My girlfriend and I arrived— she had made it clear that she was under no obligation to follow me into the clothes-free promised land and brought enough clothing for a week of fashion shows—and drove up into the hills to Villa Lumiere de Soleil, a house surrounded by blooming bougainvillea, overlooking the azure postcard of St. Jean Bay.
I put down my bag and, with a sigh, bade farewell to the 7000-year-old history of textile manufacturing. I sat out on the veranda, let the warm breeze from the bay flutter against my body, and felt…ridiculous. I realized something: I like clothes. We wear clothing for many reasons other than modesty. The world is a dangerous place for delicate body parts. It is filled with things that burn and things that sting, cold things and biting things. Besides which, I can now state definitively that pockets are the single best invention in the history of mankind. Before I left, one of my nudity-inclined friends had gushed, “It’s just a switch that goes off in your mind, and it seems totally natural. It makes me feel like one of God’s children—to which I would point out that He also bestowed upon His children such blessings as cashmere and the well-worn T-shirt. At the moment, I was more concerned with getting one of God’s mosquito bites.
I wore a bathing suit as we headed out to Gouverneur, one of the two clothing- optional beaches on St. Barts’s lightly developed southern coast. (Technically, nudity is illegal everywhere on the island, but the law is generally ignored at Gouverneur and Saline.) The people with whom I had discussed nudity before leaving the States fell into two camps—those who asked if I was concerned about shrinkage and those who worried more about arousal. On the first count: Frankly, the ball-withering St. Barts prices worried me more than the coldest water. As for the second; “You just have to realize that nudity doesn’t equal sex,” my friend had told me. Absolutely. Got it. No problem. As long as there are no girls around.
It’s a universal truism that the people you least want to see naked are precisely the ones most anxious to get naked: the lumpy, the flabby, the saggy, the Germans. The thing is that St. Barts doesn’t have those people, or if it does they’re weeded out at the airport and confined to a part of the island nobody else ever visits. The bronzed, beautiful people at Gouverneur were, shall we say, Internet ready. With my eyes cast down on my pale, pale legs, my girlfriend and I picked our way past vistas of flesh and found an empty patch of beach. Already I had seen enough breasts to stock halftime through Super Bowl MMCVIII.
We spread our towels, and I stripped. I carefully applied SPF 45, keeping my eyes on the sea. And oddly, I felt fine. True, I wasn’t about to go parading down the beach like some of my fellow sunbathers, but when they passed by me, I repeated my mantra: “Nudity doesn’t equal sex. You are no closer to having intercourse with this woman than if she was wearing a snow parka.” My girlfriend, incidentally, had internalized this message approximately thirty seconds after arriving on the island and forgotten I was naked altogether.
I wasn’t a total convert. I found that the one thing I was utterly incapable of doing naked was sleeping; it was just uncomfortable. So I was in the odd position of waking up and undressing to go to work. At the villa the next morning, I was lounging by the pool when a woman’s voice rang out: “Bonjour!” It was the French maid—who lacked only the outfit and duster to complete the stereotype. I hid behind a tree and then dashed for the pool. She took no notice of me whatsoever.
On day two, we visited Saline and took our position. I had survived the first day, but I couldn’t deny that with all the scurrying back and forth between the cover of the water and the safety of the towels, I hadn’t had as much fun as I would normally have had in a bathing suit. Today I forced myself to meander slowly to the surf. I dove into the waves, trying not to imagine what sort of wriggling fish bait my genitals might resemble. I lay on my back, letting the clear, warm water swaddle and buoy me. And then it happened. The switch was thrown. Bathing suits seemed like the most ridiculous invention imaginable. I frolicked in the waves like a merman. As I emerged, I spotted a middle-aged woman on shore wearing— zut alors!—a blue one-piece suit. I strode past her proudly, barely resisting the urge to doff an imaginary hat and nod “Madam.”
On our last night, after days of takeout and cooking nonspattering meals, I gave in and dressed to have dinner at Le Ti St-Barth. All through dinner, I chafed inside my shirt and pants until, on the way home, I couldn’t take it any longer. I pulled over to the side of the road and tore off my clothes. I left my sneakers on to work the clutch and brake— pure streaker fashion, but I didn’t care. Warm air poured through the windows as we glided past the moonlit nightclubs and restaurants and palm-covered hills. I grinned—one of God’s children at last.
And even now, back in New York, I can feel that breeze and hear the surf outside the window. Because despite my ground-floor apartment and the cold outside, under this oppressive prison of clothes— I’m totally nude.