Wearing my cutest bikini, gray background with white flowers, a little string thing, adorable, really, I lumber through laps as I swim at the Santa Monica College pool. There are few lane swimmers here on a weekday, which I prefer, because I loathe sharing a lane with someone, especially one of those intimidatingly strong folks who pass you incessantly as you swim a lap. Five months into my pregnancy, I’ve adopted a manatee-like speed, and I’m proud of it. In fact, the buoyancy of the water has become an escape even as I exercise. And with the bathing cap pulled tight over my ears, I do not elicit the stares that usually come my way.
Five weeks into this pregnancy, I learned that I have breast cancer. I had found the lump in the shower about two months prior, but scheduling and my lack of concern had delayed the appointment with my doctor. I’d had other moments before in my life where I had found what I thought was a lump but was informed that I possessed fibrocystic breasts, which is a nice euphemism for saying that they are lumpy. I was hoping that this lump was one of those benign things, but it wasn’t. The “If you think you might be pregnant” signs all over the MRI and Mammogram office actually applied to me when I went in to have the lump biopsied. A painful process, where I was told that I had a “great attitude” repeatedly by the aged doctor who extracted my tissue with a Bugs Bunny-sized needle.
So, five-months pregnant, I am undergoing chemo, never sure if the latest annoyance, say constipation or indigestion, is from the chemo or the baby, but always heartened by the baby. The sonograms and heartbeat flutters of OB/GYN visits are like a drug to my husband and me as we crave the positivity. In prenatal yoga, on walks around the neighborhood, and during these weekly swims, I feel connected to the little person inside and encouraged that I’m doing something healthy for the baby. Those chemo appointments are the time when I try to concentrate on the chemo killing the cancer, shrinking it down, and not on the fear that bubbles up inside me.
Once I’ve finished my laps, I ready myself to get out of this olympic-sized pool. Hoisting myself out is quite another feat altogether. I have to flap my left elbow on the edge, back to the wall, then generate enough speed to get my right palm up flat on the edge behind me in an awkward twisting motion when I can kick my feet wildly while pushing myself until my butt lands safely but with a deafening slap on the edge. Almost a birth in and of itself. I’m a baby elephant wallowing in mud, its potbelly glistening in the sun.
It’s hard enough getting out of the pool, and having to protect the baby ups the ante. Even when not pregnant, one has to be wary of the edge of the pool. For example, I distinctly remember scraping my brand-new swimsuit against the edge of our neighbors’ pool as a kid. The number of times I slid swiftly out of the water again and again, flying through the air as a snake or a shark or an iguana, landing in the pool only to get out again as quickly as possible without a single concern about the front of the new suit. Only after Mom pointed out the tears in the fabric to me did I realize the sound that the cement made as it caught precisely on the delicate fibers of my speckled Speedo one-piece. Pick! Pick! Pickpickpickpick!
Once out, I catch my breath and strut to the locker room, feeling great because with a bathing cap on and a bikini, I am pregnant. That’s it. Nothing more. Just pregnant. The baby is happy I’m sure, all that water resonating with his waterworld within. The bikini wasn’t my idea really. I’d like to take credit for being daring enough to wear it, but the truth is, I’m just too lazy and too cheap for a one piece. I purchased a giant one-piece at Marshalls, five sizes too big, not maternity because a maternity suit is $80, and the one-piece from Marshalls was $15. This lack of forward-thinking happens a lot with impulse buys, especially in the early weeks of a pregnancy. I didn’t think about the seam running down the middle of the suit, right across the belly, which would be larger soon and which was the entire reason why I was buying this suit. I wore it. I tried to, really, I did. But at around month 3.5, I gave up because that seam dug into my skin the way an annoying tag does at the back of a T-shirt, the one that you have to rip out even if you don’t have scissors, and then you have a gaping hole in the fabric. I didn’t rip the seam out, but I retired the suit and settled for a bikini out of sheer laziness. So, I decide to strut in it, just to pull it off, stand up straight like a misshaped dancer. What kind of pregnant woman struts around in a bikini? One who is confident in her body, a mother whose pregnancy will be a wholesome, natural thing. How I had these people at the pool fooled!
Just as always with this pregnancy, I feel like people are looking at me, but there is no pity or worry in their eyes today, no look that wants to make me shout, “I can see you staring at me!” The same look that they try to change a little as soon as they realize that I’ve caught them staring. The look that goes from saying, “Poor thing,” to “Oh, isn’t that sweet!” as they catch my eyes. I’m relieved to walk by families and lone swimmers today because they will only notice my belly. There is no possibility that these people might be thinking of anything else, of course, like their daughter’s record in swimming and how she could beat it, or a passage that they are reading in a book, or the way the sun is glinting off of the hand rail, or how they will assemble that turkey sandwich when they finally get home from the pool. Today they are marveling at that cute pregnant lady because today I am just pregnant!
But other days I’m not. My eyebrows have almost completely faded, my head is shorn as smooth as peach fuzz, and my belly is four inches ahead of me, and when I’m out for dinner or at a party, I see myself teetering on the edge of being so abnormal that some people can’t take their eyes off me. I now know a little bit of what it feels like to be gorgeous, stunning, shockingly beautiful, having people gawk at you or smile at you like they know you, to watch you walk across the room, nudging each other to say, “Hey, get a load of that one.”
At the Santa Monica College pool, I get to shed all of that like an itchy bathing suit and saunter along to the bathroom, enjoying the peaceful California day. I make my way to the locker room, stepping over towels and puddles carefully. I walk deftly despite my awkward shape, carrying a tote bag with my Kiehl’s Grapefruit Liquid Soap, clean clothes, and a different towel since I hate having any chlorine touching me after I’ve showered. Ten or so little girls run around the locker room, bumping into unsuspecting women.
Once the water temperature is warm enough, I lather up the grapefruit soap and scrub all over, bald head, the undercarriage, all across the pregnant belly. With no hair anywhere, I build a thick layer of soap all over my skin, a crazy costume, an attempt at the Abominable Snowman, perhaps. In fact, I probably look like Mr. Bubble, pink and grossly distorted. The grapefruit scent rises all around me. It’s pretty, refreshing, rich. I scrub until the sweet bubbles rinse away and tilt my head. Even without hair, I still tilt my head back.
Normally, I’d be a little more modest, boobs to the wall or angled, like those professional public-bathroom changers who get naked so deftly, not letting it all hang out, but today belly and boobs are out, the water streaming down my back after my labored swim. I want to stay here all day with the water and the memory of the pool, the weightlessness of swimming, the smell of the grapefruit. So, I lather up again just for the heck of it. But it’s right at this moment that I see the eyes.
Two wide, round, horror-stricken eyes stare at me.
A bathing-suit-clad little girl stands across the shower room by her stream of water, shampoo clenched in her hand, thumb aloft from post-cap flip, stuck in a powerful stare, watching something across the room that is certainly alien. She’s frozen. “What is this thing?” she wonders, staring at the woman with a giant, protruding belly, the woman whose skin shines everywhere, no hair on her head or down below. “How can that be possible?” her eyes say, but still she doesn’t move. It’s a stare of confused awe that I’m getting used to, but those people look away.
I smile and give a little half-wave but quickly realize my mistake. This once-considered friendly gesture, which when one is not naked, pregnant, and bald and standing in front of a stranger, can usually break the ice nicely and allow an exchange of pleasantries to overcome the awkward moment. It only scares her more. I’m human. A little wrinkle of fear runs across her face. I want to apologize and explain, look for her mom and help her understand, and say, “I just want your daughter to know that there’s nothing really to be scared of. I have cancer, am doing chemo, and, yes, I’m pregnant, but the doctors say it’s fine and… and…”
I turn to the wall and snap my shower off, fling my towel over the evidence and run to the bathroom stall to dress, my wet flip flops shrieking through the locker room as I rush out of the door.
When not teaching middle school English and history—which she’s done for 25 years—Liz Ganem is busy writing her memoir. She lives in Los Angeles with her hilarious and loving family. Liz has an English MA from Middlebury College and loves spending any time with friends and family, preferably in nature.