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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Naked in Minnesota

by Cathleen Calbert

            When I made the trek to Minnesota from Rhode Island, I knew I’d moved to the Land of Introverts. Not only had Garrison Keillor already told me so on the Prairie Home Companion, but I’d also come across a sweetly misguided ad for a self-help group in the local alternative newspaper: “Introverts Unite.” Right. Like that was ever going to happen.
            Shy and nice: that’s how I found Minnesotans. They even had nothing but nice things to say about the East (whereas Easterners regularly turn up our noses at any place farther west than Philly). “Oh, sure, you’ve got some good Italian food there, don’t you?” they said to me.
            Good Italian wasn’t on the menu in St. Paul. (Canadian Walleye was—in nearly every restaurant, even a perpetually empty Thai dive.) I thought Minnesotans looked like they could use a little more Italian on their menus and in their blood: something to bring a bit of life to the pallid brows and cheeks. They seemed to me a neutral, withdrawn people: temperate and tepid book-lovers and/or healthy outdoorsmen and women.
            But I liked them.
            If the general vibe of the Twin Cities wasn’t effusively friendly or particularly passionate, it also wasn’t the “insult culture” of New York or Boston or Providence. No “Hey, I’m talking to my cousin heah.” No “Whadda ya want?” “O-key,” my hairstylist said to me sans judgment as I blabbed in her chair about my day. “O-key.”
            And it was among Minnesotans that I learned how to be naked. With others, I mean. Other women, at least.
            At the YMCA in St. Paul, I ran in the slow-motion of water and smiled hello at the other ladies in my morning Aqua-Aerobics class. At first, I didn’t get much back from them: a brief nod before they turned away. However, after some weeks, I began to receive a few greetings and even a few questions: How nice, Rhode Island! Don’t you have good Italian food there?
            At my gym back East, as loud-mouthed as we women were fully clothed, we hustled from the pool into individual, clammy shower stalls, dropping towels only to get our street-clothes back on as fast as possible. That’s what I did after class at the Y in Minnesota too,  ignoring the less claustrophobic open wall of showers that all the other women used.
            I didn’t get it. What about the well-known introversion of Midwesterners? Maybe it was a Scandinavian thing? From a heritage of jumping into snow-covered bodies of water after thrashing one’s bare limbs with frozen reeds?
            All I knew is that the women seemed happy, splashing away and making plans to meet for coffee while I alone bathed in isolation, so one day I braved the shared line of showers. I stood under a nozzle, tugged off my suit, and sudsed up, not looking at anything but the rain of water. Through this blur, I heard the woman next to me say something and realized, with discomfort if not outright horror, that she was speaking to me.
            “What?” I said, wiping my eyes.
            When I could see, I found that she was washing her armpits and looking into my face at the same time. Introverts unite! Suffering my own fit of shyness, I lowered my eyes and noticed her chest. Nothing was there: no recognizable breasts, that is, just concave scarring from the early days of radical mastectomies.
            And this looked . . . fine to me. Clearly, the woman had been to hell and back, but the furrowed valleys on her body only seemed an altered landscape of skin, not a horror-show, nothing to appall or to merit veiling. My own shame doubly shamed me then. How absurd: being afraid to expose the usual midlife drifts and harmless lumps on my own figure.
            “Do you want to join us?” she asked slowly and gently—as if there might be something wrong with me. “For coffee?”
            “I’d love to,” I said.
            About a dozen women, all in their sixties and seventies, greeted me at the café that day as a younger sister. “Two rules,” one told me. “We don’t say anything bad about each other, and we don’t talk about our children.”
            O-key! I loved those rules, and I loved those women. During my time in Minnesota, I continued to go out for wonderfully strong coffee with them. We talked books and movies, mostly, and food—a lot of thoughts on food, even how to make decent Italian dishes at home. Since then, I have been free of humiliation about how I look, proud of each curve and every . . .
            Of course that’s not true. I still struggle with body-embarrassment as many (most?) women (and men?) do. But I don’t hide behind a germ-filled curtain when a more spacious, shared space is available, and I don’t speak ill of my body: the ladies of the pool in Minnesota taught me how to treat an old friend. 

Cathleen Calbert’s writing has appeared widely, including in Ms. Magazine, The New York Times, and The Paris Review. She is the author of three books of poetry: Lessons in Space (University of Florida Press), Bad Judgment (Sarabande Books), and Sleeping with a Famous Poet (C.W. Books). She has been awarded The Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Mary Tucker Thorp Award from Rhode Island College, where she professes.

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