All of them are splayed out poolside, marinating themselves in sunlight like sacrifices to the cancer gods. I hope they can't see me up here gawking at them through my window, appreciating one of the perks of scoring a room that overlooks the hotel sun deck on a rare sweltering day in Switzerland. "How did that lady live to be a hundred?" I ask myself, eyeing a wizened twig with skin baked into beef jerky. Surely, what with all that sun, she'd have grown a sarcoma tumor the size of a Siamese twin by now. But then I realize she might not be that old after all, it could just be the sun. It ages you, doesn't it? And the nakedness. The nakedness probably doesn't help.
I only remember being naked in public once. Notice I emphasize "remember," because Lary swears six years ago, he practically had to tackle me to keep me from stripping on the streets of Prague one night, which makes no sense to me at all. I remember absolutely nothing like that happening. I do remember Lary trying to convince a gay Czech street hustler that I was a pre-op transsexual, though, and announcing I'd be happy to drop my pants to prove it. I do not remember the strip tease he claimed I performed later, though the next morning I did notice that the spaghetti straps on my blouse were ripped. But that could have happened a number of ways, like during that drunken hump dance I did on the bar with some circus performers.
But I don't remember the nakedness, not my own anyway, not that night at least. But take this other time, back when I first moved to Atlanta, when I was lonely and worked at a clique-afflicted coffeehouse because I had no better way to waste my time. I could not possibly have been more miserable, and I don't think I had a single damn friend except Lary. I'd met him months earlier at the wedding of his ex-girlfriend, a lovely person he was a fool to let slip away, but if Lary is not foolish, he is not himself. Thank God. We bonded like a broken teacup, Lary and I, all the freaky shards of our damaged personalities fitting together like the bride of Frankenstein. But by that time, Lary had already grown the crab shell he likes to keep around his heart.
I was a different story; I was all out there. I was fresh from just having lost everything; my last parent, my live-in boyfriend, my home, my youthful incorruptibility, my hard-fought optimism, my ability to keep it all inside and covered up. God, I was as shattered as a wrecked windshield and just as transparent, and I wore it on me like the opposite of a bulletproof vest, wide open and just too much to conceal. It leaked out of me for everyone to see.
It makes me think of the time in college when I went dancing with a handsome frat boy, and I wore black lace stockings under a dress of airy material that buttoned down the entire length of my back. I remember noticing all these people watching me as I shimmied on the dance floor, and here I thought it must be because I looked so damn hot. I discovered later, though, that my groping date had undone almost all the buttons down my back. So the whole time these people were not watching me because I looked so damn hot, they were staring at me because my tatty ass was hanging out the back of my dress. It took me a total decade to stop dying of embarrassment over that.
But that is nothing compared to the state of nakedness I was suffering when I met Lary. I swear, it was like the ass of my emotions was always hanging out. It was like that nightmare you have when you're nude in public with nothing but a washcloth to hide behind; the second you yank it to cover one place you expose another. I was a shipwreck; fascinating from a distance but you wouldn't want to be in one. I hadn't built the emotional dam, yet, didn't even know how, and about four minutes into a conversation with me, people would literally begin to back away from the flood.
Except for Lary. What is with him? He didn't back away, and that was the beginning, anyway, of my realization that it wasn't my bareness that was so repellant, but rather my humiliation over it. So here I am today, looking at these eight naked people with all their imperfections, and I am just loving them now, because what better way is there to be? They are naked, bare-assed naked, sloppy-floppy naked, and not ashamed.
Hollis Gillespie's commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered." To hear the latest, go to www.hollisgillespie.com.