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.
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.