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                                    Gretchen Stahlman

Spray your skin with Pam before putting on the wetsuit. It helps the neoprene glide more easily onto your body and, more importantly, slide off quickly in the triathlon, when every second counts. But Pam ruins the suit. The oil mist clings to the internal fabric and eats away at the neoprene. I claim that’s why I won’t use Pam, but mostly I don’t want to feel like breakfast—egg substitute scrambled butter-free. Or like dinner—a boneless, skinless chicken breast that does not cling to the lubricated pan. I am not low-fat. I am not lean meat. I am a middle-aged woman who is afraid of her wetsuit.

The first time I try on the wetsuit is in the privacy of my bedroom. I am considering the purchase of an old suit from Deb, who used it to complete the swim at Ironman Wisconsin. She claims it will fit me, that we are the same size, but when I look at her—tall, slender, incredibly fit—I don’t see that we’re anywhere near the same size. I feel the flab of my thighs and see the tautness of hers. I see my belly like bread dough where hers is flat and hard. She barely needs a sports bra; I sometimes wear two.

But I agree to try on the wetsuit because it’s a good price. I sit on the edge of the bed and push my feet into the leg tubes. My toes emerge from the ends like miners after a cave-in. I work the material over my ankles, up my calves, then falter as I pass my knees. I grab the fabric from the inside so as not to rip the neoprene outer, and I roll and jam my thighs into the casing. The crotch dangles inches below my own, so I start at the bottom again, hoping to gain another inch or so. Finally, I hoist my resistant rump into the suit, and the fabric rises to meet me. I feel slightly encouraged. I push one bony wrist into an arm tube, bitten nails emerging as the neoprene stutters on my upper arm, then I force the other arm into its sleeve. I windmill my arms, swimming in mid-air, and am surprised that I have full movement. I am ready to zip it up, to complete the encasement. I pull the long rope on the zipper tab, and I suck in as rubber closes around me. My chest constricts. I take a deep breath to see if I can still breathe at all, then I exhale. It’s tight in the throat, pressing in on my trachea, and I want to claw it away. I look at myself in the mirror, hunched over to ease the pressure on my throat, and I burst out laughing. I think of the Shmoos from the Lil Abner comic strip. I think of Weebles that wobble but don’t fall down. I think of pressed ham.

Later that night, I see Deb at a party. I tell her that I tried on the wetsuit, and she asks how it went. I launch into an exaggerated story of pushing and shoving my body into the suit, like stuffing a sausage casing that doesn’t want to be stuffed.

“The hardest part,” I say, “was zipping it over my belly. My loose skin kept getting caught in the zipper.”

She looks as me quizzically, then asks, “You know the zipper goes in the back, right?”

No, I didn’t know that. After the party and two martinis I try the suit on again, this time with the right side to the front. The wetsuit fits much better when we are headed in the same direction.

I stand in front of my full-length mirror, looking at myself in the wetsuit, trying to determine if I really can wear it in public. It’s not like the rare occasions when I stand there naked, focusing only on the floppy belly, the languid thighs, the flattened breasts. Friends running or biking behind me compliment my incredibly muscular calves, but I don’t see that. They point out my great smile in a picture of me crossing the finish line, but all I see is the tuft of belly that oozes from my waistband, the persistent muffintop. I’ll grant that my arms aren’t that bad, until I lift them and expose the soft wings where muscle should be. I see nothing in the mirror that pleases me.

But I must wear the wetsuit in public in order to compete in an open-water triathlon. It’s sleek as a catsuit. The thick rubber smoothes the wrinkles, tightens the skin, flattens the curves. It erases the pouch where my children grew inside me, hides the cellulite that buckles my skin. Nothing jiggles or bounces or shames me. I am not bulky with muscle but streamlined thin, strong and efficient. I am flawless, a silhouette of the nude in the mirror. It’s not me you see; it’s the suit.

Deb gives me the wetsuit to try in February but, months later, I still can’t decide whether or not I want to buy it. It is the only wetsuit I’ve ever tried on. Is it really supposed to be this tight? The local triathlon store is having a sale on last year’s models, on last year’s rentals, but I procrastinate driving there and trying them on in the tiny dressing room. Other women in my fitness group report the great deals they’ve gotten, but still I don’t make the time, can’t bring myself to sample in public what I have worn in the privacy of my own home. I decide I will look for one while I’m in Florida on business; I surf the web for local shops, hours, locations, but I never go.

Deb’s wetsuit is well used. There is a tear in the left armpit, snags up and down the body. The Ironman logo on the chest has faded. I don’t like used clothing, don’t buy on consignment, never shop at Goodwill, but the secondhandness of this suit does not bother me. Its history does.

“This is the wetsuit I used for the Ironman,” Deb says in her sales pitch to me.

It is a point that stabs both ways. Maybe, I think, the suit knows what it’s doing. It will help me to swim, to move through the water quickly and serenely, self-assured. I will swim 1.25 miles in my goal triathlon, but it has gone 2.5 with Deb in the Ironman. It has far more endurance than I do and can take me farther than I believe I am capable of going.

These are the positives, but I worry about the flip side. I fear that the suit will whisper to me that it enjoyed the Ironman, that I would enjoy it too. It knows I can do it, I should, I should do an Ironman. I don’t want to go that far. I don’t need to go that far, but the suit might compel me. I know this is the nonsense that only happens in old episodes of The Twilight Zone, that I am in charge of what I do.

The truth is I cannot say exactly why I have signed up for this triathlon when I can barely swim and often panic in the water. My friends persuaded me that it would be fun, which only proves that I am susceptible to suggestion, a point for the suit: It could prod me, encourage me, fool me into doing more.

I cannot shake the history of the suit, and so I leave it in the Ikea tote on the floor of my bedroom, gathering dust through March and April and May. By June, I feel guilty for holding the suit for so long without paying Deb for it, so I send her a check. The wetsuit is mine.

When I stand with my friends in our wetsuits at the shore of the lake, we have all morphed into the same body shape. I know our bodies are different: some taller, older, younger, some stockier, some nearly waiflike. But in our wetsuits, regardless of weight or height or BMI, we all look alike. The colors of our caps, the styles of our goggles are all that distinguish us from one another. The difference will appear when we enter the water, because I cannot swim as well as the others. But for this moment on the beach, I feel like everyone else.

The first time I enter the lake wearing the wetsuit, I am timid and unsure, like on a first date. The water is cold on my bare feet, the pebbles in the sand make me hop to a softer spot. I cannot feel the water at all on my calves. I wade in, feeling nothing on my thighs, in my groin. It’s an odd sensation being immersed without sensation, and it’s good. I wade in further, and the water reaches the bottom of the zipper and oozes in between the teeth. It’s cold against my skin, like an ice cube dropped down my back, and I shudder. I remember that the wetsuit lets in a little water as an insulating layer. It’s doing its job, so I creep further along, letting the coldness crawl up my back, warming to my skin. My hands are cold, my feet are cold, my body feels nothing. I’ve been told I will float in the wetsuit; besides fighting off the chilly water, it provides buoyancy. I try to float a little, but it doesn’t suspend me like an inner tube or a foam noodle, and so I believe that I am too heavy, too fat. The flotation that works for others won’t work for me.

I am in the lake again, and again, and again, keeping up my guard against the wetsuit’s promises, keeping it an arm’s length away while it closes in on my body. It says it will support me, but I am skeptical. So accustomed to carrying my own weight, I don’t need any help, I can do it on my own. The wetsuit feels like a straitjacket, a relationship I’m forced into.

On a summer evening, I make plans to meet my friend K-Dub at the lake. I’m late, she’s late, but we decide to try to swim before the beach is closed for the evening. We pull on our wetsuits, wade into the lake, wait for the water to seep in the zipper, wait for our bodies to adjust. Our feet are soft in the sand. Mounds of seaweed roll by. We talk. We wade out further, wave our hands underwater as we continue our conversation. We are two girls in wetsuits standing twenty yards off shore, chatting. We talk about running and working at home and the annoyance of our children. We discuss how this summer’s cool, rainy weather has been good for running but not so much for swimming. We duck down so the water bobs at our chins, and we talk on and on.

We hear the lifeguard’s whistle. “You won’t have time to swim now,” she calls, and K-Dub and I look at each other, laugh, and wade back to shore. We strip off our wetsuits and stuff them in our bags.

On the drive home, I smell the lake in the wetsuit, the swampy aroma of beached seaweed, a hint of aquatic life forms, the freshness of the clear, sweet water. I feel pleased with the suit and its perfume. It asked nothing of me that evening, demanded nothing, promised nothing. At home I rinse it in warm water and baby shampoo, then hang it to dry over the shower rod.

At my first open-water triathlon, I am standing on the shore of a lake, waiting for the officials to call my wave forth to swim. All of us are wearing black wetsuits and purple caps that signify our age group as “over 50,” the AARP wave. I am scared, and I want to cry. I tell myself there’s no crying in triathlon, and that lie keeps my tears at bay.

I wonder what the hell I’m doing here. I want to run away; I do not want to get in the water. This can’t be right. Things have gotten confused, and I’ve ended up in someone else’s life. I want to go back to my own life, one that is warm and comfortable and dry, where there are mochas and movies and limitations. A woman points out that I have a hole in the armpit of my wetsuit. “I know,” I say and wonder why she mentioned that to me. As if I didn’t know? I try not to let her comment throw me, not to interpret it that I have a raggedy-ass wetsuit that is worn and useless. I try to recast her words to mean that the suit is rugged, been through a lot, done an Ironman. It can do this measly sprint triathlon too. It knows what to do even if I don’t.

We start the swim not from the shore but from a starting line strung across the open water. We must swim out to it, then tread water while waiting for our whistle to blow. I am scared of the starting line, too terrified to think about the rest of the swim. The officials call us into the water and I stay to the back, to the shoreside of the pack. Others plunge in, true swimmers, not a runner-come-lately like me. They seem so fearless, and I want to be that way too. I put on my nose plug, dab water on my face, feel the rocks fade away from my feet below. I hang as close to the starting marker as possible.

When the buzzer goes off for us to start, I still want to swim to shore, the opposite way, to recede. I try to swim, to find a place amongst the windmilling arms that churn the water. Legs kick past me; I watch feet pass within inches of my face. I immediately feel like I am suffocating. The water is thick and murky, not clear like the lake I have practiced in. I feel as if I am shoving my face into a pillow where I can see and feel only softness that wants to steal my breath. I flip over and start to backstroke. Better. I can breathe this way. The crowd of swimmers has moved on, the water calms, and I am alone. The suit lifts me, like a raft. I fling one arm, then the other over my head, slowly backstroking. I tell myself I will flip over and start to crawl when I catch my breath. I never do.

I see nothing but the sky above, summer blue, with light puffy clouds like atmospheric tumbleweeds. The sun is warm on my face. No one is around—no swimmers, they have all completed their yards—only the kayakers who watch over me in case I get into trouble. It soothes me that they are watching, and so I relax and enjoy the sun and try to name creatures in the clouds. One kayaker calls me to pull to the right, so I adjust my course, held afloat by the wetsuit, backstroking through the sunny day.

Triathlon season is over for this year, all my open-water swims completed. I have washed the wetsuit, dried it, put it away. It still looks impossibly small to me, that it couldn’t possibly fit the person my inner-eyes see. It no longer sneers or taunts me with its accomplishments. It doesn’t whisper or compel. It does nothing but wait for me to take it for a swim.

I consult the Internet about how to repair the small snags in the neoprene, and the rip in the left armpit. There’s a kit I can order, a patch and a tube of noxious glue. But I don’t place the order. I like the divots in the body, the faded logo, even the swampy smell before I wash the lake out of it.

But still, I look online at new wetsuits, so glistening and young. I pause at one that aligns to the shape of a woman’s body, formed around the breasts, lines on the neoprene to show a shapely leg. It does not flatten and mould as mine does. It flatters and teases. My wetsuit is not shiny and sleek and new, but it is still functional, still does its job, fulfills its role. We have come to terms, the wetsuit and I, sisters of a different but similar skin.

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