I GREW UP IN A HOUSE with only one bathroom, and we children were trained from an early age to share it. The bathroom was a social place for us. One person would pee while another brushed his or her teeth, toweled off from the bath, or searched the medicine chest for aspirin.
Often, when I was in the shower or the tub, Dad would yell, “Pull the curtains shut. I’ve got to use the john,” and in he’d barge. I’d listen to his steady stream of pee pouring into the bowl like water from a garden hose. Of course, sometimes I’d peek.
He’d be standing with his feet planted firmly apart, holding his penis in his right hand. It was big and pink and rubbery, like a baby doll’s arm. When he was done, he’d shake it decisively and stuff it back into his trousers.
There was never a time when the bodies of my parents and my brother were hidden from me. So I was a little taken aback when, my first night in college, my Italian Catholic roommate went into the women’s bathroom and changed into her nightgown in the toilet stall. Only after many months was I finally able to broach the subject with her. I discovered that her parents had always hidden their bodies. She had never even seen her mother in a bra and slip.
I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FAT, though it’s taken me years of therapy even to be able to say the word. I also know I’m pretty. I don’t know how two such totally opposite emotions — vanity and shame — can inhabit the same body, but they do.
The times I am most ashamed are when the pizza-delivery man arrives and I eat the whole pie by myself, or when the man I love rejects me and I consume three pounds of fruit dipped in bittersweet chocolate, or when I get so large that my hems rip as I walk.
That’s how I was feeling when I met Francois, a freelance photographer who sometimes worked for my boss. So I was surprised when Francois said I was beautiful. What a weirdo, I thought.
“I want to take pictures of you in the nude,” he said. “You need to be nude.”
This last statement was a jolt, such a captivating, wonderful phrase: “You need to be nude.” I repeated it to myself for a few days, emphasizing each word in turn. I toyed with it until the words started to lose their meaning. I couldn’t bear that, so I went to his studio. To be nude.
I undressed behind a tattered Chinese screen, praying Francois wouldn’t come behind it, devastated that he didn’t.
His face was impassive as, at his direction, I lifted myself gracelessly onto a table. He fussed with his equipment, then scowled at me. My expression was no good, he said. “Relax. Relax. Try some wine, maybe. You’re too tight. No good.”
I obediently sipped, missed my mouth, and felt the wine dribble down my chin. He was shooting rapidly now, talking quickly in French, obviously annoyed. The bulbs flashed again and again, and I wiped away sweat, fixing my eyes on a paint chip on the ceiling.
“No good! No good! You are beautiful; you are lovely, a big fat temptress. Please, try to relax, or you will ruin everything. Drink the wine and think of something wonderful.”
A big fat temptress? Did he really say that? I wanted to throw up. Maybe this was a cruel joke, and these pictures would be passed around at work, laughed at. I asked for the whole bottle of wine. To hell with it. My pathetic little life was over, so I would get too drunk to care.
I gulped the wine, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. The tightness began to leave me, and my breathing became more fluid.
“Yes! Yes!” There was excitement in his voice now, and my body rose to answer. I preened, strutted, pouted. “Yes! Yes! More! More!”
My nipples hardened into little pink buds, and I felt desire brush the inside of my thighs. The lights exploded faster and faster until the room was a blur. I showed him everything, even the parts of me I’d never seen myself.
A few days later, we sat in Francois’s darkroom, waiting for the images to appear on the contact sheet. As the swirls of black and gray began to take form, I held my breath and closed my eyes.
“Beautiful,” he said. “Beautiful. Don’t be such a silly girl; look at yourself!”
I looked at the sheet. There were thirty tiny photos of my face — just my face. I was quite beautiful. I’d never seen myself like that. What a lovely woman, I thought, full of abandon, full of life and sex and love.
I looked to him for an explanation, and he smiled.
“Do you understand?” he said.
“That’s how it had to be. If you’d had clothes on, I couldn’t have gotten this — this fire you thought you could kill.”
New York, New York
As a teenager in the late sixties, I felt it was my job to be outrageous, and my parents’ job to be stodgy. I dressed in rags, had sex with strangers, and foraged the streets for dope, while my parents went to the country club, manicured their lawn, and wore expensive clothes and shiny shoes.
Now I’m the age my parents were then, and my father has just joined a nudist camp! I’m scandalized! His lady friend and her father have a place there. They want me to come visit, but I won’t. So now they think I’m hopelessly stodgy. But I just can’t go: I don’t want to see my father naked; I don’t want to be naked in front of him.
Shelbume Falls, Massachusetts
FOR TEN YEARS, beginning in my early twenties, I lived alone, six miles up a mountain road, but still near enough to town for a nine-to-five commute. I had no electricity and hauled my water from a nearby spring. I became friends with other mountain residents who used the spring, and we began sharing meals and chores, and took hot tubs or saunas together on a regular basis. We became a kind of family.
While I lived there, I volunteered with a big-sisters program and was matched with a young girl who lived a shattered life in a dank apartment with four brothers and a father who drank. We spent weekends together, baking, singing, reading, and being outdoors. She became part of our mountain community, and relaxed with us in the sauna or the hot tub.
Eventually she moved out of state, and I married and moved farther from town. She is now twenty. Last spring she asked me to be in her wedding, and I agreed. During long talks and much reminiscing, she thanked me for teaching her many valuable lessons. To my surprise, at the top of her list was how to feel comfortable with her body. The exposure to nude bathing in mixed company, she said, had been the key to her self-acceptance.
Last week, my husband and I shared a sauna with an old friend, to whom I related this story. He asked if I had ever considered that such activities could be construed as sexual abuse. And I told him, truthfully, that the thought had never crossed my mind.
B. K. Steiner
Matsu Valley, Alaska
MY FATHER SEXUALLY molested me when I was little, and ever since then I have had a terrible time taking off my clothes in the presence of other people.
When I had sex with boyfriends in college, I would construct elaborate plans to avoid letting them see me naked: I would become passionate while some of my clothes were still on, or I would strip and jump under the covers while they were in the bathroom, or I would casually turn off the light. These tricks worked remarkably well; if anything, they thought I was just shy.
The boyfriend I had last year was different. After having sex with me only twice, he said, “Your body feels better than anything I’ve ever touched; what makes you think looking at it will be any different?”
As he slowly peeled away the covers, I cried, feeling like the center of attention for a stadium full of fans.
It’s still hard, but sometimes I even take off my clothes with the lights on. Sometimes.
As A LITTLE GIRL, I spent my after-school hours and summers playing at my Aunt Benna’s house with my younger cousin Amy. One of our favorite places to play was in her brother Randy’s bedroom. Randy was thirty, and his room always smelled musky, especially in the closet, where there was a poster of a scantily clad woman on a motorcycle. Everything in the tiny room — carpet, walls, bedspread, lamp — was blue. It felt as if we were wrapped in sky. We would sit on his twin bed in the warm sunlight from the room’s one window, playing with our dolls and talking.
Amy and I were raised in the Church of Christ, and we were always doing things we had been told were wrong, just to see if we could get away with them. But our strong sense of guilt led us to explain aloud to God the wrong things we were doing — as we were doing them.
One day, I decided I wanted to show God what gay people did. Amy and I stripped to the skin, jumped onto Randy’s blue bed, and began rolling around together and saying to the sunlight, “This is what gay people do, God, and it’s wrong, isn’t it?” Then we began to giggle. At the sound of our laughter, my aunt flung open the bedroom door and yelled, “You two get dressed right now! You-all ought to be ashamed of yourselves!”
That’s the last time we played in Randy’s sky room, and the last time I remember conversing aloud with God.
IT WAS A SUNDAY in October. Susan and I and two girlfriends were sprawled naked in the warm sun, and the “rock leeches” of Baker Beach were out in full force. The rock leeches were men who crossed the line separating the clothed and clothing-optional sections of the beach to drink cheap beer and stare at the naked bodies of young women. The men remained clothed themselves, except when they pretended to sleep face down in the sand so they could jerk off.
When the park rangers were around, they chased these voyeurs away. But this day, we were on our own. The four of us sat eating apples and cheese, trying not to be bothered by the man on the rocks a few feet away with his hand stuck down inside his jeans, looking at us out of the corner of his eye.
Susan was our fearless leader. It was she who had first brought me to Baker Beach, where I learned to shed my clothes — and my self-consciousness and play naked in the ocean. Now I needed Susan’s fortitude and confidence more than ever. The man wasn’t moving, and his looks were becoming longer and more intense. We came to Baker Beach to avoid such harassment.
All at once, Susan stood and turned so that her nut-brown breasts were level with the man’s eyes. “Get your hand out of your fucking pants and quit staring at us,” she told him.
He looked away.
“I’m talking to you. Knock it off.” She was so close he could touch her. “Do you hear me?”
Susan sat down, and the man pretended to watch the fishermen in the distance. A few minutes later, he was gone.
SHE SOMETIMES TRUDGES BY as my wife and I walk on the bike path alongside the lake. We walk fast; she walks faster. When we get to the beach, she is already there — often changing into her bathing suit as we pass. I don’t know who she is, or why she walks so fast, or why she strips on the beach where we can see her. I don’t know why my wife hasn’t noticed her, and I don’t know why I haven’t pointed her out.
EVERY YEAR, IN CELEBRATION of my birthday, I plan an adventure. It must be something I’ve always wanted to do, but have been afraid to try. In the past, it’s been as simple as diving off a diving board, and as complicated as performing in a musical.
One year, I decided to attend a nudist camp. I convinced two friends — one male and one female — to join me for the day. Driving to the camp, we discussed various nudist issues: sunburn, inappropriate erections, where to look when talking to someone.
We arrived, checked in at the gate with the stern, matronly owner, then drove directly to the pool. A sign there read: “Strictly No Clothing Or Swimsuits In The Pool Area.” Starting to disrobe, we noticed a group of nudists leaning against the pool fence, gazing our way. We thought they were gathering to watch us, but then we noticed another sign: “Smoking Area! Keep Your Butts Here.”
It took maybe two or three minutes to begin to feel comfortable, free, and natural. As the day passed, my friends went on a tour of the grounds, while I basked poolside in a chaise longue and fell into a deep sleep.
I woke to a firm yanking on my big toe. Still disoriented from sleep, I opened my eyes and saw in front of me — a few inches from my nose — a penis and a pair of furry balls. “Oh my God,” I thought, forgetting where I was, “What have I done?” Suddenly, a crowd broke into a loud chorus of “Happy Birthday.” While I was sleeping, my friends had gathered about fifty people to surround my chaise and serenade me.
Ventnor, New Jersey
I HADN’T SEEN MY SISTER naked since she was a baby. Then she got sick, very sick. During her final weeks at home, I saw her stretched out in the bathtub, her belly swollen and tattooed with stretch marks, as if from a full-term pregnancy: cancer’s cruelest trick of all, inflating her like that. Her shoulders and hips revealed their ball-and-socket joints, and her arm and leg muscles — the same ones that once had enabled her to jump hurdles, dribble basketballs, throw footballs — were pockets of wrinkled flesh. From this wasted body, her reconstructed breast rose perfectly round and tight, a tribute to the surgeon’s skill.
How I hated that breast. I wanted to hit it with my fist. How dare it remain untouched on this battlefield, when it was the cause of the war?
Helen McGinnis Henry
JEFF AND I WERE CAMPED out that night in his back yard in our makeshift tent — a blanket stretched over a clothesline. I was thirteen and he was twelve. Having read comic books till midnight and eaten as many Necco wafers as we could stand, we started a game of poker, aiming our army-surplus flashlights at the cards and using the leftover Neccos as chips. Before long, we decided to up the stakes: First person out of Neccos had to go outside in his underpants. No, had to go out there naked. The idea fired our imaginations, and we were soon spending more time discussing the precise details of the loser’s punishment than playing the game itself. At first, the loser just had to step outside the tent; then we decided he had to dash to the fir tree and back; and finally, that he had to run all the way to the alley, where any passersby might see him.
Watching my pile of Necco wafers dwindle, I finally decided to bet them all on a pair of deuces. Though he was winning, Jeff pushed his whole pile into the pot as well. I felt a thrill at the idea that one of us would soon be naked. I wanted to lose.
I was disappointed when Jeff turned up jack high to my deuces. He grinned slyly and said, “Darn!”
“We should both go,” I blurted out.
Sitting up in the cramped tent, we stripped off our pajamas and, avoiding eye contact, pulled our skivvies off and tossed them aside. We were suddenly two naked boys, overwhelmed with excitement.
We crawled giggling out of the tent and stood up, the night breeze blowing between our legs. Jeff led the way. I could see his hairless, dented-in butt cheeks in the moonlight. We slipped on the wet grass and laughed. I let out a war whoop, and Jeff glared at me angrily and pointed to his house, where his parents were sleeping. I clamped a hand over my mouth.
As we stood facing each other, I became aware for the first time of how strange Jeff’s penis looked — ugly and fascinating, with more folds of flesh than mine. (I had never heard of anyone being circumcised, much less uncircumcised.) I didn’t say anything because I was a polite boy, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it. While mostly I was aware of myself — of being naked in the moonlight, of showing off my own prick and newly arrived pubic hair, of feeling goose bumps on my thighs — I was also uncomfortably aware of Jeff.
He and I had always been more rivals than friends. He was self-confident while I was cautious and conventional (though I wanted to rebel). Still, I was fascinated by his penis, and I remember, as we stood shivering and giggling in the darkness, that I asked him if I could touch it, and he turned to face me in front of his father’s Fairlane, and I did.
Robert C. Koehler
I SERVED IN THE PEACE CORPS during the sixties, and was assigned to teach in a remote village in central Ghana. One day, while making a foray into the crowded market for some vegetables and kerosene, I came upon an old man wandering aimlessly, totally naked, muttering to himself and gesturing to unseen companions. I asked my cook, Atia, about the old man, and he replied, “That’s Old Kwaku. He’s always like that. He’s an elder of the village.”
I was astonished to see people smile and wave to Kwaku and greet him in a formal manner. No one seemed to notice that he was naked; the children did not pester or tease him. He was totally accepted and treated with honor and dignity. I told Atia that in my society Kwaku would be put behind bars and denied his freedom, and probably be given drugs. Atia shook his head and remarked, “You Americans have many shameful customs.”
Bonnie Jean O’Neal
MY WIFE IS ASHAMED of nakedness; my lover is not.
THE WOODS AROUND MY HOUSE were mostly young oak and red maple, but there were pockets of pine here and there where the soil was right. The ground beneath the pines was a carpet of soft, fragrant needles: the perfect spot in which to lie hack and watch the clouds billowing above.
Once, when I was around twelve, I was lying under a wide pine bough, feeling the warmth of the sun and smelling the needles, bark, and soil, when I got a sudden urge to take off my clothes. So I did.
I lay back on the ground completely naked and closed my eyes. I felt the earth rise up and enclose me. I imagined it was how a worm must feel with the earth around its body. I felt positively embraced by the earth, and lost all sense of the boundaries between myself and the soil, which flowed through me like blood. For a moment I wondered whether I had died and returned to the earth. It felt good, but also frightening. Suddenly, I came back to my normal consciousness, got dressed, and went home.
I returned to the woods many times, hoping to recreate the experience, but it was a gift given only once.
Estell Manor, New Jersey
FOR MORE THAN TWO HOURS now, I have been trying to push a baby out of my body. The effort feels absolutely wrong — like trying to expel an internal organ. I am beyond exhausted.
I am surrounded by people, and I am nude except for a loose hospital gown that covers me to my waist. My bent legs are spread wide open; I hold them apart, knees close to my shoulders. My thumbnails cut into the flesh with each contraction.
The books said if you watch in a mirror as the baby comes out, it’s supposed to give you strength. I ask for a mirror and the nurses set one up. Within its oak frame I see my naked body as I have never seen it before: an isolated close-up of my private parts, every orifice oozing. With shock, I realize that my husband and the attendants have been gazing at this view of me all along.
I ask the nurses to clean me up, but just then another contraction begins, and my consciousness moves back inside my body, deep within. I am consumed by the need to push this baby into the light. I am the contraction; I must push.
When the pain finally subsides, I open my eyes and am confronted by the reflection in the mirror: no baby; only my exposed private parts, which seem otherworldly — just skin.
“Take the mirror away,” I say.
I KNEW SOMETHING WAS UP by the way Jack and my husband, Max, looked at me as I walked into the room. I was eight months pregnant and thoroughly enjoying the attention my impending motherhood was getting me there at Jack’s party, but I wasn’t prepared for my husband’s next words: “Jack thinks it would be wonderful to photograph you nude.”
Apparently they assumed I’d be simply delighted. I didn’t want to be labeled prim and proper, but I also didn’t like their presumption that I would be pleased to strip naked in front of them. On the other hand, I, too, was amazed by my pregnancy and the changing shape of my breasts and belly.
Max and Jack laughed at my self-consciousness. I suggested another option.
“I’ll be glad to,” I told Max, “if Jack takes pictures of both of us nude, and if Jack is nude, too.” For me, everybody being naked turned it into a game.
They readily agreed, and Max and I went to Jack’s studio just two weeks before my due date.
Jack greeted us, hung a black backdrop behind us, and adjusted his camera on the tripod. Then it was time for us all to undress. I eagerly stripped and began thinking of poses that might be fun. I was surprised by my own casualness, and even more surprised when I took Max’s hand and felt his sweaty palm.
Bemus Point, New York
MY LOVER MADE ME take off all my clothes while he leaned against the wall with a smug look on his face and watched. I was scared, and he knew it. It aroused him. I’d been raped the year before. He knew this, also.
We showered together and I cried the entire time: my first shower with a man. What should have been exciting and fun was instead a humiliation. I backed up against the cold tiles and hugged myself. He pried my arms open and drank the water from my skin — thoroughly enjoying himself.
When I got out, he had hidden my clothes. He ordered me into the living room, where he demanded I pose like a centerfold for him. The fact that I was trembling only excited him more. He barked directions and lost patience when I failed to comply. Cowering in a chair, I pleaded for an end to this. Angrily, he tried to manhandle me into position. When he was no longer aroused by his disobeying subject, he gave up and lay on the couch, glaring at me in disgust.
I found my clothes and got dressed. Wanting desperately to be loved, I shyly attempted to seduce him, but he rejected my advances and went to bed.
A few days later he dumped me.
NANA WAS EIGHTY-ONE, and she and Pop lived in Palm Beach. I was visiting them for a month, as I had every year throughout college and into my late twenties. At their place by the ocean, I found the time to read, write, and think. At night I would lie with Nana in her room, listening through the open door to the sea lapping the shore, while Pop sat vigil in front of the television in the den. Nana and I would discuss everything from painters and writers to my most recent romantic encounters. She’d lie in her king-sized bed, a sheer satin nightgown covering her buttery skin.
I was now twenty-seven years old. I did not know it would be my last visit with Nana. She wanted to try marijuana, so I rolled an ample joint and placed it before her. She lifted it as one would a Dunhill in a mother-of-pearl cigarette holder and put it to her lips. “Where’s yours?” she asked innocently.
I laughed and said, “I think we’ll share that, Nan.”
We smoked a good bit of it, and laughter and stories poured out of us. We stood in front of the full-length mirror and looked at ourselves.
“I’ve always loved skin,” Nana said, placing her hands on her face. “It saddens me that I couldn’t touch certain people, the ones who were like sculpture, meant to be touched.”
“Can I see your body, Nana?” I asked.
“Yes, I’ll show you. But the age of my body is not a pretty sight.” There was no bitterness in her voice. “I loved my body when it was young; it pleased me so.”
She lifted the satin nightgown and placed it on a chair. Her skin was translucent and dripped from her frail bones. I touched her shoulders and the softness under her arms. It was as though her flesh were letting go, falling away from her body. It was then that I realized she was leaving me.
I WAS OFTEN SENT HOME from preschool for removing my clothes. I had a reputation as the village imp, skipping around naked with my hair trailing behind me. No one seemed to care that much, except my teachers, who tried to discourage me as much as they could. They never had much luck, though; I simply couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to run free and naked. My parents found my behavior amusing and called me their “little free spirit.”
But then I was discovered with a boy in the preschool’s playhouse, and we were both naked, and he was lying on top of me. We had been playing house, acting out what we’d seen on television: first the lady cooks dinner; then she and the man eat; then they lie on top of one another.
The following day, my parents were called in for a conference and informed that I was behaving as if I had been sexually abused. They were dumbfounded. My parents were both working full time, and would leave my older sister and me in the care of my god parents. Although they thought the possibility extremely unlikely, they became worried that I might have been abused behind their backs.
To try to put their own minds at ease, my parents took my sister and me for an evaluation by a social worker, who immediately advised them to withdraw me from the school; if a report had been filed, I was sure to be investigated, and would likely be placed temporarily in a foster home. Before the week was out, I was no longer attending preschool.
It took an attorney to finally end our grief. He called the school administrators and pressed them to drop the case, using my evaluation results perfectly normal — as evidence. In less than a week, the case was dropped.
Now, nine years later, I am still growing up in a society that is paranoid about nudity. To me, the naked human body represents something natural in this processed world. Then again, maybe I just don’t know anything about it at all.
ONE HUNDRED AND SEVEN naked women and girls stood on a slab of concrete facing a square gray building. It was noon, but the April sun overhead gave no heat. The concrete was ringed by a chain-link fence, beyond which was a pale green carpet of baby grass and trees showing new leaves.
The women ranged in age from little girls under five to gray-haired grandmothers, and came from all walks of life — doctors, secretaries, sales clerks, lawyers, mothers, schoolchildren. None of them was accustomed to standing nude in a public place. Many of the women crouched, covering their breasts with crossed arms, their eyes to the ground in shame. Others, their hands cupping their breasts, scanned the horizon, careful to look at no one. The little girls, most of whom had never seen an adult woman naked, leaned against their mothers and stared at the bodies surrounding them. Some covered their little vaginas with clasped hands. A few women, young ones, stood straight and defiant, their arms at their sides, hair blown by the wind. Here and there, a woman made eye contact with another and smiled reassuringly, or nodded as if in recognition. A few wept silently, tears streaming down their faces and onto their breasts.
They had been standing on the slab of concrete for more than an hour. They had been told that their clothes were being deloused and laundered.
“You will wait here until I return with soap and towels,” the attendant had commanded. She was a tall, husky woman in military khakis and boots, her iron gray hair pulled into a knot at the back of her head. “When I return, you will go in groups into the shower building.”
We waited. There was nothing else we could do.
Los Angeles, California
SHOWER TIME AT SAN QUENTIN. When the security bar is thrown back, the cells open and the convicts come piling out. Fifty men barrel down the steel staircase at the end of the cell block. There’s a lot of jockeying for position since there are only ten shower heads, and fifteen minutes in which to shower.
Space is tight under the shower heads, so the only way to get wet is to crowd in with the rest, elbow to elbow. One man will soak himself, then step away to soap up while another gets under the water. A few foolishly wait for the mob to thin. There’s lots of laughing, joking, and good-natured harassment. Sometimes, when I see an obvious first-termer, I drop my soap at his feet and ask him to pick it up. None of them ever do, of course, but it’s still good for a laugh.
Everyone is moving, trying to get showered before the water shuts off. Round and round they go in a carousel of multihued bodies: wet skin and bad tattoos.
Pelican Bay State Prison, California
I WAS TEN YEARS OLD, and my parents were growing more distant from each other, leading up to their eventual divorce. I could not comprehend what was happening, nor the depth of my despair and feelings of abandonment.
On warm nights that summer, the moon would wake me and draw me outside, where, naked except for a sheet, I would wander through the woods and partway up the hill to a clearing in which stood a flat tree stump about three feet tall. I would get up on the stump, drop my sheet, and search the sky for aliens, sending out a telepathic plea for them to please come and get me. Now.
My dog, Micky, would accompany me and wait patiently, guarding me from danger, sometimes for an hour or more.
On one of these nights, the fireflies were out in great swarms, and mist began to rise around me in what appeared to be a perfect circle. The dog and I both felt some kind of change in the air — an electric charge, almost. He began to growl softly, and the hair on his shoulders rose. Shivering with exhilaration and not at all frightened, I believed that the soft, sparkling circle of mist was something powerful being given to me. And I believed that in an instant I was going to start flying, soaring up over the trees, looking back at the earth and my naked body, the air rushing past me as I swooped over the hill, flew around my house and in the window, and saw my brothers and sister asleep. I could smell the roses in front of the house, hear the crickets in the tall grass, their noise fading as I ascended hundreds of feet into the air, then plunged headlong back to earth, knowing I would not be hurt.
I think I must really have flown. The memory of it is in my skin, the smell of that night in my nose, the vision of the shimmering, diamond-studded mist etched indelibly into my eyes. It must have happened.
I did not think to fly up to meet the aliens who would take me to someplace better, because I no longer wanted to go, surrounded as I was by obvious miracles and magic.
I remember waking curled up at the base of the stump in my sheet, my dog beside me, at first light. I was chilled by the mist and dew, but I knew that I had been somewhere important, done something significant, and discovered something powerful that was mine, that was me.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
FIRST THEY TAKE PICTURES of you naked in the back yard. You try to cover yourself, but they insist, “It’s cute; it’s so cute.” Later, you uncover yourself and they scold, “It’s dirty; it’s trouble. You’re asking for it.” (What is “it”?)
Suddenly, the boys want to know more about you, like what you look like naked. They yearn for the smallest glimpse of your breasts. They hold their breath when you unbutton your blouse. They turn you into a goddess. You stand in front of the mirror and wonder what it is they see. What makes their penises rise, their mouths go dry? What are they looking for between your thighs?
Later, when a child blooms inside you, you look in the mirror and see a whole village instead of a single street. You have enough nakedness for two.
The child clings to one breast, the man to the other. Your nakedness is smeared by milk and come and sweat, by the tender trickle of your own blood. You are larger than your skin as, naked, you rise to meet it all.
MRS. WRIGHT DID NOT ACCEPT that her husband was dying. She brought him home from the hospital to care for him herself. The county hospital sent me, a hospice nurse, to assess Mr. Wright’s condition.
After I examined her husband, I frankly told Mrs. Wright that he had three months or less to live. Her clear blue eyes gazed steadily into mine; then she slipped off her sweat shirt.
“Are you hot, Mrs. Wright?” I asked.
Never saying a word, she removed all her clothes except her knee-high hose. She knelt and put her forehead to the cold linoleum floor, her bare bottom tilted upward, and quietly began to pray.
Unsure what to do, I continued to fill out the paperwork. Finally she rose, dressed wordlessly, and finished answering my questions.
On subsequent visits, she often repeated this nude prayer pose. I tried several times to cover her nakedness with an Afghan from her couch, but always she would pull the blanket off, leaving herself as humble as a body could be —naked, prostrate, pleading to her God.