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Wrapped around my life
My bed is littered with patterns and colors - pale pinks, soft greens; a stark contrast to the black I’ve lived in during this grey blur of a winter. Packing for Florida should be easy - especially since it’s a short trip. And yet. Decisions must be made, because my carry-on, unlike my list of what-if’s, has limits.
A sheer paisley dress makes the cut. A voluminous skirt I love is tossed to the side and replaced by a thin sundress. A scattering of beach coverups sit, like schoolgirls in gym class, waiting to see who will be chosen and who won’t make the team. I roll a gauzy blue dress into a tight little cylinder, and stick it into the edge of the suitcase, then, with a resigned sigh, do the same with a green one I know I won’t wear.
And then there’s The Non-Negotiable. My sarong. The one piece that goes with me, no matter the amount of room in a suitcase. I hold it to my face, breathing in the sun and salt that have become a part of its fabric. This sarong has wrapped itself, not just around my body, but my life, for 25 years.
It was soft, even when it was new and given to me by my friend Doreen, who’d just returned from vacation. In St. Barth’s. One of those unattainably chic places that intimidated me. Doreen closed her eyes and smiled as she talked about beaches with names like Colombier and Saline.
“Oh,” she said, “I almost forgot. I got you something.” Her gift was wrapped in lavender tissue paper, with chocolate-brown ribbon, a “Calypso St. Barth’s” sticker holding it closed. I opened it carefully, wanting to keep the sticker.
The sarong’s red and yellow pattern looked like sun and sand and sweet, sexy, joy. I instantly held it to my face.
“It smells like the beach,” I said.
“I know,” Doreen answered. “It’s the store - they have this sea salt spray - it smells beachy and perfect in there.”
I said that I felt beachy and perfect just holding it and her green eyes sparkled.
“It’ll get even softer, you’ll see,” she said.
A few months later, I pack it into a suitcase and bring it to Fire Island, where my boyfriend Philip and I rent a big sunny room in a romantic beach house owned by a nutty woman whose eccentricities make our weekends alternately annoying and amusing. The house, like her, has its oddities, but it’s on the beach.
I wrap the sarong around my tanned body on half-awake mornings, as Philip and I stand with mugs of coffee, looking toward the ocean, and a future, that for the first time in my life, feels safe, because he’s in it.
At the end of beach days, it hangs from the hook of the house’s outdoor shower as I rinse sand and suntan lotion from my body. Back in Manhattan, on lazy-Chinese-food-Sunday nights, it’s the last thing I put back into my drawer, knowing it will be the first to be packed the following weekend.
A couple of years after that, true to Doreen’s words, it is even softer, as I wrap it around my very flat, wedding-diet stomach, and, with wonder, and more than a little imposter syndrome, sink into a chaise on a beach on the very St. Barth’s I had been sure I’d never visit.
Married. Honeymoon. Me.
A couple of years later, on a particularly long summer day, when Ava and Ben are infants, and I’m too tired to put clothes on, I wrap the sarong around my post-pregnant belly and wear it as a skirt. With Philip back at work and me on maternity leave, I feed and change (and feed and change) one baby, then the other, too exhausted to be bored, too worried to be happy. When I finally get them to nap at the same time, I take it off and shove it back into its bottom drawer, with the self- pity of a new mother who is sure that life will never be free and easy again.
A few years after that, finally sans baby fat, I drape it over a chair and wear a turquoise bikini as Philip teaches Ava and Ben his “dripping” technique for embellishing a sand castle, which requires buckets of water from the ocean and nothing from me. The sarong’s fringes tickle my shoulders as I read a few pages of a magazine and nap - a pleasure as forbidden as porn.
I tuck the red and yellow fabric into many a beach bag, and wrap it around my waist as Philip and I hold hands with Ben and Ava at the water’s edge at Jones Beach. Ben makes it into a cape as he runs along the shoreline, and once, when he’s going through a phase, bites a tiny hole into it, near the fringes. Ava rests her sweet, flushed face against it on drives home, when I sat in the back so the kids can use me as their very willing pillow. Once, I forget to pack a change of clothes and wear it to dinner with a camisole and espadrilles. My sarong has been used as a towel, a tent, a headdress.
Its fringes are kneaded like worry beads when I call my mother and she doesn’t pick up, then dropped like pebbles, when I finally reach her. Last summer, I twisted them tightly around my forefinger, watching Philip, as he sat on a boardwalk bench and called his doctor for cat scan results, bunching the fabric in my hand as he walked toward me, his steps heavy. But that was a year ago. A blip, as it turned out. He’s fine. Still, I knock on wood as I write this.
Yesterday, when it poured out of nowhere, as it likes to do in Florida, my everything-sarong became a makeshift umbrella. I held it over my head in a futile attempt to stay dry, as we dashed from the beach to a poolside shelter.
As we sipped margaritas and waited for the sun to return, I draped it around my shoulders, like a tallis, although I didn’t go so far as to pray. It was us against rain, and rain won. My niece dropped me at my hotel and by the time we met for dinner, the sky was clear.
And now, it’s a hazy-sunny morning.
I need to get ready, so I grab a tote. Sundress, sunscreen, book. Check, check, check. I open the hotel’s dresser drawer. No red and yellow pattern. I check the other drawers. And then my extra beach bag. The bathroom. The balcony. Under the bed. I open drawers again, this time slamming them closed. I feel myself breathing quickly as I text my kids, who are at my niece’s condo. It must have slipped from my shoulders during the ride from the beach club.
But no. It’s not in the car. Nor is it at my hotel’s Lost & Found or that of the beach club. I go to the lobby to look around one more time and the concierge promises to let me know if it turns up.
I trudge to the convenience store across the street, forlornly buying a bottle of water. I cross back, my head hanging, nothing to see but the gutter. The ugly, damp gutter, still puddled from last night’s rain. A few gum wrappers stare up at me but it is not them I focus on. It’s what is next to them. It’s twisted and matted, but it is red and it is yellow and it… is… my sarong!!!!!!
I lunge toward it, and pluck it between my fingers. And the sky goes from hazy to bright. I shake it out, unfurling it above my head as if it’s a flag the entire street is about to salute. God knows I am. It’s damp and while it no longer smells like the ocean, it doesn’t smell nearly as bad as you’d think something that spent a night in the gutter would. In fact, aside from a couple of grey smudges, it looks like its usual radiant self. Damn. My sarong is such a fucking 10.
My sarong. My friend. My comfort. My protector. The yard of fabric I cling to when life is blissfully the same, and when life is about to change forever.
Its fringes have been the beginning and the end, of every day, both the good ones and the bad ones, that I have lived, in the 25 summers since it’s been mine.
Doreen was so right.
It has gotten softer with time.
As have I.
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