seeing a great diversity of barely-covered bodies is a gorgeously startling experience.

Friday afternoon, it was hot, and the sky was relentlessly without clouds. I went to the beach, because the weather lady had remarked that morning on the surprising temperateness of the water. I go to the beach for two reasons: to lie in the sun in a minimum of clothing, and to be in the water. Note that I do not say “to swim in the water” — while I love swimming, I do my swimming in a pool. No, the ocean is for soaking, for meditative drift. The golden-green Atlantic Ocean of New England is not generally given to warmth, unlike the inhalation-inducing vivid blue Atlantic of South Florida (inhalation-inducing because seeing it inspires one to breathe deeply, as pretty things tend to do). But there are a few precious days every summer when getting into the water can happen all at once, and not as a result of an arduous twenty-minute process in which you progressively sink yourself deeper, acclimating your body to the cold inch by inch. On Friday, I soaked a bit, then sat and read, and then soaked some more. At some point, a woman set down beside me, probably four or five yards off. I would have put her in her thirties, very trim, very fit, wearing a bikini. As she assembled her elaborate beach setup — full-size umbrella, chair for sitting up, towels for lying flat, towels for drying off, small cooler, large Louis Vitton barrel bag, radio, bodyboard (how did she carry it all herself? I wondered), et cetera — I noticed she kept a shirt tied around her waist, covering her hips.

When she entered the water, she pulled the shirt over her head — the bodyboard struggled to take off in the stiff wind, tugging like a kite strapped to her wrist — and then lowered herself into the water. And then began to do water aerobics. In a soaked long-sleeve t-shirt.

I wasn’t sure if I should feel self-conscious or not — on the beach, self-consciousness does not come naturally to me, but usually as a side effect of the realization that someone else is looking me over. This woman was half my size, at most, and evidently could not be on the beach without a shirt wrapped around her hips, or in the water without a top on, and I, the Great Navy Whale, was flopped carelessly in the sun with a book, as oblivious (or as nonchalant) to my fat thighs and my fat upper arms and my fat everything else as I would be in my own living room. I don’t want to assume this woman’s shirt-wearing motives were rooted in body shame. But as she athletically churned away in waist-deep water, her face tense, her arms and hands punching at the hot air with focus, I wondered.

On Sunday morning, I managed to get out to the beach again, though the water was colder and the sun hotter — hot enough to make going in the water seem a good idea, until it only takes ankle-depth for the chill of the ocean to shatter any memory of the heat on your skin. Step out of the water, and it’s hot again; step in, and it’s cold. Repeat.

In the same place as before, another woman came to set up beside me, several yards away. I was reading — Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, I had just begun — and I didn’t really notice. When I did look up, I saw a middle-aged fat woman soaking in the shallow water, wearing shorts and a red sleeveless top. Swimming in her clothes. This alone is not unusual. Many New Englanders can’t reliably locate their swimwear, if they own any, and some days the lure or the ocean (or, for that matter, the fountain in Copley Square) is too much and they swim in whatever they have on. It is usually teenagers who do this, kids who act first without thinking about the cold wet car ride home, or the upholstered seats that will need days to dry out, if they are ever the same. It is a young thing to do, to jump into water without thinking of towels, or of the immediate future beyond that impulsive movement, which cannot be resisted.

The fat woman reclined in the shallow water, gently nudged back and forth by the currents, only her head above the surface, like a basking seal. Eventually she stood, toddler-style, in which you carefully arrange your feet underneath you again, and raise yourself ass-first from the water, hands still gripping the sea floor for balance, the small waves working to knock you down all the while, wobbling, wobbling, seeking equilibrium. This is occasionally the only way to stand up in the ocean. I know.

The fat woman left the water, walked back up the beach, smiling at no one in particular, sat down on her towel cross-legged in her wet clothes, took a sandwich from a paper bag, and began to eat, staring placidly out at the ocean. If you sit in the sun for long enough on a hot day, even after swimming in your clothes, you will dry out enough to get back in your car and go home. I know.

I needed to go back inside, to tend to laundry and cleaning and other necessary tasks which do not happen in sunlight on a beach, but I took a moment to go in the water again — I always go in the water one last time, because up here, you rarely recognize your last ocean-soak of the year when it happens. Only later do you think, oh, I should have stayed longer, should have noticed more, and now the ocean-going time for another year has passed and is gone. So I went in for a bit and then came back to collect my bag and my towel and return home.

As I did so, I heard the fat woman say something to me. “I’m sorry?” I said.

“You have to walk out so far, and it never gets any deeper,” she repeated, smiling. Her shorts had cargo pockets; her sleeveless red top had faded blue horizontal stripes; her hair was short.

I nodded. “It’s true. Once you get about hip-deep, the bottom levels out for a long while. I don’t know how far it goes, I’ve never walked out far enough to find out.”

The fat woman nodded and took another bite of her sandwich. I pulled my bag onto my shoulder and said, “Have a nice afternoon.”

She nodded and smiled quickly before turning her attention back to the waves on the shore.

Behind us, heavy and dark gray thunderclouds and rain were advancing silently. I was startled to see them; facing the ocean, the bright sky above it, you’d never know they were there. The storms were marvelous to see, a brilliant contrast to the vivid blue and white heat facing east, and the scene reminded me — again — of Florida, where such sudden shifts in weather are a matter of course, this time of year. The world is as beautiful when it’s raining as when the sun shines, and both are inevitable.

My plants will get some water. I thought. I didn’t warn the fat woman, because sometimes an unexpected change in weather can give us a needed thrill, a reminder of our impotence to steer the movement of the universe, when the universe intends to have its way — I know — and she was already soaked through, so what harm could it do? Instead, I gave her a tiny wave, and left her smiling in the sun.

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