It was sometime in the mid-nineties, after the last ragged, dying gasps of my foolish decision to marry at nineteen. The disco ball sparkled fragments of light romantically around the floor, where I moved slowly underneath, head pressed against the chest of my new boyfriend. A crowd of equally drunk people swayed around us in the haze. Through the speakers, Whitney Houston was singing “I Will Always Love You” in a time before reality shows would make her a laughingstock. I pushed aside the cynical part of me that was cringing at the drippy song lyrics, and just tried to enjoy the moment. We were young, it was midnight on a New Year’s Eve, and we were naked.
No, not emotionally. That’s not a metaphor or anything. We were actually naked.
He was the bass guitar player in a country-rockabilly band. I was learning to play guitar for an all-girl rock band I was joining, and I’d met him in my crowd of musician friends. His band had a standing New Year’s Eve gig at a nudist colony in Washington, Texas. They would make the drive from where we lived in Warrensburg, Missouri at the end of every year, to ring in the next one at the Live Oak Resort.
I wasn’t a stranger to nudity. When I was a child, my parents’ divorce took my little sister and me from Phoenix, Arizona to a farm outside of Lawrence, Kansas to live with our new stepfather. Our land was completely secluded, and our parents were reformed hippies, so we ran around naked outside in warm weather if we felt like it. Our only neighbors were the proprietors of a lesbian sprout farm that provided alfalfa and bean sprouts to local restaurants and grocery stores. They often walked around topless, and would casually squat to pee in the grass mid-sentence while we chatted with them, so they didn’t mind our nudity. For a couple of city kids, the newfound freedom in the countryside was awesome. Kids love naked time.
When my boyfriend tentatively asked me if I wanted to road trip with his band for the New Year’s Eve gig at the nudist ranch, I didn’t bat an eye. I knew the people watching would be choice. Of course I wanted to go.
As we pulled into the resort and parked the van for load-in, I was surprised to see various stages of clothing on the patrons. Some people wore clothes. Some people were naked. Some were only wearing shorts, but no shirt, as if they were getting dressed and suddenly remembered where they were. Most were wearing shoes, however, which bothered me. There is something inherently off-putting about a fully shod naked person. If you’re going to wear shoes while naked, you might as well strap on a fanny pack, or don a top hat and pair of mittens too. It just looks odd.
During the drive there, I had been briefed by my boyfriend and his band in the etiquette of bare-ass, and what to expect. They told me that nobody would be pressuring us to take off our clothes; nudity was not a requirement. “That’s cool,” I murmured casually, lest they think me uptight.
We got out of the van fully clothed. As promised, no one pointed sternly to the word “nudist” on a sign and demanded that we strip down. The band set up their instruments, sound checked, and we started drinking. Despite the nonchalant attitude we were trying to maintain about the naked people, there was definitely a nervous vibe. I knew I wasn’t the only one whose inner teenager was giggling and pointing.
The large building had been decorated for the occasion in white and silver streamers with rainbow confetti on the tables. There was a disco ball glittering in the middle, and a black velvet-covered deejay booth to one side. The champagne fountain caught my eye immediately. I had only dreamed of such glorious things up to this point in my young life. The sweet alcoholic nectar was flowing expressly for my girl-drink inebriation. Despite my free spirit upbringing, the plethora of casual naked strangers was unnerving, and I knew the champagne fountain and I would become fast friends.
The band got onstage and began to play. Naturally shy, with the boyfriend/social lifesaver now missing from my side, I took up permanent residence near the stream of liquid courage. Through the softening focus of my bubbly-dimmed awareness, I soon realized I was surrounded. The once empty recreation building was slowly filling with people. Naked people.
When you picture a nudist colony, if your mind is like mine, you might mentally hearken back to the sixties, to a time of lax inhibition and free love. You might picture young, unclothed people at one with nature, walking serenely though a field of flowers, holding hands. You might picture throngs of squirming, nubile bodies seeking pleasure from one another. You might even picture yourself in that scenario, if you are feeling sexy. What you do not picture in any imagined dreamscape full of naked people are your grandparents.
But that was what the building was full of: naked grandparents.
I was aghast to discover that my hedonistically carnal vision of what the nudist resort would be like was completely off target. I was expecting Greek gods and goddesses with bodies made of marble and supernatural sexuality on full display. Instead, I was surrounded by elderly people who might have pulled out a hard candy to offer me, if only they had pockets. I didn’t know if I was disappointed, relieved, or repulsed. Probably a combination of the three. The pressure was officially off to be attractive. Anyone with a poor body image would do well to go to a nudist camp.
With the intimidation factor lifted by the sagging skin and alcohol around me, I soon felt comfortable enough to revisit my carefree childhood by taking off my clothes. I stripped down to nothing, leaving my baggy jeans and T-shirt on a chair. Fuck it, I decided. Obviously nobody here cares if I have the body of a Victoria’s Secret model, or even a Lane Bryant model, for that matter.
Standing near the front of the stage drunk and naked, watching my boyfriend’s band play, I was soon asked to dance by one of the older men. It was a fast song, so there was no slow dancing closeness, and I accepted. I was really nervous about the slow songs, though. How would we keep the naughty bits from touching? With visions of Uncle Creepy punch lines dancing in my head, I didn’t want to explore that disturbing riddle any further.
I ended up dancing with many elderly gentlemen. As we talked, most of them seemed to feel obligated to explain to me, the outsider, why they were at the nudist ranch. Even though I never asked, or cared, they seemed determined to give me their reasons for getting naked. They told me they liked the resort because unlike in their normal lives, where they were very wealthy and powerful, nobody could determine one’s financial status without clothing. Everyone was equal when naked.
At the time, this rationalization struck me as noble. My youthfully trusting brain thought they were really neat people for valuing the social equality to be found in nudity. Now that I’m older, I realize they were probably just trying to impress the hot young chick by making sure I knew they were rich. Rather than appreciating the lack of class division, they were actually making certain I was aware of it. Unable to display shiny red sports cars and power suits, all they had left in their arsenal were words of braggadocio. They made sure the cat was out of the bag, or wrinkly old sack, as it were.
The night wore on, and the room full of nudists got more raucous. I noticed there were a few people who stood out as full-fledged extroverts, and many who were more casual. Upon meeting, some women would flirt openly, lasciviously telling me they liked the way I moved my body on the dance floor. Others would politely extend a hand in greeting, as if we were undressed ladies-who-lunch attending a fundraiser for clothing.
One woman was going from table to table, hiking up a leg to show everyone (who didn’t ask) her recent clitoral piercing. I found it interesting that someone could be seeking attention so hard that being naked wasn’t enough; she still needed to perform a labial lambada to stand out. I happened to be close to a few different tables when she did this, each time smiling benignly on the outside, while screaming in horror on the inside. She had managed to do the impossible: making me want to un-see something even more than the wrinkled ocean of senior flesh surrounding us.
There was a younger guy maintaining a constant state of semi-erection as he tried to dance with every woman in the room. People were giggling about this, which surprised me, as I would think any form of bodily mockery would be frowned upon in such a place. I was relieved to discover that even in a room full of nudists, it was still okay to laugh at an errant boner.
One man in particular latched onto me that night, grilling me about the nature of my relationship with the boyfriend. Yet again, the explanation was given that he came to the nudist resort so that he could be naked and not judged for having so much money, blah, blah, blah. Same story as the other men, but he was pushier, shoving a business card into my unwilling hand. “Call me,” he insisted.
The band ended up drinking enough to lose most of their clothing by the end of the night. And there we were: a bunch of naked people rocking out in a Texas warehouse. The show ended before midnight, and a deejay took over, playing all of the grungy songs and romantic ballads the nineties had to offer.
This experience reinforced to me that even in a group of people who consider themselves nonconformists, there will always be the familiar personalities. The archetypes exist with or without clothing: the attention whore, the arrogant rich guy, the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, the criminal… you’ve seen the movie.
Hugging my naked boyfriend on the dance floor at midnight while Whitney serenaded us, I noted the inimitability of the odd evening. This will probably be the most unusual and interesting New Year’s Eve I ever have in my life, I thought. And so far, this has proven to be correct. But I’m not giving up. I remain hopeful that I may someday top it.
Before I moved to Madrid, I engaged in a series of heated discussions about where I should work after failing miserably at a number of low-paying jobs (My father, a professor of Chinese History, even resorted to utilizing the ancient hexagrams of the I-Ching in an attempt to new-age me into employment), I ended up applying for work at Bookstop, a large bookstore, coffee shop and hipster hang-out in the Montrose area of Houston. I had to wear a nametag, a sure sign you are about to embark on a shitty occupation.
I was put under the tutelage of a 21-year-old assistant-manager named Travis. Travis was completely bald, bitter about it, and determined to make manager “before the summer was out.” A large portion of the managerial promotion process hinged on your ability to tutor the new kids, the cashiers, the foot soldiers—in other words, the kids who didn’t care—myself and a black kid from Atlanta named Greg. My first day at work proved a relatively accurate augur of what was to come. I dutifully showed up 15 minutes before Bookstop opened (it is crucial to make a good impression on your first day of work—then you can shit the proverbial bed and it takes longer for people to notice, as people tend to hold to first impressions as a condemned inmate at San Quentin might hold his/her breath once the cyanide gas starts filtering through the vents. There’s no such thing as hopelessness!). Greg had been given the same advice, as I encountered him smoking a blunt in the parking lot on my way to the store, a converted old movie theater.
“Hey, man,” Greg chortled through thick smoke.
“Hi,” I said.
“You have a name tag—are you working here, too?”
“Yeah, it’s my first day,” I said.
“Me, too. You want to hit this bitch?”
“I shouldn’t. It’s our first day. Okay.”
“My nigga!” he said, as I took a substantial drag off of the blunt. I felt pretty proud to be called a nigga and thought about how desperately white people long to be liked by black people. It’s almost an epidemic. Anyone who says differently is lying, or mostly lying. Even white supremacists. Have you heard any white supremacist rappers? I have. The content is nauseating, but their flow is undoubtedly referential, probably to Boogie Down Productions if not Public Enemy. They just flipped the script.
Greg and I were ushered around the store by Travis. He explained something about ISBN numbers and their utility, then droned on about his self-published sci-fi novel that, once he became manager, he could insinuate into the aisles of Bookstop.
“Your book have robots in it, Travis,” asked Greg, laconically, stonedly.
“There are androids, yes,” Travis responded proudly.
“Robots can eat a dick,” offered Greg, foolishly.
“I wouldn’t expect either of you two to even remotely begin to understand the complex time/space signatures in my book and I’ll have you know, Greg, Tyler, that I can make your life extremely difficult here if you aren’t cooperative.”
“That’s bullshit, bitch,” said Greg, accurately. Greg nor I had any allegiance to the Bookstop and were both fairly intent on getting fired or quitting as soon as we had put in the requisite time to convince the parents-that-be we were responsible. Travis often tried to make our lives miserable, but it’s hard to find us when I’ve locked myself in the service elevator with a margarita and a crossword puzzle book and Greg is in his car, balling the coffee shop barrista.
James had been a friend of mine since high school and a frequent visitor to Bookstop. His stepmom had just opened an upscale jewelry and accoutrement salon down the street from the bookstore, and in her store was a margarita machine for the upscale browser (I always thought this was a good idea; I’ll buy almost anything when I’m drunk). James would help out around his stepmom’s store for a bit, then shuttle a thermos full of margarita over to me at Bookstop. We’d chat a bit, decide on evening plans, then he’d retreat back to the store as I would grab a stack of Tom Robbins and adjourn to my perch in the freight elevator. The arrangement usually worked fine, as both Greg and I would cover for each other.
Inevitably, Greg was caught balling the barrista and fired, something that put a damper on my afternoons with crossword puzzles and a half-gallon of frozen margaritas. And while with Greg’s departure the efficiency of the Bookstop machine received an unprecedented spike in productivity, my patience for the working life—at least the working at Bookstop life—ebbed dramatically.
When he wasn’t helping out at his stepmom’s store, James had the luxury of doing nothing. Well, not nothing, exactly. He was a BBQing machine. Every day by his parent’s pool, he’d throw heaps of flesh on the grill and he and a menagerie of other summer loafers would drink beer, play guitars, eat heartily and laze around the pool until everyone passed out or didn’t. It was a kind of life I’ve always aspired to, and felt I was missing a wonderful opportunity to idle around in the prime of my youth, like somebody out of Fitzgerald or at least somebody not wandering drunk around a bookstore all day.
I began, as has been the case with most if not all of my ill-fated employment endeavors to fall ill, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays—prime BBQing time.
“Uh, hi Travis. It’s Tyler. Look, I don’t know what I have. I’ve been throwing up all morning and I’ve got a fever and my head hurts and there’s a chance I may have spinal meningitis and so I’m going to stay home today.”
“Spinal meningitis? Are you going to the doctor?”
“No, I think I’m just going to try to ride it out.”
“That’s a terrible idea. You sound fine.”
“Are you saying I’m not sick?”
“Maybe. Are you not?”
“Of course I am.”
“Tyler, do you like your job?”
“Yes. I mean why? Is that some kind of threat?”
“It’s not a threat.”
“Good Christ, Travis, I feel like you’re giving me a hard time. How many times have I called in sick? It’s not like it happens all the time.”
“You’ve called in sick four times in the last two weeks. You get sick on weekends, it seems to me.”
“Well, damnit Travis. I can’t work in an environment where there’s this kind of lack of trust. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“I’m not. So are you quitting?” I thought for a moment how I would storm back into work, not giving Travis the pleasure of being done with me. I would make it to assistant manager by the end of the summer and then overtake the bald, wretched, wanton Travis as manager, overseeing his daily routine and making his life a living hell for the rest of his days at the Bookstop.
“Yeah, I think I’m quitting,” I said, knowing the aforementioned scenario was untenable and devoid of BBQ and good times. I hung up the phone, euphoric, then headed over to James’ house. Of course, I foresaw trouble in paradise, as my parents would be completely averse to the trajectory I’d chosen for myself this summer.
So, I woke up every morning at 7:30, put on my work clothes: tie, nametag, khakis and Oxford button-down and left for work. However, in this instance, work was located five blocks away at James house, where upon arrival, I’d go back to sleep on his family’s sofa until around 1:00 or 2:00, when the BBQ preparations would begin. This arrangement proved infinitely more suitable and I decided that if times ever got really tough, I could make a living by a pool, eating BBQ. I wasn’t sure from where my income would stem, but the dream must come first. The reality will inevitably fall into place, somehow.
I enjoyed travel, as anybody who never travels says they enjoy travel, but the idea of going abroad again never really drifted through my transom. The summer coming to a close, Bookstop out of the picture and a couple of parents eager to see their son do something, I found myself at an Irish pub, Kennealy’s, with James.
James and I have, since early in our friendship, been convinced that we should be famous actors. Not just actors—famous actors. Every week, James and I would sit in the brackish pub, he drinking Guinness, I drinking whiskey, and discuss how colossally talented, funny, good looking and charming we were and how it was a real shame we hadn’t yet been discovered by Hollywood. We were somewhat in awe of the fact that some director/producer had yet to approach us, telling us how talented, funny, good looking and charming we both were and wouldn’t we like to star opposite Charlize Theron in the next summer blockbuster?
“I think we should probably move to LA,” I said.
“That’s a cliché. Houston is as good a place as any for us. Patience, Tyler.”
“It’s not happening for us here, dude.”
“It just takes patience. Look, did you know Matthew McConaughey met Linklater in a bar and next thing you know—BANG—he’s in Dazed and Confused.”
“Did you know Brad Pitt used to dress up like a chicken and sit in the middle of the street—Hollywood Boulevard, I think. He got discovered that way. Same with Liz Taylor,” I added.
“She dressed up like a chicken?” James asked.
“No, well, I don’t think so—maybe they found her at a mall.”
“I’m better looking than Liam Neeson,” I ventured.
“People say I look like Sean Penn.”
“You do, a little,” I lied. “You’re like Sean Penn if you were a forward for the Celtics.”
“Is it because I have a big nose?”
“Not just that. You have screen presence,” I offered, with no basis in reality.
“Thanks, man. You mean that?”
“I totally mean that.”
“Maybe we should take acting classes.”
“That’s bullshit. I think you either have it or you don’t. Brother we have it.”
“I know we do, but we need a foot in the door.” James could be so negative sometimes.
“You can only be so talented. Then you need luck,” I said, optimistically.
“Are we just unlucky?”
“Yeah, I mean I guess so, so far.”
“Did you apply for grad schools again?”
“No,” I lied again, having been rejected by everywhere. “Let’s go abroad.”
“Fuck off! Are you serious?”
“Yeah, to Madrid. I know the city.” I spent a year abroad as an undergraduate in Madrid. The junior year thing. I didn’t know the city—that too was a lie. Once I ate a meter of albondigas sandwiches at the Subway by Retiro Park, though. Albondigas means “meatballs” in Spanish. It was, and is, my favorite Spanish word. “Plus, Almodovar is there. We should go. You know I met him once”
“Is he Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown?”
“Yep. He hit on me in a club.”
“How do you say ‘boner’ in Spanish,” James asked.
“You gave Almodovar a vergadura.”
“What’s bienvenidos? I saw that on a welcome mat. Does that mean ‘welcome?’”
“That’s also boner.”
“I’m bullish on this idea, T. What about Bookstop?”
Dr. C, the owner of Bookstop, called me and asked me to come in. Travis hadn’t told him I’d quit. I felt bad. I didn’t want to have to deal with Dr. C. I liked Dr. C, and I felt terribly guilty for not tendering my resignation to his face. And fuck you, Travis. Happy fuckday to you. I hate awkward situations, especially when they involve speaking with people I’ve let down. I thought drugs would make it easier. After age 22 or so, it’s embarrassing to admit doing acid. But, I admit.
After staring at an issue of the inexplicably pink Financial Times for what seemed a minor eternity, Dr. C. ushered me into his office. Now, I’ve never “seen” anything on drugs, like some people have claimed. I’ve never seen the Led Zeppelin blimp carrying a banner that read, “Hasta La Victoria Siempre” or a swimming pool full of Draculas or the face of Heinrich Himmler in a pepperoni pizza. But Dr. C was undulating, changing form, then his features would scramble back into place. It was as if he were an image conjured up like a human Etch-a-Sketch, then shaken, then drawn anew. It didn’t help that Dr. C. had a missing eye and would occasionally, like on this occasion, refuse to wear his eye-patch. I liked him for this “fuck you” to all the staring half-wits, the insensitive cavepeople who would incessantly gaze into his oozing socket. But now, no good. Once you’ve made up your mind not to look at something, you’re tanked. And I admit.
I’m no good with “psychedelic” drugs like mushrooms and acid and that kind of stuff. I hate when people I’m around are on them and I hate to be on them. I’ve always thought of myself as someone hanging from a pretty thin thread, and all this psychedelia bilge tugs at that thread like an angry cat. I also find myself on the tail end of these “trips” sitting on a toilet somewhere trying to crap out my soul. But for some reason I have taken a lot of them. And I took a lot of them before I walked into Dr. C’s office wearing a “cape” fashioned out of a large trash bag, then started blabbering and eventually weeping about United Fruit, neocolonialism and all the trouble that “my opportunist cocksucker ancestors” had inflicted on Latin America.
“Tyler, United Fruit went out of business in the 1970s.”
“But think of all the damage they did, Dr. C, man. Think of Rigoberta Menchu!”
“That wasn’t United Fruit. I think that was a civil war in Guatemala. And what is that thing you’re wearing? Is that a trash bag?”
“It’s more of a cloak, actually. Look, I know you’re probably thinking you want to peel the skin off my face because you went through it all there in Guatemala, you know.”
“What are you talking about, Tyler? Are you okay? You look sweaty. Did you want to come in here just to talk about United Fruit. If you did, that’s fine, it’s just…”
“Oh, man. You’re from Mexico, aren’t you? Jesus Christ! I just want to say that I’m sorry. I don’t think that, you know, Guatemala and Mexico is the same thing. Cultural identity is so very, very important, especially in a growing global community. I know there are a lot of people here who think that way…I like the word “globe,” you know the way it sounds when it comes out of your mouth and then goes into the air. Do you know the song “Dark Globe,” by Syd Barett?”
“Syd who? Tyler, are you doing okay?”
“Not so great, Dr. C,” I managed to drool out, conscious that I was now on drugs, aware that I was on drugs and aware that people usually get paranoid when they’re aware they’re on drugs and that this feeling will never ever ever go away and I’m insane forever.
“What’s the problem,” he asked in his avuncular way. I had always liked Dr. C and I wanted to choose my words carefully, not insult him, not insult the institution of Bookstop.
“I’m in a pretty fucked-up dance here, Dr. C as in cottage cheese. That’s two c’s, isn’t it?
“Excuse me?” Dr. C asked, naturally.
“I meant what?”
“Tyler, are you okay?”
“I need to get out of here.”
“Out of my office?”
“Out of everything. I want to withdraw.”
“Well, Tyler, I’m sorry to hear that. What’s the problem?”
“I just don’t fit in here?”
“Here at Bookstop?”
“Yeah, I guess. And my own skin. It feels tight.”
“Is that a metaphor?” he asked. Dr. C. loved metaphors. He had a PhD in English and used to teach at an impressive university. But, he found that he liked books more than he liked people, so he bought a bookstore. Made sense to me.
“I’m afraid not.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that, Tyler. You know you can always come back.”
“Thank you, Dr. C.”
“Tyler, take care of yourself.”
I left work and headed back to my apartment where I had every intention of lying in a ball, drinking whiskey and listening to George Jones. I opened the door to 211 and was greeted by my roommate Tod, some of his friends, Lance Berkman, all-star first baseman for the Houston Astros, and his roommate Dave, who was standing in his underwear strumming a bass plugged into an unplugged amplifier. We all lived in the same apartment complex.
“Whoa. Dave. Nice bass guitar.“
It’s not a bass guitar—it’s a space guitar.” Dave gave me the drugs, earlier.
“So nice,” Dave said, strumming his incomprehensible melody.
Dave and Lance made an interesting pair. Lance, for all I know, never did drugs (although not afraid to partake of my whiskey from time to time), was a good Christian boy and could hit a baseball farther than anyone I’ve ever seen, or at least anyone who I’ve ever been in a room on acid with. Dave, on the other hand, was enamored with Frank Zappa and any psychedelic concoction he could get his hands on. But they were often together and were, from all I could tell, extraordinarily good friends. Lance was sitting on our sofa, dipping Copenhagen and Dave stopped playing the space guitar for a moment and asked, “What’s up, man?”
“I’m dropping out.”
“Me too, dude!”
“No, I mean I’m dropping out of America.”
“Why?” asked Lance Berkman.
“My skin is tight. Does it feel better to hit a home run right-handed or left-handed?”
“Right handed. Look, I’ve got to get going, y’all,” Lance said a little urgently. “Tyler, we’ll see you around, right?”
“Yeah, you’ll se me around.” Lance left the room, Tod and his guys had set up shop in the common room, reading the sheet music to Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and Dave remained strumming his space guitar, alone in his own mostly nude world. I grabbed the bottle of whiskey, went to my room, curled up in a ball and listened to George Jones for the next four hours until I was finally overcome with sleep.