June 1, 2016

Island Living: Being comfortable in your own skin


The Wednesday before Memorial Day was one of those brilliant sunny days that you dream about during a nor’easter while you’re holed up watching Netflix and compulsively eating Cheez-Its.

So, after little thought, I decided to blow off work for the rest of the afternoon, and finally take a trip to the beach. (Clearly, I am a valuable asset for any employer.)

Now, like many local residents, I have a secret beach that one day I may reveal to my descendants in my will, but which until that point in time, is strictly mine.

It’s in one of those hard-to-get-to locations where you have to scoot off the highway, walk a mile through thorny bushes and snake-laden terrain, and climb a towering sand dune that looks like it was plucked from the landscape of Lawrence of Arabia to actually get to the ocean. And having described this spot, my guess is that you probably don’t want to go to this beach anyway.

Even though it’s technically “secret,” the fact remains that it’s still part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore -- no matter how hard I try to convince authorities that the “rules of piracy” overthrow all government law -- so, on occasion, someone else will find my spot and set up camp.

Now, this isn’t problem at all. As long as my new beach neighbors aren’t a swarm of screaming children and animals -- my buddy calls this the “Swiss Family Florida" effect -- or aren’t trying to collect the shells that I’ve inherently laid a claim to, I have no qualms sharing this pretty stretch of shoreline.

So on that particular Wednesday, I wasn’t surprised or upset when a dude showed up at the beach 30 minutes or so after me and started to unfold a beach chair about 50 yards away. He didn’t look like the die-hard beachcombing type, so since there was little chance that we were on the verge of fighting over a whelk, I didn’t pay him any mind.

I watched him out of the corner of my eye, barely interested, as he removed his shirt and pants and moseyed around his beach chair in his board shorts.

And then he removed his board shorts to reveal a second bathing suit, which looked like what can only be described as an eye patch and a shoelace. And suddenly I had front row tickets to the "Dong Show."

Now, being a normal person, I instinctively did what any normal person would do, which was break out my cell phone and start snapping photos to send to friends and / or use for a column. (I thought about including them in this story, but considering that my columns already bring down the prestige of the Island Free Press without any extra help, I decided not to include the pictures. Also, you’re welcome.)

After this initial natural response, my second instinct was to feel, well, a little annoyed. And really, really awkwardly uncomfortable.

After all, I’m an old married lady now, and one of my implicit wedding vows was to not look at the buttocks of other men. (And considering that we had written our own vows, and I was super nervous and rambling during the vows portion of the ceremony, for all I know this was something that I promised verbally and out loud to friends and loved ones. After all, I do recall literally saying something about not messing up the laundry as much.)

Granted, I’ve bent this rule on occasion now and again when I catch a surfer getting out of a wet suit on the side of the road, but it’s never been to the point when only a shoelace is apparently separating me from an X-rated shot of a virtual stranger.

Now this is the part of the story that gets a little hairy -- although not literally.

Because as I diverted my attention to the shoreline, I couldn’t help but notice that at some point while I was engrossed in my trashy novel, a big pile of promising shells had just washed up in front of Mr. Buck Naked.

So now I had a new dilemma on my hands, which was how on earth to walk over to his little stretch of beach to start rooting around without making the already awkward encounter, at least for me, even more awkward.

I weighed the choices. Chances were he didn't care that I existed, and was just in search of an even tan. (TIP: There are tanning beds that are perfect for that, and which are WAY more private, buddy.)

On the other hand, someone who has no problem wearing an eye patch to the beach is probably pretty outgoing, and he might just say hello and strike up a conversation. And if that happened, I knew in my heart that I would be completely incapable of holding uninterrupted eye contact.

I mulled over my options as Buck stood up, stretched, meandered to the water, opened a beer, bent over to check out some shells, and did some vigorous calisthenics. (Okay, I made that last action up.)

Eventually, the decision was made for me, as Buck left the beach after 45 minutes or so, and I scurried over to see what good shells had washed up with the tide – sans a nude neighbor.

I’m going to admit that, being the inherent middle schooler that I am, I giggled about the encounter for half the drive home.

But during the second half of the drive, I started to wonder if I was getting a bit prudish in my old age – not to mention judgmental – and maybe the reason that I was so uncomfortable, and Buck clearly was not, is simply because I’m not that comfortable in my own beach skin.

After all, my bathing suit drawer has nothing but one-pieces these days, and if I run into someone I know and I’m in a bathing suit, I instinctively suck in my stomach while saying hello. (Note to friends I run into on the beach: If we’re having a conversation, and it goes longer than five minutes, the reason why I’m grimacing is because my stomach muscles are seriously about to explode.)

But then I remembered that you don’t have to be publicly naked to be comfortable in your own skin -- a valuable life lesson indeed -- and that there are, in fact, plenty of ways that I make a fool out of myself on a regular basis without fear of public embarrassment or humiliation. (My husband, who is far more tasteful than I, would even argue that I have more than my fair share of shameless behaviors.)

For example, when I go to the beach, I love to get right next to the surf and just stretch out, so that I can completely cool off with every approaching wave. Essentially, it’s just like that scene from the movie "From Here to Eternity," but with just one person, who is not terribly good-looking and who is also wearing glasses and an old-lady bathing suit.

It dawns on me now that when I’ve done this, passersby have probably felt uncomfortable and silently wondered if I was drunk, unconscious, or slightly mad. (You’re not far off –it’s probably at least one out of the three.)

And at the end of a beach trip, I also like to do what I call the “sand shake,” which is where you wade out until you’re waist deep in the water, crouch down, and start shaking and pulling out sections of your bathing suit to let loose  any excess sand that may have gotten lodged from your aforementioned "From Here to Eternity" escapades. I find that if you don’t do this in-the-water ritual, you will turn your shower into a quick-sand style sinkhole.

And these minor beach infractions are just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve mentioned several times before how far I’ll go for a good shell – both as an anecdote and as a warning to others – and I could write a book about my college-years’ beach adventures, when whatever minor sense of decorum I have now was not yet even remotely formed.

So in the end, it seems that not wanting to look at a stranger’s buttocks is not a sign of being a prude, or being uncomfortable in your own skin. Apparently, it’s just plain old common sense.

And while I’ll still uncomfortably ogle like a bystander at a car wreck if I’m in this situation again -- seriously, how could you not look? -- I’ll try to keep my photo-taking and awkwardness to a minimum and just remember that when I start laying out in the surf like a braising chicken, I’m most likely going to make other folks uncomfortable as well.

After all, Hatteras Island is a cool little world that nonchalantly celebrates outside-the-box behavior. I have friends who have farms in their beachside backyards, who have a “surf clause” in their work schedules so they can ride waves as needed, or who are in an impressively hard-core punk band, even though they’re well into their 50s.

So even though I’m not sporting an eye-patch in a way that it was never intended to be used, in my old lady way, I fit right in.

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