This will sound funny, I know. But when you’re in that moment being me, a non-bikini wearer who is crazy about sand and water, it’s not funny-feeling.
First of all, let me blame a part of my conundrum on my Islamic and Muslim roots again. Islam wants me to dress modestly and because there are few things that I really do in accordance with Islam, I try to stick to this one. Rest, I atone for.
So I don’t wear a bikini. Nope not a one-piece either. Nope not that contraption that Muslim-friendly designers are calling “The Burkini”. And I’d be six feet under before I put a two-piece on. That’s truly not in accordance with my beliefs. Honestly, the vision that I’d make in a two-piece isn’t something I should even imagine because that vision alone can cause a skipped beat or two (and not because I’d look gorgeous. Quite the opposite, actually). If Allah hadn’t made it forbidden for me, I’m sure the government would have.
So what I normally wear to the beach is a combination of various pieces of less modesty than my regular clothes. Clothes that would get some breeze through them, some sand through them or may be even some water through them. You know the intention! Just enjoy the elements of the beach. And I always land at the beach with a complex array of clothing that usually doesn’t work out during the course of the day.
As I arrive at the beach in my jeggings and a top that hangs below my knees I’m acutely aware of questioning eyes. People, in various stages of undress (or dress), look at me with surprise, ridicule and sometimes, pity. I try to counter their stares with a stare of my own but end up looking away as my eyes are sure to land on a body part that the owner of the said part has obviously intended to cover. And has failed.
But if I could be fazed by unkind stares I wouldn’t have made it this far in life. I’m used to them. In fact, I have grown up with a group of women who believe in maintaining their relevance and activism at all times by being talked about and stared at all the time. Men call these women feminists. I call them my mom, aunts and cousins.
I reach the beach and motion for my family to come over. My kids are quite apt at getting our beach set-up going. They know exactly what the requirements are from their mother regarding enjoying the beach. Yes, readers! Every Pakistani activity is done with a perfectly elaborate set of rituals and instructions. We don’t enjoy any activity without reading the instructional manual of the activity in question. Pakistanis believe in enjoying to the fullest but with a healthy limit to the enjoyment and maintaining supreme control over the environment. We let our girls laugh but not louder than a given decibel. We let our sons marry but not to just anyone they like. We like our parents to advise us but only as much as we want. It’s a very intricately laid down system of years of conditioning and authoritarian type parenting. It can’t be challenged or our whole society can collapse.
In the same vein, my kids know that their beach stuff can only be set up about five miles from the last lady they saw wearing a bikini. They also know that their ball should only be inflated enough that it makes feeble, nonchalant bounces on the beach and doesn’t land near half-naked people . They also know that they can’t swim close to people who look like they know how to swim. Pakistani parents can’t ever tolerate another kid doing better than theirs. My kids know that if I find out that there are better swimmers in this world than them then their swim teacher would be getting an earful from me which would cause them tons of embarrassment. Also, I’m going to cancel swim classes because “what have you been learning for the last four weeks that you’ve been in swimming?” The early understanding of the warped system of proud parenting works to great benefit to the Pakistani kid so he’s eager to learn it fast and early.
No Pakistani activity starts without the requisite warning sentences beforehand. I’m so good at being a Pakistani that I have memorized my set of instructions by heart at this point. Here go the beach ones.
1. Stay close to me at all times.
2. If the ball goes close to that couple who are cuddling naked, that’s it. I won’t let you bring it back.
3. Stay together. You two can’t be two feet apart.
4. Stay close to your dad.
5. Now that we are at the beach, make sure you enjoy. Do you hear that? Enjoy yourselves because we aren’t coming until next year.
6. When I ask you to eat, don’t tell me that you’re enjoying yourselves. Come and eat.
7. Don’t make friends with anyone on the beach.
8. Don’t go too far out in the beach.
9. Don’t think you can do whatever you want. You wanna play with the frisbee after the ball? You ask me if you can.
10. Enjoy yourselves now. Go. Go on! You don’t have much time anyway.
Next I decide to take a friendly stroll along the beach with my husband with the intention of inducing some romance in it. I’m careful about my public display of affection though. It can look crass and downright unethical to hold hands with your husband in public. Of course a peck on the cheek is outright slutty behavior and I stay away from it but after hearing my Pakistani friends’ views on hand-holding in public I have really modified my personal approach to PDA and I’m happy to report, my husband caught on quickly and has started regarding me almost as his sister when we are out.
But what’s this? He’s sleeping? Really? Is this why I bring him everywhere, especially the beach? So he could sleep?
Ladies! You know what I’m talking about. This was our time. This was the time when I would’ve had him catch up on the latest gossip. This was the time when he would have heard for the tenth time since yesterday how his mother is the bane of my existence. This was the time when I would’ve reminded him of his sloppy husbandry and he chose this time to sleep? Well! He’ll pay for it later by getting my silent treatment for a week. When a Pakistani wife says silent treatment, don’t think I’ll stop speaking with him. No, no! That’s actually a gift. That’s something he looks forward to. When I say I’ll give him the silent treatment, that usually means I’ll remain silent when he asks for food, sex and help with the kids’ homework.
But I don’t need him to enjoy myself. I am quite capable of enjoying by myself. I don’t get my husband to myself a lot as we live in a joint set-up so really I have had to be very creative at running this marriage with a single spouse, that is, me. My husband unfortunately has been a quasi-spouse to other women in the family and I’d be damned before I asked him back from them. They can keep him for as long as they like.
I decide to lounge in my beach chair and read a book. This beach chair was in perfect condition five years ago when we first bought it. It has seen some wear and tear by virtue of being used as the step stool, the extra dining chair sometimes and my kids’ time out seat. We have also used it to block the kennel door once but the dog ran away anyway so it is actually not a really useful chair for that purpose. But I’d be damned if I didn’t use a piece of furniture, whatever its projected life is at the time of its making, for at least two generations.
The chair breaks as soon as I sit in it. But it just doesn’t break and I don’t just land on my butt. It breaks in a stepwise fashion. Embarrassing as that process is, more than that, it’s astoundingly complicated.
As soon as I sit the seat goes down in the sand. This causes my torso to now be ensconced heavily in the sand with my arms above my body and the arms of the chair slightly tilted but not completely level with the seat. If the whole seat had gone down at once it would’ve been easier for me to get myself out of this literal mess. But because the arms of the chair are still up in the air I can reach them but can’t hoist myself up as that would cause too much pressure on my back and may cause the seat to disintegrate even more.
So what? Has this seat given me the type of consideration that I’m practicing for it? Let me pull the arms down and support myself up.
Turns out this wasn’t the genius idea-mongering that I went to medical school for. The arms come crashing down on the side when I try to put pressure on them and the seat drives itself deeper into the sand. Myself, meanwhile, becomes butt-buried deeper in the sand.
This is ridiculous. How is this seat having so much control over my life right now! I have to get out of this and learn from this experience that beach chairs can’t be trusted with holding my rear.
I try to wiggle out of the jungle of canvas and iron rods that the chair is made of. As I’m wiggling some high schoolers make an impolite joke or two on my helplessness. I hiss at them and make a mental note to take the revenge of these kids from my future daughter-in-law. That poor girl has a whole list of insults and injustices that I’ve been through to compensate for.
As I’m wiggling out, I’m painfully aware of a lot of sand making its way through my limitedly permeable outfit into the crevices of my body. This sand isn’t the smooth sand that you have at the beach. This is the rougher variety that is found when you choose to sit twenty feet from the actual beach. This sand has pebbles and, frankly, even some gravel.
Painful as this is I’m not going to ask that insensitive human being that I call my husband for help. He has been lightly snoring all this time and hasn’t had any telepathic messages in his sleep that his wife needs him. Well, if he can’t sense the dilemma I’m in then he can just sleep away.
I finally manage to swing one leg over one arm of the chair and use that leg to propel my butt forward. This is partially successful. I say partially because now my right butt cheek is deeper in the sand and I’m not sure how I’d be able to rescue that one when all this is over. I have a momentary fear of going home with one cheek only.
As I’m thinking of all that life has asked of me in this moment I become bitter. Why did I come to the beach? Why couldn’t I just stay at home like all the other days? Why can’t my kids just be those kids who’d disentangle themselves from their stupid games and come to my rescue? Why can’t my husband suddenly wake up to find me like this, but find it extremely adorable and rescue me and then we could tell this story (with subtle alterations to make it sexy) to our grandkids? As I’m deeply engrossed in self-pity I hear a voice,
“Can I help you?”
The speaker is a man about six feet tall. He is standing over me and is really looking like a Greek god from where I’m in the sand. He looks concerned but more than that, he looks scared. I commend him for still trying to help me.
“I’m okay. Just kinda stuck in the chair here”.
He pulls me up but that’s not humanly possible anymore. Because I look like a female version of Pinocchio because of how distorted I have become in my attempts to raise myself to a standing position, various parts of my clothing have become entangled with the chair and some have actually been slightly ripped.
But this guy meant business when he asked if he could help me. He pulls me and continues to pull. I curse and scream and I’m sure that my arm would be another body part that I’d leave on the beach tonight in addition to my butt. However he manages to pull me out of the sand. He tugs at me some more. But my long shirt that was already the cause of so much of my problems has now caught onto a piece of the broken arm chair. He continues to pull but the shirt wouldn’t let me move.
Now let’s take a break here because I’m immensely proud of my country in this moment.
You see Pakistani clothing material and fabric comes in many forms. We have actually created some very unique forms of fabric and named them even more uniquely. There is cotton and silk that you know of but there is also cotton net, banarsi cotton, organza cotton, chiffon silk, silk chiffon, pure chiffon, chiffon net, cotton organza, pure cotton, and so on. These fabrics range in sturdiness from so-flimsy-that-looks-can-tear-it to you-can’t-possibly-tear-me-in-human-ways strong. This particular shirt that I got from a roadside seller in Karachi is a particular example of the excellent craftsmanship that I’m boasting about. This shirt has seen bad days. And good ones. But more bad days. And it’s still good as new and wouldn’t let this guy just rip it off the piece of metal that it has attached itself to.
My savior continues to tug at my arm and even though I’m proud of my shirt and my country, I’m starting to feel that he has become somewhat competitive with my shirt. Why can’t he just accept that this shirt is stronger than him and won’t give in so easily? I don’t want my shirt to rip. I’ve only worn it for ten years. It started as the outfit that I wore to one of my cousin’s baby shower. Then it became one of the items that I wore to medical school regularly. Then it was my night suit. Then I started wearing it only when I had to clean the car or the house. And finally, when the smell from the oil marks on it was hard to ignore even for my loving husband, I made it my beach shirt.
“Why aren’t you wearing something more beach appropriate?”, he asks panting and pulling at the same time.
How dare he ask me that! My own husband is so careful about how to approach these questions. In that moment I become grateful for my husband.
“Well this is appropriate”.
“Lady! I don’t know what you know about beachwear but it has to be breathable and easily wearable and may be something that you can easily get out of”.
“But I don’t want to get out of this”.
“Huh? Weren’t you going to change into you’re swimsuit?”
“No. This is my swimsuit”.
“But this can’t be your swimsuit. You’ll drown in this.”
” How can I drown? I’m not going to swim”.
The guy is trying to pull me out of the chair mess while trying to wrap his head around what a fully-clothed woman, who by her own admission isn’t going to swim, doing at the beach with a piece of clothing that has been weighed down by the sheer weight of the sand and some absorbed water.
“Okay lady, tell me”, he says, panting more than before and continuing to tug at my left arm and making small victories along the way, “if you weren’t going to surf or swim or snorkel or dive or dip, what in God’s great green world were you gonna do at the beach?”
“I was gonna watch my kids play”.
“Why? Do you not like the beach?”
“I love it.”
“Then why were you just content with watching your kids play?”
“Because I enjoy watching them play. It makes me happy”.
I don’t know if he was sad at what makes me happy or surprised at it or just disgusted but he pulled me with even more force than before and my whole body jerked forward with a loud ripping noise.
My beach shirt has come undone at its left side. It has actually ripped all the way down from the left shoulder to my groin. You can see my,
“Are you wearing an under shirt there?”
I look incredulously at this handsome man and wonder why he only got beauty and almost no brains but I decide to use this educationally.
“Why? So if something happened to my top shirt, I’d still have an undershirt so nothing would show”.
The beautiful man looks at me pitifully for a few seconds, then breaks into a grin,
“Hahaha. That shirt that I ripped is enough to pull a truck. I don’t think anything could have harmed it if you hadn’t so artfully entangled yourself in your even sturdier chair. You’ve got a good, strong set of stuff here. Your shirt and this chair here”.
“Thanks. I make sure I make wise investments”. I say, somewhat haughtily and sagely.
The only man who has been attentive to me during this day at the beach so far tells me that he would like to leave. I thank him profusely.
I now examine myself. I’m scratched and bruised and where he pulled me I have an ache going on like my tendon is hurting. And not just that, in my hurry I wore one of my best undershirts and now I can’t imagine staying at the beach any longer because I don’t want to ruin it.
I wake my husband up and insist that we leave. He doesn’t get it but agrees, yawns and gets up.
My kids come over running.
“We don’t want to go”.
“We have to. My clothes are ruined”.
“Oh Mom! They look perfect”, my nicer kid says.
“No they don’t. I just want to take a bath and call it a day”.
“But Mom we didn’t even eat our picnic lunch”.
My husband suddenly notices and says,
“What happened to your clothes?”
I relay the story to him. He looks sympathetic but also looks like if I wasn’t looking at him so intently, he’d break in a laugh.
I’m a little desolate. My beach day is ruined.
Finally my husband says,
“If you feel like you’re not probably dressed for the beach you can borrow my shirt and put it on. That way we can hang out at the beach for a little longer”.
I’m grateful but haven’t forgotten my prior promise of giving him the silent treatment. I silently take the shirt from him and put it on.
Suddenly I realize it’s his favorite shirt. And new too.
I return it, slightly flustered and say,
“I can’t take your favorite shirt. It’s practically brand-new”.
“Honey”, my husband yawns as he settles in for another nap, ” this IS practically new I know, but it is also practically the most forward public display of affection that you’d ever allow me to make. Consider this our version of hand holding and cuddling on the beach”.
My kids laugh and return to their play. I smile and find a spot close to my now-sleeping husband. Some parts of my non-bikini-wearing, unconventional beach days are more precious than they would look to a bystander.