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, let loose. Naked as the day we were born, except no goo. I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with our case, tut-tutting from behind her clipboard. Repressed homosexuality? I don’t think so. I think it had more to do expressing our animal selves—our sexual selves, even though we didn’t really think in those terms yet—rebelling against society’s stern glances. This is me! When we all slide from the womb, our sleep-deprived parents, bleary-eyed from sleep deprivation, grant us a few months to respond unrestrained to our animal impulses. The price of new parenthood. But, soon enough, they tell us “not now,” “not here,” “not there,” “not ever.” You weren’t raised in a barn! For certain, we’re granted allowances as we march in step through our lives. We can dance, for example, 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 at Judgment Day—you probably need to be naked when you’re standing in line for that, scratching your ass as you wait for the whammy. 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. We were the anti-survivalists. We followed the creek until we found 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. Great naturalists we were, we tried to create a fire with wet wood and no newspapers. Then we proceeded to eat all our rations in a flurry of frat-house manners and flying crumbs.
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 back: 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 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. Just like Walt Whitman.
All these were the preliminaries. The real business, we knew, is 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, except Lance, gamboling like lambs and cracking jokes about one another’s wangs. (We joked to change the subject inside our heads. Each of us worried: 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 bloodhound snuffling the brush for Jon Dillinger.
“Your dick is like an old man’s dick!” one of us sans-pants boys pointed out to another boys. Like we’d seen an old man’s dick.
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. To break the uncomfortable silence, Ned moved the conversation toward nudist camps.
“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, the password’s ‘Look at my dick!’”
And so on.
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, both the Unforgiveable Sin and the Holy Grail. 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-ee 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 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. Someone said it once, I thought. 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.”
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. The internet in the 60s. A full slide carousel could take an hour to get through, what with all the herky-jerky stopping and starting for the oohs and ahh. “Oh! Go back!” At first, people mean it. Then they’re just trying to be polite. Then they feel obligated, but they just want it over, truth be told.
In this slide, the naked woman was on top of the card 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 boobs and flout society’s stern glances. Take that, decency!
This 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 dignatry. “So, who’s week is it now?”
“No, it should start with me.”
“Why should it start with you?”
“I’m older than you.”
“By two months!”
“Okay, here’s what we’ll do,” I said, holding the slide. “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, even 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. I think now they call it The Flow.
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!)
“You boys!” she cried. “What are you doing?”
Wasn’t it obvious? Didn’t she know 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. I was immersed in shame, like a dirty sauce pan put in the sink to soak. 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. The work is never done. Fathers, they’d milk it for all its worth. That was his role in this package he’d bought into. His other self was at the country club, where he’d laugh and swear and talk about women and play gin rummy. That’s the difference between mothers and fathers. All part of God’s great plan.
“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! Death first.
As we put our clothes on, she continued to lecture/insult us. 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 What about . . . below?
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. It was like an alarm bell only I could hear that I’d wade through day by day. I guess Boom-Boom could hear it, too. I headed in the opposite direction and when I was out of sight of The Woods and 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.”
As soon as I was in my room, I was looking at the photo. I was impelled by a raging curiosity, a straining against the leash, a primal urge from my brain stem, and something else I’d never felt before. We’d never heard of the concept of masturbation. In fact, if you had sat us down and explained/described the entire procedure, we would have laughed in derision. No way! The photo of the wanton woman egged me on to perform some act I couldn’t express. Try it, she said. No one’s watching.
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 room—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?
Only your parents were supposed to see you naked, mainly your mom, and that was only when you were a baby. (I remember once my mother and her friend drove me to swim lesson at the Woodridge pool. My mother told me to put on my bathing suit in the back of the station wagon. “But you might see me!” I complained. “Who do you think changed your diapers?” she responded, which seemed to be utterly beside the point to me. I wasn’t me when I was a baby. That didn’t count.)
Also, 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 wrong about them living in your neighborhood. We didn’t have people like that in our neighborhood. I think they live in deepest, darkest Africa, like you see in National Geographic with their boobs hanging out, just hanging there like no one’s watching, shaking a gourd full of dried rice, trusting it will cause the hurricane to veer out to sea.
The next day, I showed the photo to the Barker brothers, and I could tell they were struck by the same strange combination of wonder and disapprobation. They didn’t know whether to 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, 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?
As the summer went on, I began to lose interest in the photo of the deliciously evil woman–its potency waned–though I could always sense it glowing inside the nightstand drawer like a radioactive alarm, the hammer ready to strike. By summer’s end, it had been totally forgotten. I wasn’t too sure whose week it was or where it was.
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 here. She was a blur to the right, radiating shame. Shame on 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 was looking for my friends.
Right then, the divorced mother’s son came up to me.
“My mom caught you and your friend were 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, my old man’s dick there for the whole school to see—including the girls.
“I’m going to tell everyone,” he sneered then leaned in closer to me and poked me in the chest for emphasis. “Everyone.”
God, no! 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 must be mortified by nudity in public view, though. We’d be the opposite of heroes.
Try as hard as I might, I knew I couldn’t grow a beard, certainly not overnight, and if I shaved off all my hair my mom would certainly want to know why. She wouldn’t believe that it was to earn a Boy Scout badge.
And 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—I don’t even have a dick—or bolt or start begging for mercy
Then God whispered in my ear. Or maybe it was Satan, who’s always naked, like Bugs Bunny. Well, I think he wears a dinner jacket, like Porky Pig. Hell’s a cocktail party that never stops, not for nothing.
He knew that I was naked in front of his mother. Frolicking on the swing. Flopping in the breeze. Freaks frolic. Weirdos.
But I knew his mother let herself be photographed naked. Right there!
“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. Holding his scandalous secret about his mother in my grubby paws endowed me with a superpower. I was invisible, walking through the den of sleeping jungle cats. I’d weave through the snores that floated in the air like space jellyfish.
That got him! He titled his head back as he regarded me with a look that was shocked but not surprised, not really, as if this very moment had been foretold by prophecy. Did he know that something like this was 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 you mother. Such shame. He said, “You’re full of,” but the arrow had struck home, I knew. 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, for all I knew.
“Yeah?” he said finally, rolling his shoulders as if prepping for a prize fight. “Well, let’s see it.”
Suddenly I was bold.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. (This was no way to talk to someone three years my senior. Normallly, you’d be mauled by the jungle cats.) “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. “I saw your mom’s boobs.”
Take that! Hail Porky.
“We’ve hidden the photo somewhere you’ll never find it.” 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. Patiar Uri Vinciri Verberari Ferroque Necari.
The upper hand was mine. 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?
I grew cocky.
“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 hopefully looked over and pointed to himself with his free hand. “Me?” he said.
“Yeah, come here, wouldya?” I said.
“No, stay!” the kid with the evil mother said, holding up his hand.
“Okay, you win,” he said through clenched teeth, his face inches from mine. “Little weirdo.”
I looked back at him with disinterest. I probably am a weirdo but what are you going to do about it?
I’ve seen your mom naked. I was impervious. Bullets would bounce off my chest like june bugs.
So, we parted. And we never spoke with each other again. If he saw me coming, he’d go the other way. Those times when we did pass each other, we might glance over quickly, as if to acknowledge our shared secrets. Neither of us had the slightest bit of anxiety that the other would break our bond. Our bond of shame. I had seen his mother naked—and I just might let others see it if he didn’t keep his nose clean.
Just think how I could have tormented that kid throughout his life. Power over the gathering gloom! Taunting notes in his mail slot. I’d show up at his mom’s memorial service, and, after they lower her into the coffin, fully clothed, buttoned-up to the gullet and no one’s none the wiser, 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, waiving a finger at me.
“I’m just wondering where the restroom is,” I say calmly, absolutely unashamed.
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