Testimony in Swimsuit
A painful incident occurred last week that I have not had time to ponder until now. I was showering after my swim on Tuesday. It was quiet. I was the only one in the curved line of six shower stalls, when a man dressed in swimming trunks entered, stepped into a stall, and proceeded to shower prior to his swim. I quickly wrapped my towel around myself and approached him to point out his mistake to him.
“This is the women’s shower,” I said.
“Ich bin Frau,” he replied and continued showering.
Dumbfounded, I merely stared. He was very clearly a man, a tall, pale man in his twenties who seemed, from his speech, to have a much younger mind. Gathering my wits, I explained that he could not shower there. He replied again, plaintively, that he was a woman and that as a woman he couldn’t go into the men’s shower. That was his difficulty. My difficulty was that, as a woman, I couldn’t continue showering if he stayed. I hurried out into the pool area and stopped the first man I saw, a stalwart male swimmer, and stated that there was a man in the women’s shower who said he was a woman. It was a stupid thing to say. What I wanted was someone to get him out of there, because I was not able or authorized to do so. The stalwart man said he would call the Bademeister and disappeared. Incidental and mundane as it was, it so happened that on this particular day I was in an outrageous hurry; I had a conference call that afternoon with a new client and had already shaved things a bit too close. I decided I could make up for this glitch by not drying my hair. But where was the stalwart man? Where was the Bademeister?
Just as the stalwart man reappeared, the man emerged from the women’s shower and walked completely unsuspecting towards us to get to the pool to have his swim. Totally unkindly, I suppose, I said something like that’s the man who says he’s a woman, or that’s the man who says he can use the ladies’ shower because – there was no way to avoid the cruel accusation – he says he’s a woman. The stalwart man trained a hearty, bright eye on him.
“You can’t use the ladies’ showers,” he told him. “You have to use the men’s showers.”
“But I’m a woman.” The man shrank back. The pitch of his protest rose to a soft wail.
“You’re a man,” the stalwart man asseverated.
Clutching his arms about him, the man explained in a single sentence that his femaleness has been stunted when he was a child. I felt ashamed. We weren’t equipped to handle so intimate a statement. Not to be swayed by a centimeter even by this horrific confidence, the stalwart man replied decisively, “That’s not our problem.”
“No,” the man replied with piteous clarity. “It’s my problem.” He loosened his clasp on himself, only to clutch himself again. He was trembling.
Although the highest authority of Olympiabad had arrived – the Bademeister in his aqua blue shirt and dark blue shorts – rendering my presence and that of the stalwart man completely superfluous, neither one of us had any intention of leaving; we couldn’t wait to hear what he would say to the man who said he was a woman. But as soon as the Bademeister positioned himself in our midst, it all started up again, although the whole matter was no longer relevant. The man was no longer in the women’s shower, therefore it was no longer necessary to get him out. Yet he had, by this time, stated many times that he was a woman. That was now the offence.
So the rough-and-ready poolside interrogation took its course as uncalculating and unpredictable as a freight train tearing through pristine forest, such being the degree human finesse when it comes to matters of ad hoc justice. With the undivided attention of the three of us upon him and speaking with greater urgency and honesty than I had heard in years, the accused attempted the highly elusive, complex argument demanded of him: why he was a female but looked like a male. Halfway through, to my great discomfort, the stalwart man risked an indelicate aside to the Bademeister: “He needs a psychiatrist.”
Yet the Bademeister, recognizing the gravity of the situation and his station, seasoned practicality with compassion. After the man had finished explaining yet again that his female attributes had been stunted in childhood, which prevented him from looking like the woman he was, the Bademeister answered with a German use of language that I long ago learned to admire:
“Optisch sehen Sie aus wie ein Mann.”
All eyes for some reason turned to me and looked me up and down before they turned to the man. Surreptitiously, I glanced down as well to make sure my towel was securely wrapped about my swimsuit-less body. It was. The eyes had swept over me first, I think, because of the gesture the Bademeister had made. His hand, holding his cell phone, had moved the length of the man’s body and mine – they stood side by side – simultaneously, as if pointing out the difference between what optically looked like a man and what optically looked like a woman. A similar optical comparison could have been made between a grape and a pear. I was a fraction of the man’s size, which had the gratuitous effect of magnifying the optical difference between woman and man.
But the Bademeister had used the word “optisch.” How I love the German use of that word in such cases. It is so forgiving, excusing the mere optical registration of an object as nothing more than the effect of that fallible instrument, the eye, on that fallible instrument, the brain; our man looked like a man as far as the eye reported, nothing more; reality loomed vast beyond that, unseen, perhaps unknowable. Optisch said all that. The critical wormhole was identified, but the German brain and logic were rigorous, nonetheless. “And because of that,” the Bademeister added unequivocally, “you have to use the men’s showers.”
The final blow relieved all tension.
“Can I use shampoo in the pool?” the accused inquired.
“Shampoo in the pool?” the Bademeister repeated nonplussed. Now here was something we could deal with. Swinging his arm to the right, the Bademeister declared: “Shower here, and shampoo.” Swinging his arm to the left: “Swimming in the pool. No shampoo.” Here was clarity. Here was resolution. Here was order and harmony. The stalwart man and I nodded vigorously.
The matter concluded, I headed towards the hotly contested and successfully defended ladies’ shower to get my things and rocket off to my trivial teleconference; everything in my little life had suddenly been dwarfed by the stupendous parade of justice that had just floated past me, now gone without even a dusty set to testify to its performance. The three men, however, were trooping away from the pool into the enfilade between the tile-immured shower areas clearly dividing ladies from gents and towards the dressing area beyond, as if into vast reality itself so recently alluded to, but why I could not guess. As they passed, the Bademeister thanked me, undeserved acknowledgement that I nevertheless gratefully accepted; I thanked the stalwart man as he passed by and was rewarded with a smile; and as the confused man, trailing behind both, passed, I reached up – he was very tall – to engage his attention. “Alles Gute,” I whispered to him. A light appeared in his eye, a slow smile formed on his lips that he rubbed with his fingers as if to hide, and although he did not smile to me but off into the depths of the dressing area where he was headed, I felt the good wishes had lit somewhere on the meadow that bloomed inside of him. He seemed to feel he was in good hands now. My heart flooded with a painful sense of gratitude. We were forgiven.
The next few days were steeped in subtle gravity, the base tone that had only deepened in the wake of the Tuesday drama. The accused’s face flashed before my mind’s eye time after time. The pain of the ordeal he had faced was impressed on me each time with ever greater force. Those frail, trembling arms folded about the wrong body that exposed him time and time again to misunderstanding and mishap. To be caught unawares, challenged by three idiots to testify nearly naked by a swimming pool. How he had cringed but not flinched. How he had spoken the whole truth that he knew and with his whole heart from within that false body to the utmost of his ability to the likes of us. A testimony on a subject of the most fundamental and deeply personal, abstract and befuddling nature. Argumentation no human should be charged to present: why I am a woman but look like a man.
How often will that be have to be repeated?
My good woman, the trials are only just beginning.