I remember the first time I heard someone talk about a bikini.
My mom had taken my sister and I to Playa Samara to spend our summer vacation, the happiest time of every year. I was six years old, had just finished kindergarden, and was about to begin my first year of elementary school. Tall and thin, I wore my hair short and straight and spent all year wishing December would arrive, so I could turn into one of those formidable creatures of the sea.
After the 8-hour journey by bus from the city, crossing rivers along dusty dirt roads, we finally arrived to that magical place.
My summertime friends would take me to walk barefoot on the hot stones to fish shrimp from the river; "Pancha", the white-faced monkey would pick pebbles from our hair; we'd build innumerable bridges in the sand and play in the sea until we just about turned into fish ourselves.
We would stay at El Acuario, a restaurant made of solid wood with rooms to rent on the second floor - the place belonged to 'El Flaco', a friend of our family.
El Flaco was grandfather to my friends, and we were close in age, so for me, it was as if El Flaco was my grandfather, too.
El Flaco always dressed the same. He wore his jeans long, or cut in half at the knee, with a white tank top. Around his neck hung a jaguar fang on a silver chain. To us, he was the greatest. He always told the best stories and would take us on surprise adventures - while he drove in the front, we would lay on a mattress in the bed of his grey pick-up, contemplating the light of a thousand stars in the warm Guanacaste sky.
While we children played, we couldn't help but eavesdrop on the conversations the grown-ups were having. Many of the stories were the same as always, but this year, they started talking about 'Shana's bikinis'. All the women said she had the most beautiful fabric, and that they were two-pieces. My bathing suits had always been one-pieces, and those two-pieces seemed so new and exciting... On the radio we'd hear that "yellow polka-dot bikini' song and dance like mad.
Shana's house was next door to El Acuario, and I'd watch the girls in town go in to have their measurements taken and to choose the fabric they wanted for their new bikinis. I asked my mom if she would take me to Shana's so I could have a bikini of my very own. My mom, a twenty-six year-old single mother of two daughters, and seven months pregnant that summer, told me it wasn't possible - not this year.
My curiosity ran wild, and after sunset, when the women went to Shana's, I would hide behind the hibiscus trees, my attentive green eyes observing the scene. I fell in love with what I saw. The women would choose beautiful fabrics with tropical prints; Shana would measure their bodies and make notes. Later, she would give other women their new bikinis, they would try them on and burst with joy at the sight of their reflections, lovely, in the big, full-length mirror hanging on the wall.
I smiled while I watched them, bewitched. Suddenly I felt the uncontrollable desire to be one of those women, to wear one of those beautiful bikinis. Quickly, my smile faded to sadness. I ran at full speed from my hiding place, sprinted up the wooden stairs to our room, threw myself on the bed, and sobbed inconsolably.
A few minutes later, the door opened and I heard El Flaco's voice, asking me sweetly, "Why are you crying, my love?"
I turned my head, drying the tears that streamed down my cheeks with my hands. "Because all the girls have bikinis and I don't," I replied.
"Don't worry, my love," he said. "I'm going to make you the prettiest bikini of all."
El Flaco walked to the corner of the room and removed a sheet that covered an old sewing machine. He adjusted the knobs, found some thread, and set the needle. He pulled a tape measure from a box and began to take my measurements, making notes in a booklet. With heavy scissors, he started cutting fabric from one of the many white tank tops folded on the shelf. He cut the neckline and sleeves and used them as borders for the small triangles on the top, and to make the tie-straps for the bottoms. With his calloused hands as a true man of the sea, he placed some pins along the white fabric and began to sew, his legs pressing the iron pedal of the old Singer machine.
Afterwhile, he handed it to me with one of those deep smiles characteristic of his sunburned face, the piece of silver that held his jaguar fang shining bright towards me. El Flaco left the room and I hurried to try on my new white bikini.
I ran down the old staircase to find my mom. "Mommy, look!" I said, loud enough for everyone at El Acuario to hear. "I have the most beautiful bikini of all!"
That summer in Guanacaste, I wore that white bikini every single day, playing beneath the hot sun, chasing crabs along the sand, swimming for hours with my friends, until we just about turned into fish ourselves.
Translated from Spanish to English by Tara Ruttenberg Tara Ruttenberg website
Illustration by Erica Halse Erica Halse website