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 its 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. I was in my office when my friend Doreen walked in, her voice leading the way. “It was fabulous,” she said, as if answering a question. Doreen always starts conversations as if they’ve already begun. Normally, I’d have to ask what was fabulous, but since she’d been on vacation, I knew. 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.” She pulled a tissue-papered- package from her bag. It was lavender with chocolate-brown ribbon and 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 and when I pulled it out of its wrapping, 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 feel beachy and perfect just holding it,” I say.
“So you like it?” she asks, her blue-green eyes sparkling.
“Oh, Do,” I said. “I love it.”
“It’ll get even softer, you’ll see,” she said.
A few months later, I packed it into a suitcase and brought it to Fire Island, where my boyfriend Philip and I rented a big sunny room in a romantic beach house owned by a nutty woman whose eccentricities made our weekends alternately annoying and amusing. The house, like her, had its oddities, but it was two in from the beach. No matter what I packed, the sarong was all I needed.
I wrapped it around my tanned body on half-awake mornings, as Philip and I stood with mugs of coffee, looking toward the ocean, and a future, that for the first time in my life, felt safe, because he was in it.
At the end of beach days, it hung from the hook of the house’s outdoor shower as I rinsed sand and suntan lotion from my body. Back in Manhattan, on lazy-Chinese-food-Sunday nights, it was the last thing I put back into my drawer, knowing it would be the first to be packed the following weekend.
A couple of years after that, true to Doreen’s words, it was even softer, as I wrapped it around my very flat, wedding-diet stomach, and, with wonder, and more than a little imposter syndrome, sunk 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 were infants, and I was too tired to put clothes on, I wrapped the sarong around my post-pregnant belly and wore it as a skirt. With Philip back at work and me on maternity leave, I fed and changed (and fed and changed) first one baby, then the other, too exhausted to be bored, too worried to be happy. When I finally got them to nap at the same time, I took it off and shoved 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 draped it over a chair and wore a turquoise bikini as Philip taught Ava and Ben his “dripping” technique for embellishing a sand castle, which required buckets of water from the ocean and nothing from me. The sarong’s fringes tickled my shoulders as I read a few pages of a magazine and napped - a pleasure as forbidden as porn, but without the exertion.
I tucked the red and yellow fabric into many a beach bag, wrapping it around my waist as Philip and I held hands with Ben and Ava at the water’s edge at Jones Beach. Ben made it into a cape as he ran along the shoreline, and once, when he was going through a phase, bit a tiny hole into it, near the fringes. Ava rested her sweet, flushed face against it on drives home, when I sat in the back so the kids could use me as their very willing pillow. Once, I forgot to pack a change of clothes and wore it to dinner with a camisole and espadrilles. It’s been used as a towel, a tent, a headdress.
Its fringes have been used as worry beads when I’ve called my mother and she hasn’t picked up, only to be dropped like pebbles, when I finally reached 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 knocked on wood just now.
Yesterday, when it poured out of nowhere, as it likes to do in Florida, my everything-sarong became a makeshift umbrella as I held it over my head; 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 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.
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 guy behind the desk 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 see. 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!!!!!!
When I lunge toward it, and pluck it between my fingers, I swear 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 a 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.
My sarong. Doreen was so right. It has gotten softer with time.
As have I.
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You speak of sarongs like I speak of my 55-year-old well-oiled and cracked with age Rawling's "Finest in the Field" third-baseman's glove.
One day, perhaps after I turn 80, the Yankees will call. They're in game seven of the World Serious and have no subs left on their bench. They call me and I limp over to the 6-train, ancient leather in hand. I walk in to the big ballpark and assume my position--where Clete played, and Nettles, even Dr. Bobby Brown. I doff my hat. The Cognoscenti golf clap, a line drive screams by me, foul. Then another one.
With the reflexes of a Hermes or an Artemis, I Balanchine my body and snag the liner inches off the ground. Out three. I am pelted, thorns-out with rose stems, but I don't feel their sharp and cruel abrasions. Not after the greatest play in World Serious history has saved the day for the Highlanders.
The champagne flows in the locker room My cardiologist has me drinking Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray, but still I celebrate.
For when the great scorekeeper comes to pen your name,
He looks short, he looks long.
It's not how you played the game,
It's all about the sarong.
You, my beautiful friend, are a fucking 10 of a writer and a human. This is so very good, so rich and powerful.