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While bird-watching from a blanket at the beach and later relaxing at a boardwalk table, I found myself in an all-male locker room. How was this possible? I’d never spent time inside one. My exposure was to the female-only kind, and even there, I kept my time to a minimum if I possibly could.
As a thirteen-year-old freshwoman at The Mary Louis Academy, I was assigned a locker in which I left my coat, regulation hat, notebooks, and sundries. We were expected to live by a long list of regulations and prohibitions spelled out in our TMLA Handbook. Among the many acts forbidden were talking in the locker room, talking in the halls between classes, and talking in the cafeteria until a nun shook a hand bell, a Pavlovian signal to rip into our bagged lunches.
The school locker room was located on the lower level of the 1930s Gothic building and smelled faintly of the sea – maybe from the dried sweat of past students who, like us, were required to change there from maroon uniforms into ludicrous turquoise gym bloomers. (I suppose they were all the rage in 1938, the year of the school’s founding.) The lockers’ metal doors clanged and rattled and marched in seemingly endless rows below a low ceiling, barely lit by low-watt incandescent bulbs.
Once on a rainy morning, a locker neighbor struck up a conversation with me as we struggled to remove our rubber boots. From out of the darkness, the perennially red-faced, six-foot-tall Prefect of Discipline swooped down on us, her black habit swelling like an angry bird. “NO TALKING!” she shrieked. The attack was so sudden and unexpected, I felt like Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s avian horror film. Summoning my courage, I offered in a small, apologetic voice, “Sorry, we didn’t know talking wasn’t allowed.”
“THAT IS A CULPABLE ACT OF IGNORANCE!” she responded with even greater fury, and condemned us to detention that day.
And so for me, talk itself can bear the weight of the forbidden, and talk in locker rooms is especially fraught. As for male locker rooms, they may as well be astronauts’ capsules – another world or the anteroom of another world that I prefer to keep sealed. A certain presidential candidate’s crude boasts about grabbing women’s genitals, dismissed as “just locker room talk,” reinforced my instinct to stay clear of them.
Back to the beach: blue skies, 78 perfect degrees. I’m mesmerized by a flock of hyper-energetic piping plovers running along the shoreline. Their tiny pumping legs are a blur of motion as they keep pace with the advancing and receding waves, which leave a bounty of morsels in their wake. But the tide is rising and moving closer to my isolated blanket, requiring me to drag it onto higher ground where most of the beach-goers have camped.
Immediately from behind me, I hear three voices bantering in easy, curse-filled male comradery.
“I was walking on the street in Amsterdam at night, smoking a joint and drinking beer, when a cop comes up to me,” one says.
“No fuckin’ way,” another answers.
“Right – turns out you can’t do that stuff on the street. Who knew?”
Their disembodied voices feel like discordant notes rising from an orchestra pit to distract me just as I’m trying to enjoy the Dance of the Plovers. The talk shifts to an update on Jim, someone they obviously all knew, but had lost touch with. The Amsterdam raconteur continues: “So his girlfriend dumps him for some other guy after he lived with her and her daughter for ten years. He practically raised that kid.”
“No fuckin’ way!”
“Yeah, and after she left him, he still paid her tuition out of his own pocket.”
“Are you serious? The bitch leaves him and he does that?” chimes in a third voice.
“Yeah, unbelievable, I know,” I hear the storyteller respond. “A really nice guy.”
“Jesus,” I hear, and think I detect an undertone of disdain mixed with incomprehension over the sainted Jim’s actions. No further discussion on the subject ensues, no questioning of his motives for staying and supporting the girl, or her motives for leaving him. I may be guilty of gender stereotyping, but I suspect that a female discussion would have dissected every aspect of the couple’s relationship.
The plovers take to the sky as if signaling that I, too, should be on my way. When I rise, I steal a glimpse behind me: two middle-aged guys on a blanket with a cooler and a tough-looking, burly man with a white beard sitting on a beach chair.
At a boardwalk table overlooking the beach where I sit to organize my belongings, I hear the surf, children at play, and a radio tuned to a baseball game – the classic, carefree sounds of summer. But above them all is the voice of a man on a cellphone sitting at the next table. He’s wearing the seasonal uniform: dark sunglasses, baseball hat turned backwards, baggy shorts, and T-shirt.
“Then I got this bill from Bloomingdale’s where she went shopping for the wedding,” I hear him say, his tone clearly aggrieved. “Three hundred dollars for the dress. And she told me she couldn’t decide on the shoes, so she just went ahead and bought both pairs. Meanwhile, nothing! Six months and no ass. Nothing. I told her ‘Put your hand on my cock. It works.’ Nothing.”
“What do you mean, I shouldn’t talk like that?” He snorts and half-laughs, indignant. “How should I talk?”
“You shouldn’t talk at all,” I want to yell, then pounce, yanking the phone out of his hand and flinging it into the sand. “No talking is allowed in the locker room!” I want to give him detention. No, I want to empty the contents of his brain or scour it like waves pounding the rocks.
As I pass him, he’s still in agitated conversation, shaking his head and cursing bitterly over the woman who used him.