I am not a beach person. The way seagulls swoop over your head like rats with wings terrifies me. I hate that feeling of sand caked in every crevice.
But when my friend Thomas invited my husband and I to a nude federal beach in New Jersey, rumored to be filled with spectacularly hung men and tanned, pierced women, I decided it was something worth trying.
“I think we should go,” I told my husband.
Maybe it was because I needed a change. Spring had been of those staying-in-bed-smoking-cigarettes instead of going out seasons. I found myself fighting a constant drowsiness and listening to Jewel. Some days it took an effort to look both ways before crossing the street.
My therapist diagnosed me with mixed anxiety-depressive disorder. Honestly, I am not even sure what this means other than that it feels like there is this giant, black balloon that is always sort of hovering around. Sometimes the balloon gets huge and it covers the whole sky, disconnecting me from the things that matter most. Lately, it was my husband. It was like I couldn’t see him as a separate person anymore. Like he was a part of me. And it was hard to feel tender toward either of us. Internally things felt sharp, like my mind was gripped by tiny teeth.
Jumping in the ocean naked with a lot of strangers wouldn’t fix anything, but it seemed like it might make me feel better momentarily. Like a baptism. But with nudity.
On Saturday morning, we met Thomas and his partner Leigh. Thomas is tall with gray hair and a silver earring. He is also old enough to be my father but cool in a writerly way with lots of great New York anecdotes about people like Debbie Harry and Michael Alig. I liked Leigh instantly. She had an approachable vibe and we had great backseat conversation. Every time there was a lull, I got flashbacks from that episode of “Pete and Pete” when the entire family gets naked in a car.
We parked and began to walk up the trail when I saw it: a blue-green shimmering in front of a sea of bodies. On busy days, the beach can hold 5,000 naked people. I couldn’t believe how packed it was.
“That’s the regular beach?”
“No!” Thomas said, “That is the nude beach.”
We made it down to the sand, coolers banging against our legs, and I smiled at the sunbathers but tried not to stare too long at their glistening genitals or sunscreen-lubed breasts which slid lazily into armpits.
We walked by a co-ed naked volleyball game and stopped for a moment, entranced. One man was peeing, I realized. Hands free. Urine trickling from his penis into the sand while he waited for the ball to be served.
We walked for 15 minutes along the shore. There were couples who had little screens set up for modesty (sex), people with elaborate nude picnics and men sitting alone with binoculars, their legs spread wide, junk flapping in the sand.
Finally, we found a spot. Thomas and Leigh immediately peeled off their clothes. In front of us a group of deeply tanned individuals with lawn chairs made daiquiris in a hand-operated blender. I twisted toward my friends, trying not to make eye contact with their genitals.
Thomas laid out havarti and prosciutto and poured us red wine. I took a sip and with an unconscious nervous tic, pulled my phone from my bag. Scrolling through I wondered what the people I follow on Twitter would advise. What would RuPaul or Courtney Love or Lena Dunham do at a nude beach?
I decided they would go for it. I peeled my swimsuit off and shook my hair over my nipples. I had been nervous about my body because I am human. But naked I realized, no one was judging me. Lose five pounds — or don’t! — no one cares. And besides, I am in my 20s. I should probably spend this entire decade naked. The breeze was silky and cool and the sun was a glorious blanket. My husband pulled off his speedo and we cheered.
A man walked by wearing nothing but a neon fanny pack. “The nude beach is just so democratizing!” Thomas said.
There was an innocence to being naked. I felt no shame … like a kid. My husband and I went into the water, which was clear and greenish and full of waves that sent us whishing around (without worry of losing bottoms or tops falling off). It felt heavenly. I loved this. Naked as an angelfish.
“I keep peeing in the water,” I said. “ wish I could always just pee like this when I have to go in real life.”
I think I was beginning to understand the naked volleyball guy.
A wave broke my husband and I apart from each other and I floated on my back. It was the first time I felt separate from him in months. I just wanted to keep floating farther and farther. I kept imagining myself floating directly to the center then pulling myself underwater and staying there. I felt like I was in neutral.
I was gliding through the water, naked, feet slowly kicking. As I moved, the waves seemed to be breathing. Suddenly, I felt illuminated. Like the sun was a diamond pushing on my head and then right through into my chest. I felt like I could see myself from all angles. I had a realization that this depression and anxiety that would continue to ebb and flow in my life. My job was to find a way to float through it. For that moment everything was in order.
My husband and I moved back toward each other and found our way back to shore. We trudged through the sand together, unsure how to get back to the others, but laughing and holding on to one another all the way.
Nothing had actually changed. But this experience was something I could hold onto. A tiny rescue. Sometimes stripping everything away brings clarity. And, you know, I think I really like being naked.