Beyond This Point You May Encounter Nude Sunbathers...

by Linda Leavitt

... warns the sign at the entrance to Gunnison Beach. Actually the sign is slightly to the right of the entrance, and planted at a sideways angle. Indicating that if you stay to the left of the invisible line you ought to consider remaining clothed but that to the right of the line, any degree of nudity is fair game.

I’ve had a fretful morning in my usual beach nesting spot near Lot E at Sandy Hook. I came today to escape tension, but tension seems to have followed me. Just as I settled in to my sand chair with a book, some writing material, and a bottle of spring water, an enormous group of camp kids descended upon my peaceful little nest. And then another group. And another. And yet another.

So I moved to an unguarded area past the ropes where no camp counselor would dare to bring a bunch of city kids. I was wrong - they dared. Within 30 minutes two more camp groups had invaded the sanctity of my sanity. To make matters even more distressing, it appeared that the scent of my sunscreen was particularly enticing to those green-headed, biting flies that kept setting at my ankles like tiny pit bulls. I hadn’t brought insect repellent and the only way to escape them was to get into the water, but the all the water-space was being occupied by - you guessed it - camp kids.

Time to move along. I packed up my gear and headed back to the jeep where I sat in the shade of the open tailgate and ate my bagged lunch. But I hadn’t had enough quality beach time and was not ready to go home.

So I drove north on the park road, hoping to find a quiet little fishing beach or some such relatively private spot.

Then I saw it. The sign to Gunnison Beach. Well, I thought, why not?

So here I am, walking across a huge expanse of beach, being careful to stay to the left of the imaginary line in the sand. I am dying now to get my feet wet. I am dying to read this novel and write a few poems. I am dying for a quiet piece of beach to call my own.

Gunnison Beach is huge. You have to walk quite a way before reaching the water, and that’s only after parking in an oversized, paved lot and hiking through a wooded path to get to the beach entrance. I finally reach an unoccupied sector near the water, set my gear down, and decide to cool my feet a bit before starting to read. That’s when I discover the real attraction of this fabled beach - the tide pool.

At the water’s edge the wake is gentle and the water so clear that every shell on its floor is plainly visible. I’m walking through this splendid, cool water, carefully avoiding the sharper shells, and angling towards the sand bar beyond. The sand bar is peopled with couples, groups of men, moms with their young children - all in various stages ofclothedness. You see, this is the demilitarized zone. This is where nude bathers and clothed bathers intermingle. This is where the imaginary line has disappeared.

I walk along the sand bar for a while. Every aspect of this experience is odd. The water from the tide pool flows out to the ocean and the ocean water flows in to the tide pool, maintaining a constant liquid motion around my feet. It’s slightly disorienting, however soothing. Equally disorienting and perhaps not as soothing, is the flood of unashamed humanity. This is not a model runway. There are no perfect bodies here. But no one really cares.

I fix my gaze dead ahead as I walk, careful not to meet anyone else’s gaze, equally afraid to look up as to look down. I’m feeling slightly awkward in my brightly colored swimsuit. Perhaps something in pale pink or beige would have been more appropriate - less conspicuous. Finally I decide to sit for a while at the sloped edge of the tide pool.

I lower myself and my butt slides down into the soft sand so that I’m waist deep is this calm, cool water. Relaxing every muscle, I let my legs drift out in front of me, my back rested against the sandy slope. Someone approaches from behind and I instinctively turn my head. This tall, slightly flabby man wearing nothing but his beard takes my turned head as an invitation to join me. Oops.

He settles into the tide pool at an arm’s distance. He smiles at me. I smile back. Well, why not? I’m clothed and his nakedness is under water.

"This is great." he says.

I agree. "It’s like a hot tub without the heat."

Then he decides to make the misguided comment, "But it’s just not the same with a swimsuit on."

"Oh, I’m just fine," I reply, averting my gaze to the middle distance in the other direction.

"This your first time here?" he asks.

Dumb-ass question, I think but simply say "no" and turn my attention to a handful of sand that has suddenly become of unimaginable interest to me. I suppose this guy thinks he can convince me to disrobe, but I’m not buying it. Anyway, why bother with me? Sure, the ratio of men to women here is about 2 to 1, but there’s plenty of t and a for viewing if that’s what he’s looking for. Or perhaps it isn’t that. Perhaps he thinks I need converting. Maybe there’s a point system involved.

After a few moments of awkward silence he goes away, leaving me alone to muse about the nature of this place. As beach quality goes, Gunnison is perhaps the best spot on Sandy Hook. But most people I know won’t come here as a rule - they feel it’s hazardous. Almost everyone I speak to has been here at some point, having strolled through during a lengthy walk from beach to beach. It’s the voyeur in all of us, needless to say.

I ponder my swimsuit and think, who cares if I’m naked? Certainly no one here will think twice. Maybe the bearded guy was right. Maybe it’s a core experience and I need enlightenment. My hand travels tentatively to the bright orange strap at my shoulder. Just the top, I think. I’ll lower the top and slink down a bit so my breasts are under water. Not like that woman walking towards me now, fully nude and unselfconscious. God, I admire her guts! My hand pulls at the strap. And stops. And pulls it back up over my shoulder.

I can’t do it. Why? Is it because I’m alone? Would I be more inclined to get naked if I were bolstered by the emotional protection a good friend or my husband? So be it. I stand, still clothed, and head back to the comfort and sanctity of my sand chair.

Near my spot is a new arrival - a confused-looking young couple have parked their beach paraphernalia next to mine. They gaze about curiously. The young man gets up and trots over to the border line, then trots back. "That’s where they all are," he tells his mate. They look at me apologetically as they gather their things to relocate. "We wondered why everyone here was dressed," the girl says, and they head over to cross the border.

"This your first time here?" I ask silently as they leave. And I settle in for a good read.

Linda Leavitt, a graphic designer and self-proclaimed beach bum, lives in New Jersey with her husband and young daughter. Linda writes mostly poetry, which has been accumulating on a hard drive that she hopes won’t crash again. She will someday print it all out so that her mom can have something to decorate the fridge with.

Linda's musings have appeared on paper in Medicinal Purposes, The Jewish Star, and The Poetic Soul; and on pixels in Snakeskin, The 2River View, The Fairfield Review, Matrix, PoetryMagazine and others. An expanded version of Beyond This Point . . . is due to appear in Naturally Magazine’s upcoming winter issue. A book of poetry entitled A Year on the Avenue, written jointly with 6 other poets and due out in October of '97, contains a chapter of Linda's work. Oddly enough, her poems appear regularly in Free Zone Quarterly, perhaps because she is its editor.

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