When I was a kid, nakedness was both shameful and delicious—and then shameful again because you thought it was delicious.
From seven to, say, ten—that’s 1966 to, say,1969—my friends and I were always looking for excuses to throw off our clothes and run naked. Us guys. Expressing our animal selves—our sexual selves, even though we didn’t really think in those terms yet. Risking society’s stern glances. This is me! When we all slide from the womb, our sleep-deprived parents grant us wearily (as if in a dream) a few months to respond unrestrained to our animal impulses. Soon enough, though, they tell us “Not now,” “Not here,” “Not there,” “Not ever.” You weren’t raised in a barn!
For certain, we were grudgingly granted allowances as we marched in step through our lives. We could dance, true, but only in time with the music. Nudity, though? Gasp! You’re not an animal! We knew it was something we shouldn’t do. One should only be naked taking a bath/shower or on one’s honeymoon, and in that case, the lights are off. And Judgment Day—standing in line for that. For everything other than these exceptions, nudity is wrong. Think about it. We even bury people with clothes on.
That’s what made it so delicious.
For example, the Barker boys, Ned, and I decided to ride our bikes out to Coal Creek and “go camping.” That is, we found a likely wooded spot and we hid our bikes and then walked in looking for a campsite. None of us had a backpack. Lance’s sleeping bag was Huckleberry Hound-themed. The anti-survivalists. We followed the creek until we came upon a clearing that would fit all our sleeping bags and set up camp. Of course, one of us had swiped some of his father’s cigarettes and we puffed together knowingly and made fart jokes. Then we proceeded to eat all our rations as if we were in a frat house competition. Flying crumbs everywhere.
We had brought Ritz crackers, a loaf of Wonder Bread, a jar of cocktail onions, a banana and a can of franks and beans. Whoever brought the franks and beans hadn’t thought to bring a can opener. We tried rocks, everything. It wouldn’t give. It’s probably still there and will be unearthed by archeologists in 5,000 years, after the first Atomic War. We forced the guy who brought the cocktail onions to actually eat one. He spit it out.
“How do grown-ups eat this crud?” he asked the universe. “Blech!”
The universe responded: True, grownups have to do a lot of nasty stuff. But it all works out. You’ll see. You’ll be willing to eat crud if you could see your wife naked on your honeymoon before she turned out the lights.
We also brought along sodas so we competed with one another to see who could say the most of the Pledge of Allegiance in burp.
All these were the preliminaries. Incidentals. The real business, we knew, was that one of us would dare another one to run naked to a certain tree or other landmark. Soon enough, we’d all be naked, gamboling like lambs and cracking jokes about one another’s wangs. (We joked to change the subject inside our heads: Is there something wrong with me that I like doing this? Is this . . . sexual? Who am I? What am I?) We hadn’t learned yet that bigger wangs were preferable—more marketable, at least—so it wasn’t a size thing. It was more nuanced. Perhaps one’s wang swooped to the left, as if it were a snuffling out a clue.
“Your dick is like an old man’s dick!” one of us sans-pants boys pointed out to another boy.
In camp, we wondered aloud if the girls our age did this kind of thing with their friends. None of us had an answer. Girls were different. We were going to have to have sex with them one day. Somebody’s older brother said it smelled bad. To break the uncomfortable silence, Ned moved the conversation toward nudist camps, something everybody likes to talk about when their parents are out of the room.
“They all walk around naked in front of each other,” Ned said. “Men and women.”
“I couldn’t walk naked in front of a girl,” Lance said.
“What are you going to do on your honeymoon?” I asked.
“I’m serious,” Lance said. “I don’t want girls to see me . . . naked.”
“Just think if someone stole all your clothes from you at school and you had to walk home naked,” Ned said.
“How would that happen?” I asked.
“They did it as a prank!” Ned said.
“Who did it?” Lance asked.
“I don’t know,” Ned said. “Your enemies.”
“Obviously, I’d wait until nighttime,” Brad said.
“Aren’t your parents going to wonder where you are?” I asked.
“Well, what would you do?” Brad asked.
I pushed out my lips while I concentrated. Eventually, I said, “Well, I’d go the lost and found where they keep all the kids coats. I’d wear a bunch of coats.”
“How is that going to cover your dick?” Brad said.
“You get a boner and hang a hat on it!” Lance said. “Ha!”
“Yeah!” I laughed. “Or a mitten!”
“You’ve still got to cover your ass,” Brad said, ever the realist.
“I don’t care if a girl sees my ass,” Lance said.
“What about your mother?” Brad said.
“What about my mother?” I asked.
“Yeah!” Ned said. “Everyone’s mom would see your ass while you ran home with a mitten on your dick. How are you going to live that down? Might as well move to a desert island.”
“Your boner’s probably going to go down from all the running,” Brad pointed out.
“Yeah, then you’re screwed,” Ned said.
“Well, this is stupid because it’s never going to happen,” Lance said.
“That’s what you tell yourself—until they get you,” I said, making a clawing/grasping motion toward Lance.
“I don’t have any enemies,” Lance said.
“That you know of,” Ned said. “It’s a secret society, like the guy in The Prisoner.”
“Yeah, and the password’s ‘Look at my dick!’”
Whenever we got together, none of us would be surprised if, eventually, a dare would surface that involved nudity. I dare you to run out to the end of the driveway and touch the mailbox naked. The point was to achieve the feat without being seen. The thrill was that we might be seen. Of course, when the dare-ee was at the top of the driveway, the dare-er would lock the door so he couldn’t get back in. The dare-er would laugh so hard he’d pee in his underpants a little.
When I was a kid, nakedness was both shameful and delicious—and then shameful again because you thought it was delicious.
Which brings me to this story.
When I was about 8, Boom-Boom and I were in The Woods once across from my house. The Woods abutted the house of a classmate, three years ahead, whose mother was divorced and whose name I only vaguely knew. Boom-Boom had once ventured into the house.
“What was it like?” I asked, assuming a household overseen by a divorced woman would be in every which way topsy-turvy. Untended fires and animal sacrifice.
“His mom walked around in her bathrobe smoking and swearing,” he said. “I think she was naked underneath.”
I imagined her carrying a large glass ashtray with her wherever she went, like an alms box for the wandering blind man, the other hand with the cigarette cocked toward her face. There were spaces between each of her brown teeth.
Immediately abutting the house was a large tree with a rope swing and a little empty shack. We were rummaging around the inside of the shack and what should we find but a color slide of a naked woman. Long before the Internet, people often looked at photos on slides, which they would put into a slide projector to project the images on a wall in a darkened room with relatives or guests. A full slide carousel could take an hour to get through, what with all the stopping and starting for the oohs and ahs. “Oh, my!” people would say. “Go back!” At first, people meant it. Then they were just trying to be polite. Then they felt obligated. Then they just wanted it over and dessert proffered.
In this slide, the naked woman was on top of a table, her legs tucked underneath her. One arm was raised, her hand placed behind her head, her elbow to the ceiling, the better to jut out her bazoombas. The word had been presented to us just the other day by a kid in sixth grade, as if it were something he had grown bored of. He knew worse words.
She wasn’t just risking society’s stern glances. She was flouting. That word I had heard on Jeopardy, laying on the couch in front of the TV. I looked back to ask my mom what it meant.
“It means you’re doing something wrong and you know it’s wrong and you want to shove it in people’s faces,” she said, looking up from folding my underwear on the couch. Behind the couch, my dad was practicing his golf swing, looking up at his hands as he raised them above his head to make sure he got his grip just right, the cock of his wrists. He didn’t care about learning how to be a better father. That’s what my mom was for. He only got involved if you did something really bad.
I sucked in my lips. “Like if you tell your teacher your dog ate your homework and she knows it’s a lie and so does everyone else.”
“Nobody really says that,” my sister said, cross-legged on the floor next to me on the floor, her chin resting in the palm of her hand, not looking away from the TV.
“Look at how you treat the clothes I buy you!” my mom said, holding up a pair of my underpants, sticking her finger through a hole and wiggling it. “Honestly.”
My dad’s club scraped on the ceiling. If we had done something like that he would of, well, hit the ceiling. But this was his damn house.
It wasn’t so much that my mom thought it was indecent to walk around with a hole in my underpants as much as she didn’t want anybody to get the idea she didn’t take care of her kids.
“It’s not like anybody sees it except you guys!” I said.
“You’re gross,” my sister said, rubbing her finger under her nose.
“It’s a hole?” I said. “So what?”
“What’s for dinner?” my dad said then looked down from his wrists and grip and added, “When is dinner?”
“Liver and as soon as I’m done here,” she said then returned to me. “Well, if you actually did your homework I might believe you.”
“Ha! Liver,” my dad said, joshing with me. “Your favorite, son!” He knew I was screwed.
My mom would insist we eat all our liver. She was chairwoman of the Clean Plate Club, matron saint to the starving kids of India. He only got involved if we became intractable. Then he’d say, “Do as you’re told!” from the other room.
Back in the shack next to the divorced mother’s house, Boom-Boom and I knew this slide would ensure our schoolyard exaltation. A tale told around the jungle gym. We’d be heroes.
The slide of the naked woman filled us with dread and electricity. It was trying to tell us who we were. What we were.
“Wow!” Boom-Boom said.
We both knew what the other was thinking. Who’s is this? She represented all Evil Women. The idea that she was someone’s sister—or mother! The very idea!
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll keep it one week and then you get it the next week.”
“That sounds good,” said Boom-Boom, who liked everything in okey-dokey order, used the tissue-thin ass gaskets in public restrooms—and would do so in home, too, if his mom had supplied the means. Their house was immaculate, as if they were continually expecting a Pope to show up in his Popemobile. “So, who’s week is it now?” Boom-Boom asked.
“No, it should start with me,” he said.
“Why should it start with you?”
“I’m older than you.”
“Okay,” I said, taking a deep breath, “here’s what we’ll do. Whoever’s willing to swing on that rope swing buck naked, he gets to keep the picture first.”
“I’ll do it,” we both said at once.
“I’ll go first,” I said.
“No, I’ll go first.”
Like I said. Any excuse.
We began undressing as quickly as possible, throwing our clothes this way and that. Boom-boom fell over trying to pull off his first sock and that was all the opportunity I needed. I bolted from the shack and ran for the rope swing, as unencumbered as a brute beast or, worse, a nudist.
“Woo hoo!” I cried as I swung out. Take that, decency!
Behind me, I heard, “Woo hoo!” It was Boom-boom, naked but for one sock. He grabbed the rope as I swung back and together swooped out toward the divorced mother’s house. Life was wondrous in that instant, bigger than normal. The colors were sharper. If someone had captured that exact instant, we’d be sun-speckled and glorious. An archetype for mirth.
For the moment, we’d utterly forgotten the prize we sought, the inaugural possession of the naked lady photo, and we were caught up in the frothy exuberance of childhood—naked! The best kind of childhood. What more did we need? Freedom! Me!
Then . . .
“You boys!” a cry came from the direction of the house.
The divorced mother, in all her fury, dressed, just as Boom-boom had recounted, in naught but her bathrobe. For all we knew. (Let it henceforth be recounted as such!)
I guess at the apex of our arc on the rope swing, we’d breached the force field that hung over and around The Woods. Poor planning on our part. Reckless. You’ve got to be careful where you run naked.
“You boys!” she cried. “What are you doing?”
Apparently, she didn’t recognize frothy exuberance when she saw it.
“Run for it!” I cried, then suddenly realized—to where? What we were going to do, run home naked? Mittenless. Instinctively, we bolted for the shack where our clothes were.
She met us at the door. Her legs were bare as they rose into her bathrobe, and all you could see around her collar was skin. Instantly, I could see she knew that we knew our mothers would never dress like that during the day. Maybe if they were sick. But no—mothers kept working when they were sick. Fathers, they’d milk it for all its worth.
“What are you boys doing swinging naked on my swing?” she demanded.
I realized I had the slide of the naked lady clenched in my hand. In fact, it was biting into the underside of my fingers. Somehow, I had managed to put the slide into a death grip and still grab the rope swing with three fingers. I put that hand behind my back and used my other hand to cover my doodle, which had retracted in fright into the nest of my pelvis.
“Put your clothes on!” she demanded. “You’re disgusting! Swinging on my swing naked! What would your parents say?”
God, don’t tell our parents! Dad!
As we put our clothes on, she continued to lecture us. Something about the neighbors. I wasn’t really listening. I was absorbed by how every time she would lean toward us, wagging a finger, her bathrobe would part slightly from her chest. What could I see? She smelled like a mother. And something else. An intoxicant or a poison or a truth serum.
Eventually, we were re-clothed and she was telling us to make ourselves scarce, in so many words. As Boom-boom and I were walking away, we were both thinking, I’m sure, the same thing: She didn’t ask us our names or where we lived or, worst of all, who are parents were.
When we parted, I looked down at my hand and realized I had possession of the naked lady photo. I guess it was my turn. I looked back toward The Woods. No sign of the divorced mother. Still, I thought it wise not to walk straight down my driveway, which was right across the street from The Woods. I had to live knowing she was right next door. I headed in the opposite direction and when I was out of sight of The Woods I looped back around and came over the back fence of our place.
“Why’d you come over the back fence, honey?” my mom asked. “I thought you were in the woods with Michael.” She was taking a smoke break. She smoked for a brief period in my youth, something she picked up to fit in in college in the 40s when smoking was voguish.
As soon as I was in my room, I was looking at the photo, holding it up to my bedroom window. I tilted back my head, parted my lips, and ran the tip of my tongue back and forth across my bottom lip as if this were a particularly delicate operation. Like defusing a bomb. You know, I thought, bringing my face closer to the slide, because of the way she had tucked in her legs you couldn’t see her crotch. Vagina. I closed one eye, as if that would add its seeing power to the seeing power of my other eye. Nah. The photographer could see everything, though! Imagine being him! She had just walked right into the room with no clothes on like that’s how she cooked breakfast every morning—totally naked. Look at her boobs. Guys are going to freak out when I show this at school. The girls will say, “I’m going to tell teacher you have a dirty picture!” Better not show it to the girls. Just the guys. They’ll freak! It would be cool just to see the looks on the girls’ faces, though. Girls are so weird. It’s like they’re already grownups. Why don’t they be cool like us guys?
Now that I could really look at it, I could see there was shit on the table she was kneeling on. A plate. A newspaper. As if they had done this in somebody’s kitchen. This was somebody’s kitchen. What if someone walked in?
Did someone pay her for this or did she do it for free? I couldn’t decide which was worse. Look at her boobs. I held up a cupped hand like I was hefting one of the breasts. They looked heavy. What if you put your face between the two of them and jiggled your head back and forth, like a raspberry on a baby’s stomach? I imagined how the breasts would feel as they bounced off my cheeks. Because, you could tell—they would bounce. What if you put your tongue on one of them? Do you put your tongue on them? I felt . . . something. Not specific enough to even be a twinge. Something dull and thudding. A blurry figure cresting the horizon in a wavering mirage. We’d never heard of the concept of masturbation. In fact, if you had sat us down and described the entire procedure, we would have laughed in your fat face. No way! The photo of the woman egged me on cryptically.
The most electrifying element of the photo, though, was the idea that she was posing for it. Right there! She was sitting on a table in a room, someone’s kitchen—it could be across the street, in your very neighborhood—and that person, just a regular guy like you or me, some lucky-ass jerk, was looking straight at her, buck naked. What kind of a lost soul did an utterly delicious thing like that?
The woman in the photo looked vaguely familiar. But it couldn’t be someone I knew. I didn’t know the kind of person who would take off their clothes in front of someone who wasn’t their mother. Now that I thought about it, I saw I was all wrong about them living in your neighborhood. We didn’t have people like that in our neighborhood. I think they live in some jungle but with a kitchen. Like you see in National Geographic with their boobs hanging out. It’s true. In their country, women walk around with their boobs and butt showing like it’s nothing. Also, there’s a tribe where the guys wear sticks on their dicks. I saw it. Apparently, the heat causes boobs to droop. What did it take to get ashamed in their country? Because walking around with a stick on your dick wasn’t it!
The next day, I showed the photo to the Barker brothers next door, and I could tell they were struck by the same strange combination of wonder and shame. You would think they cancel each other out, like piss and fire You could tell the brothers were thinking, “What do we do?” The way they were looking toward their house and then to the photo, back and forth, back and forth. Do they clutch the photo to their chest—or shove it down their pants, for some reason? Or burn it in a gag reflex of double-knotted godliness?
I showed the photo to the Barker brothers in their backyard next door, as I had decided to stay away from the front side of their house, in fact, that whole section of street, as the divorced mother’s house sat there. Of course, I went nowhere near The Woods. My mother asked why I was always coming and going over the backyard fence.
At the end of the week, Boom-boom called to say that he was coming to get the photo. It was his turn, remember?
Coming back from the community pool one day, I neared the top of the street to see the divorced mother standing by her mailbox. For all I knew, she had been standing there all summer. I would not look at her. I sensed her more than saw her. A blur to the right. She was pushing shame molecules toward me like blood spreading into gauze, making its way toward me. I could feel them, the shame molecules, even before they got to me. I walked past the top of our driveway as if it held no interest to me whatsoever—how’d I get on this street, anyway?—and kept walking. Out of the corner my eye, I could see her, arms crossed, watch me as I walked by. Shame on me. At the end of the next block, I stopped and put my finger to my chin, as if I was trying to decide which way go next. I feigned a moment of inspiration—of course!—snapping my fingers and pointing in the correct direction and headed to the right. Then I looped around to come home over the back fence.
School started the next week. On Monday morning, all the kids were gathered in the covered area for the basketball courts and four-square circles, waiting for school to start. I wound myself through the crowd. I was looking for my friends, enveloped by the clatter of the kids’ voices.
Right then, the divorced mother’s hulking son came up to me.
“My mom caught you and your friend swinging naked on our rope swing,” he said, looking down on me as if I was naked at the moment. I moved my books over my crotch.
“I’m going to tell everyone,” he sneered then leaned in closer to me and poked me in the chest for emphasis. “Everyone.”
Dad! What would I do? Flee to another country? We’d be laughingstocks. Even though, secretly, all kids liked to get naked, are fascinated by their body. Many of them had set up an arrangement of mirrors so he/she could see exactly what their asshole looks like. They knew they were to be mortified by nudity in public view, though. We’d be the opposite of heroes.
What were my parents going to say about all this? What was my mom going to say? What was my dad going to say?
I knew my role here. I was supposed to pretend I didn’t know what in the hell he was talking about, you have the wrong guy—what’s a dick?—or bolt or start begging for mercy in front of everyone, including the girls. Such shame!
Then God whispered in my ear. Or maybe it was Satan, who’s always naked. Like Bugs Bunny. Scratch that. I think he wears a dinner jacket. Satan. Like Porky Pig. In one hand a martini.
Instantly, I took stock. He, it’s true, knew that I was naked in front of his mother. In his backyard, not two hops from his bedroom window. A weirdo. Me, I knew his mother let herself be photographed naked. Perhaps even asked for it! Right there!
Asked for it!
“Oh, yeah?” I said, moving my books from my crotch. “Go ahead. I have a photo of your mom buck naked. I found it in the shack by your house.”
Normally, I'd be afraid of this kid. But holding his scandalous secret about his mother somewhere he’d never think to look imbued me with a superpower, like I’d been bitten by a radioactive animal. (Stan Lee’s answer for everything!) Specifically, I was invisible. Walking through a den of sleeping jungle cats. I'd weave through the lion snores that floated in the air like space jellyfish.
That got him! He pulled his head into his shoulders as if to absorb it into his form. His eyes were stunned but not surprised. As if this very moment had been foretold by prophecy. Was something like this bound to happen? Some day. Instantly, he did the extra credit logic problem in his head. Why would someone say they had something like that? It must mean that, one, they actually had something like that or, two, they were trying to say what you knew everybody knew, what everybody else was thinking about your mother. About you.
He said, “You’re full of,” but the arrow had struck home. You could tell. Clearly, it had occurred to him before that his mother was of a coarser moral fiber than normal kids’ bridge club moms, walking around in her bathrobe and all, smoking and swearing like a troll on 10-minute break.
“Yeah?” he said finally, pulling his head from his shoulder and sticking out his chin and rolling his shoulders as if prepping for a prizefight. “Well, let’s see it.”
Suddenly I was bold. So this is what it took to stand up to a bully. Leverage. Dirt.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Right. Like I’m going to show you and you take it away from me for good. I knew it was your mom the first time I saw it.” I leaned toward him and whispered, “I saw your mom’s boobs,” nodding my head knowingly.
I could tell he really wanted to clobber me. His lips were tight. He shaking his head back and forth slowly and clenching his fists. In a cartoon, red wavy lines would be radiating from his head.
“We’ve hidden the photo somewhere you’ll never find it,” I said, stepping back and cocking my head. By using the word we’ve, I was implying this was all part of a larger conspiracy. It could go all the way to the top, which, I guess, meant the principal. No telling who else had seen his mother’s boobs and then sworn a blood oath never to reveal the slide’s location. May my nuts fall off if I ever tell.
He was naked now.
Having it known your mother was posing without clothes, while all the good mothers were at bridge parties or picking up after you, is far worse than having it be known you were swinging naked on a rope swing. Far worse, all but unendurable. Might as well kill yourself—drink a full jar of your mom’s Miracle Whip or something or whatever it is suicide people do.
It might not be mom, I could tell he was thinking, but would it be wise to call my bluff? Would his mom do something like that?
My backbone stiffened in his fittings.
“I dare you to tell someone,” I said. “Hey, you. Come here. This guy wants to tell you something!”
This bespectacled kid with his finger up his nose as if on doctor’s orders looked over and pointed to himself with his free hand.
“Yeah, come here, wouldya?” I said.
“No, stay!” the kid with the defective mother said as he looked at the ground in bitter defeat, holding up his hand toward the kid.
“Okay, you win,” he said through clenched teeth, his face inches from mine. And then, as a parting shot: “Little weirdo.”
I looked back at him with disinterest, the parting shot having gone wide. I probably am a weirdo but what are you going to do about it? I’ve seen your mom naked. I was impervious. Armor plated. Bullets would bounce off my chest like bugs when you’re riding your bike on hot days. The first sign of summer.
So, we parted. And we never spoke with each other again. If he saw me coming, he’d turn the other way. Those times when we did pass each other, we might glance over quickly, as if to acknowledge our shared secret. Neither of us had the slightest bit of anxiety that the other would break our bond. Like brothers.
Just think how I could have tormented that kid throughout his life. Taunting notes in his mail slot. As a flaming farewell, I’d show up at his mom’s memorial service, and, after they lower her into the coffin, fully clothed, they open the floor to anybody’s remembrances of the departed soul. How he sweats, glancing back at me as I yawn. Eventually, I raise my hand and stand, clearing my throat.
“Don’t listen to a thing he says!” the kid stands to shout, now a man, naked just that morning, shaving while his wife wiped makeup from her eyelids. Another day in hell.
“I’m just wondering where the restroom is,” I say calmly, absolutely unashamed.
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