when I heard the nudist’s back story
May 2, 2012
…was the Calvin Klein bathing suit I bought in a snit and am really coming to hate. Dark blue, square necked, deeply unflattering: it irritates me every time I pull it on. But it cost so much I feel obliged to wear it, amortize my investment in the damn thing.
I’d been swimming in the river and was drying off in the sun, sitting on the grassy bank that the club’s committee members keep nicely mown and weeded. There were three of us, three women in a circle on our towels. We were talking about one of the committee members, a man called J. J is a nudist. It’s not a nudist club, it’s just a local swim club on the river that anyone can join, but it happens that the people on the committee who put in the most work – trimming the hedges, maintaining the ladders and the paths – tend to wander around naked. And J, who is tall and imposing, is the most overt and preening of all the nudists, the one with the full body wax, who walks with his shoulders back and his pelvis tilted forward, who leaps aggressively into the river when it’s full of swimmers and who lingers just a little too long on the riverbank when all the other nudies have scattered to avoid being seen by passing kayaks and punts.
I didn’t know what to think about this guy.
He’s very friendly, but how friendly do you want someone to be when he comes and stands over you, naked and hairless, and launches into a discussion about club policy – with all the attendant jiggling every time he emphasizes a point.
We weren’t talking about any of this, though, because one of the women in our ad-hoc trio was J’s wife, Mrs J.
Mrs J is what you’d call a wispy creature. Thin pale hair, a peaky little bird face, small conical breasts – she’s a nudist as well so I’m familiar with her breasts — and a tiny voice; her words trend to trail off.
(I’m a little worried all this talk about body parts and jiggly bits might strike some of you as a tad, well, gamey. I apologize, but the problem, if you consider it a problem, is that by swimming where I do, I’m constantly faced – and I mean faced — with an anatomical parade. This stuff is hard to ignore. Have you ever watched someone trim a hedge in the nude? With an electric trimmer? It’s a car crash waiting to happen. You can’t not look.)
Anyway, the three of us were talking. We didn’t know each other, we just happened to be there that day, no one else around. Which is probably why Mrs J told us what she did — sometimes it’s easier to unburden yourself to strangers.
She (I still don’t know her name) and J had three sons. There were, she said, the usual rebellions and family squabbles, particularly with the two older boys. But the youngest, Tim, was sunny: happy, popular, athletic and kind. As a parent, you’re not supposed to have favorites but J adored Tim, spent more time with him than he had with the other two. They played football and fished in the river, always ending up in the kitchen together, J sitting at the table with his pint, Tim perched on the counter swinging his legs, the two of them talking, sorting out the world.
Then, age 14, Tim got sick. It was bone cancer. For two years he got weaker and weaker, suffering as much from the treatments as the disease – hard to tell which was worse, the illness or the cure – but in any event, none of it worked. He died in pain, age 16, and it blotted out the sun for J.
It destroyed him, his wife told us.
He was the apple of his eye.
By now, we were hunched up together, one of us naked, two of us in damp bathing suits. At some point we had started holding hands.
They had ended up here, his wife said, at the riverbank club. Something in the small tasks — keeping the weeds at bay, pruning the trees that overhang the river, diving to the bottom of the green water to retrieve fallen branches and sodden towels — had given J a new rhythm for life, not quite a purpose, but at least a glimpse of well-being.
You never know, do you?
You make assumptions about someone, you think, Yeah, I’ve got him pegged, and then it turns out everything you thought was right, was actually wrong.
I had thought it was swagger and ego, a strutting peacock or a gorilla pounding his chest. And it was nothing like that, nothing at all. If anything, it – J — was King Lear, raging at the storm, mad with grief. The stripping down, the overlarge strides, it was a kind of fearful bravado, an attempt to convince himself there was something left, some merit in the very elements — sun, water, air.
He was walking toward us now, carrying a thermometer on a rope. We let go of each other’s hands. He nodded at his wife and dropped the thermometer into the water, looping the end of the rope over the ladder. Every gesture was outsized – the flourish as he knotted the line, the grunt that issued from his mouth as he straightened up. When he said, Another good day, his voice boomed out and we answered, It is, isn’t it, just as loudly, as if we believed him.