My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is John Clayton, essayist, technical writer, teacher, and author of The Cowboy Girl: The Life of Caroline Lockhart. His biography of a Philadelphia journalist turned western novelist at the turn of the century has drawn high praise from critics and readers alike. Novelist Mark Spragg (An Unfinished Life) said: "Clayton has rendered a riveting portrait of a woman both troubled and brave; a character caught up in the fiction of her own life." Clayton's work has been published in Montana Quarterly, Montana Magazine, Horizon Air, The Denver Post, High Country News and several other places. Visit his website HERE.
My First Theory of Nudity
I gained a sense of satisfaction when I figured out that nakedness was the great secret adults were hiding.
Until then, I’d been puzzled. Being a young child meant I was puzzled about a lot of things, of course, but when I hit on the concept of clotheslessness I was impressed by how many of them tied together.
Take the whole concept of dressing rooms. Why did department stores have dressing rooms? Especially when there were so many mothers in the boys’ dressing rooms and boys in the mothers’ dressing rooms--what point did all of this serve, and why was it such a prominent feature of the department store? (The department store had two prominent features: dressing rooms and escalators. I don’t really recall it having any other departments.)
Then there was the time I drew the picture of the babysitter. She was not a very nice babysitter. She didn’t know any of our games. She hadn’t brought anything interesting with her. And she decided that my sister and I should draw pictures. She insisted even after I told her I didn’t want to. I didn’t much like drawing, wasn’t very good at it, and had an especially hard time coming up with ideas for things to draw.
But after she insisted, I drew a picture of her without any clothes on. I was actually quite proud of myself: I’d come up with an idea, it was imaginative (since it was something I couldn’t actually see), and unlike many of my drawings you could tell when you looked at it what I had intended to portray. But boy did it make people upset!
Then there were the not-quite-out-of-earshot jokes and worried conversations. The magazines at that one barbershop. The posters for other movies at the theater. All seemed to center on clothes, and the removal of them among people who were not married couples.
My insight came so profound and unexpected that I’ll always remember where I was when it popped up out of nowhere. We were driving home, in front of the playground two blocks from my house. I was sitting in the back right seat of the blue station wagon, with my seat belt on, looking up and to the west. And suddenly I understood.
Nakedness! Adults gain the privilege of seeing each other naked! Suddenly whole new worlds opened up for me: visions of adults at parties sitting around eating dinner while naked! Watching television while naked! Discussing world politics while naked! At some point in the distant future (high school graduation?) I would formally be granted access to this world held secret from the children.
My satisfaction came from simply having a theory. I was not too concerned with whether the theory was correct--though I was entertained to find additional behaviors that it explained. No, the point was that I had come up with a theory. It was the first time I was aware of having done so.
Nor was it terribly important to share the theory with others. I never told my parents, any more than I told them I’d figured out about Santa Claus. After all, there was always the risk that Santa’s presents would stop arriving once I acknowledged that he didn’t exist. Theories were obviously powerful things, things you had to keep to yourself.
I wasn’t even troubled by the fact that the theory made no apparent sense. After all, naked bodies were not terribly interesting. Their forbidden status made them seem interesting, but when you got right down to it they were all quite similar and mundane. A kaleidoscope was interesting. A television. A puppy. They were constantly changing. A naked body just sat there. Why would I want to stand around drinking cocktails with naked people, even after high school graduation?
The way everyone cared so much, and kept focusing on the tie to marriage, you’d have thought the secret would have been something bigger. It would have made more sense, for example, if they were getting upset about people eating ice cream with people they weren’t married to. Or going to the beach. Or peeling sunburned skin.
But such doubts did not diminish my fascination with my theory. And later, when I heard a more elaborate theory about the secrets of nakedness in the adult world, I’d already figured out dozens of other theories about dozens of other things, and thus had lost a good deal of my wonder at the power of an explanation.