Once in my adult life, I bought a swimsuit that was perfect.
At the time, I was hoping to use it to get a young man to return to me. He and I and another couple were going to spend a weekend at a hotel, where the other couple could reconnect after he was away at grad school, and my errant young sports writer could see what a mistake he had made in moving 200 miles away and deciding it was over.
The suit was a once-piece, but one of those marvels of physics that sent everything I didn't like about my body into another dimension, not visible to the naked eye. I looked svelte without looking heavy. I looked strong and tall without resembling a scary Amazon (the sports writer in question was smaller than me). And I know there's nothing wrong with looking heavy or like a scary Amazon, but right then, I didn't want to. It made me look like I wanted to, which was pretty heady stuff. The suit was dark blue splashed with large white stars. It looked a little retro and made me feel amazing. It was also $72 , and I didn't even care.
The weekend, as it turned out, was a bust. I took the swimsuit with me to Russia as a relic of when I felt perfect. By the time I left Minneapolis for St. Petersburg on a cold January day, I had run through three other guys and imagined that I was old and jaded (I was 23). But I knew that by the time summer came, I would be ready for the swimsuit again.
And I was. After a long, homesick spring marred by a burglary, a lack of friends and the discovery that my Russian crush was married, June found me on top of the town. By that time I had assembled a good group of people to hang out with, I loved my job, and had come to terms with the marital status of the man who resembled Robert Plant. On a Sunday afternoon, I decided to don the suit and soak up some sun.
I prided myself on blending in — not so much trying to look Russian, but more not looking American. I dressed in comfortable clothes, and concentrated on looking invisible instead of looking Russian. I became very, very good at this. When I spoke to people and they asked where I was from, I would challenge them to guess. Most often they would choose Finland or Germany, and if I told them I was an American I was invariably greeted with disbelief, never explained. A couple of times, on good language days, I was pegged as Ukrainian. I would never be mistaken for Russian, but my accent was difficult to identify, and I kept subtle in ways that Americans rarely did there.
Expats, for all their worldly ways, are petty and competitive. If you land in Russia at 1 p.m., the person who landed at noon will lord it over you for at least three weeks, having discovered the customs lines and nonfunctional luggage carousel before you did -- they've had that much more time to go native and learn things you never will. We each had our own level of native we tried to achieve. Men who could wore beards. Those who couldn't (or wouldn't) were often picked out for foreign. Some of us had more obviously non-Russian faces than others. Some of us just faded into the background.
And sometimes, no matter what you did, it was obvious you were an outsider.
On this day I was wearing a sleeveless button-down silk blouse and a long floral skirt. I had my suit on underneath, and my plastic bag with a towel and a book. The plastic bag was a must for blending. At that time, grocery stores didn't provide their own bags; you had to bring your own or buy one there. The bags were heavy plastic, often printed with cheap, garish photos, the cornier the better. I loved it when thugs on the metro, smoking and drinking Baltika 3, were carrying plastic bags with sad-looking long-haired kittens on them.
I took the bus to Udelny Park, an overgrown area with a long, sloping grassy hill people flocked to in the summer. It was hot, but not too hot. I walked about a third of the way up the hill and spread out my towel. I took off my shirt and stepped out of my skirt. I was gorgeous and the entire population on the side of that hill was watching me. I pulled out a book, put on my shades, and lay on my stomach to look like I was reading while scoping out the hillside.
I wasn't surprised to see people staring. I was wearing the Swimsuit. I was, however, surprised to see how they were staring. The young couples wore perplexed frowns. Enormous babushkas in equally enormous bikinis were gaping in open disbelief. Teenage girls in strategically placed bits of fabric raised their eyebrows and giggled behind their hands.
Clearly, I was standing out. And not necessarily in a way I wanted.
I began to look around, carefully, behind my sunglasses, trying to figure out what made me so obvious. Was there an indiscreet rip? Had I gotten my period? I wasn't indecent; I had plenty more covered than most people. Even the 70-year-old grandmothers were wearing bikinis. Everyone was wearing a bikini.
I physically felt my brain hitch and back up. Even the 70-year-old grandmothers were wearing bikinis. Everyone was wearing a bikini. Everyone, that is, who was a female over the age of 5. And those younger than five were wearing one-piece suits, the same cut as my glamorous masterpiece.
I almost never dream that I'm naked in public. I do, however, dream that I am sitting down and realize I don't have pants on, and it's time to stand up. It's not the shame of nudity I fear in the dream, it's the dismay at realizing I will have to stand up and say, "Wow, can you believe it? I totally forgot to put pants on today, and I just noticed! How dumb!" And here I was, living the dream. I got up that morning, put on my adult-sized child's bathing suit, and went out in public. It was as if I had decided to spend my day walking around in a onesie.
All I wanted to do was get up and put my clothes on. However, having arrived three minutes before, that would attract even more attention than I was getting already. So I stuck my nose in the book I was holding and read firmly for an hour or two, turning every 15 minutes. Then I got dressed, caught the bus, and went home. The next day I woke up with a terrible sunburn and didn't lay out again. The swimsuit was stolen the second time my apartment was broken into.