As we approached the beach, I suddenly became hyper aware of the amount of clothing I was wearing.
In Jerusalem I almost always wear pants. Something about the mountains and the feeling of conservative modesty make jeans more comfortable for me than the shorts I used to wear in Texas. I joke about tzniut, the religious concept of modesty that has come to refer mostly to women’s dress in certain Jewish communities, and how I insist on “being tzniut” when I walk around in Jerusalem. Joking aside, I like dressing conservatively, and given the cooler-than-usual summer temperatures in the city (which tend to be between 10 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than San Antonio) wearing collared shirts every day with jeans is something I can do year-round. Along with my kippah, summer hat, and sunglasses, only my arms are exposed, but the tattoo sleeve of my left arm feels to me like an extension of my clothing. And I love it.
The morning I got dressed for the beach in Tel Aviv, however, I gleefully pulled my shortest shorts from the closet and stood before the mirror. I have nice legs—they’re the only part of my body that I really like—and they have become very muscular since living in such a pedestrian-friendly country. I liked the way my shorts showed my progress, even though they rise well above my knee and felt oddly “foreign.” I couldn’t remember having purchased them, let alone when I thought I would be comfortable putting them on, but on this day I was going to show myself to the world.
On my way out the door, I took a horrible fall down the stairs. I bumped down the last seven steps to the ground, bruising my left femur from my hip to my knee. A combination of embarrassment and pain broke out across my face as hot tears stung my cheeks in the presence of some horrified neighbors. “Ani b’seder, ani b’seder.” I’m okay. I’m okay.
I had not been on a beach in a social setting for years, so I am embarrassed to admit I assumed my short-sleeve button-down with its tropical flowery pattern and shorts would fit in. I felt simultaneously strangled by my abundance of clothing and yet naked in the presence of so many people in bathing suits. Hilton Beach is a lovely place, but like other Tel Aviv beaches that are littered with gym equipment and showers, it socially reinforces a certain body type and presentation of the perfect physique. I showed up to the party having missed the memo.
When I’m nervous I twist my wedding ring around my finger. I looked down at my hands, let my ring finger go, and took a deep breath.
“Alex, will you help me with my sunscreen?”
He never pressured me and instead met my eyes with a sweet “are you sure?” I was as sure as the ring around my finger—I wasn’t there to impress anyone. I was just looking to have a nice day relaxing with the person who loves me enough to help me love myself, and if that meant pushing myself a bit, I was willing and ready.
And so I slowly unbuttoned my shirt, glancing around to intercept the looks that I was sure my ghostly white skin would attract. But nobody cared. No necks craned to gawk at my body or how awkwardly I disrobed. I put sunscreen on my stomach and chest, conscious of how my flesh jiggled as my hands grazed my curves. But Alex’s hands on my back comforted me. This was the first time in as long as I could remember that wind and sun had touched these parts of my body… and it was thrilling.
When you resign yourself to the fully-clothed sidelines, you forget what the water feels like. I had expected some reminder of a bath, but the salty, cool water splashed my thighs and I yelped. Had it really been this long? Had I truly forgotten what the ocean felt like? Beneath the sky with just a pair of tiny shorts and a kippah, I walked into the blue waters up to my waist. My toes dug into the bizarre sea bed and I shivered with excitement.
To my left and right, magazine models splashed one another as paparazzi snapped their photos. On the beach, Greek statues lay side by side as the sun glistened in the perfect droplets on their perfect skin. But in the middle of the shallows, a powder-white, 27-year-old child was loving the ocean for the first time.
I headed back to the beach, dizzy and giddy with excitement. On my stomach on the blanket we spread across the sand, I wiggled my hips into the soft earth and briefly closed my eyes. The sounds of the people around me continued uninterrupted. I slept.
Late that night I painfully walked back up the steps to our apartment, still dressed for Tel Aviv. I examined my leg, already developing its triumphant blues and purples, and rinsed myself in the shower.
No need for pajamas tonight.