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Anyone who doesn’t find the beach at least a little bit disturbing hasn’t really thought about it enough.

I spend a lot of time at the beach in the summer, and it’s hard not to notice the darker side of the ocean after a while: the crime-scene bleakness of a beach town in the rain, or the wind-whipped days when the breakers seem intent on your bodily destruction. So I was excited when, a few months ago, I came across an L.A. Times article musing on the “fascinating light-dark duality” of that city’s coastal playground. The article looked at the beach through the lens of California crime writers from the golden age of pulp to today, and lined up a stellar reading list that included Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Dorothy B. Hughes, Leigh Brackett, Horace McCoy, and others.

Suddenly I realized that the beach and noir go together like sunshine and skin cancer.

Dad ventures outDad always loved taking the long way to wherever he was going. If there was a way to get to school, church, or the Little League baseball field that involved twisting and turning our way through the backroads of Raleigh until all us kids were turning green and ready to hurl, that was the route Dad preferred to take. Just like in that Robert Frost poem.

When he, Mom, and my two older brothers moved to Raleigh from Gulfport, Mississippi, in the late 60s, one of the first things Dad did was get out his Raleigh roadmap and trace out a route from our house in the newly developing suburbs of North Raleigh to our church downtown that involved a more satisfying amount of winding roads, stomach-churning turns, dizzying hills, and gnarled asphalt.

This was all fine with me, for the most part. As a boy I was never in a hurry to do anything that involved going somewhere. But I did have to go to school. My 8th-grade year I transferred to a school downtown after a few years of tedious bullying at my local middle school, and since Dad worked downtown at the power company, he took me to school every morning. Our lengthy commute into town gave me more time to enjoy the idiotic antics of Gary and Nola on the Morning Zoo on 94Z every morning as I bit my nails and stripped cuticles off my fingers in bloody anticipation of another horrific day as a 13-year-old.

I was bequeathed the “take the long way that’s kind of tedious to other people” impulse by Dad, and it used to make my high school friends nuts because I was the only one with a car, so in order for them to hitch a ride they always had to go to the bayou and back to get anywhere. (And they’d be forced to listen to all of my awesome musical cassettes while enjoying the view.) But most of the time in my adult life I’ve never been able to indulge it because I’ve always been running late. I was never able to sit back, relax, and calmly make my way through the unnecessarily labyrinthine journeys Raleigh had to offer—or rather, I could, but I had to do it very quickly.

But I could always rely on Dad to take the scenic route whenever we would go somewhere on my visits. The journey, to him, was at least as important as the destination.

 

Even in the latter stages of Dad’s Alzheimers, when we had to take his driver’s license away from him, his meandering continued. He couldn’t sit still. He would constantly be wandering around looking at things, trying to sneak out of the house, and moving toward some unspecified and probably nonexistent target. The further he wandered into the fuzzy headspace of his disease, the more he seemed to want to get up and go places. Of course, this behavior stemmed directly from the Alzheimers, but it was nice to think more fantastically—that Dad was rapidly aging backward, say, and that he wasn’t a sick 79-year-old man but rather a cheeky 6-year-old full of wanderlust, curiosity, and mischief, stalking frogs, leaving dog turds on doorsteps, and choosing his own adventure.

When our family gathered at our time-share condo at North Carolina’s Atlantic Beach last August for what would be our last beach trip with Dad, he was restless and fidgety. We had to keep a constant eye on him to make sure he wasn’t slipping off to do some exploring.

“Crap! Where’s Dad?!” I said after dinner one night, realizing that he was no longer standing in front of the television with his dog Lilybit in one hand and the clicker in the other, clicking. He’d quietly wandered off as mom, my sister Laurie, my brother Kevin, and I were talking at the table. Everyone looked around, got up, and started searching. I went out the front door into the hallway and, sure enough, there was Dad trying, unsuccessfully, to turn the doorknob of the condo next door.

I popped my head back into our place and there was mom, on her way out the door to look for him.

“Found him,” I said. Then I turned and walked toward Dad.

“Hey, Dad, what are you up to?”

Dad stopped trying the doorknob and headed toward the staircase leading down to the boardwalk, muttering, “Oh, I’m just going over here.”

“Okay, that’s fine. I think I’ll come with you.”

“Nah, you don’t have to do that,” he said, seeming a little annoyed.

“I’d really like to. Let’s go for a little walk.” I tried not to sound patronizing—when he was in this kind of mood he was easily stirred up.

“Oh,” he said. “Okay.”

I followed him as he shuffled down the hallway, down the stairs, and onto the boardwalk that led out to the beach. There was a pool off to the right and down some steps where kids screeched and splashed and their parents lounged and chatted. Dad was walking pretty slowly, and while I was following him I zoned out as I gazed over at the wet children flailing about the pool. I watched as a little boy pulled a girl’s bathing suit strap and snapped it back against her back. Without missing a beat the girl twirled around and slapped him across the face.

This excited me, obviously, because who doesn’t like to see a child get bitch-slapped by another child? Is there anything more life affirming? I smiled and looked back over at Dad, hoping he had seen it and would give it a thumbs-up. But he was still moving determinedly ahead on the boardwalk, now at a quicker pace, out to the little gazebo area overlooking the pool on one side and the boardwalk trail out to the beach on the other.

At the gazebo he stopped and sat down, so I sat down next to him. We watched people pass by, greeting them with smiles and soft “hello”s as they passed. Dad never seemed to be looking at anything—rather, he was looking past everything into an ethereal realm that perhaps he alone could glimpse.

After a few silent minutes he stood up and started walking—faster now—along the last leg of the boardwalk out to the beach. I got up and followed him, struck by the determined pose he assumed: hunched over with his upper body bowed forward and arms swinging resolutely as he barreled ahead. He moved down the stairs and slowed down briefly as he began slogging through the soft sand near the dunes.

I followed on his heels, trying to keep up without looking like I was acting as his minder. We were heading east toward Fort Macon State Park, and toward the jetty at the corner of both the park and the island. He and mom had walked down to the jetty for years during our beach trips, early in the morning. But he hadn’t been able to make it to the jetty last year or, sad to say, this year. He would tire out when he was about halfway and be encouraged, by mom, to turn around. He’d tried again yesterday again, but . . .

So was the jetty where we were heading now?

“So how’d you like that chocolate cake we had tonight, Dad?” I ventured. Dad always hated chocolate. He loved dessert but hated chocolate. But after dinner tonight when mom started cutting slices, Dad requested one, and, to the shock of everyone at the table, he ate the hell out of it.

“It was pretty good,” he mumbled under his breath, as if he was saying it to himself. His eyes were still looking straight ahead.

“Yeah, you seemed to really like it,” I laughed, finally breaking even with him.

His pace didn’t decrease, and I began to worry that he would tire himself out again and that we would be a mile away with him not able to walk.

“So where are we going, Dad?”

“Just down here,” he said, gesturing ahead with one arm.

“Okay. We probably shouldn’t go too far, though,” I said gently. “I don’t want you to get too tired.”

“Just over there,” he said, pointing ahead again.

Up ahead a few hundred feet I saw the green sign announcing our entrance into the grounds of Fort Macon State Park, the halfway mark on the way to the jetty. I squinted my eyes and gazed beyond it trying to gauge how much farther it would be to the jetty, and while I was lost in those complicated mathematics, Dad slipped off. When I surfaced from my advanced calculus lesson I realized he was no longer beside me. Looking around I saw that he had darted off into the dunes, clomping awkwardly over sprouts of beach grass and sand stumps. Uh-oh.

Recently, Dad had taken to going outside to go to the bathroom. At the house in Raleigh Mom had regularly started finding him out by the trashcans with his pants down taking a whiz. Fearing for the worst, I quickly hopped over to the dunes to see what he was up to.

“Dad, where are you going? I thought we were walking on the beach.”

“You don’t have to follow me,” he said irritably.

“I know, but I just want to make sure you don’t fall.”

He stopped and looked around the area of dunes. Was he looking for a place to pee? I hoped not, because how do you tell your dad not to pee somewhere?

He stepped passed me and started moving back down toward the beach. Following him down, I sighed with relief.

We continued on in the direction of the jetty, passing a few shirtless guys fishing in jean shorts. Up ahead in front of another series of dunes and close to the Fort Macon sign two abandoned beach chairs were perched, their flimsy seats and backs flapping in the wind.

“Oh, these are ours,” he said, pointing them out.

“No, I don’t think they are,” I, the insufferable literalist, responded as Dad sat down in one of them. It occurred to me to say we probably shouldn’t sit in these, they’re someone else’s, but then I thought so what/who cares?, shrugged, and sat down next to him.

We sat and watched the waves roll in together.

“This is nice, isn’t it?” I said.

“Uh-huh,” Dad replied dreamily. “Sure is.” He looked ahead toward the sea stretching south toward the Bahamas and onward to oblivion. I followed his gaze, my mind wandering again into his headspace, wondering what he was thinking about, where he wanted to go, and if I’d have to be stronger in urging him to start moving back to the condo. Then I got lost in another thicket of time and distance measurements, wondering how long it would take to jet ski to Grand Bahama island and would there be anywhere on the way to stop for snacks…

Dad stood up, walked over to the Fort Macon State Park sign, and then stopped. I got up and walked over to him. He looked at the sign and out to the sea.

“I think we can turn around now,” he said. And with that, he touched the sign and turned to start heading back.

“Oh, okay, are you sure?” I said.

“Yeah.”

We walked back passed the seats we’d just been lounging in, passed the shirtless fisherman tossing their lines out, passed the dunes where we had detoured, all the way back to the soft sand and the boardwalk, up to the gazebo, and over to the faucets where we could wash our feet and legs off. Then we went down the boardwalk stairs onto the grass. I looked over to the pool: there were fewer kids running around now, and, sadly, none of them were slapping each other. Dad made his way up the stairs to our second-floor condo. I followed him up and we went back inside.

 

A few hours later we were playing cards at the dinner table while Dad sat on the couch with the clicker, clicking. At one point I looked over to the couch and saw that Dad was gone again.

“Crap, where’s Dad?” I said. I started to get up to go out to the hallway and check that he wasn’t trying to open anyone’s door.

“There he is,” Laurie said, pointing out to the balcony overlooking the beach.

There he sat in one of the plastic chairs on our beachfront balcony, a little boy with a television clicker in his hand and his dog on his lap. Staring at the sea.

Jellyfish

By Gayle Brandeis

Poem

It was a big year for jellyfish,
La Niña pulling them
like magnets to the shore.
A fresh translucent mass
was heaped every few feet
along the beach—
edges scalloped
like flamenco skirts,
some hemmed
with thready purple—
the poison ones,
we learned from Chris,
who used to have jellyfish fights
with her friends in Massachusetts.
Didn’t they sting you? I asked,
remembering horror stories
of foot stings, leg stings,
vinegar poultices,
but she said no, they knew
which were safe to lob
at each other,
the creatures smacking
against their bodies
in brief wet flashes
like living artificial breasts.

The beached jellyfish
did look like saline implants—
a vast exodus of implants
on the lam from Tinseltown,
panting their freedom
into the great bosom of sand.
I could almost hear chests deflate
up and down the Sunset Strip,
could almost hear
a chorus of nipples
sigh in soft relief
as one buoyant sack
after another slid
out of its mammary cave
and flopped its way back
to the sea.

Later I saw jellyfish
swimming in the harbor,
their flounces
billowing in and out
like valves of a blowsy heart.
Jellyfish have no heart, no gills,
no brain—they are all undulation,
all open mouth. I wanted to scoop
them out of the water,
plaster them over my breasts,
let them harpoon my areolas
with their stinging cells
the way my nursing children
would clamp their jaws
around my nipples
when they first began to teethe—
La Niña, El Niño, returned to me
as babies, their suckling skulls
all fontanel, bells of milky light.

To the Water

By Justin Daugherty

Essay

1.

The way to Hidden Beach is down, down, down. Drive out on the highway, through the endless Upper Peninsula woods full of birch and pine. There are no signs. Past Sugar Loaf Mountain, past the rocky outcrops that crowd the highway. Pull off of the highway at just the right spot, where you can finally see all the way to Lake Superior from the road. Colin will tell you when. Remove the old blanket from the trunk, the raw hamburger, the Doritos. Others take out their tents, which you don’t have. You walk a bit through those beautiful woods, the long, thin pines rising far overhead until you see it, far below. I can’t get down there, this is insane, you think. But, stop that, you can get down. You might scrape an elbow or smack your head on an uprooted tree leaning almost in line with the horizon. In fact, you will cut yourself on the way down, repelling in the mud and grass and grabbing at loose branches that fall away as you reach for them. That’s nothing, bruises and scrapes fade. Others will take the hard way to the beach, climbing down the sheer rock wall. Take your time. Admire Anna’s poise and the ease with which she moves toward the beach. Make sure each step is firmly rooted in the ground. You will shake and pull at trees and roots before you hang from them or use them to swing around to a more manageable route to the sand below. Lake Superior will guide you, will call to you, and unlike Odysseus, follow her siren song despite the danger in it. Rocks will tumble away beneath your feet, you will slip in the mud and slide down the steep decline. You will attempt to throw the blanket to the beach, it being too awkward to carry on your shoulders, and it will float and snag on an out-of-reach tree. You will curse the tree, the blanket, but be calm. Take your time. You will look back toward the car, to the highway. Smell the lake, the fresh water scent rare in Nebraska. Inhale. Look to where the land levels out, to the sand. Look at the tide as it rolls. You will make it to the beach and there will be blood. You’ll make it. Just head toward the lake.

In Seclusion

By Sarah Suzor

Poem

I expect to think of skeletons and blue violets.

I expect my reflections to lead me to a point of remembering.

Nothing of the sea. I tell myself
nothing of the sea.

And then: antidotes.

The sound of melancholy and catharsis. 
Rain on the roof.

From what I understand it’s where bodies of dead dogs wash up on the shore.

From what I understand it’s a place for forgetting.

The security is catharsis,
misleading rain.
The security is seclusion in an orange jacket.

The line at airport security snakes back and forth like a mountain switchback. I figure the wait will consume at least fifteen minutes. I haven’t flown in a while and I don’t realize these days you have to strip naked and stand spread-eagled in front of the Star Trek transporter. To fight the boredom I look around at my fellow travelers, a varied lot that has conspired to be in this place at this time, bound together by our common desire to fly out of Tulsa on a Thursday morning in July.

My umbrella was stolen from in front of my apartment door, which is all the way at the end of our complex, with a long, separate hallway. It never rains in Southern California, and this week it does. Every day. The thief went off and stayed dry. I’m left to search for a new one. I’m a large guy and large umbrellas are expensive when you try to live on the cheap because your freelance money is stuck in some bureaucratic detour. I reject the small, collapsible ones. They are rickety and barely cover my shoulders. Rite-Aid has a large one, but it’s 13.99 and of inferior quality. The plastic handle feels like the dashboard of my old Escort, the spokes are flimsy despite being heavy.

 

I sat looking out at sea, but POSCO had claimed it. Sea walls, giant freight ships, and clouds of black smoke hung over the horizon. Behind me the sun shone majestically. It did its best to bring out some good in this unnatural scene. The water lapped upon the beach, sweeping broken white shells off to some better place. A crab crawled out of the water and spluttered, staggered, and died. An old woman with a red net-bag hobbled along the beach and picked it up. She dropped the bag, sniffed the crab, and nibbled on its longest leg. Satisfied, she threw it in the bag and scuttled away.

An old man drove by on a scooter, tearing up the sand. He tried to set the bike down, but it kept sinking. The beach wanted no part of it. Finally, he threw it to the ground and ran into a shaded spot by a pile of dirty rocks, and shat on the sand. He was maybe thirty feet away from me.


We left home for Bald Head Island under an invasion of gnats.  They started turning up in the master bathroom, and it got to the point where I was killing a dozen or more a day.  The slaughter was not traumatic for me in any way.  The gnats were slow, unthreatening.  You could close your hand around them or — my preferred method — wait for one to land and crush it neatly under a fingertip.  If one alit in the sink, you might end its existence with a splash.

I didn’t think of the gnats again until we were well ensconced on Bald Head, until we saw the baby sea turtles.

Like many of North Carolina’s barrier islands, Bald Head’s beaches are significant nesting ground for sea turtles.  They come ashore in the spring and dig an eighteen-inch-deep hole with their hind legs, then cover it, leaving one or two hundred eggs to fate.  When they hatch two months later, the baby turtles make a manic dash for the water, presuming predators haven’t dug up the eggs first.  And that the hatchlings didn’t follow houselights to distraction.  And that the birds didn’t get them.

This is where humans enter the equation.  During nesting season, volunteers managed by the Bald Head Conservancy patrol the beaches to monitor egg laying.  When they locate a nest, they put a wire cage around it with a do-not-disturb sign.

For the five years we’ve been going to Bald Head — always during the summer hatching season — we’ve seen many marked nests.  This year we noted two right by the beach path nearest our rental house.  As we always do, we paused to examine them the first day.  The sign, the broad-spaced wire, the sand — all were as nondescript and inauspicious as they always appeared.

Then, one early evening, I was drinking a cocktail and gazing past the rushes toward the ocean when some kind of fuss arose on the beach.  I stared dumbly, trying to make sense of it.  Was this a party — a wedding?  A few people had on the same color green.  What were they wearing?  What was that about?

The sliding door opened behind me and my wife stepped out.  “What’s going on?”

“I’m trying to figure it out myself.  Beach party?”

Someone pulled up in a golf cart — the main mode of island transportation — and rushed down the path without pause.  Another person arrived.  Then another.

“Oh,” my wife declared.  “The turtles!”

We notified our group and hit the beach with drinks in hand.

Sure enough, a crowd had formed by one of the nests.  The green T-shirts were the volunteers.  They had dug a trench from nest to water, to facilitate things.  A hundred people or more lined the trench, some sitting, others standing.  There was an air of celebration: kids performing cartwheels in the sand, playing frisbee.  Still, a cartful of teenage girls road right by, oblivious.

I sidled up to the group of people beside the nest.  A volunteer explained that they knew the eggs had hatched because the sand had collapsed, forming a crater about six inches deep.  But the only sign of life was a single lump of uneven sand in the crater.  It may have moved while I was looking.  Then again, maybe not.

A volunteer told everyone to keep the noise down.  Amazingly, people complied, though there were whispered conversations.

My nephew, with all the ingenuousness of a five year old, got into a chat with an older boy about camp.  The boy asked what camp.  In Georgia, my nephew reported, a Jewish camp.

“I know a Jewish boy at school,” the boy said without irony.  “He’s not bad when you get to know him.”

When we laughed, the boy became a tad belligerent.  With night falling, it felt a little spooky.

The volunteer said no one should touch the turtles when they start moving.  If one goes off track, tell a volunteer, who will guide it back into the trench.  A few of the volunteers had pulled latex gloves on, as if the hatch were imminent.  I asked how many babies there would be.  She said there were 161 eggs in the nest.

“How can you be so specific?”

She explained that the nest had been placed too close to the water by the mother turtle.  Volunteers dug it up within hours and moved the eggs to higher ground.  Being conscientious, they counted them.

We all peered into the hole.  Did the lump move?  Maybe.

It was getting dark.  Volunteers were shining lights into the hole — red lights, which they believed the turtles couldn’t see.

My wife overheard a man say: “Why aren’t people more interested in the sky.  The sky is beautiful tonight.”  It was true.  The stars were emerging.  Then again, there were miles of beach, yet this man was here with the rest of us, awaiting the turtles.

The scientist in charge arrived, Brett DeGregorio.  He seemed young and vigorous, on top of things.  I asked if he was a marine biologist and he shook his head.

“I’m a reptile guy.”

That made sense.  He told me he held an undergraduate degree from U. Mass.  For his Masters, he’d studied rattlesnakes at Purdue.  He seemed a little startled by the turnout.  I don’t suppose one gets a crowd for rattlesnake hatches.

Despite the excitement, I had the presence of mind to ask Brett how long this would take.  Our kids are young and the mosquitos were coming out.  I’ll take gnats over mosquitos any day.

Brett said most of the hatchlings would emerge all at once in what observers call a boil.  Once that begins it would all be over in a few minutes, he said.

But how long after the roof of the nest has fallen in does it begin?

“Anywhere from eight to thirty-six hours.”

Thirty-six hours!  It was after nine o’clock and the kids were already exhausted.  I passed the word and we made a group decision to leave.  Each of us gave a parting glance to the hole.  Status quo.  We trudged away disappointed.

Back at the house, my seven-year-old daughter said of the turtles: “They’ll probably come out at one in the morning when no one’s around except the super nature explorers and people who are really really desperate.”

But the super nature explorers and the casual observers, the desperate and the not so desperate were all equally disappointed that night.

In the morning, a lone volunteer stood monitoring the nest.  My wife made inquiries.  The volunteer explained that the boil hadn’t happened and, notwithstanding its name, was unlikely to occur in the heat of day.  Maybe tonight, she said.  She further explained that the one lone turtle that appeared as no more than a lump of sand had been removed by the scientist for safe keeping, carried away in a cooler.

Poor little guy!

An hour later that volunteer had gone and my wife, ever curious, picked the brains of another.  This one said the first volunteer was misinformed.  No turtle had been removed, just covered again with sand for protection from the sun.

Who to believe?  It was like a very earnest game of telephone.

Yet something was happening in that hole, something not contrived by man, something both ancient and in a sense eternal.

So of course we were back that evening with the crowd, staring into the sand crater.  The volunteers were ready and eager again, too.  The crowd was more insistently hushed, as if through reverence they could make nature happen.  Brett, the scientist, was there, too.

I asked some more questions and learned some more facts.  Several species of sea turtle lay their eggs on Bald Head, but this was the most common, a loggerhead nest.  And if it hatched — when it hatched — it would be the first of a light season.  Last year there were more than seventy nests laid.  This year, fewer than thirty.  Also, on the subject of numbers, Brett said there were 154 eggs in the nest, not 161, as the volunteer had insisted.  I wasn’t about to count the hatch, but if someone decided to do so, I’d put my money on Brett.

The evening progressed as before, though a discerning look into the hole revealed more lumps than the previous night.  And did one of those lumps just move?  Maybe.

Darkness fell and my entire party drifted away.  I decided to hang out for a few more minutes.

Then a minor commotion arose as one of the volunteers showed up with a small red cooler.  Brett opened the lid and I peered inside.  A sand-colored turtle the size of two quarters rested there on what looked like a bed of damp cotton.  Rescued.  So the first volunteer had reported correctly.

“Maybe this guy can inspire the others,” Brett said.  Gently, he dropped the baby turtle into the hole.  It stretched its neck and one of the lumps looked up.  Then a couple of other lumps moved.

This was more action than we’d seen in that crater in two days.  I took out my cell phone and whispered urgently when my sister answered: “It’s happening.  Get out here!”

My party — kids and all — arrived just in time to see the hole come to life.  A boil.  One moment we were looking mostly at sand.  Then, with the suddenness of a Star Trek transporter beam, it was mostly turtles.  Baby turtles, two or three inches long and straining against one another with the determination of toddlers on their first trundle.  They crested the lip of the hole, scampered straight through the wire mesh, and sprinted down the trench toward the ocean as fast as their flippers would carry them.

My nephew, never at a loss for words, said, “It’s like a race!”

If so, it was an endurance race.  They say that only one of ten thousand sea turtles survives the twenty-five years required for sexual maturity.  A lucky few may live eighty years.

Nature, if it has consciousness, must think us mad.

As is the case for so many species, man is the sea turtles’ No. 1 predator.  Though they’re protected in many places, they are also hunted for their meat, their shells and their skin.  We destroy their habitat with beachside development.  We snag them in long-line fishing rigs and shrimp nets, where they often drown.

And yet, others among us usher these creatures into the world with more attention than most newborns get.  (When was the last time you saw a hundred people at a human birth?)  If they could remember volunteers with latex gloves, guiding them toward the ocean, the turtles must later look up at industrial trawlers with incredulousness, wondering:  And these people are all one species?

In this admittedly roundabout way I thought, the next day, of the gnats in my bathroom and how casually I terminated their existence and would continue to do so.

A gnat, of course, is not a sea turtle.  And one can’t fret every death, right?  All life, as the poet Frank Bidart wrote, “exists at the expense of other life.”

The next morning, fire ants by the front door stung my sister’s leg.  My brother-in-law, always eager to act, sprayed poison on them, defending his family.  We’ve all done it.  And, as they always do, the ants curled into little twitching balls and expired.

And I thought: perhaps I should ask my daughter what she meant the other night, when she spoke of really desperate people.

Although I am loath to admit it, I am a prude.  I never would have thought myself to be uptight before now but being faced with the Freikörper Kultur has brought me up to speed.  I am 100% American prude.  What is the Free Body Culture, you might ask?  Why it’s the Society of Naked Germans, of course!  And with the advent of summer, the parks and lakes are overflowing with frolicking, happy nudists.

I have never before been even slightly weirded out by the thought that anyone would want to lie naked in the sun.  It sounds rather naughty and delicious, actually.  That being said, I have rarely been faced with an entire city of people who can’t wait to publicly shed their clothing at the slightest opportunity.  Summer is here or at least June is and even though it hasn’t been anything even approaching warm enough to be called bathing suit weather, anything above 60 degrees Fahrenheit is apparently warm enough to bare it all.  Nobody worries about shrinkage.  One day I was happily cruising around Berlin admiring the greenery and suddenly the next, the view had changed entirely.  One might have fancied oneself in a veritable Garden of Eden were it not for the tattoos and lack of strategically placed fig leaves.

In truth, this year I was well prepared.  Last summer on a visit the boyfriend took me to a lake to replenish our vitamin D deficiency.  He had warned me that everyone would be nude and that was fine, I’d said, but it wasn’t going to be me.  I’m not sure what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t what was.  We were surrounded by everyone and anyone you could imagine, as long as you could imagine they were all white; Germany not being the most color diverse country in the world.  There were tall, short, fat, thin, old, young, beautiful, those not traditionally considered good looking, some obese folks, someone going through chemo, someone who’d undergone a double mastectomy, someone who was clearly anorexic, spider veins abounded, cellulite glistened in the sunshine, waxed and unwaxed, shaved and unshaved, if you can think of it, it was there.

As I looked around I was overcome with admiration for the group of people so comfortable in their own skin.  So unashamed of their bodies as they existed; a foreign concept for most Americans, let alone New Yorkers who are constantly under pressure to stay at the forefront of the fashion and body beautiful trends.  And I realized I was more conspicuous as the only one with clothes on than I would be if I just let go of my Puritanism and freed my body from its spandex confines.  It was elating to lie naked and unnoticed in a park full of people doing the same.  But I didn’t kid myself either.  The only reason I could do this at all was because other than my equally naked boyfriend, I didn’t know a soul.  There is courage in anonymity.

This year for my birthday, he took me to a spa to relax a little.  Once again I was prepared ahead of time for the lack of clothing.  Given the park experience, I no longer felt the need to take a suit.  But when we got to the spa and into the co-ed dressing room I found I was a little bugged out.  I mean, yeah it makes sense.  We’re all about to be naked together anyway, why separate us for the donning and removal phase?  But regardless of the rationality, I somehow felt more exposed fully undressing that close to strange men.  Then in walked the Swedish bombshells who parked themselves directly next to my boyfriend and proceeded to disrobe.  Wait, what happened to all the every-bodies I saw at the lake?  Where were they?  Why was I wobbling my sizable nether parts next to Sweden’s Next Top Model?  This wasn’t what I’d signed up for.

But we wandered down to the sauna anyway.  Walking through the rooms filled with spa-goers, I felt awkward and uncomfortable.  I couldn’t understand why at first.  It shouldn’t feel so much different than it had the last time, after all I didn’t know anyone there.  But as I took a seat in the very crowded sauna, I began to be conscious of the people around me.  These weren’t the naked folks I’d been at the lake with.  Nearly everyone there was under 40, somewhat toned or put together and were all painfully, horribly, nakedly close together.

I am a natural voyeur, a people watcher.  I love to openly gaze and wonder at the happenings around me.  But when you’re sweating together in a small room packed full of fellow nudists, you somehow lose the freedom to do that.  If you spend too much time looking at someone, you could be quickly labeled a sicko letch and excommunicated.  So there we all sat, carefully avoiding each other’s eyes, peeking out of the corners of our own to somehow get the bearings of our surroundings and not talking.  It was awful.

Today I went to a beach with some friends and was shocked to see the sand bursting with colorful bikinis and trunks.

“Where are all the naked Berliners?” I asked.

A fellow sunbather indicated a sign that said in big, black lettering, Freikörper Kultur, and pointed down the beach.  In that moment I knew.  I knew I was a prude because I was relieved.  I was so relieved not to be faced with the pressure to be naked with my friends.  I knew I couldn’t do it.  As they say, some things are better left unsaid, but there are an equal number of things better left dressed on my body and I decided to agree with my friend Juan’s assessment.  There’s something sexy about a little guesswork, even if it is just a little.  So although I may again lie naked in the sun it won’t be anywhere I might run into someone I know and you can rest assured my blanket will be far enough away from the next guy so I can take in the beauty of a park full of everyone basking in their own glory.  Just don’t tell my mother.

In our room that morning as we changed into our bathing suits, stuffing towels and Coppertone into the souvenir Pan Am flight bags our father had gotten for us on a business trip, Glen told me how it would go.

“Answer her questions, but don’t start a conversation.”

“But Dad told us what to say last week. Remember? He said when we meet her to smile and say, ‘I’m state your name, very pleased to meet you, Kate.’ ”

“Yeah, I remember,” said Glen. “You can say it, but you don’t have to mean it.”

“Okay.” I watched him put a book into the bag and then slip a small white bottle of roll-on deodorant in after it. “Why are you taking that to the beach?”

“Don’t want my pits to stink.”

“You think girls from school will be there?”

Glen’s face went red as he zipped up the bag, then mumbled, “You never know.”

“I think she’ll be tall,” I said. “Taller than Mom, probably.”

“If you’re nice to her I’ll punch you,” Glen said, tucking the towel under his arm. “Hard.”

The snow was piling up outside, a white blanket six inches thick and gleaming in the moonlight, reflected up through Darla’s bedroom window. I had just finished reading a story to the girls from Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Treasury about sledding down a steep hill. Toad, the pessimist, is leery of such a dangerous undertaking, but the eternally optimistic Frog assures him they will be safe and have lots of fun.

Flying down the hill they hit a bump and Frog falls off. Toad keeps talking as if Frog were still on the sled, but a passing crow tells him he’s talking to himself. Toad looks back at the empty sled, freaks out and quickly crashes into a snow bank. Later, he tells Frog winter is fun, but staying in bed is much better. Safer too.

“I like that one, but it makes me cold,” says Emma, hugging her shoulders. “Can you tell us a Florida story?”

“Yeah, a Florida story!” Darla says, scrunching down under the covers.

So I begin as I always do.