This essay first appeared in Literal Latté, and was cited in The Best American Essays 2000. I wrote it during the summer I lived at Ocean Beach in Fire Island.

A Day at the Beach

by Tyler C. Gore

On Thursday, I took a water taxi out to the Fire Island lighthouse museum with Lucy and her family. The museum was closed, but the park ranger was nice enough to let us in to watch a video about the lighthouse. “It’s very homemade,” she warned us as she popped it in the VCR, thus defusing my sneering cynicism before I could even get it started. Afterwards, Lucy and her family took the water taxi back, but I decided to walk, lured by rumors of a nude beach in the vicinity.

painting of three nude women reclining at seaside

Ferdinand Hodler, Day (1900), detail

Sure enough, it was there. It was rather cold to be naked, but I suppose that naked sunbathing, like all competitive sports, has its diehard aficionados. There were more naked men than women. I noticed there that were two broad categories of people. The first were those who’d obviously invested a lot of time, labor and money in sculpting their bodies and were eager to show them off, regardless of the weather — and then there were the fat old men with greying pubic hair above their uncircumcised wienies; no longer in any sort of competition, they were happy to spend their golden years wallowing butt-naked in the sand. I saw only a few representatives of the middle-class of good looks, and I suspect they were of the hippy-ish sort who find in public nakedness some kind of obscure social virtue.

Paradoxically, I felt self-conscious in my clothing: only my hands and face were uncovered. I felt that I must look as if I had come only to ogle naked bodies, which, of course, was true, but I didn’t want to appear that way. I wanted to appear as a simple beach-stroller who happened to have wandered into a section of the beach where people didn’t bother to cover their genitals. As my concession to free-spiritedness, I took off my shoes and socks. I removed the Bic lighter from the front pocket of my blue jeans, lest its tube-like shape be mistaken for arousal. Strolling around, I tried to affect a nonchalant air, a semblance of cheerful indifference to the unclothed.

But affecting all this insouciance made it a little difficult to leer, which is what I really wanted to do. All the naked people were at the top of the beach, far away from the water, and I really couldn’t think of any plausible reason to walk along the top of the beach. I saw a threesome of beautiful unclad women frolicking there, and briefly entertained the idea of asking them for the time, but I was wearing a watch, and undoubtedly, none of them were. There was a lovely woman near the sea, naked and crouching in the sand, but I averted my eyes. She was with her buff, tanned, long-haired boyfriend and I felt a little ashamed to look in their direction, as though I were some sort of inferior petty being, an unhealthy, unnatural product of modern living which had conditioned me to view the unclothed human body as an object of lust. So, mostly I just looked at the sea. The whole experience was decidedly unerotic; a withering experience, you might say.

The worse thing is that I knew it would be this way. I’d been to nude beaches before.

All this walking around in the nude beach was actually leading me in the wrong direction. I needed to walk north, not south. I reversed direction and speedily trudged away from the naked ones. Once among the clothed, with whom I felt a renewed kinship, I began to trudge slowly, the way trudging ought to be done. I walked with my feet in the freezing tide, in order to numb them against the miles of broken shells and sand through which I planned to trudge.

 

Except, of course, for nude beaches, there is really nothing to see at the shore. There’s the ocean, majestic and rolling, but once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. It’s not going to do anything. The same with the beach itself; there isn’t that much variation, after all, in the quality of sand. So you start looking down, like everyone does, at the treasures tossed up by the sea, the shells, the rounded sea glass and stones, the driftwood, the Twinkie wrappers and beer cans and used condoms.

I saw a beautiful stone, almost perfectly round, streaked with an unusual, rhythmic pattern of translucent rose and white quartz. I picked it up and admired it as I walked. Then I saw another stone, wide and flat and lovely, spotted with black granite like a leopard. I looked at my old stone. It was starting to dry and didn’t seem so beautiful anymore. I regretted picking it up. I coveted the other stone, the leopard stone (I had already named it) but the rule is you can only take one stone, otherwise you will wind up with pockets of crap when you get home. You’re so greedy, I told myself. You had to pick up the very first stone you saw. I wanted to drop it, and get the leopard stone, but I knew that I would just see another stone I wanted later on. I put the first stone in my pocket, and trudged on, feeling its nagging, insistent heaviness weighing me down, reminding me that I had picked the wrong stone.