Swimsuit by Stephanie Springsteen

“Hon, you look naked in that swimsuit.”

My husband’s voice curls into my ear. His nose is in my hair, his hands on my waist. Our baby is sandwiched between us, tiny swim trunks riding so high on his pear-shaped body that he looks like a mini-Florida retiree. My husband’s tone is one part possessive and one part flirtatious. His voice competes with the echoes of splashes and squeals bouncing off the tiled surfaces of the indoor water park. The air is thick with chlorine and humidity. I smile, thinking I know what he means, but I’m not exactly sure all the same.

We are at a waterpark hotel in the suburbs, an hour’s drive from our Chicago home, for a weekend family getaway. Our five-year old daughter run-walks (running is prohibited) a circuit within the kiddie section, sliding from one small waterslide to the next. Her brown skin gleams over her equine spine, she is lean and long. There was never a moment of chubbiness in her babyhood. She is unlike her baby brother, whose thick white thighs grip my hip like a vice.

When my daughter was growing inside me, unborn, my husband was not jealous of me. He would not have cared if I looked naked in my swimsuit. It was the time between our two babies that was difficult.

That was a time too, when I probably would not have gone on a suburban weekend waterpark trip. I would have thought it was not cultured or quaint, or perfect, enough. The idea of a suburban hotel retreat would have been too pedestrian, too consumptionist to me. I would have spent a lot of time and effort and stress to create a “perfect” getaway. And surely that perfect getaway would have resulted in my crying in the middle of the trip because something had not turned out the way I planned.

After my husband’s swimsuit comment I hoist the baby into his arms so I can I go to the bathroom. The muscles in my legs strain to balance against the slick floors. Those muscles will ache tonight as we all pile into the king-sized bed of the hotel room, prop our backs against the pillows, and flip through the cable TV channels, breathing the tang of the air-conditioning.

I make my way past the wet swirling slides, over a faux bridge with a rope railing spanning the “lazy river,” to the women’s locker room. There I peek in the mirror.

My swimsuit is white and I am afraid what my husband meant is that you can see the color of my flesh and bulges of my post-partum belly. But the swimsuit is lined and my fears are not realized – though wet it still appears white, not transparent. Its dress-like shape floats away from my belly and does not cling. I found it featured in a magazine article about swimsuits designed to hide the flaws of a “mom” figure.

The water park is filled with teenage and twenty-something girls in micro-bikinis with round breasts and taught bellies. In the presence of these girls the idea that my mom swimsuit is erotic to anyone, strikes me as amusing. That it is erotic to my husband is reassuring.

While the swimsuit is not clinging and not transparent, I see the outline of my nipples. This probably inspired my husband’s “naked” comment. It does not bother me, though it once may have made me self-conscious. I am still nursing the baby and my breasts feel about erotic to me as my arms. In the bevy of half-naked younger girls I feel inconspicuous enough.

I move to a claustrophobic stall to use the toilet, peeling down the sticky wet suit so that I can go, then with monumental effort pull the suit back up, my skin cold and rubbery as I tug the swimsuit, squeezing myself back into it’s “shape-enhancing” lining. As I leave the locker room the young girls are checking their looks, meeting their own eyes in the mirrors. They want to impress. They don’t know what they are in for.

***

When I met my husband in college he would lope around campus like a bouncing question mark, his posture a curve, skinny inside his baggy clothes. He was not a big guy – no taller than I. He was always quick to ingratiate himself with others, which I then thought of as kindness and gentleness. I never saw him lose his temper. He seemed so non-threatening, a guy who would not, could not hurt me. I understand now why the idea of harmlessness appealed to me. My dad had spent years drilling the mantra “boys only want one thing” into my head, my mom was afraid for me to walk anywhere outside alone, day or night, lest I get abducted, and college campuses were rife with seminars on date rape and domestic violence. Though I had experienced none of these things, their threats breathed down my neck.

But there was more to my future husband than his seeming harmlessness. I remember the first time I met him.

A girlfriend of mine introduced us. She and I were sophomores, he a freshman. “You two have a lot in common,” said the friend, “he goes to the same parties you do – in the city. And he has the same poster in his dorm room that you have in yours.”

She introduced us in the lobby of the school cafeteria. I took in his baggy jeans, his backwards baseball cap, and slouchy stance. I was wearing slacks and a blouse, just back from my part-time job as a bank teller, having had to work part-time to pay my way through college. This guy thinks he’s so cool was my first thought. In defense of this perceived snobbery, I put on my most “I-don’t-care-look.” I tried to act grown-up and professional. I stuck out my hand to shake his. He shook my hand and said “nice to meet you.”

Then, to my surprise, he wiped his hand hard along the thigh of his jeans. “Sorry,” he said, “my hands get kinda sweaty.”

I immediately felt relieved. He did not think he was cooler than I. He was embarrassed. I felt more comfortable. I had not even noticed his hands were sweaty, but I admired that he admitted this vulnerability – put it out there to avoid any awkwardness. It would be couple more years before we would date, but I had a new friend.

He found his passion for art classes in college. He painted cartoon-like characters oozing color and humor and vulnerability. But his folks had pressured him relentlessly to become a doctor, and changing his studies from Pre- Med/Biology to Art won him no end of grief from them. Yet he stuck to his guns, and went on to graduate with a degree in Fine Arts.

So I began to see him as a person willing to be himself: his goofy, creative, vulnerable self, no matter what others thought. And that is what eventually turned friendship into attraction, for me.

He and I started dating my senior year, and after five years were married in a white-steepled country chapel with artful black and white photos to prove it.

But he and I continued to look mismatched. Commuting on the train together to our separate jobs with different dress codes, I would be in a blouse and slacks, he in a t-shirt and jeans. I looked like the grownup, he the kid. Often it seemed people did not think we were a couple. Sometimes they would walk right between us. At a fast food restaurant I would have to answer “I’m with him,” even though he had just ordered for both of us.

At home, if the furnace was broken, I would be the one to call for repairs. I would be the one to find the best deal, show the workers what to do, argue when the work was not done right. He would be afraid to offend, to make demands for himself, for us.

Before our daughter was born, we were at a party with a girlfriend of mine. My husband sat off to the side as my girlfriend and I chatted. Two guys approached us, drinks in hand, and began to chat. They were bores. It was clear they thought I was single. I threw a “rescue me” look to my husband. I did not expect him to make threats, or start a fight. I thought he would come stand beside me, put his arm around my waist, give the non-verbal “back-off” cues. He did nothing but smirk, amused at my predicament.

Around this time I read a novel in which the husband and wife are mugged. The attacker points a gun on the wife and tells the husband to turn around and run. He does. The attack is halted by another bystander, the wife is fine. But the image of the wimpy husband, running away, stays and replays in the wife’s head. He is running away, getting small, getting smaller, over and over again. She eventually has an affair, they divorce.

***

Shortly before the party incident I had gotten pregnant, accidentally. There was a miscarriage, then, a difference of reactions. I was bereft. He was relieved. At first he promised we would “try again – right away,” but then took to avoid discussing the topic at all costs. We went to counseling for less than year, he reluctantly agreed to a second pregnancy. I became pregnant with our daughter. Even the counselor was surprised when I announced my pregnancy.

At his work, he befriended a woman. I knew about other female friends of his, had met them all. I had male friends to. But he didn’t talk about this woman right away. Then he told me he was going out to dinner with a guy friend, and before he left for dinner, admitted he really had plans with this woman friend. I had never heard her name before. “Don’t worry, she’s married,” he had said, and “she’s just a friend.”

It was made clear that I wasn’t invited along to dinner. “That would be weird,” he said, “I wouldn’t be able to talk to her.” I knew it was wrong, I felt helpless, hurt. What do you say when you are big and pregnant and your husband wants to have dinner with a woman you don’t know and you are not invited? I could have said no, but I sensed he would have gone behind my back, at another time. I felt trapped, and I focused on the new baby about to enter our lives. I tried to chalk it up to new Dad jitters.

Our daughter was born, and I didn’t hear any more about the woman.

But things during that year had changed. My husband had stopped looking at me. He had stopped ogling me in his trademark adolescent way. He would walk out of a room I was in and turn out the light, forgetting I was there.

It continued this way. We were caught up in being parents. We talked only about our daughter – how cute, how smart she was. When our daughter turned two he applied for a new job without telling me. A dream job. Once he got the offer we planned to move to California. I felt I couldn’t say no – it was a great opportunity, his dream. But he became more and more distant, I more and more anxious. I had no friends in California, no family. I was realizing that I could hardly have a conversation with my husband here at home, who would I talk to in California? I foresaw nothing but loneliness, isolation in a new state as a stay-at-home mom. Friends were envious that I would be moving to a warmer climate, but I cried regularly.

The upcoming move brought things to a head. There was a night my husband and I were lying in bed together. I had to know. I had to push for the information I didn’t want. He was facing the wall and I was laying down next to him, looking at the back of his head. I asked about her.

I was surprised to hear of the woman’s divorce and her new boyfriend. Instinct put a question in my head. It was the most painful and embarrassing I have ever had to ask:

“Are you jealous of her new boyfriend?”

He whispered to the wall: “I think so.”

***

The stupid thing that night is that I thought they were about to have an affair, that it was something that could still be prevented.

The stupider thing was that I thought only a different kind of man had affairs. The men who like sports, who are big and muscled, who openly flirt with women. Not the kind of husband I had picked.

Over the next few weeks I would find out that the affair had been happening – on and off – since I was pregnant. Looking back, it made perfect sense. But in that moment, with my husband facing the wall, admitting being jealous of someone else’s boyfriend – it was like someone shining a flashlight in my eyes. It hurt. I couldn’t see.

***

I breastfeed my baby several times during the day under an apron specially designed for breastfeeding. I sit in my wet suit in a plastic chair on a scratchy waterpark-issue towel. I watch children line up in a shallow pool at the bottom of a wet jungle gym, waiting for a giant pineapple to tip over and dump a load of water which will crash down on them in a white explosion of squeals. The air is close and humid under the thin cotton apron, where my baby’s damp skin and suit press against mine. The apron is printed with a cute pattern of starburst shapes which my baby has taken to noticing from under his canopy and which he finds more fascinating than my breast. He stops every few seconds from drinking his milk to stare at the pattern and try to grab it with his chubby hand. He is soft and round and red in the cheeks.

After a while I ask my husband to hold the baby, so I can attempt one of the adult water slides. Moving step by step in line up a wet staircase to the top of the slide, the outside landscape slowly reveals itself through the tall windows. A solid rain falls into a pond with ducks, circled by prairie grass. It is calm and scenic. But the higher I move the more I see. The pond is tucked into the elbow of a highway on-ramp, where cars glide past construction equipment, piles of dirt and a dump truck.

The water slides protrude outside of the building from the top and curl back inside at the ground level, like plastic macaroni dripping rain onto the concrete below. Inside the building, I hurl myself down the dark plastic tube, where I get twirled and twisted and dropped.

One night in the weeks after discovering the affair I was driving home from a far suburb. Snow blanketed street signs on the unlit road so I could not tell where I was going. Visions of my husband and the other woman tumbled over and over in my brain. It was just my daughter and me, and she began whimpering in her car seat behind me.

She wanted out. But I could not stop the car. It was too dark, the streets were too isolated. Another vision of my husband and the woman. I could not stop them. My skin began to crawl. My daughter began to scream. We were at least an hour from home. I made a wrong turn, then another. I could not catch my breath. I approached a railroad track. A train was crossing. I had a flash – just a flash – of a vision of me driving the two of us into it.

At the bottom of the waterslide I slosh around in the catch pool, where it is now bright and noisy and exuberant. I see my husband standing on the side, waiting, watching, smiling. The baby is balanced on his hip, our daughter holding his hand. “There’s mom!” he says to her. He is looking at, not past, me. When I climb out of the pool he will remind me again that I “look naked.” His stance is wide, his feet anchored, and his shoulders are now broad. We make our way to a lukewarm hot tub, lit turquoise from below.

We worked to recover our marriage. We went to counseling once a week. We read books about affairs. He took deliberate steps recommended to rebuild trust – let me read his emails, follow him to work, call him at any moment.

Anything I needed. For as long as I needed. We looked at the patterns of our behavior and deliberately changed them. Both of us. There was no magic moment when I said “I am so in love with you that I forgive you.” There was no scene where he ran after me in slow motion with a fistful of wildflowers. His affair was like a fulcrum in our lives, a prism where the light comes in and comes out split, divided into its separate parts. Over the course of several months, he became more like a grownup. And I became less of one.

***

The next day as we leave the hotel the sky is a steel drizzle. I stand outside with the kids waiting for my husband to pull up the car. A balding man in a sleeveless shirt is smoking nearby. He is shivering, hugging himself against the chill. My husband pulls the up the car. As I am about to get in the man suddenly becomes animated. He makes conversation with me about the model of our car, a battered station wagon. I wonder about the guy’s enthusiasm.

Once I am in the car my husband says “that guy’s a creep, I saw him lurking around the hot tub.”

I imagine the guy standing around the hot tub watching the young girls with round breasts in bikinis and I think so why does that bother my husband? Then, thinking with alarm about my daughter: “creep,” as in he’s looking at the little girls?

“Hmmph.” I say, as we drive away.

Later that night at home with the kids asleep my husband and I sneak into our bedroom to do what we had not been able to do with the kids in the hotel room: make love. With his arms around me and his skin warm he says again “you looked naked in that swimsuit” with a smile.

“What do you mean naked? – it wasn’t like you could see through the fabric,” I say.

“But I could see the outline of your boobs and nipples,” he explains, “they were just hanging – no support – it was just like you were walking around….here” and motions around the bedroom. And I am surprised to hear that he thinks I look sexy just walking around the house.

“That guy was looking at you in the hot tub.”

Oh, the ‘creep!’

I nestle into the normalcy of his jealousy, his irritation, his desire to hold me and make love to me, and find me sexy in a mom swimsuit.

________________________________________________________________________

About the Author

Stephanie Springsteen lives in Chicago with her husband, son, and daughter.  Her work has appeared in Cup of Comfort for Couples, Loyola University’s Cadence, and she studies memoir at StoryStudio Chicago.  This piece originally appeared in Cup of Comfort for Couples under the title “The Prism.”  It has been reprinted with the author’s permission.