It was the first time I’d seen a penis in the wild. That is, the actual wild, under the cover of trees and birdsong instead of the messy dorm rooms with stereos where my previous encounters with the opposite sex had occurred. And this free-hanging penis, flaccid and swinging between two strong legs, had not been extracted from its garmenture in the drunken throes of college debauchery. I was skinny dipping. Howard appeared out of the woods.
But that wasn’t the only reason it was a memorable summer. A newly minted 21 year old, I’d decided to cast off the pressure of an internship and instead live in Burlington, Vermont in an apartment packed with six girls from all over the East coast—Boston, Virginia, New York City, the dirty Jerz. We were, all of us, spokes to the hub of a Vermont native named Jess, the absolute embodiment of a free spirit. She was the kind of friend whose enthusiasm for life could (and can) get you, among other things, to take off your clothes.
Not that I hadn’t gotten naked before. In fact, the semester prior my naked body had stirred a bit of trouble in my life. While my first serious boyfriend was studying abroad, I’d somehow let a casual “kissing friendship” with another guy evolve into a relationship.
Call it a rookie mistake. I was still unfamiliar with the ways sex—and extended periods of shared company in the nude—could escalate a relationship. The summer before I’d been the only virgin left that I knew (besides the Guadalupe my mother still tried to insist I wear around my neck). But experiencing love, both the act and the feeling, had sparked an evolution inside me. I no longer felt automatically insecure around the opposite sex. I felt wanted. And with that feeling came a strange sense of power—not just during sex, but in what came afterward—the snuggling, the pillow talk—the fact that entire new languages, with nicknames, jokes, and heartened phrases, seemed capable of invention.
There was something particularly powerful about the idea of being alone, naked, in the company of another—both parties entirely exposed, but privately. As if the door to the bedroom or living room or closet or car clearly designated the separation of two worlds—the way you’d dig a moat for a sandcastle. Except these borders didn’t vanish after you buttoned back up your jean shorts, exited the vehicle, smoothed your hair, and met your friends at the party. That was the power of being naked. The fortress lurked beneath your clothes.
And the summer before, my boyfriend and I had wandered every corridor of that place, happily immune to the world outside—until it was time for him to start preparing for his full academic year of studying abroad in Europe. From our sandcastle we acknowledged this news as an inconvenient truth. We wanted to stay together while he was away, but agreed (quite practically we thought) that it was best not to be exclusive. Not that we were shopping for other relationships. The whole concept of anyone else seemed absurd, if not only because we discussed the issue in an embrace of tangled bed sheets and limbs. But we were in college. “If you get drunk and hook up with some backpacker in Prague,” I told him. “I don’t think I want to know about it. It’ll just make me feel crappy and jealous.” He agreed. So we made a pact. We’d of course still be in love, but the goal of the year was to be young and free and play life as it came. As the months stretched forward, I did just that.
For a while, the two relationships had felt easy to compartmentalize. I spent my free hours on campus composing heartfelt emails to my boyfriend overseas, and my weekend evenings making out with another guy. It was no big deal. During the week when I wrote my emails, I included flirty references to moments shared the summer before, using words in a way only the two of us could understand, because we’d invented them together, inside that private estate where we’d lived. But the references, though they still tingled with the reverberations of a hot summer, were still just references to something that had occurred before. The weekends slowly started to stack up with the new guy. Sometimes they became weekdays. The couch at the party became a bedroom, the bedroom another territory to trace a moat around with it’s own hidden stairwells and customs—and of course it’s very own dialect of pillow talk.
I still remember feeling a treacherous twinge when, after having just pressed send on a very romantic note, “the other boyfriend” approached me in the library computer lab and spoke to me in some of our coded words. There was no denying it—although somehow I managed to deny it anyway.
It was only when my boyfriend returned to American soil—when he tried to kiss me and I turned my head—that the look on his face and the ache in my gut began to stumble me towards an epiphany. Time, it seemed, moved in only one direction, and even metaphorical structures were susceptible to its passing. Our sandcastle had been stepped on. It wasn’t mine to play in anymore.
Luckily the mountains of Vermont provided a physical barrier between the crimes I’d committed and my tiny bed (that I shared with another girl to make the rent cheaper, though that’s another story). Not that the distance really helped. Heartbreak and guilt provoke a specific sort of exile. And it was worst during the long shifts as a busgirl where I filled buckets full of ice and lugged picked-over plates up and down the stairs.
There we were, my old boyfriend and I, the gory red remains of a pasta dinner, and each time I cleared a dish I was the bad guy again, scraping what was left over into the trash.
But it was summer. And there were worse ways to battle heartache and self-loathing than in the company of a new circle of girlfriends. Jess was a genius in lightening a mood. She took us to “The Rock”, a hidden alcove of beach on Lake Champlain.
We smuggled party favors, sometimes a little battery operated stereo, and trudged single file through the meadow to the bend in the trail towards the water. And once we all emerged from the woods we took turns lumbering up an enormous boulder—the rock—that had, perhaps an ice age before, wedged itself against the coastline.
I wasn’t the only one having a relationship crisis that summer—it seemed to be a common symptom of the early 20’s—so there was always plenty to talk about. And when we got bored with feeling sad, we’d get silly. For comic relief we had Casey—not just my roommate but my bedmate—who was a walking catalogue of hilarious sexcapades. One day told she told a story about an older man who’d tried to pick her up at a bar the night before by offering her a chance to go on a “midnight ride” with him on his motorcycle.
“What does that even mean?” Theresa, another roomie, asked.
“Tell them Case,” Steph prodded, while Amanda protested, “I don’t even want to know!”
When she told us, “He told me it meant we both got naked and drove into the mountains on his bike,” we shared a collective girly scream.
I followed it with a personal squeal. “You are not,” I protested, “under any circumstances, allowed to bring that man back to our bed!”
My voice and our laughter carried out into the water, but behind us the sound was absorbed by the trees. The woods hugged the lush, green perimeter of our hideaway like a thick curtain on a hotel window. Here, we were safe. Boyfriend problems, internships, classes, crappy jobs—all were a hike or a drive or the rest of a summer away.
Which is why, if you were ever going to sunbathe topless or skinny dip—this was the spot. And so, as we laughed about the absurdity of a naked motorcycle ride, we were varying degrees of butt naked ourselves—a group of girlfriends, taking advantage of the privacy and the sunshine—having a ladies hang.
This wasn’t an attempt to be sexy. We were just learning to be comfortable in our bodies and having some good old-fashioned girl talk, but it’s funny to think about how those collective moments of nakedness seemed to create their own dialect—our skinny dipping its own kind of bonding ritual.
Jess did a hilarious bare-assed cannon ball into the lake.
When I finally jumped, the water was intoxicatingly freezing. And after I managed, through gasps and shrieks at the cold, to doggie paddle to the coast and emerge, I laughed with abandon at the silliness of the wobble of my breasts. I was so aware of every part of me. Look at my toes, I remember thinking, being fully utilized! They curled and flexed against the texture of the rock as I scaled its side to the summit.
But once I arrived at the top and burrowed my face into my sun-warmed towel, my mind rebelled and tried not to think about, and so thought about my ex-boyfriend— about where he would go after graduation, or where I would go, or what was meant to be for any of us. Why couldn’t life just stop here? If I couldn’t go backwards, I was happy enough on this rock. But then the sun became too hot, so I stood up and entered the water again.
It was during one of these sorts of days when Howard’s naked body appeared. “Who is that?” Amanda said. “You mean what is that?” Casey said, directing our attention to a specific region. Let’s just say he was a well-built man. 30’s maybe. It was hard to tell.
Jess and Theresa were in the water. From the rock, I watched him paddle over to them, a big smile on his face.
“Hello!” he called with a slight accent—from where I couldn’t tell.
What was up with this dude, the rest of us wondered from the rock, and what was the proper etiquette when greeting an unclothed stranger? Theresa was a good sport. She shook his hand as they tread water—which he took as an invitation to share our company. A few moments later he was standing on the rock.
No one could say Howard wasn’t friendly. He offered to share his food with us, asked us questions about where we were from, told us stories about his job as a meter reader in Burlington—all while standing straight and tall and as naked as the David, crunching on cheddar Pringles, as if this was the most common way for people to meet in the world. And since he seemed to think it was, in our own individual ways, we played along, letting his comfort for the situation that first time sort of guide us. Though later that night we went home and laughed about the encounter, debated whether he was creepy, and ultimately decided that even though Howard was a little weird, he was harmless—nice even.
But nice as he was—well.
Summer blazed on. I continued to scrape the leftover pasta dishes. I watched the limp noodles dive and stick to the plastic skin of the trash. And as I worked my way through the bus tray it occurred to me that plates were lucky. After each dinner they were filed into a machine, blasted clean, past meals guaranteed never to return or haunt with a sudden wave of heartburn.
Our beach started to become more popular. A fat white man appeared on a tiny red blanket. Every once in a while, Howard would bring along his girlfriend, a strikingly beautiful woman with thick hair beneath her armpits and long dreads. And it wasn’t exactly any of their faults, but when I went to the rock, the thought of baring it all started to become less appealing. Summer seemed to be capsizing under the haze of its own weight. The lake didn’t even feel cold anymore—or maybe I’d just gotten used to it. I started keeping my bathing suit on. Everything had lost its shock.
Who knows, maybe I was attuned to a shift in nature. I remember noticing, as my skin began to retreat beneath longer and floppier cover-ups, that the trees surrounding us began to do the opposite. Months of heat had begun to dry up the green curtain of their leaves, and I noticed I could see further up the path out of the alcove, back towards the meadow, towards the public beach and parking lot and the road that connected to another road, that led right out of town.
Howard, however, stayed constant, naked as the day he was born. It seemed though my own skin required a fortress to reveal itself, his required only the warmth of the sun. I never knew him with any clothes on.
Somehow, I can’t remember the story now, Casey got him to agree to pose for a picture—and senior year his nakedness remained memorialized on my refrigerator. But then I graduated. And now I don’t have a clue where my copy of that picture is. It’s just the way things happen—stuff gets lost in the move. You go to one city, and then another one—and it’s impossible to take everything with us.
I know this for a fact. Because here I am again at a change of season. Not only is it summer, but my husband and I are packing to move. And as I sort through bathing suits, deciding which to get rid of, and which to keep, it’s impossible not to count back summers, and also to marvel at the strange coastlines of string bikinis. Because it’s true—wearing them in public is practically like being naked. But then, at the same time, an entire other existence lurks beyond the stretchy borders of those triangles—so much, with just a patch of fabric, that we are managing to cover up.
Lauren Belski is the author of the story collection, Whatever Used to Grow Around Here and a member of the Kilgore Trout House for Wayward Writers. If she hasn’t just overloaded you with TMI, you can learn more about her at www.laurenbelski.com
Lauren Belski for Avidly