I can hardly believe it is already the end of August and Labor Day is nearly upon us. I feel like I have barely had any time to enjoy, never mind stretch, my newfound fledgling confidence muscles regarding my new swimming costume (as a friend from South Africa calls it). And even though I haven’t gotten out too much, not having actually gone all the way in the water, I know I have made some strides. I’ve been far more comfortable this summer than any summer I can remember since my childhood. I haven’t agonized (much) over summer attire, what to wear and how to feel out in public. I haven’t been completely paralyzed by how the heat makes me sweat, sticking clothing to my body or leaving sweat rings under my armpits. Neither have I focused on or lamented the baby-bird-like tufts of fuzz randomly patterning my unshaven legs. I’ve been out and about in fairly normal shorts and regular t-shirts without hyperventilating. And I’ve gone to the beach and been relatively relaxed. I’d even go as far as to say I enjoyed my two beach visits. But as the island song warns, one step forward and two steps backwards….
The suburb of Boston I live in boasts both a lake and a public pool. Though in purchasing passes for our family last year we got a pass for me, I did not go once. Emily took the girls to either lake or pool and I stayed home. It was simply and literally too close to home and too difficult for me. And so it was, with a hesitant experimental fortitude, I offered to take the girls to the pool after work and camp one day last week. I even went as far as to wear my floral Hawaiian-style swim trunks and a tank top (not to mention flip flops). Perhaps I pushed the envelope, taunted the gods of boldness and chutzpah.
As the head of this happy entourage I led my brood with a jaunty step (as jauntily as anyone new to flip flops can actually move) down the street to the public pool. The entrance to the pool is up several steps and I went slowly alongside Joita to lend support (she preferred going through the main entrance like everyone else rather than going around, singled out, through the handicap entrance). A young woman at the top of the stairs, sitting at a table in the building’s entryway was welcoming people and directing them through the building to the pool out back. As I held my pass out for her to check, I noticed that behind her were two distinct and separate hallways. One to the left and one to the right. Left for women, right for men. She looked up at me and then at Joita and Nina and pointed off behind her. To the left.
The opening of the hallway was dark and cool, but did nothing to chill my shame. This hallway led in a zig-zag maze through a women’s changing room and locker room, through a women’s bathroom and then around a corner and literally right through the middle of the women’s showers before finally reaching the doorway to the outdoor pool. I was surprised I hadn’t spontaneously combusted by the time we got there. The only thing that stopped a full-blown panic attack was the fact that I was the only semblance of an adult my children had and I had to be present for them.
I tried to banish the icky sensations of the surprised, questioning, or worse, stares I’d received as I walked through the women’s hallway (I felt them but did not actually see them as my eyes were firmly glued to my feet the entire way through the labyrinthine corridors of the women’s inner sanctum). My shame was not about whether or not I am actually a man or a woman. My shame was founded and grounded in those awkward stares and glares that sent unequivocal and sometimes loud messages of “you do not belong here” (which, as an aside, I would have gotten in the men’s hallway too). Message received. Thank you. Unfortunately, I just don’t know what to do about it. Other than pretend invisibility and avert my gaze. I don’t seem to belong anywhere.
Jo and Nina swam happily together and apart in the shallow end of the big pool as I stewed in my own suffering and relived over and over in my mind’s eye that long walk (I am reminded of Cersei Lannister’s long naked walk through the city with the harsh voice of the church matron screaming “SHAME!” over and over while ringing that insufferable bell – sorry for those of you who are not Game Of Thrones addicts).
Anyway, Nina is at that stage where she can swim too well for the kiddie pool and not exactly well enough for the bigger pool, so she needs constant attention. She frolicked and jumped in from the stairs and basically kept me distracted as I sat slumped on the edge of the pool, legs dangling in the water. I’m sure my already poor posture was only exacerbated by my inner misery. I tried valiantly (though I’m quite sure I utterly failed) to look happy and engaged with my children, while I took deep calming breaths in an attempt to just let it go.
I make it a point, if at all possible, to not use public restrooms for just this reason. As a parent, there are times I have no control over whether or not I have to go into the women’s bathroom. Children seem to have a predisposition to needing to go to the bathroom anywhere outside of their home, no matter how gross the public bathrooms may be. At those times, I make an exaggerated effort to loudly attend to my little girl. As if her gender and presence permits me, somehow, to be there. In some instances in life, (being called either sir or ma’am by salespeople or in line at Starbucks) I laughingly jokingly proclaim the awkwardness, naming my shame or openly poking fun at my neither here nor there existence. But I can’t do that when nakedness is part of the equation. I can’t do that in bathrooms or changing rooms where people are in relatively compromised positions. I just don’t know how to get around that.
What would they have done if I were a dad with his two girls? Certainly not sent me through the labyrinth of naked and scantily-clothed women’s quarters. I have since fantasized about what might have happened if I’d just stopped the insanity before it got out of my hands. What if I’d looked at the separate women’s and men’s entrances and said, “Is there another way to get to the pool?” Alternately I can envision that going either way. The gatekeeper could either have said, “oh, sure.” Or she could have called for her supervisor who could have asked, “What is the problem?” Sigh. I wish there were an easy answer.
In other news, I tried my hand at mini-golf. I suck. But not because I am neither man nor woman. Regardless, or maybe because it had nothing to do with gender, I enjoyed it.