By Norman Rush, from Granta 126, published earlier this year. Rush is the author of several works of fiction, including, most recently, Subtle Bodies.
From an early age, I was very interested in nudity. My father was a nudist manqué. He made many attempts, to which I was witness, to cajole my mother into going with him to a genuine nudist colony in Mendocino County. There was considerable casual nudity exhibited by both my parents in the normal processes of dressing and bathing and sunbathing au naturel on the veranda of our summer place near Monte Rio, where there was sufficient privacy, in their opinion. Whether my younger brother and I were to be included in the proposed nudist-colony expeditions was never made clear. My mother didn’t go for it and, I suspect, didn’t discuss Dad’s importunings with anyone, even her sisters. My father subscribed to Sunshine and Health, the premier nudist magazine, which my brother and I also read faithfully. Our home in postwar, middle-class East Oakland was a fortlike, solid, voluminous house built by a general contractor for his own family. It was across the street from a semi-castle owned by Frank Epperson, the inventor of the Popsicle. Mrs. Epperson told my mother, who told everyone, that in her view, sex was sinful even in marriage except when necessary for procreation. To endure the conception of their four children, Mrs. Epperson had, she revealed (recommending it to my mother), prepared for each obligatory act by consuming large quantities of aspirin. The medieval sexual narrowness of Mrs. Epperson was a subject of scornful dinner-table discussion. Nudity was on my mind rather a lot. I was about nine at this time. The nudity of my parents did not assuage my ripening interest but rather inflamed it. I wanted to see other naked female humans, and I wanted my father to keep his bathrobe on.
In the fourth or fifth grade at Horace Mann Elementary School I was the leader of a band of boys who, at recess, charged around the schoolyard in flying-wedge formation. We would target clusters of girls and run at them shouting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, let’s all go to the burless show.” I knew vaguely that these shows involved, in some way, naked ladies. I knew this because when my rather slow-moving old grandfather was visiting us, my father seized any opportunity he could to take him downtown to one of the Roxie Theater’s regular “burless” programs. This was ostensibly to cheer the dear old fellow up. My grandfather showed enthusiasm for this diversion, in particular for a show called “Strip Strip Hooray.” My mother disapproved of these excursions, and eventually ended them. It’s true that they had gotten rather frequent. If my mother seems unduly regulatory, it has, in fairness, to be kept in mind that my father had married her only after a démarche by the two grandmothers-to-be. My mother was three months pregnant (with me), and my father, believing he’d had a mere interlude, had relocated to Los Angeles from San Francisco on urgent business for the Socialist Party. He was brought home in chains, as my mother bitterly expressed it, and the upshot was that no punishment she meted out for the rest of his life could ever outweigh her early humiliation. When she got mad at my father, we children (there would be five, altogether) were reminded that he’d fought marriage up to the last minute despite her pregnancy.
I nursed a precocious rage at the stratagems society was employing to keep me from seeing naked women. Perusing the cheesecake-magazine collection of a boy named Mosca, whom we called the Fly, became the chief nighttime activity on Cub Scout camping trips to Livermore and other nearby wastelands. The magazines were disappointing. I could see no reason why nipples, which I knew to be mere outward valves, had to be covered up with pasties or the limbs of trees. Similarly with the pudendum. Why could one never see something as innocent as the escutcheon, whose function had to be to provide a modest veiling for the introitus?
My junior high social-studies class provided some near nudity. It was run by Mr. Planer, a jaded teacher with an Olympian attitude who regarded his students as hopeless brutes. He would allow us to vote, when work had been completed and there was time left over, on which of the few available brief documentary films we wished to see again. The boys voted en bloc every time, while the girls’ votes were split among a number of subjects that included “Wood Pulp to Paper,” “The Bessemer Converter,” and “Flax.” The boys always chose the film in the canister labeled anthropology. This documentary, with which many readers may be familiar from their exposure to the National Geographic Channel, featured bare-breasted women wearing only token skirts, and men wearing no clothing except extremely long, tapered gourds housing their penises. We boys called them “dick guards.” When the women were on-screen there was utter silence in the classroom, and when the men took center stage there was raucous laughter from the boys and appalled silence from the girls. They thought it was dirty. I don’t know why Mr. Planer enabled this over and over again.
My pursuit of the unrestricted gaze met continuing obstacles. On a rare visit to my Uncle Ralph’s house, I managed, late one night, to introduce my older twin cousins (they had recently reached puberty), one female, to the game of strip poker. I did not actually know how to play this game, but improvised some rules that would get Renée’s clothes off with the utmost speed. Unfortunately, her mother came looking for her while Renée was still in her underwear. Worse, my four-years-younger brother, always something of a saboteur when it came to any interest of mine, broke the furtive protocol we both had been observing re: perusing Sunshine and Health. My father’s back-issue file was kept in a drawer in his nightstand. Robert would regularly ascertain where my mother was in the house, and I would dash in and check the graphics out. One morning, however, he wandered out into the breakfast nook with a faux-beatific look on his face, ostentatiously holding up and reading a back issue of Sunshine and Health. My father was not present. My mother was taken aback and questioned him severely. He, affecting surprise, defended his choice of reading matter. “It has good poetry in it, Ma!” he said. He then read out loud, with a sort of aesthetic piety, the following: “Oh how I love to sleep out in the nude / Wake up in the morning feeling gude.” She swatted the magazine from his hand, and another corridor for my swelling interest collapsed before my eyes.
My closest childhood friend, Jack, worked as a stock boy at the Frances Shop, a fashion emporium on East 14th Street. While rolling up the awning, he lost control of the crank, which hit him in the jaw, disabling him for a couple of weeks. He induced me to take the job, which paid very low wages, as his replacement with the guarantee that, with the right timing, I could inch my head up over the back partition of the changing cubicles and get glimpses of flesh. I tried this once, standing on Jack’s improvised platform, and did catch a woman in her bra and step-ins (which is what panties were called in those days), but I was terrified, and seeing underwear was in any case not my quest.
This account concludes even more shamefully. I apologize symbolically, sincerely and pointlessly, here to both of my victims below. The wife of my father’s best friend had been suddenly widowed. Her husband and her youngest child drowned in a swimming accident in the Eel River. C. came to us occasionally for consolation in the aftermath of her tragedy, and stayed for a few days each time. She would get my room and I would bunk with Robert. An arm of the attic ran behind the wall of my room against which the head of my bed was set. With infinite care, I drilled a peephole in the wall just behind the right-hand bedpost and well enough obscured by its serpentine carving. Twice I crept to my peephole, and, on the second and last essay, I succeeded in securing a flash view of the widow’s breasts. I hated myself. I plugged the hole with spackle. But this was only the penultimate cessation of my voyeurism. My mother hired M., an unmarried black woman who came with us from Oakland for the whole summer to help with all the kids, cousins included, in the family’s rambling, crumbling place (it had come with a name, Azulikit, “as-you-like-it”) in the Russian River country. M. was heftily built. In the room that became hers, I knew, the ancient window shade was a tattered thing with a triangular tear in a lower corner. One summer, I stationed myself on the outdoor walkway by M.’s room at the time of night when she would be preparing for bed. I was given a view of her body. M. had been grievously scarred, presumably in some fire calamity, across her entire chest and side. C. and M., both objects of my visual exploitation, had an absolute right to the privacy afforded by clothing. I understood it. These are true stories. The final two experiences sobered me into patience.