Swimming Around the Edges

By: Trevy Thomas

After living in Virginia for a year, I was feeling the loss of friends I’d left behind. Meeting people in my new life was difficult, as I  worked from home alongside my husband in his art business. My human contact was almost exclusively through the Internet, and I felt increasingly lonely.

Not knowing where else to look, I turned to the very computer that was keeping me isolated to search for community. I found a group of women about my age that hosted events somewhat near my home. After participating in the online forums a while, I felt comfortable enough to attend my first gathering: a small lunch at one of the women’s houses.

It was a tiny house, crammed with stuff everywhere. A guest mistook a pile of shoes as an indicator to remove hers upon entry but then realized it was just a mess in the living room. I had brought the hostess a houseplant, but she didn’t seem too enthused by it. I tried to find a spot for it on the kitchen table and hoped my awkward feelings wouldn’t continue.

We gathered in the living room and sat around talking. I don’t remember much about the ladies there except for two, who quickly stood out. Karen and Rachel were fun, sparkling with energy and tan from what sounded like a tantalizing life of leisure. Their husbands were successful, which afforded a carefree lifestyle filled with pool lunches, floating the afternoons away with wine. It was in considerable contrast to the way I was living at the time: struggling financially, weighted with the building of a new business, isolated from fun and friendships. I had a happy relationship I wouldn’t have traded for ease, but the twinkle of their invitations was hard to resist.

The core group met once per month at a member’s house. The hostess generally planned the event, whether it was a potluck at home, brunch at a restaurant, or a wilderness hike. Karen and Rachel lived near each other and hosted many, many parties outside of the original group, and I began receiving invitations to these.

I drove to Karen’s for a midweek pool party. Her house was impressive—old but nicely done and large. It was clean and orderly. She had no pets, no children, and never used her fireplace so as not to mar the spotless setting. Her husband was usually gone or ensconced in his home office. The basement of the house held a second kitchen, two bathrooms, two bedrooms, and an indoor-outdoor room that screamed “party.” It was painted in loud, bright Jamaican colors. There were photos everywhere of past soirees and a stereo for sending music to the poolside speakers. It seemed an awfully large commitment to partying.

The colorful room opened to a pool and patio. Despite being in the city, it was surrounded by enough grassy acreage to provide privacy from neighbors. There was black, wrought-iron fencing covered in morning glories growing around the edge. Tiki torches waited for the evening parties to begin. Karen claimed her husband didn’t do anything other than bring in money; all other tasks were left to her. She shoveled the snow, greeted and made drinks for her party guests, and seared meat on the grill. This party, like many she hosted, was for women only.

I’d learned by now that Karen was a nudist. She’d told me about her first encounter with nudists and how she instantly felt at home, how being free from clothing was the most natural state she could imagine. If she could, she’d be nude everywhere all the time. Of course this was not possible, so she tolerated clothing (in an awfully fashion-forward manner, I couldn’t help noticing) while claiming to resent it, saying everyone would prefer nudity if they simply tried it and got used to the idea. This was fascinating on one hand, but on the other, I had no interest in removing my clothing at social events. Since I hadn’t met her through a nudist event, I didn’t think there would be an expectation of nudity at her pool party. I was mostly right.

I walked outside to the patio and saw her floating topless in the pool. She was tall and thin with long, red hair, in her mid-40s. She had a wine glass in her hand and was laughing, as always, at something as I walked out. Her good humor was one of the things that drew me to her. I wanted this ease. At home, there were piles of work and higher piles of bills. There were frightening surgeries—five at that point on Bill’s back trying to right the damage caused by a drunk driver years before—and impossible hurdles in an art world where he was yet unknown. There was also our meager survival on the uncertain and sporadic cash flow of self-employment. Yes, there was love, but there were no carefree afternoons laughing in a pool. Karen and I were living at opposite extremes. What I really needed was some balance between the two, but I’d take glimpses into her sunny world meanwhile.

She climbed out of the pool when she saw me, the newcomer, and greeted me like the generous hostess she was. I tried not to look at her breasts and pretended that this kind of party nudity was normal for me. She got me a drink, showed me the food table, introduced me to some people, and returned to her pool chair. I gravitated toward two women at a nearby table who were among the only other guests who remained completely clothed. Eventually, I learned that these two were mother and daughter and figured that was the reason for the swimsuits. It must be odd to party nude with your mother, even if her regular participation in such a group was known.

I stayed for a while, and other than the fact that most of the women there were partially nude, it was a normal party. People talked, ate, drank, floated. Music played. Laughter became more frequent and louder as time and wine passed on. I joined the pool festivities in my bathing suit, and no one seemed to care.

When it was time to go, I walked back into a cabana to change clothes and was stopped at once by what I saw. There was a woman, quite large, removing her clothes to get ready for the pool. She appeared older and was bending forward so that rolls of skin dripped down her front while she lifted a leg out of its trouser.

When my mother was still alive, she had always struggled with her weight. Up to that moment, she was the only large naked woman I’d seen, so I couldn’t help but associate this woman with my mother. Something about it felt wrong to me. Wrong to be at a party with my mother, wrong for my mother to be exposing herself this way, wrong for anyone to be exposing themselves. Public nudity was strange enough to me; large public nudity was incomprehensible. No way would my mother have ever wanted anyone to see her large naked body, and I couldn’t imagine how this woman could be so comfortable with it.

She caught me looking, and I could see by her expression that these “wrong” thoughts going through my head were also passing across my face. It shamed me to judge her. I wasn’t entirely doing so in the way she probably thought, but it was a judgment nonetheless. I quickly dressed, said good-bye to Karen, and returned to my safe home and loving husband. Our nights were typically spent feeding and walking dogs, making dinner together, watching television, talking. It was comforting. I wondered, though, about those women and their nude parties and mysterious husbands. In comparison, I began to question whether I was uptight, ordinary, boring even. I was curious to know more about the exotic lives of those nude swimmers.

The party invitations continued, and I refused far more than I accepted, mostly because I could only juggle so much and keep my head above water. I also felt guilty leaving my husband at home frequently when both of us were working hard to keep things moving ahead. I felt guilty being the only one frolicking off for pool parties and brunches while he continued to work at home alone. I asked Karen if they ever had social events that included husbands, and she said they did. She told me she’d love to meet my husband and include us in their evening gatherings but warned me that those, too, were often nude. It was beginning to seem as though everyone in her life was a nudist. It was hard to believe that so many of the women in the group had husbands who willingly unclothed for parties, and I began to suspect that these people were all part of a nudist colony, but she denied it. She said there were a few nudists in her regular group of friends, but most of them were not.

This was fascinating to me. Could one tall, thin, redheaded woman be so influential as to encourage public nudity in an otherwise clothed social group? Was there something else going on? I asked if that was the case, and she assured me they were not swingers and I would see nothing at the parties other than nude swimming, drinking, and dining. She also assured me that we could stay clothed if we wanted, though she couldn’t understand why I’d want to stand around in a wet bathing suit when I could be dry and free like the rest of them, but that was up to me. I told her I’d talk to my husband about it and get back to her.

Bill, as expected, had a good attitude about the party. I couldn’t be sure whether it was the opportunity to get out of the house and around new friends that enticed him or the potential for marijuana, which I’d mentioned was prevalent there. He loved to smoke but had trouble finding it. His enthusiasm could also just be the chance to remain clothed while looking at a bunch of naked women. Whatever made him so agreeable, he was game.

Our first party was at Rachael’s. It was a potluck pool party, and I’d brought marinating beef to grill for fajitas. We arrived at yet another party house. It was well- decorated with nice furniture and tastefully painted rooms. There was a theater room, complete with its own bar and popcorn machine. Plenty of bedrooms. The kitchen was at pool level, and lots of the couples were already gathering. It was obvious that this group partied here often because everyone made themselves at home, making whatever preparations were necessary with food, pouring their own drinks, calling out greetings to each other. I had told Karen that my husband liked to smoke, and she had apparently let that be known because the minute I introduced him, he was accosted with a joint and carted off to smoke it. He seemed embarrassed but willing and disappeared for a bit.

My marinating beef needed to be transferred to a pan I hadn’t brought, so I found our hostess in the kitchen and asked her if she had one. I’d met Rachael several times by now, and she was normally warm and friendly, but this time, she was decidedly cold. Rachael was older than many of the women in the group but, in my opinion, one of the prettiest. She was a bit short with a curvy, hourglass figure, a beautiful face, and platinum-blonde hair. She cared very much about her appearance, and it showed. I never saw her without nail polish and makeup. Her clothing, when she wore it, was stylish and flattering. Rachael was the kind of woman who probably always had a man after her. This was her second marriage, and they had no children together. I imagined their life together was one of pleasure.

She didn’t answer my question about the pan— just stared at me. Another husband, who was tending the grill, came to my rescue with a foil pan and gently encouraged me away from her. This was puzzling, but it was my first opportunity to see these happy, pool-lounging women in a more real social environment with their husbands, and I was very curious about how they managed their marriages among so much casual nudity. Her sudden coolness only made me more curious. I was beginning to think that my life with Bill was, perhaps, naïve and closed-minded. Was it possible that these people were more enlightened, freer, somehow happier? They certainly had easier lives. I wanted to observe, and that’s what I planned to do. And I happily noted that they were all, so far, clothed.

Bill came back to my side, grinning and hungry. We found plates and silverware and joined the buffet. Karen had given me a brief primer—the early part of the evening was generally clothed to avoid intimidating any newcomers or relatives who might be attending, and it also solved the messiness of nude dining. So far, this party felt like any other. Everyone was friendly, well-behaved, there was music, food, and drink, a beautiful surrounding. I was feeling comfortable.

As in any new social situation, I found it easiest to respond to the people who made the first friendly effort toward me, but I’ve since learned this is not always the best approach. A couple, Katie and Mick, seemed to gravitate to us. I later saw that he always hovered around new women. Katie didn’t seem to care and talked to us about where we lived and suggested the four of us get together again. Mick excused himself, and when he returned, he walked past us, nude, to the pool. There were now lots of nude or almost-nude people standing around or swimming.

I had gotten somewhat used to seeing topless or nude women swimming around me, but trying to avoid looking at naked men required a whole new level of skill. Karen had removed her blue bikini and was stationed on the upper level of the pool near the diving board. The large woman who had earlier reminded me of my mother was still partially covered, sitting at a table next to her husband. Rachael had wrapped herself in a sarong and heels. Mick and Katie were completely nude, standing apart from each other in the pool, talking to other nude people. The music was louder. People I’d never met were steadily arriving, getting drinks while still clothed, acting like there wasn’t a bunch of naked people around them. I could occasionally smell a whiff of marijuana from the other side of the shrubbery. Bill and I were taking it all in, doing a fine job of acting like this was all completely normal to us.

Rachael’s husband, Sly, told us he had to keep an eye on the fence between their yard and the neighbor’s because there were some teenage boys there who had been known to peer over the top, trying to get an eyeful of the nude parties. I imagined this old, established neighborhood—other than the teenage boys—was not happy about the kinds of parties that went on here. He said they’d had complaints, and he’d countered them by pointing out that he did a much better job at maintaining and improving his home and yard than any of his neighbors. Amazingly, this seemed to work; although, I could tell there was no love lost among them.

Nita was sitting on the ledge of the pool with her feet on the steps. She was wearing a bathing suit, which drew me to her. I sat next to her, and Bill joined me. She was a regular with this group, so I was surprised to see her remain clothed. She explained that she did it in the hopes that others might feel more welcome. She said she thought it was important for non-nudists to feel comfortable, too. It worked, and I appreciated her sensitivity.

The party progressed, and whereas most everyone behaved in an accepting manner toward us, we did not escape some peer pressure to remove our suits. A loud, slightly obnoxious man yelled as we walked past, “What’s with the suits? Why are there dressed people here?” I decided to stay away from him so I could avoid having a conversation about why we weren’t getting undressed. His were questions I wasn’t sure I could answer.

My aversion caused me to wonder, though, why we really were there. Was it merely curiosity? Were we being voyeurs? Would we, too, give in to the pressure to remove our clothes as a means of fitting in? Was peer pressure over the age of forty even a legitimate occurrence?  

That night, we escaped public nudity and any further pressure. We attended a few more parties and even hosted one at our home, where people remained respectfully clothed. My friendships with some of the women began to feel more genuine, at least enough so that we shared more about ourselves, and some of the façade of their happy, perfect lives began to fall off.

I learned that Rachael and Sly had somewhat of an open marriage—if that’s what it can be called when only the man is sleeping around. It explained her coolness to me at their house initially. I was a new woman in the group, and her husband—who did flirt with me—was known to always have a younger girlfriend on the side. I wondered why she stayed with him when it so obviously hurt her, but she just went along with whatever he did and drank a lot of wine while he did it.

Karen and her husband have since divorced. There were many reasons for it, but I don’t think the constant parties helped. She had gotten him comfortable with nudity, and he eventually became more comfortable being nude with another woman, the wife of the slightly obnoxious man who’d made comments about our being clothed at the pool party.

Mick and Katie had gotten together with us a few times when it was just us four, but that didn’t go well either. They seemed to be the sort of couple who used social interactions as an excuse to air their romantic problems, as though they wanted someone to take sides on their behalf. I foolishly jumped into this game on one occasion, but when Katie saw that it was Mick’s side I was taking, that was the end of our friendship.

At least a handful of these couples are now divorced. When I first met them, what I mistook for sophistication and open-mindedness had been a bit of a front to mask some serious marital problems among them. The women’s happy, wine-filled pool floats may have been partly an attempt to escape the realities of their unhappiness.

I cautiously mentioned this to Karen at some point long before her own divorce, that what had originally seemed to me like a group of very open-minded people now seemed more like a group of married couples with significant problems, and she agreed.

I still don’t understand the nudity. Karen has moved away, and I don’t have much contact with her. I do know she’s still a nudist. There seemed to be a bit of a disconnect between her unhappiness and her awareness of that unhappiness. Introspection seemed to make her uncomfortable. Interesting that a person who is so comfortable removing her clothing and being completely bare physically froze at any attempts to bare her inner self.

I have no idea if there’s any connection between nudity and the subsequent disintegration of this social group. Eventually, I returned to my home life and fully embraced its comforts along with its flaws. Sometimes I miss the sunny poolside parties with those women, back when everyone seemed not to have any cares, back when I thought they were members of strong marriages in their stable, financially sound lives. I wanted what they had until I realized they didn’t have it. Instead, I realized I already had what I wanted and probably what some of them wanted, too. The package that my life came in was not easy, but it was genuine. We faced our difficulties and wore them on our sleeves. Maybe it’s easier to uncover life’s problems from behind a cloak, whereas exposing yourself creates a distraction from them.

I doubt all nudists can be lumped into the same type. I can’t expect to understand a behavior I don’t feel compelled to participate in. A pool is being built now in my backyard. I’m already shopping for bathing suits.

Trevy Thomas’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys, the 2017 River Tides anthology, and Woodwork magazine, as well as at various websites. She has attended writing classes and workshops. Trevy lives in Virginia with her husband and four dogs. More information is available at trevythomas.com.