By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea by Mary Pauer

I am fairly certain I’m not inclined to be a nudist. 

I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my mom, buffing our silver jewelry with a soft cloth, she’s sipping her café with warmed milk; we’re both reminiscing about our old New Jersey neighborhood and I’m complaining about Tommy. He lived across the street and when I was in junior high school, I babysat him. He was about four years old. What a pain in the ass. 

He’d escape out the back door, shed his pants, rip off his underpants, tumble down the sloped front lawn like an acrobat; then zoom throughout the neighborhood, merrily waving arms, legs, and his penis. 

I hated that kid, but I liked the money: fifty cents an hour during the day. Seventy-five cents an hour on weekends, and one dollar an hour after midnight. After gritting my teeth for two or three months, I could buy a Villager outfit: skirt, matching sweater, and knee socks. 

My mom laughs at that memory. Late morning sunlight pours through the windows, dappling our faces catching on the polished metal, reflecting the moment. She asks if I remember when we lived in Los Gatos, California, 

Only from family stories. It must have been the summer before I turned four, because by then we were back East. 

My mother reports that I’d stay at the wave’s edge, never disobeying by going into the water without her, but after about five minutes, I’d shed my bottom, toss it away. There I was looking almost like the Coppertone kid minus the dog and the bathing suit bottom. 

She says all kids fret against clothes, that I was no different than Tommy when it came to tearing off clothes. 

*

I grew up in the matchy-matchy era of the Sixties. I still love outfits that hang together in my closet, ready for me to step into. I love accessories: scarves, handbags, jewelry, patent leather spike heels, and knee-high boots. Linen, fine woven cashmere, soft terry cloth robes. The jangle of a favorite bracelet soothes anxieties; the texture of Merino wool and Egyptian cotton against my skin reassures. I am ready for whatever the world throws at me. 

The outfits are not a guarantee, much like full-suited armor with a visor, and codpiece isn’t always the best choice. Barbarossa, on the way to the Crusades, tried to quench his thirst in a stream, fell and, unable to move in his heavy metal, drowned. Still, the right outfit can be a powerful weapon.     

I do not think I’m a nudist. 

Yet, every time I am near water, I have the urge to take off my clothes, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes with audacity, to be one with the naked brilliance of the earth.  Perhaps this is my wild child, disowning city clothes, nurturing my budding feminist-self. Perhaps the stars influence me. I am a Scorpio, one of the most intense water signs of the Zodiac.

*

Each summer we rented a place in Beach Haven, New Jersey. Even as a pre-teen, I swam with my bathing suit top curled around the crook of my arm, pleased other bathers had no idea. My mom and I lay face down on our blanket, with the backs of our bathing suits unhooked, and she rolled down her straps as far as she dared. 

Not on our vacation, but often, she showed me a picture of a large bucket, filled with water, with me sitting, happily splashing, wearing just a diapered bottom. Her finger lingered on the corner of the photograph and she usually sighed. 

I have the impression that she did what was expected. If she had a choice, and the opportunity, she too, would have gone topless. 

I got older. I got bolder. I found unpopulated and unguarded areas at the shore and left my top resting on the sand beyond the wrack line. I wanted what? To say I was a woman who once swam naked in the sea at midnight, a woman more dangerous with her skirt draped skillfully to cover herself than she was basking in the velvet moonlight? But I had not yet formulated those thoughts clearly.

My first public topless swim was at a lake outside of Austin, Texas. Perhaps it was the crowd, or the fact we were so far from shore no one could really see; no one could judge us. Perhaps I joined them because I had missed out on the 1967 Summer of Love. Perhaps I felt it was my chance to be part of that generation, that movement. Perhaps I liked flaunting myself safely.

We jumped from a small boat, near a stony cove, and waved at other boats nearby, but not too close. I forgot to use sun tan lotion. I remember being surprised that my breasts burned and how easily that day unfolded, as easily as I had folded my clothes. 

A few years later, I visited nude beaches in California. Public nudity there is illegal: illicit behavior in itself is a thrill, as is the reality of counter-culture and skin so often covered, now undisguised. 

Pirates Beach or Cave Landing. I heard it was not only a bootlegger’s depot during Prohibition, but also where the movie From Here to Eternity was filmed, the area supposedly owned by a studio to by-pass dress-code laws.

But that isn’t true. Burt Lancaster and Debra Kerr aren’t naked in the film, and the real beach is a cove in Hawai’i. Still, I imagined myself lying on the shore with the love-of-my-life caressing me with his lips, licking my salted body with his tongue. Waves crashing. Seagulls screaming. Hearts pounding. Sand grinding my naked skin raw. I wanted that. I thought I was ready.

That beach, so popular, had trouble with folks who sat on the rocks above the sand, fully dressed, with binoculars, checking out skin. Rock Monkeys. I did see glints of light from the lenses, and saw several guys climb to remove the voyeurs. Even without movie stars, that beach had a reputation for lawlessness: unleashed dogs, all sorts of smokes, alcohol, used condoms collecting on the shoreline like sea shells, beer cans strew like driftwood; sex sting operations and arrests in the parking lot.  

Further south is Black’s Beach, nude as well, but also a hang-gliding mecca. What a pain to scramble down a path with almost a 90-degree pitch! And the cliffs were not majestic, but the hang gliders above were. Glistening silver specks in the sky, soaring the thermals, hovering like ebony vultures. I hear that on weekends it is so crowded you can’t find a place for your towel.

Except for the lack of clothing, those beaches are like any other. Actually, it seemed as if everyone was conscious of not being self-conscious, not ogling or engaging. I didn’t admit my disappointment to my friends who thought they were cool, hip, of the moment. I didn’t feel elemental. I certainly didn’t tell them I found East Coast beaches, the dunes, and their shore-lines more appealing.    

*

In my early thirties, I visited the Canary Islands. The islands, located off the northeast coast of Africa, are owned by Spain and are, geologically, the result of extreme volcanic eruptions. In fact, some areas are so hot that digging just a few inches in the soil creates sufficient heat to ignite dry grasses. Some of the guides will actually fry an egg.

The temperature and climate are perhaps the best in the world, around 70 degrees year-round; tropical without soul-destroying humidity. You might expect to see blue and yellow budgies lofting and chattering their way through calles and avenidas, much like ever present pigeons in our cities, but there are no canaries. The seven islands are named from a derivative of the Latin word for dog, Canis. At one time wild dogs roamed the lands. I didn’t see any dogs either. 

When I visited, exactly 40 years ago, the islands were not yet a tourist spot, and my memories of the beaches have an exclusivity, an exotic air that might or might not be reality. 

Back then I was one of the few Americans. 

Italian, German, French, British English, harsh Portuguese, and sibilant Spanish words mingled and wafted through the air, almost as palpable as the scent of salt from the water and the aromas of toasted almonds and coconut from our lotions and creams.

Although I didn’t visit for the toplessness, when I found out, memories of Beach Haven, Texas, and California beckoned, so I tucked the top of my bikini in my beach bag as soon as I settled on one of the red overstuffed beach chairs the hotel staff set up for guests. 

I worried the international scene would be too sexy. Men would speak only to my breasts. Instead, I stepped from my lounge into what could have been one of Rothko’s rectangular, soft edged paintings. Grand Canaria sand glowed yellow; the sun rose pink and set in orange hues; the intensity of translucent blue water blended into the verdant mountain backdrop. Rothko asks that viewers stand close, immerse themselves in the colors, forget he is the artist. 

I became a work of art, my skin the canvas, absorbing the nuanced layers of brightness. No debris, no boardwalks, no boom-boxes, just me and the silence behind the eye, almost austere in its clarity. I looked over my shoulder at the dark shadow of my footsteps, disappearing in damp sand, as if I had never existed.

A young boy at the water’s edge. His dark hair curls behind his ears. He reminds me of Tommy, although Tommy would be a young man by now, probably taking off his pants for a totally different reason. The boy throws sand into the breeze. Laughs in the language of children. It seems as if he runs between molecules of air. Declares his freedom. Eschews the unnatural demands of pants, underwear, shoes, socks, belts, and authority. He is a wild thing yet not willful. 

A woman who, I am sure, is his grandma hunches nearby, her breasts long, wrinkled, hanging low, almost touching their drip sand castle. I smile inside and think she could be my mother enjoying freedom.

I’m certain I’m not inclined to be a nudist.

 I watch them and think, maybe tomorrow I’ll wear earrings that dangle, graze my jaw, and swing along my neck. I’ll sit beside them, let the sunlight bounce off that liquid-silver jewelry, and, just as my mom’s  hand steady did, I’ll extend my fingertips to release water and grains of sand, drop by drop: flying buttresses, Gothic arches, steeples, spires reaching to the sky. 

We’ll create the impossible architecture of sand castles.