Baltimore-based fiction writer James Magruder remembers his life-changing summer of the (off-brand) Speedo.
Greetings from Corsica, a starkly beautiful Mediterranean island where young bucks fry their junk on nude beaches and old beppos who look as if they’ve swallowed basketballs are still rocking their Speedos — stretched across their tiny teabag heinies — well into their seventh and eighth decades.
I have never sunbathed naked. That would require extra inches and SPF 240, not to mention different parents, but I did wear a Speedo. Once.
July 1999. Steve and I have been together for seven months. He and his six children, two of whom I have yet to meet, and two dozen other members of his large Baltimore family have gone on their annual summer vacation to Duck, North Carolina, the beach resort where Yankees go when they go to the Outer Banks.
Me, I don’t like the beach so much. For starters, I was toilet-trained in Ocean City one traumatic weekend in the early ’60s. Moreover, my SSS (Shitty Scottish Skin) refuses to tan; I can’t read on a blanket, or on my stomach, or with the sun in my eyes; I hate getting sand on me; and most to the point, I can barely stay alive in the water. So, much as I adore my new man — and I did, and still do — I take a pass on Duck that first year.
But then, after a couple of calls from North Carolina, with reports of lobster, and tomato sandwiches, and body surfing, and late-night bridge, and probably some dirty talk, I decide to fly down mid-week and join the pack. I certainly want to meet Frank and Emma, and I hope they want to meet me. Romantic impulses are good impulses. Spontaneity is sexy. Steve is thrilled and arranges to pick me up in Norfolk.
I am 38. I have been going to the Downtown Athletic Club five days a week for a couple of years. My immune system has recovered on retroviral combination therapy, but the drugs have also stripped or sculpted — take your pick — my arms and legs becomingly. Exercise and the residual effects of injectable testosterone have lifted the tits and toned the torso. There are no love handles. My ass hasn’t fallen yet. The catastrophe of back hair is three years in my future. I have a Baltimore base burn. What I am saying here is that in July 1999, I am as buff as I will ever be. I am the platonic ideal of James Magruder. Love will do this to people.
And I need a new bathing suit. My tartan plaid trunks from L.L.Bean are a non-starter, given their associations to my heinous ex. Jams, or chams, or crams, or whatever they call those board-shorty, mid-calf numbers smell like teen spirit and straight men. Dare I investigate the, ahem, European option? Several homos in my set are encouraging. They would tell me if I couldn’t get away with it.
Not one for brand names, I don’t buy an actual Speedo. The bikini I get at Nordstrom’s (Or was it the old Saks outlet in Bel Air?) bears the label RD; it’s made of filmy black jersey. There’s a vertical gray stripe, piped in white, at either hip; inside, at the front, is a white mesh triangle to provide at least the simulacrum of a modesty panel in case of rapidly shifting contents. With no drawstring, I am all that is holding it up. This could pose a problem in the strong waves and cold, junk-shrinking waters of the Atlantic.
There’s a priceless sequence in Pink Flamingos in which Divine tours downtown Baltimore with a purloined steak between her thighs, “The Girl Can’t Help It” blaring delirious support on the soundtrack. If you’ve seen it (and if not, shame on you), you’ll have some idea of my feelings of intense personal glamour as I slowly make my way to the beach from the rented house on Pintail Drive. I pause atop the weathered dune staircase and let the wind wiffle my hair as I take a deep draught of fresh ocean air. Ten yards away, a passel of Boltons is spread across a patchwork flotilla of blankets. I remove my sandals, let fall my beach towel, and wait to be discovered. (Steve, by the way, is inside prepping lunch.)
Middle daughter Happy bounds up for a hug, then — backs away. This is odd. I follow her to the blankets. Jaw after jaw goes slack as I greet the relatives I already know. Staring up at my bikini, Emma, 12, and Frank, 15, seem too frightened to stand and shake my hand.
My face is already red. My contents don’t shift; they shrink as I wildly scan, hunt, search, and track the densely populated beach. I seem to have landed in the summertime epicenter of heterosexual family fun. There are hundreds of men cavorting in jams, chams, and crams, but no one — and God is my witness — I mean, no one over the age of five besides me is rocking a Speedo in the Outer Banks. I am the gayest thing along 200 miles of barrier islands. The towel draped over my arm is suddenly a Chanel bag, and my voice gets higher as I babble about my sensitive skin and inability to swim and all the lovely local produce stands we saw on the drive from Norfolk. Feeling like a cross between Charles Nelson Reilly and Chester, Chester the Child Molester, I brazen it out for 20 minutes before announcing that I will go help Steve slice tomatoes. My retreat is about as casual as an avalanche. It will be years before I can reference the event.
July 2012. I have put on 20 pounds. My ass is sprung, my hair is gray, my bladder is testy, and Steve and I have a grandson whose Speedo years — and, believe me, I’ll be there to warn him — are numbered. As for Pappy Pepaw’s black jersey bikini, testament to new love and platonic ideals and male delusion, it rests in a middle drawer, right next to the “matching” sarong Steve’s second ex-wife gave me as a joke another summer at Duck. It’s wrinkled, but ready. Twenty pounds from now, I can bring it along to Corsica.
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