First we got naked, then we saw each other day in, day out, then we started smiling and saying hello. And then we introduced ourselves. Pretty soon, my friend Phoebe was saying to our regular neighbor in the locker aisle, who's in her 70s, "I have to tell you, you have a great bosom."
Some people go to church. I attend the women's locker room at my local Brooklyn Y. We all need community, and this is mine. It's where people would notice if I stopped showing up.
For three years, I've seen the same bunch of women there in the mornings as we grunt on our bathing suits and trudge downstairs to swim laps in the cold water of the pool. We reconvene at the showers, often continuing a conversation we'd started 40 minutes earlier. Then we return to our lockers, where we carpet the floor with our little white towels, shedding our terry-cloth skirts and shawls we'd improvised only minutes before for the walk over from the showers.
One of the reasons it works is that there's nothing forced about it. This isn't ladies' night out, with its contrived letting loose and stupid pink cocktails. We do not talk about shoes.
We talk about our children and grandchildren. The autism diagnosis, the extra hug we got that morning. What is it like having a thirteen-year-old boy? How did your grandson like his first opera?
We talk about our work. You should use this author photo instead of that one. Where can I see your paintings?
Twice, people I don't know have jumped into conversations to say something about a book. One time, Phoebe and I were talking about how good my sister's novel was. A woman getting dressed near us said, "Excuse me, I just have to know the name of this book." Another time, someone said, "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I just have to tell you about the incredible book I'm reading." It was one of Elena Ferrante's novels from the Neapolitan series, appropriately enough. That kind of word-of-mouth is the stuff of publishers' fantasies, although they probably imagine us clothed.
We talk about our health and track what's happening with our bodies. "Your skin is a wonder!" we'll say, and we're let in on the secret: "Forty years of Oil of Olay." We've checked each other for ticks, noticed fresh scars from biopsies, suggested getting a mole looked at.
When Kerry, one of the regulars, had a mastectomy years before my time, the women took up a collection for a Victoria's Secret gift certificate. The card was signed: "From the naked ladies in goggles."
Kerry told me that when she came back to the locker room after recovering from reconstructive surgery, she was feeling shy about disrobing. Our friend Jane told her to take off her shirt. "Let me see," she said. And then: "You look great. You don't ever have to cover up again." Kerry told me, "That was the end of it for me. I moved on to feeling normal again."
This is one of the locker room's great gifts: its glorious display of bodies. We are tall. We are short. We are overweight, and we are not. We are old, and we are older. Everyone seems perfectly comfortable naked. Some of us even keep our shower curtains open — the better to keep talking.
I could probably stand to be a little more self-conscious: my own shaving efforts have become rather lackadaisical. Once a well-patrolled border, my bikini line is now run under the auspices of "Who gives a crap?" If I had daughters, I'd relish the chance to take them there, to show them what women really look like.
Some people go to church. I attend the women's locker room at my local Brooklyn Y.
Jane told me that years ago, one of our buddies, Randi Sue, had quit coming. One day, Jane ran into her on the street and asked where she'd been. Randi said she'd put on so much weight that she was embarrassed to be seen. Jane told her, "No one looks at you and thinks, Why is that fat lady here? They think, Good for her!" Randi Sue came back and has been there ever since.
Jane, who's 76, is our leader, our idol. Like several of the people we know there, she's been coming to the Y for more than 30 years. She swims every day. Arriving on her bike. After a three-mile walk in the park. Sometimes she'll tell us, "Quit chatting, girls, and get in the pool." Being called "girls" when you're 44: the greatest compliment of all.
It is the one place outside of my family where I interact across so many generations. Unlike the society outside the locker-room walls, our admiration is aimed upward, the younger generations in awe of the older women. They're there more consistently than we are. They're more fit than we are. We want to be like them when we're their age. We want to be like them now.
The camaraderie has happened on its own, almost in spite of ourselves. We're not there to make friends. We're there because we have a job to do. We need to exercise. We all have work we need to get to. And let's face it, as New Yorkers, we're not looking for a smile from a stranger.
As with soldiers who fight together or people in arranged marriages, some of the strongest bonds are born from steadfastness and shared circumstances. We don't have to have picked each other to feel genuine affection.
The locker room is a remarkable constant, while the years do what they do, to us and to our families. Marital problems have come and gone. Spouses have died. Children have grown up. Once, the ladies threw a baby shower for one of the women in the group. Their choice of venue? The shower room, of course. That child is now in high school.
While Kerry was recovering from surgery and couldn't go in the pool, she kept visiting the locker room to see everyone. It was her support system. "They continued to be there for me," she told me.
Over time, I've started to go more frequently. Part of me, I'll admit, is just trying to impress Jane. But I've also noticed that as much as I still dread those first shivering seconds in the water, I now look forward to being there in the morning. The exercise is starting to feel incidental.
Recently, Jane said she had an extra ticket to a show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Did any of us want to go with her? I was the lucky available one. It would be the first time I'd seen her out of context. I'd only known her naked under the bright lights. Would sitting next to her in the dark with our clothes on somehow break the magic? And then I met her at the theater on that Saturday afternoon, this person with whom I'd shared laughs and stories, advice and fears. This person who'd become a real friend.
Susannah Meadows is the author of the new book The Other Side of Impossible: Ordinary People Who Faced Daunting Medical Challenges and Refused to Give Up.