In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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in 1960 I was one of the few people I knew who owned a bikini. They had been around for a while but were still considered fairly risqué. Mine was pink, was made of cotton, and tied around the neck. The bottoms were nothing like the ones you see today, cut so high they appear to be missing their backs. Mine were like a pair of briefs, which was daring enough for 1960 — just about the limit.
The bikini was the perfect invention for me, as I liked being naked and always tried to go without clothing as often as possible. In my apartment it was easy: I could take off my clothes whenever I felt like it. In public, though, it was harder. Sometimes the best I could do was not wear socks. It wasn’t as if I was trying to show anything off. (I didn’t really have anything to show.) It was more to do with feeling of a piece: waistbands seemed to cut me in half, I couldn’t feel my hands beyond my shirt cuffs.
“Put some clothes on, Vanessa,” my older sister, Allison, would say when we were growing up. We shared a room, so Allison saw me naked a lot. If you’d asked me the color of her eyes back then, I couldn’t have told you, for all the time she spent averting them. Allison was a prude. She always wore pajamas to bed, wouldn’t talk about sex, and turned her back when she got dressed in the morning so I wouldn’t see her breasts. It was the way most of the girls in the locker room at school acted, and it made me feel like we weren’t sisters.
I tormented Allison with my nudity. Even in winter, when the upstairs was the coldest part of our house, I’d lie naked on top of my sheets, waiting for her to finish brushing her teeth. She’d always give a small start when she saw me, then quickly turn out the light. “I’m still naked, you know,” I’d say after a few minutes in the dark.
Then Allison got pregnant while still in high school. My parents sent her to live with an aunt in New Jersey, and I had the bedroom all to myself. I thought about Allison a lot after that. To me, she was still a prude. If she hadn’t been so uncomfortable with her body, she would’ve gotten herself some rubbers at the drugstore or something. I knew what happened to her would never happen to me, and it never did.
Allison didn’t return home. She gave the baby up for adoption and got a job as a secretary in Manhattan. Meanwhile, I finished high school and got a scholarship to an all-girls college in upstate New York. The idea of my going to an all-girls school seemed to alarm Allison. She wrote me several letters explaining the difficulties of meeting men “on the outside,” as she put it, and urging me to attend a coed college and meet “the cute and cuddly ones” while I still could. It meant a lot to me that she bothered to stay in touch, so I gave her letters some thought. In the end, I came home and enrolled in Syracuse University’s School of Journalism.
Shawki and I started dating the spring of my junior year. He was an exchange student from Cairo, brilliant not only in his field, engineering, but in everyone else’s field, as well. He knew American politics better than we Americans did, and when any of us needed to check our facts on the Middle East, we skipped the library altogether in favor of lunch with Shawki. He convinced us all that the Israelis should get out of Palestine, that the fundamentalists didn’t care about Egypt’s antiquities, and that the only proper way to drink tea was in a glass with lemon. Everyone wanted Shawki to come to their parties. Though his English was only so-so, he wasn’t shy about mingling, and his intensity never prevented him from having a good time. He’d argue heatedly while wearing pointed party hats on either side of his head. He eagerly shared the recipe for his secret fava-bean dip.
In private Shawki was sweet, removing his glasses and turning away when I took off my clothes — not because he disapproved, as Allison had, but because he didn’t know what else to do. “You are the first woman of me,” he confessed shyly, and I smiled to fill the empty space he left for my confession — one I’d already made years earlier to a boy named Joel in high school.
After we had been dating awhile, I wrote to Allison, saying, “He’s not cute and cuddly, but will brilliant and sophisticated do?” I thought she would write back with something like “That’s even better,” or “Could you find one for me?” But I didn’t hear from her at all until a couple of months later, when she called me out of the blue. “Is he there?” she whispered as soon as I picked up the phone.
“Is he there?” she whispered again.
“Who?” I asked.
“I can’t pronounce his name. Your friend.”
“Yes. Is he there?”
I glanced around my apartment. I knew Shawki wasn’t there, but the way Allison was whispering made me feel as if I were missing something. “No,” I said.
“Good.” She was speaking in her normal voice now. “I need to talk to you in private. I think you’re making a mistake.”
“What did I do?”
“I think you should date someone American.”
“Why?” Allison laughed. “Don’t act like you don’t know, Vanessa. Don’t act like you live in some separate world from the rest of us. You’ll ruin your reputation, for God’s sake. You’ll never get married.”
I looked around my apartment again. My print of van Gogh’s The Starry Night was hanging somewhat askew, and I reminded myself to fix it later. I said, “I guess I should expect that from someone who doesn’t even have a college degree.”
There was silence at the other end of the line. I stared at The Starry Night and tried to straighten it with my mental powers, cocking my head in the direction I wanted it to go.
“He’s not black, is he?” Allison asked finally. “Is he a black man?”
“No,” I said, “he’s light brown.”
“Well, at least there’s that.”
I started to cry a little. Tears dripped into the holes of the telephone receiver, and for a second I wondered if I could get electrocuted. “Don’t call me anymore,” I said.
That night, when Shawki and I made love, he asked if he had been my first. “Yes,” I whispered in his ear, “of course.” As soon as I said it, I was sorry. I had meant to give him something out of love, but instead it came out sounding like charity: Of course I’d give my womanhood to you, a black man. From that moment on, I couldn’t stop feeling as if I had something to prove.
By summer, things had changed. Shawki had taken to going through my closet and dividing the clothes into two sections: those he liked and those he didn’t like. These soon became the clothes I should wear with him and the clothes I should wear by myself — then, simply, the clothes I should wear and the clothes I should not. His least favorite item was a summer top with straps that tied over each shoulder. “Someone can pull the string and you will be exposed immediately,” he explained, moving it to the should-not-wear side. I nodded gravely from my bed.
Still, I didn’t break up with him. His distaste for exposed skin reminded me of Allison, which was vaguely comforting. I wore the shirt with the shoulder ties more and more, always leaving one of the strings loose so that it would eventually come undone. I mixed up the Shoulds and the Should Nots so that each time Shawki came over he had to reorder my closet. I spilled food on the Shoulds and shrank them in the dryer. I missed my sister.
That summer, Shawki built a small sailboat from a kit. He painted the hull gold and stenciled Nefertiti in black letters on the prow, along with a freehand ankh. It was a one-man boat, really, but Shawki was sure we could both fit. “You are skinny,” he told me. “It will be such that you are not even there.”
We took the boat to Skaneateles Lake one Saturday to try it out. The public launching ramp was just off East Lake Road, down a dirt path lined with weeds and trees. We drove down to the shore, unloaded the sailboat from the roof of Shawki’s Fiat, then parked up the hill a ways, next to a station wagon with an empty boat trailer attached. Shawki got out of the car and examined the trailer. Patting it, he said, “Someday I will get one.”
I wore my pink bikini under my shorts and T-shirt. Shawki had pronounced it a Should Not as soon as I’d bought it and had quickly stuffed it into the pocket of a pair of “too-tight” jeans in the back of my closet. I took it out after he left and put it in my underwear drawer, where it brightened up all the whites and beiges. I wore the top as a bra when I knew Shawki and I would make love, and was gratified by the flash of anger that passed over his face before he quickly untied it and pulled it off me.
But today would be the first time I had worn the bikini in public. While Shawki was down by the shore raising the sail, I took off my shorts and T-shirt and tossed them in the back of the Fiat. I thought about taking off my sneakers, then remembered something Shawki had said about needing traction on a boat and changed my mind.
“Go back and get your clothes,” he said when he saw me coming toward him.
I nodded, went back, and got my sunglasses from the glove compartment. “How’s that?” I said, returning with them on.
He looked away.
“C’mon, Shawki,” I said. “It’s kind of funny.”
He wouldn’t look at me.
Shawki’s mood changed once we got out on the water. It turned out he was a pretty good sailor. He had never sailed before, but he had read a book about it, which was just about all Shawki ever needed to do. We skimmed along the bright green lake, our sail cracking, the boat’s fiberglass body showing no signs of springing a leak. Shawki slowed when we passed a house along the shore that he particularly admired. “How about that one?” he asked, shielding his eyes from the sun and pointing to a log cabin. “I take that one.”
“It’s OK,” I said. I’d tried hard all my life not to be too impressed with Skaneateles. I loved the lake, but the wealthy town perched on its shore I could do without. When I was little and we had out-of-town guests, my parents always brought them here — as if where we lived on Syracuse’s north side wasn’t good enough. “Welcome to paradise,” Allison would mumble each time we smelled cow dung on the trip out — which was often — and we’d giggle in our corner of the back seat.
Shawki and I sailed toward the village of Skaneateles, a strip of shore bordered by shops and a lengthy pier. We had done well so far, managing to avoid the other boats on the lake. A race had approached at one point, but Shawki had maneuvered us out of their path, calmly instructing himself in Arabic under his breath. He was becoming accustomed to the two-handed job of steering and controlling the position of the sail; my only job was to move out of the way when he wanted to put the sail where I was sitting.
I had just twisted my hair into a knot at the nape of my neck when three young men whizzed by us in a boat twice the size of ours, whistling and yelling, “Hey, hot stuff!” They were all shirtless, and one wore a captain’s hat. Shawki tried to steer us away from them, but he needn’t have bothered; they were going much faster than we were, and disappeared as quickly as they had come upon us. Nefertiti rocked a bit in their wake. Shawki stopped steering and let the sail go slack, leaving me to focus on the water sloshing over the edge of the boat and onto my sneakers.
“I wish to return,” Shawki said suddenly.
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m tired,” he said. “Ready about!”
“I told you in the car — ready about!”
It was true: he had told me in the car. This was sailing jargon and it meant I was supposed to do something. I just couldn’t remember what.
“Tell me in regular language,” I said, “just this once.”
“Ready about!” Shawki insisted. Then he said, “Hard alee!” and hit me with the sail.
It didn’t really hurt, but I was balanced so precariously on the side of the boat that it knocked me into the water. When I surfaced, I found my plastic sunglasses floating beside me. “Jesus,” I said. The lake was deep and so stayed very cold, even in summer. I briefly wished for a one-piece, thinking it might’ve quelled the sting of water on my belly.
Shawki was sailing away from me. He had turned the boat around — I now remembered what “ready about” and “hard alee” were supposed to signal — and was heading back toward the launching ramp. There was no point in panicking or calling out to him; he was just trying to scare me. I knew he would eventually come back, and he did.
What I didn’t know was that he wouldn’t stop. Instead, he coasted by and yelled at me, “Get up!”
I reached for the boat, but there was nothing to grab on to — no hooks, no indentations, nothing. My hands slipped right off the fiberglass. “How am I supposed to —” I hollered after him, but he wasn’t listening, and I was almost out of breath from treading water in my sneakers, so I stopped calling.
He made a second pass. This time he slowed down a little, as if to be helpful. “Get up,” he said again. I reached for the boat halfheartedly. Mostly I kept my eyes on him. By the time my hands slid off, I had been dragged along a couple of feet.
On the third pass I just watched him go by. He didn’t tell me to get up, and I didn’t try.
I grabbed my sunglasses, still floating nearby, and put them on. By now Shawki had put so much distance between us that I knew he wouldn’t turn around again, so I excluded him from my plans. In an effort to conserve energy, I experimented with how slowly I could tread water and still stay afloat. I was hoping to save myself, and would need every ounce of strength I could muster. A last check on Shawki revealed him to be a billowy speck. He had wanted me covered up and now I was, in deep green water.
It made the most sense to head for one of the private docks near town, roughly an hour’s swim. The breast stroke had always been my favorite, so I went with that until my arms got tired, at which point I pitched my sunglasses and changed to freestyle. I wasn’t a bad swimmer. I had joined the swim team in high school, attracted by the idea of getting to take off my clothes for educational purposes. (Allison had joined the ski club.) I’d even set a school record. Shawki knew this, which was probably why he felt safe leaving me in the middle of the lake.
I swam as long as I could without stopping. While my face was in the water, I imagined Shawki turning around after all. He might have found my sunglasses on his way back and worried that I had drowned. When at last he stopped to help me back on, the glasses would be waiting for me on the boat, dried and folded.
Finally, I looked up, half expecting to see Shawki beside me, but he was nowhere in sight. Or if he was somewhere in the distance, he was obscured by the bright sun and the film that coated my eyes from having opened them underwater.
At last I heaved myself onto one of the docks, my lungs burning. I stomped my feet, trying to get some of the squish out of my sneakers, and adjusted my bikini, which had shifted during the swim. I was irritated with Shawki but at the same time proud of my accomplishment: I had not needed his help getting back to shore. In fact, I did not need him at all; I would break up with him the next time I saw him.
I walked up the dock and into the back yard of a large beige house with black shutters. The grass looked untouched, and for a moment I wondered if I should take off my shoes. A brand-new picnic table sat about halfway up a slight incline, and close to it were a swing set, a jungle gym, and a red wagon, all draped in bright bows. Panting lightly, I made my way toward the house. As I passed the elevated, screened-in back porch, I heard a voice say, “Excuse me.”
I stopped and looked up. A woman in her midtwenties with a messy blond ponytail peered down at me from the porch, both hands supporting her back. She was standing as close to me as her stomach, which was touching the screen, would allow. I had visited Allison in New Jersey when she was seven months pregnant, and I guessed this woman was about that far along.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was just swimming. I didn’t mean to trespass.”
“Where did you get that?” the woman asked.
At first I didn’t know what she meant. I didn’t have anything. Then I said, “You mean my bikini?”
“Would you mind telling me?”
“No, I got it in Syracuse. The Addis Company.”
“Were there any left?” she asked.
“Sure, a few.”
“Sorry about trespassing,” I said.
“I don’t care,” she said. She sighed. “Did you swim across the lake or something?”
“Sort of. Yeah.”
“I swim at night,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to see me like this.”
“My boyfriend pushed me off his boat,” I blurted out.
“My husband’s a doctor,” she said.
We stood quietly for a moment until the woman abruptly said goodbye and headed back into her house. I waited until she was safely inside — as Shawki sometimes did for me when he dropped me off at my apartment — then cut through her circular driveway and woody front yard, out to East Lake Road.
The walk back to the launching ramp was a couple of miles. I stuck close to the trees on the shoulder, occasionally glimpsing a house through the trunks and branches. A few men whistled as they drove by, and one yelled, “Hey, baby, want a ride?” but none bothered to pull over. I felt as comfortable with myself as ever in that moment, even glad Shawki had knocked me into the water. At last I was free to go, to leave him for who he was, not where he came from.
As I walked, I started thinking about my sister and the time I’d visited her in New Jersey. We had picked peaches from our aunt’s tree and made a pie with a crisscross top. Allison ate half of it in one sitting, then burped and lifted her shirt to show me her maternity pants. She laughed and said she would keep them after the baby was born; they might come in handy over the holidays.
I had almost cried to see my sister’s stomach through the stretchy white fabric that day. Now I thought I might call her tonight after breaking up with Shawki. Maybe we could work something out, I thought. Maybe I wouldn’t date another exchange student.
Suddenly I had to pee, urgently. I remembered feeling the same way after swim meets at school, as if by osmosis my bladder had filled in the pool. I ducked into the brush between houses, pulled my bottoms down, and squatted. The delicate sound of my pee hitting the dirt was periodically interrupted by the whoosh of cars just a few feet away. When I finished, I dripped dry, pulled my bottoms up, and looked briefly at the dark spot I had left on the ground. Then I headed back out to the road, where, in an instant, Shawki’s boat passed me by.
At first I thought it was Shawki himself, taking this whole thing too far and leaving me in Skaneateles. But it wasn’t his car; it was the station wagon we’d parked next to at the ramp. Besides carrying Shawki’s boat on its roof, it was pulling another boat on the trailer. But it had definitely been Shawki’s boat on top. There was no mistaking that gold hull.
I ran the rest of the way back to the ramp. I got more honks and whistles running, but I didn’t care. I needed to get back to Shawki, to make sure he was OK — and then break it off with him.
When I found him, he was sitting on the ground near the car with his knees pulled in close to his body and his head between them. There were red marks on the sides of his calves. “What happened?” I asked, out of breath.
He looked up, and I realized he wasn’t wearing his glasses. It took me a couple of seconds to notice the other red mark across his cheek. “The boys take my boat,” he said. His eyes were watery.
“Who like your swimming suit.”
I looked down at my bikini, then reached around the back and pulled the bottoms down where they had hiked up. “Let’s call the police, Shawki,” I said. “C’mon. Let’s get to a phone.”
“No,” he said firmly.
“Let’s get your boat back, Shawki.”
“I don’t want it!” he said. He stood up and looked out at the lake. “Please drive. I cannot see.”
I drove us to the police station, but Shawki wouldn’t go inside. When I tried to go in alone, he grabbed my arm so tight it hurt. For as long as I’d known him, it was the only time he’d ever really scared me. I started the car back up and drove us home.
Shawki was upset about the boat, but he seemed more upset that the boys who had stolen it had called him a nigger. “I tell them I am Egyptian!” he cried. “I tell them, ‘Do you see this rope that you are tying my boat to your car? This rope is from me! I invent you this rope for to steal!’ ” They had hit him with the rope. The boy with the captain’s hat had taken his glasses and thrown them into the lake. “The Captain,” Shawki called him simply: “The Captain roll down his window when he leave and tell me he will find you, Vanessa. He will find you and take you home safe.”
I didn’t break up with Shawki that night, nor did I call Allison. A couple of weeks later Shawki and I were still together; two years later we were married. Nothing much ever changed between us. Shawki bought me turtlenecks for my birthday. When I got pregnant and started to show, he refused to walk down the street with me.
Allison eventually apologized and learned to pronounce Shawki’s name. She didn’t want to miss out on being an aunt, she said, and I needed a sister, particularly after the divorce. Going through some boxes during the settlement, I came across my pink bikini, which I hadn’t worn since that day. With a little effort, I could squeeze myself into it.