Solving the Body Problem at the Bikini Bar

“The beloved expresses a possible world unknown to us…that must be deciphered.”

– from Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

Today I found myself in a world unknown to me: Saturday afternoon poolside culture at the Riviera Resort & Spa in Palm Springs. I’m here to talk to MFA students about creative nonfiction. That’s tomorrow morning. This afternoon I’m sitting at the poolside cabana bar, people watching, typing, sending cell phone snapshots to Rick with captions like Hard at work in PS!

Every twenty seconds a cool, eucalyptus-scented mist drifts down to the table like cold smoke blown from an invisible vent. It is warm in the shade, although not uncomfortably so, with a breeze that alternates between moving gently over my over-dressed (read: dressed) shoulders, and blowing hard enough to swipe my notes under a neighboring table. “Uh, sorry,” I say, and grope around near a few pairs of sandaled feet to collect my papers off the ground. The woman perched on a stool in front of me has a giant black bow draped across the top of her butt. Her boyfriend (well, he’s got his hand on the bow, but one never knows) is wearing an LA Lakers jersey. Tattoos abound; tattoos are cool among the 18-35 set. I wouldn’t be out here, I have a deep phobia of, an abiding fear of public pools, but the peppy music is unavoidable, even from the desk in my room, so I figured I might as well get some vitamin D and drink an overpriced mojito if concentration is going to be this difficult no matter what. I have brought my computer to a beach party, a move that is nerdy enough to (thankfully) render me invisible. I’m slightly embarrassed that I recognize every song blaring from the unseen stereo: from Zumba, a spin class, an Irish nightclub in the 90s. When I hear I like to move it, move it, I’m back in Dublin drinking a lukewarm vodka cocktail from a plastic cup, wearing pleather pants and a tight black t-shirt, dancing under a disco ball. One bad bubble gum song floats into another.

Don’t stop keep it moving put your drinks up

Palm Springs appears to be the vacation destination for the following folks:

-Gen-exers who grew up watching MTV spring break dance parties and are re-living a life they never truly lived (pitchers of colorful booze; sun-soaked afternoons; giddy group photos under palm trees).

-drag queens (a group? A gaggle? A herd?) in various states of inebriation and undress or overdress. I’m so fucked up! A man wearing a blond wig and a cheerleading costume confesses to me.

-Christian couples who pray loudly before consuming egg white omelets and black coffee at the poolside breakfast buffet.

-Men in golf shorts who sit at the bar and look alternatively confused and delighted as they lady-watch the nearly-bare bodies of girls young enough to be their daughters.

-Writers like me and the other 70-odd MFA students gathered here to learn about writing!

-Women who seem to have inadvertently purchased the same fedora hat (pale straw with a thick black ribbon) like the ones I coveted at the Brentwood farmer’s market three blocks from our old apartment where Ronan took the first naps of his life in his swing chair (aka “the throne”).

The logo of the Bikini Bar is, of course, a bikini bottom that is heart-shaped, lip-like. Bodies, bodies, bodies everywhere: dancing, swaying, drinking, eating, singing, looking, hugging, pulling swimsuits up or out or away from different cracks of the body and attempting to remove unflattering angles. A man using a wheelchair speeds across the hot asphalt walkway circling the pool. A stick-thin woman with sunglasses twice as big as her face swans through the shaded tables, heading for the bar, all male eyes on her. She executes a professional quality hair flip and asks for a strawberry mash martini.

Whoop! There it is! I watch the man take his wallet from his back pocket with one hand and extend his other hand to the woman in the sunglasses. His name is Bob.

Where am I?

When I was in divinity school in Boston, a guy I’d known in college asked if he could stay with me and Kate, my roommate, while he interviewed at hospitals for his upcoming residency. We had an open door policy in our third-floor walk up on Cherokee Street (pronounced Cher-OH-kee by the neighborhood). Kate could have started a lucrative taxi service with all the people she drove to and from the airport. In the morning as he poured himself a bowl of cereal, he asked me, “Was that you crawling to the bathroom in the middle of the night?” Without waiting for a response, he continued, “you looked like a cockroach!” I felt my whole body go hot, and he was laughing, so I laughed, too, and we sat and crunched our cereal and watched the news in silence, but later, as I waited in front of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral in  the mid-morning cold for the 66 bus that would take me to Harvard Square, I felt the beginning of a headache, and then tears threatening to edge their way out. Milk and All Bran roiled in my stomach. A cockroach? I climbed onto the bus, put my head against the cold window and closed my eyes. I didn’t want to look at a single human form. In the middle of the night I’d forgotten he was in the main room; I forgot the leg; I made a mistake.

This time baby, I’ll be bullet proof.

I worked at a bar in Boston, but it had nothing to do with bikinis. I poured pints of beer while scanning, when I could, verbs for a French exam or paragraphs I needed to understand for a philosophy paper, my books and photocopied packets propped up under the bar. My Greek lexicon still smells vaguely of beer. In the winter people sat by the fire as the latest Noreaster raged outside, once burying the trolley completely, everyone watching, saying wow as something they stepped into every morning on the way to work, a thing that had seemed so solid and certain – this is my stop – gradually disappeared under a curtain of snow. In the summer customers tripped through the front door, sweating and panting and lifting their faces in the air-conditioned lounge. The windows steamed in every season. I wore black turtlenecks, baggy jeans, black combat boots, about three hundred coats of mascara and the brightest red lipstick I could manage without looking like I should be standing on a street corner instead of behind a beautiful oak bar. The Bikini Bar waitresses tuck their check folders into the backs of their bikinis and the only thing on their face is a pair of sunglasses. They are fit and tanned and make-up free.

You must not know about me. I can have another you in a minute. In fact he’ll be here in a minute, baby.

Where have I landed?

The world is at war. My child is dying. The world is at war. My child is dying. And I want to be that woman at the bar in the Beverly Hills sunglasses. I want someone to buy me a sweet drink, I want to sing along to the bad music in my tiny bikini, not thinking not thinking not thinking.

I’m taking Dana’s suggestion and paying attention to my dreams. Last night I wake up on a beach to find that both of my children have gone missing. I took a nap and now they’ve wandered off. I shake sand from my hair and blink into the sinking sun. The waves are gentle and sparkling in the sunshine. I’m not worried, as I have not yet scanned the length of the beach, and the non-dream-me is surprised and happy that there are two kids – Ronan and a little girl, Rose. The dream-me panics when she realizes that the dream kids are truly gone. My friend’s child (a friend with no name, a child with no name) falls on the beach in front of me like a bird shot out of the sky and I lift him up, unharmed, when he holds his arms out to me and speaks to me in Ronan’s voice, saying “up.” I walk along the beach with this strange child on my hip, looking for child-sized footprints and calling for Ronan and Rose. “What does she look like?” I ask the child that fell from the sky. “Bah bah bah,” he babbles.

Cut to a movie theater. A man with cold hands is sitting next to me and we are watching a film about disability that nobody understands because we are in Croatia and the movie is in French. He puts his hand on my bare leg. A woman walks into the theater wearing a bikini and she looks normal until she takes her leg off, throws it at the screen, and props her stump on the back of the chair in front of her, as if a different body had been waiting inside her regular body, walking along just underneath the skin, suddenly bursting out when given an opportunity. Everyone is eating popcorn, jaws grinding, lips glittering with salt. All of the men suddenly disappear.

What world is this?

I hated public pools (maybe Motel6 outdoor pools in Colorado aren’t the best test, with their layer of scummy leaves and lethal amounts of chlorine) because they made me anxious. What to do with the leg? What about all the stares? There was that freakish body waiting to be revealed, another body inside the body that everybody assumed was mine. Fearing the reveal, the sense of exposure, the knowledge that you are set apart.

Sweet dreams are made of this, who am I to disagree

Driving home with Ronan from Wyoming several days ago, having just pulled out onto the interstate, I heard buzzing and in the rearview mirror noticed a very lean, yellow-and-black wasp bouncing around near the back window. Terrified, I pulled off at the next truck stop and tried to kill it: with the Fishy Tales book, with a pen, with a shoe. No luck. The wasp, tucked into the crease between the window and the car door, eyed me with his black pointed face, his slick body quivering, stinger pulsing and at the ready. My eye on the wasp, I carefully unstrapped Ronan from his car seat, my heart beating, hands shaking, strapped him into the front carrier, and walked to the diesel trucks. I’ve driven across country many times, most times with a dog or a parent, sometimes with a dog plus a parent, but much of the time on my own. I knew who could solve this problem, so I waited patiently (only about 20 minutes) for a truck driver to pull up to the Diesel pumps. “Hi,” I said brightly as this stranger stepped from his cab. Ronan let out an accompanying squawk. “Can you kill a wasp?” He could (with a napkin, in less than two seconds) and was happy to do so. “Got it,” he said, and showed me the evidence, the wasp’s crushed face, his stinger lying limp and disarmed. I gushed appropriately, truly grateful.

For part of the trip we were driving alongside a train, past abandoned buildings along the highway that looked as soft as construction paper, the doorways like wet and rotting mouths. I love driving alongside a moving train. It makes me feel as if I can outrun something – a feeling, a person, a situation, a mood.

“You know what? There’s another pool.” “Is there drinks there, too?

During the last hour of our drive from Colorado Springs to Santa Fe, Ronan started to scream – I watched the fat tears rolling down his face in the baby mirror. Four hours is his limit for amicability during car trips, and we were entering hour five. I started crying, too. I wanted him to see me, to listen and understand as I explained to him that I was sorry about the wasp incident, and if he could just hold on a little bit longer we would be home very soon. If only that mirror reflected the baby that I sense is behind the other baby with movements and thoughts and a life story that is not dictated by Tay-Sachs, this one part of his genetics that trumps all others. In his body, behind the other baby, is this unaffected baby. I would make every kind of deal with the devil to have a glimpse of him.

I’d like to welcome everybody to the wild, wild west

In Las Vegas, New Mexico I sat in front of a mobile home/”antique” store (the stuff looked old and used-up, not exactly antique), and watched a few men drink beer in front of the gas station at 11 am. I fed Ronan in the driver’s seat, the sun combing through his eyelashes, fuzzing his blondish hair at the edges, warming the curls growing longer and bouncier at the back of his head. “The thing is,” I said to him, “I just don’t want you to die.” He slurped down his bottle and sat happily in my lap in a square of sunshine. “I love you,” I said. He looked at his hand and waved his fingers at himself, amused.

During that last hour in the car, I started crying, too. Who knows what we really see of the world? I have to believe we truly are “seeing through a glass, darkly” as St. Paul promised, that we will, one day, see things as they truly are. Which is what?

Fire weather floats across states like the cold beads of water across my shoulders. Smoke glides across borders, so that sitting in my backyard in Santa Fe the day before I leave for California I feel like I’m living through fire season in Los Angeles.

Can you solve the problem of the body with the mind?

Scientists are searching for particles, according to the physicist who rode with me on the shuttle to Albuquerque, but they are named by people who don’t believe they’ll be discovered– names that are meant to sound like jokes, jeers. Up, Down. Truth and Beauty. The names are so catchy that when the particles are actually located, the scientists who’ve been diligently searching and believing in their existence are stuck with names created by nonbelievers. Says the physicist to the Russian translator sitting in the front seat: “Eventually mass, if it lives long enough, decides what kind of mass it wants to be.”

Dance the night away

If I wanted to, perhaps I could brazenly don a bikini and throw my leg to an inebriated middle-aged man with a paunch, a sunburn and a surgically enhanced wife, dive into the pool, and just trust that he would guard my 50,000 dollar piece of “durable medical equipment” with his life.

I have been practicing yoga with my hands down, pressed to the mat or the floor. We’re supposed to put our hands up in supplication, ready to accept what the universe has to offer. Frankly, I don’t want to know.

Boom boom boom let me hear you say hey-oh, hey-oh

One of the first things Weber noticed when she came to visit was that everything in Santa Fe is beige – the buildings, the ground. Our driver tells us that when he grew up “on the wrong side of the arroyo” the center of town was painted in bright colors — red and blue and yellow – and when the ordinance was put into place, everything became suddenly beige. He pauses. “They thought it was a marketing tool, the uniformity. They painted over the colors.” He grew up on Fiesta Street.

Hey now hey now hear what I say now happiness is just around the corner

“It will get better,” people say, but that doesn’t mean it will. It seems a uniquely American notion to believe that things can better with hard work and a good attitude. In Geneva I worked with a man from Liberia. The minute he arrived he was quarantined for six weeks with tuberculosis, and after a few short months working for us he returned home and was murdered. Things don’t always work out. Is it ridiculous optimism to assume that they will (most babies are fine; most mothers don’t die in childbirth; most children live past the age of three)? Is it shortsighted and doom-and-gloom to think that they won’t? In the Phoenix airport I see a bestselling book called The Happiness Project and cannot even reach my hand out to remove it from the shelf. Weather floats like water, memory is like weather, all these ripple effects, all these atmospheric changes bumping into one another, creating disturbances.

I want to be a victim; I’m ready for abduction.

A man with gray hair and beautifully creased skin sits next to the physicist on the shuttle. The way his hair curls tightly at the nape of his neck reminds me of Ronan’s. How many boys and teenagers and old men will I meet that remind me of my son? I want there to be another universe where he lives to be one of these boys who grows into one of these men who falls asleep and lets the New York Times fall over his hands gently, as if he were folding it like a blanket before setting it aside. His head nods over an advertisement of a woman wearing a great, square sparkling rock on her ring finger. Perhaps he’s tired out by all the bad news.

I buy a ring for a friend with wish wish wish carved into the silver band.

“He won’t suffer.” This is what we’ve been told about Ronan’s progressive condition. He won’t be able to see or move. At some point he will not be able to swallow. All of these people drinking drinking drinking gin and cucumber tonics, strawberry vodka drinks, sweet mojitos, “signature” strawberry margaritas, pitchers of smashed vodka drinks. His body will be in a state of insurrection. It sounds like suffering to me. It feels like a betrayal.

The boy in the beach dream has pale skin and dark freckles. I saw a boy like that in Phoenix Park in Ireland on a sunny day. He was playing with his parents who were as white as I am and both wearing short shorts, so happy to see the sun that they wanted to expose as much of their bodies as they could to the warmth, to the change.

Check check check this out.

In the shuttle bus I look over the sleeping man’s shoulder to see what he was reading: Protests squelched in Iraq. The economy in Yemen on the verge of collapse. Soldiers killed in Pakistan.

“You want a cheeseburger? How do you want it cooked?”

Cement provides thermal mass, says the physicist. This is the idea behind a passive solar house.

I think about it when you touch me there.

I wear a collection of talismans around my neck, as if this could rip open the passageway between this world and the other world. I can’t want to cry into my lap each time I see someone who looks like someone Ronan might have been.

Throw your hands in the air.

I don’t need three wishes, just one. I would watch my son grow up.

This time baby, I’ll be bullet proof.

I’m always five minutes, maybe just five seconds behind that other baby, that boy, that man, that other body behind my own body that made Ronan’s body. Palm fronds sing quietly over my head.

The body, the body, the body. Why is it such a riddle?

“Are you guys like upset now…are you like…going to stand up here on this chair and like make out with me or what?

In the movie The Green Mile, the prison guards decide to take a chance and transport a convicted criminal with a gift for removing disease and sickness to the house of a woman who is dying a painful death. He takes the pain from her – I know what happens in the movie but I couldn’t watch it again. I turned off the television; it’s too close to home, that wish to see the disease taken, as if it could be sucked out, pushed out, like a cloud of black, fluttering, humming, winged bugs rising like dark smoke into the air. Gone, gone, gone.

Whatcha watcha whatcha want, whatcha want?

On the shuttle, the physicist uses the word nomenclature in a sentence. The older man snaps awake, nods off, snaps awake again. Neon green towels are draped over the pool chairs. I finger my locket with a strand of my son’s hair literally locked inside. A silver box full of holy dirt hangs from the silk string from my neck. Somebody drags a little girl with a sagging ponytail past the Bikini Bar, she looks swollen and sunburned and miserable. Skinny or fat, paunchy or six-packed, round butt or no butt, enhancements or not, everyone by this pool at the base of these mountains will, someday, die. What a simple world that revolves around how you look in your bikini and whether or not the dude at the end of the bar is going to buy you a shot! Or is it? Talking with Eloise in the airport yesterday, I was reminded that we are all complicated people moving through a complicated world – most of the time the world gives us easy solutions, simple answers, and other times it makes things more complicated, and the answers become more nuanced, if harder to unravel.

Who knows what kind of matter we might become? Who can tell what shapes we might make with our bodies, our minds, our hearts? Nobody. I hold my son’s body, the warm, solid weight of him. He opens his mouth and makes a sound like a dinosaur; sometimes he growls. Sometimes he squeals. He still smiles. He still laughs. I can happily claim him and he was given to me although he is not mine.

Pretty pretty please, don’t you ever ever feel like you’re nothing less than perfect

Tonight through the thin walls between rooms I can hear girls discussing what to wear to the bar. They shout to one another over the howl of a hairdryer. I hear shoes hitting the floor – no, no, not those. Someone keeps knocking on their door and I keep thinking it’s my friend Rob coming to collect me for dinner. “Hello?” I call out again and again.

A clatter of hangers in a closet. Squeals. These sounds of female intimacy are comforting to me, known to me, girls talking and putting on eyeliner and smoothing down skirts and trying to decide what to wear, girls talking to one another over shoulders, reaching over arms and laps for brushes and lotion, asking to borrow a purse, a jacket, a favorite pair of jeans, a tube of lipstick. Standing around, trying on a variety of looks, experimenting with the idea of having a different body through the clothes of a friend, asking do you think I should do this with my hair? before demonstrating the style, and the other girl might cock her head, watching her friend in the body she knows and recognizes, that is unique to her, that is her in some way, or a part of her, trying to help her feel good in her skin, to feel good in the world, even if the world is as small as the poolside area around the Bikini Bar. Girls stepping into cool closets full of recognizable items (that’s her favorite shirt; I’ve worn those jeans; I gave her that scarf), rooting through suitcases, sorting through jewelry boxes and offering advice. Wear what makes you feel like you. That wonder of peering into a friend’s closet and helping them select clothes, an act almost as tender as dressing a child, and just as intimate. And then, out of nowhere, I don’t feel betrayed anymore, but grateful. Tomorrow Tara and I will eat prime rib at a famous local joint. Rob and I are going to a cheap Mexican restaurant “off-resort.” YOWZA that looks good, one girl says to another. You look so good in that! Finally dressed, they trip by my room on their way to the Bikini Bar, the problems of their particular bodies, at least for tonight, solved.

Who knows what will happen to those girls? You are so cuuuute! What betrayals, bodily or otherwise, will these girls meet now, in the future, at another’s hands or maybe at their own? But as I open my door to watch them go, tripping down the hallway in their heels and short halter dresses and glossy, gleaming hair, I see one of them brush the hand of the other. The world of the beloved is always a small one, and it is often object-oriented — a lock of hair, a favorite shoe, a ring that was a gift – and sometimes it can be deciphered, decoded. The girl turns to the friend who touched her and smiles. Frank Sinatra crooning from the speakers now: come fly with me.

And then, at the end of the hallway, under a faux-glass chandelier, her gesture reflected in the mirrors lining all of the resort corridors, this magic moment, so clearly understood by any witness, so easy to decipher: the girl slings her bare arm around her friend’s gleaming shoulders and pulls her close.

I step back into my room to find that Rick has sent me a picture message of Ronan in his bouncer. There is spittle on his lip. I can see his rubber band wrist on the hand reaching out for his father’s face, his voice. The body: always a riddle to solve. Always, in some ways, a problem. And sometimes, to the person who loves that body so much more than her own, a gift.

6 responses to “Solving the Body Problem at the Bikini Bar

  1. Ems – thinking of you and missing you and wishing I could be hanging out with you in PS, which sounds surreal. Hoping that knowing that others are bearing witness to your struggle is helping a little. Kisses to you and Ronie Macaroni.

  2. Anne Liu Kellor

    Love this post, the juxtapositions of the lines of music, the details of the bodies, the small intimacies. So evocative and textured.

  3. This is so good.

  4. In awe, once again.

  5. Everything you write just resonates so deeply, so perfectly so beautifully I am grateful to you for sharing this journey-my dad passed away three weeks ago at the age of 68 and the pain of his loss is still very raw- I am trying to understand, to grieve and see the big picture and my place within it- Ronan’s life is a gift, every day is a precious precious gift.

  6. Sometimes, this blog is so hard to read, but all the time, it’s impossible not to. Thank you, Emily, for sharing yourself and your son with us to completely.

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