It smelled like men. And maybe that was because there were over thirty of them and only three women. One woman was teaching naked yoga and as far as I could see (I dipped my head in to glance at the class), all the followers were men.
The problem was it took place in a gym, and gyms are sort of smelly anyway. Some men worked out, a few were in the indoor pool, others sat around on black plastic chairs. There was room-temperature pizza in a small, heated room—the kind of room elementary schools have where they store the photocopy machine and construction paper. There were two-liter bottles of Coke and Diet Coke and some plastic cups. I took a cup and got water from the cooler in the workout room. That was when I saw the man with fluffy neon-green pubic hair. His penis was tucked between his legs and he was lying on a weight bench with a green book and a green towel. The guy who was running the place walked up to chat with me. I couldn’t help but lean in and whisper, “Can you explain the green pubic hair?” He shrugged, changed the subject, and I realized those kinds of questions were as off limits as blatantly staring at the variegated body shapes and sizes. (One couldn’t help but note, however, that male genitalia vary as much as the human face. On the food spectrum, the penises ran from shoestring fries, to mushrooms, to hard-boiled eggs, to Jimmy Dean sausages.)
They were as nice as any people you’ll ever meet. Like Mormons, or Jehovah’s witnesses, or new neighbors. I brought a few friends with me, and the nudists shook all our hands, told us about their no-pressure, live-and-let-live philosophy. They claimed it was a family-friendly club, and I’m sure it is on other days, but that night there were no kids around and the only woman who stuck with the crowd was a gentle and kind new-comer whose strained smile hinted at the idea that she might not return.
The regulars urged me and my women friends to shed our clothes, jump in the pool, simmer in the Jacuzzi. We all demurely refrained from undressing, each one of us having her own hang up that would take a whole other essay to write about. No one asked my two men friends to disrobe and swim.
When it came time to sit down for the reading and discussion, I noticed that only one person, the group leader, had my book in his hand. The guy with neon-green pubic hair did have two books on his lap, both written by him. (Later he showed me the books, but I should admit I was so off-kilter from the setting that I had a hard time following what he said.) It seemed reasonable for the others to be without books considering no one had a pocket, briefcase or bag. I thought this would also mean no cell phones going off during the reading---oh what a joy that would be! Alas, just before we started, a cell phone rang and a buoyantly large man bent over, furry behind up and out, as he reached for the phone that must have been under his chair.
The writer Larry Doyle (we became friends after he blurbed my book), introduced me and led the discussion following the reading. Larry brought up the naked swim parties in my novel, THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES, and how the nudity in the 70s may have been a little more prurient than what was happening in this Maryland-based family nudist club. No one responded to Larry’s comment, perhaps they were too blissed-out from the combination of pizza and naked yoga. When I apologized for being clothed by saying something like, “If I can show my face, why can’t I show my body?” a youngish man replied with, “Why can’t I ask a woman what she weighs?” Before I could answer, Larry jumped in and said, “I think you need to take that question out of your repertoire.” Good advice, indeed.
Larry brought the talk back to my book, the characters, the setting (1976, Santa Barbara, California); still, no one had much to say. It occurred to me then that perhaps the group leader was the only one who actually bought or read the thing. No matter to me, I enjoyed the night tremendously and loved shocking my system by being confined with people I’d normally never encounter. At least not with their clothes off.
*This piece was originally printed in the San Francisco Book Review.
Causes Jessica Blau Supports
Baltimore School for the Arts, 826DC, CityLit Project.