In France, I walked naked on the beaches. Whether strolling the quiet shores of La Rochelle, dotted with a few families, or picking my way through sculpted singles on the Riviera, I’d shed my clothes the moment my feet sank into sand.
My public nudity shocked me, like the stab of seashells biting into the soft soles of my feet. At home in Philadelphia, I spent a lifetime hiding my body, strategically draping clothing in hopes of directing the eye away from hips that strained my hip-hugger bell bottoms and a J-Lo butt in a Twiggy generation.
In France, no one paid attention to size. Feelings of fat, thin, good, bad, folded into each other as softly as the sagging breasts of the sunbathing grandmothers melded into their doughy stomachs. I shrugged off inhibitions as easily as if they were sand fleas.
I was diagnosed with skin cancer two weeks later, when I returned to Philadelphia.
At first, there were three little pimples, one on my forehead and two on my chest. They appeared to be unremarkable, except that they seemed to take a long time to heal. Soon they began to bleed, and formed a crust. After another cycle of bleeding and crusting, I understood, as surely as I know the smell of sand, that I would never again walk naked on the beach.
Miami, 1975. It was a get-drunk house, a get-laid house, a sit-around-without-a-blouse house. With dingy sculptured rugs and a dented harvest gold refrigerator, a threadbare, lumpy sofa and mismatched, cigarette-scarred tables, it was an apartment only college students could love. Lucy and I should have felt like
prisoners in a 1960s tract home, but we combed flea markets for bright batik pillows, tossed afghans on the worn spots, and draped the walls with a mix of painstakingly embroidered samplers and fluorescent head-shop posters. We hung Maxfield Parrish prints in the days before everyone was guarded by angels, at a time when New Age referred to our next birthdays.
On Saturdays, we cleaned. I polished wood table tops until the scratches gleamed like fresh stretch marks. Lucy vacuumed in perfectly straight rows, an urban farmer plowing her Dacron field.
We could not sweep or dust or vacuum away the palmettos, those omnipresent insects that were big enough to tame puny northern cockroaches as pets. Lucy couldn’t scrub hard enough to exorcise demons of a childhood so brutal, the pain she inflicted upon herself sometimes was the only way she knew she was still alive.
We chased salty Cuban stew with cheap, citrus-laden sangria, cuddling with our dates in front of the television, watching Saturday Night Live when it was the real thing. And in the morning, when the Miami sky blazed like a fiery opal, the palmettos and the men noiselessly crawled back to their dark, secret places, awaiting the next night, the next feast.
I returned to Philadelphia because David, one of those too-silent men, broke my heart. Lucy fled north when she tired of wearing long sleeves in the Florida heat in order to cover the razor blade scars that dissected her wrists like meridians.
More than thirty-five years pass before I find myself in a Miami Beach hotel coffee shop while attending a business conference. The man seated across the glass-topped table weighs at least 325 pounds. He mops his brow, although the restaurant is heavily air conditioned. His thighs spill through the sides of the chair. “It’s good to see you, bubbeleh,“ David says, using his old pet name for me. Then he smiles, and the years and the pounds disappear. In his broad grin and the ocean-colored sparkle of his eyes I recognize the lean, muscular young man who brought me joy wider than the beach, then turned on me as quickly as a tide, leaving brittle shell fragments where I once kept my heart.
David had found my email address recently. “Call me if you ever come to Florida,” he‘d written.
How do I tell him the story of my life in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee? I manage to hit most of the highlights, leaving out the part about the series of men who snatched the bits of heart David shattered, until I met my husband, who rescued one of the fragments, nourishing and polishing it until I again gleamed lustrous as a pearl.
David points to the skin peeking through the vee of my tee shirt. “What happened?” he asks, referring to twin two inch scars, crosshatched where the stitches left permanent impressions.
The coffee burns sour in my throat. In an instant I change from a woman who walked naked in France to the nineteen year old who did not want David to notice my bumps and lumps and imperfect places when he laid his wrestler’s body on top of mine. I want to lift my shirt, right in the middle of the restaurant, and direct his blue eyes to breasts that sun and gravity have barely touched.
If he notices the scars on my bare legs & arms, he does not comment.
“Let’s go for a walk,” David suggests. As we traverse the sandy path, I am as surprised by his agility as I am by the mere fact of our togetherness. We pause to watch a gecko scurry across the walkway. “Do you ever think about what our life would be like if we had stayed together?” he asks.
I hesitate. I do not want him to know how many years it took, how many boxes of tissues I emptied in my therapist’s office, how many men I had to sleep with, how many beaches I walked to slough off the wondering. “It would have been different,” I finally answer. And then change the subject.
We arrive back at the restaurant parking lot. David walks me to my rental car. “Can I give you a hug?” he asks. I suddenly wish for the before times, when he was a lustful young man who took what he wanted.
“Sure,” I say. David wraps his arms around me. I half expect to breathe the citrusy scent of 4711 cologne, mixed with an acrid whiff of sweaty boy sneakers. I’m a bit disappointed to discover he smells subtle, expensive, like a grown man. He lifts my chin as his azure eyes seek mine.
Medieval sailors believed they would sail off the edge of the earth when they reached the horizon. If I remain on this boat, I, too, will vanish into the unknown.
Miami Beach is almost empty of people at dawn. The foam at water’s edge licks my toes as I walk along the shoreline. The salt of ocean spray mingles with my sweat, its briny scent sharp in my nostrils. Pinks and violets kiss the brightening sky.
Although I wear shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and a visor during my daily walks, I’m ruled by the need for sun protection, not modesty. My naked self nips at my heels in the shadow I cast.
I spot the black stocking-clad legs of the tourist before I’m close enough to see the camera and Disney World tote bag. The woman and her companion recline in lounge chairs and chat as if it’s normal to wear nylons on the beach in June. When I’m close enough to hear their German accents, clipped and guttural, I notice the woman’s calves underneath the dark hose, marbled with burned areas that haven’t healed and white patches where fresh baby skin has regenerated.
The sun has risen, its rays spreading across the sky like melting butter. My shadow self is shrinking, my sign to return indoors until day’s end, when she again can play naked in the sand. I think of skin and scars, of long sleeves in summer, and of stockings on the beach. I contemplate the ways we travel through life unprotected; burnt by sun and fire, distorted by trauma, filled with psychic pain so fierce, for some the only relief is to slash at the flesh.
I gaze at my freckled arms. “I won’t cover up,” I think, my voice a silent scream. I scan the stretch of beach. No one is within earshot. “I won’t cover up,” I chant aloud, like a promise. Or maybe like a prayer.