At the end of a dark and cold winter day in late January, I trudged into a brightly neon-lit store. It was to be a simple errand, common-sense and commonplace, to buy laundry soap. With weeknight-after-work efficiency, I darted into the laundry aisle and the aisle for assorted goop and beauty products to use some of the lotion from the free tester bottle. I swiftly returned to the front of the store and the line at the cash register with a giant jug of laundry soap, winter cracked hands moisturized with the store sampler lotion. While I was waiting, I watched the couple in front of me unload their bulging cart, I scanned the latest celebrity scandal headlines on the tabloid magazines, and I looked at candy bars, phone cards, batteries, packs of gum, and other items posed to be impulse purchases. From the looks of the Mary Poppins cart in front of me (how did all of that fit in there?), I had some time. I leaned back and looked sideways. Bright colors from the swimming suit display distracted me.
Why is it that beach wear, which most people shimmy into in the sweaty summer, is always sold in the midst of the dark and doldrums of winter? I am sure there are a few people in my Colorado town who take mid-winter vacations on Carribean islands, but the majority of us need extra pairs of gloves and are scouring the shelves for scarves and thick layers in January and February. I will leave that fashion dilemma to the stylish people to ponder, but the bright colors did their magic. I stepped out of line, just as the bottom of the red cart was seeing the neon lights of empty, and a harried, bundled-up man rushed in to the line to take my place.
I strolled, gigantic jug of laundry soap banging against my knee, to the swimsuits. I have two perfectly sensible tank suits, in navy blue and black, perfect for lap swimming and late thirties modesty. With shorts, they are perfect for hiding myself. After several years of inactivity, my body craves turtlenecks, wool sweaters, and baggy jeans or blousy pants for coverage, comfort, and a cloak of invisibility. I dress myself to be invisible, the only sparkle coming from scarves and my grandmother’s junk jewelry. Some days, with an urge for feminity based in feminism, I slip on a dress or skirt, showing my legs under tights and boots with a twirl and swing in my step. In the lighter seasons, the cloak of invisibility in wardrobe choices becomes more difficult, but somehow I manage. Invisibility is not something I thought would be a daily goal and struggle when I was younger and blessed with a young, athletic, and trim figure. I was awkward and gangly, but mostly always pleased with the performance of my body: it ran and played and hiked and swam with abandon. In college, influenced by eighteen-year-old experimentation, I stopped shaving and proudly showed off my muscular, hairy legs. Then I turned 25. Sometime in that year, despite the activity and functionality of my body, I began to feel ashamed and I started shaving again. I still ran and swam and hiked and played, but something had shifted. All of a sudden, my body, instead of being an instrument of optimism, became a curse, a corpse.
In my twenties and thirties, that feeling continued. As the years passed, I let myself become invisible. I ate and cried and isolated myself and there was much less running, playing, hiking, and swimming. I wanted to be known for my mind, ignoring my body almost entirely. It’s hard to be known for anything in isolation. There were respites from the affliction, earnest turns to exercising, running, and hiking. Somehow, though, I could not hold on to the optimism and activity that was implicit to my life. I found pleasure in work and books, but somehow forgot the rest of myself and my body and my soul. Something happened when I turned 38 last year. It was just like the shift at age 25, but instead of slipping into darkness, I find myself craving light, optimism, and activity. I no longer want to be invisible.
The fluorescent strings and triangles of bikinis drew me to the rack, like bright flowers attract hummingbirds in a feeding frenzy. I looked through them, glancing up to make sure no one was giggling at me, wondering what I was doing in the bikini section. Others in the store were sprinting to the shovel and sidewalk salt section, so I was alone and free. My fingers traced the bikini tops, feeling the texture of eyelet white and spongy cup bras. A flirty poppy orange bikini jumped off the rack into my hands, but as much as I love poppy orange, it is just not my color. Then I sauntered to the back of the bikini rack. I giggled, remembering the only bikini I have ever worn was orange and purple when I turned three. Somber black jumped out amidst the nature-defying colors. I checked the tag and fingered the soft black fabric. On a flimsy plastic white hanger shoved in next to the bra top was the matching bottom. This bikini screamed “look at me” while providing more coverage than my everyday underwear. I bit my lip and took a deep breath. Sometimes when I am excited or deep in thought, I forget to let air fill my diaphragm.
I pulled the two hangers off of the rack, strolled over to the mirror, and shyly held them over my wool sweatered torso. The invisibility cloak was off. I did not see a shy mid-winter 38 year-old. Instead I saw myself in July, on the brink of turning 39. I did not imagine skinny, but muscled and full and active with scars and divots. I could feel the muscles in my legs tighten as I imagined myself in this bikini. Still in a fever of optimism or insanity, I twirled the hangers in my fingers and picked up the laundry jug of responsibility.
Magic had occurred while I was distracted by the tangles of bikinis. The cash register was almost clear. I quickly calculated purchase totals and the timing of the person holding milk and a stack of magazines. I walked, no sprinted, to the fingernail polish rack, skimming through reds and neons until I discovered the perfect shade of navy blue. I looked at the bottom of the bottle, delighting in the name, “Blue Haze.”
The check out line was now free and clear. I dumped the laundry soap and nail polish on the black conveyor belt and handed the hangers to the clerk. I clenched my jaw, chin up in defiance ready for a word or a glance at my very unwintery outfit choice. The woman, in politeness or observing the look in my eyes, rang up the bikini, nail polish, and laundry soap as if they were perfectly normal purchases for a wintry January night. I refused the plastic bag, awkwardly shoving the hangerless bikini pieces and nail polish into my too-large coat pockets, meant for ice scrapers and gloves. Stubbornly I grasped the receipt and bulky plastic jug, in case my stuffed coat should be checked on suspicion of purloining instead of purchasing the black bikini.
I drove home, in a dark blue haze of night, car wheels humming through yersterday’s slush and a neat coating of fresh snow. I heaved the laundry soap into the storage closet, my evening plans for sorting clothes and cold water momentarily forgotten with the buzz of my for-summer purchases.
That night I took back my outward self. I threw off the cloak of invisibility, leaving it under my car to freeze and gather the sand and salt from the county road department trucks. That night for a brief moment, my mind busy and excited matched my body, eager to be active and functional again.
It’s the first of May now. Spring is here in fits and starts, flirting with sunny days and darting back with gusts of cold wintry wind. I delight in her company, the beauty and unpredictability part of her charm. I look back to that night three months ago and wonder at the moment. What was that purchase? What was I doing? What was I thinking?
The fact is, I was not thinking. I was doing. I was making preparations. It was an act.
It was an act of defiance.
It was an act of optimism.
It was an act to unite my mind and body and soul.
It was an act to regain myself.
I am still not quite ready to wear the bikini. But I am taking slow and plodding steps. I have started a training program to run a 5K this summer. I set up my dating profile. I accepted a date for this Saturday. I updated my resume. I got through the day without saying “Sorry” in self-deprecation. I sent an e-mail to a new/old friend with a deliberate flirty tone. I have made plans to take the summer off to try and write a book. I boldly proclaimed my desire to run a half-marathon in Albuquerque to friends, asking for company. I read an early morning message, swallowing the disappointment that a fall rendezvous with a male friend to our old college haunts will not take place. I hit return on a succinct reply, and for once did not wonder what I had done wrong. I registered for a “try a triathlon” scheduled for the end of May, knowing that even in my faltering and new training regimen, I can do it. I reached for a new book of poetry to read myself to sleep. I put Merle Haggard on the CD player. I rode my bike for 30 minutes on the inside trainer in my bedroom. I drank a local brew and ate a light dinner. I sat to write and ponder the meaning.
I have been in this place of new beginnings, swearing to a new me, before. I realize this heady optimism will not be permanent. There will be disappointment and setbacks. Yes, I want to lose weight and I dream of a flat belly with chiseled abdominal muscles, all the while knowing that the bikini model body is an airbrushed illusion. More than that, though, I want health and the unity of my mind and body and soul.
For now, the black bikini is tucked into my middle drawer, amidst the t-shirts. Sometimes, I walk by and open the drawer and smile at the bikini. The bottle of nail polish sits on top of the dresser, underneath the nails on the wall holding my grandmother’s junk jewelry. Sparkle meets sparkle. I have decided that it’s still spring, a bit cold for a bikini, but sometime this summer I will wear the bikini. It will be an act of reclamation, an act of defiance. I will be showing my progress, not for the “after” shot, but for the steps and stumbles of a full life, whatever that may look like, bruises and scars and all.
Black bikini. Blue nail polish. The colors of bruises. The colors of life reclaimed. The colors of a dark sky. The colors of new steps and staggers, starts and stops. The colors of the acts of defiance and optimism. The colors of the knowledge that new steps are not easy. The colors of the huge journey between before and after. The colors of a full life, bliss and bruises and all.