The first time I saw a therapist about it, I had just turned twenty-one. My boyfriend at the time came with me: a tall, dopily sweet saxophonist who liked to shorten Adrian to Ad. He was the one who’d suggested going in the first place. We sat in the waiting room together, holding hands, trying hard to avoid eye-contact with the people waiting beside us. It had seemed awkward even then, seeing and being seen by other patients.
For my first time, I’d gone with a normal, starter’s kit kind of therapist: local, affordable, and with retrospectively alarming availability. When she finally called us in, she seemed more uncomfortable than we did. I could tell by the way she kept using the word intimacy instead of the obvious, better fit: “How long have you been having trouble with intimacy?” and “Can you give me an example of how your discomfort with intimacy has affected your relationship?”
“We can’t go swimming together,” Ad weighed in, nervously. He was pallid and sweating visibly. “We can’t take showers. We can’t—we can’t really have sex.”
“We marathoned all four seasons of Arrested Development,” I said. The things Ad had listed seemed obvious, generalisable, and I wondered if she wanted something with more personal grit. “Because Ad thought I might be a never-nude.”
“The correct term would be gymnophobic,” the therapist said. She was still eyeing us both like she suspected we were wearing pinhole cameras and planned to upload the footage to YouTube as soon as we got home. “Usually, the underlying cause would be low self-esteem, or sexual discomfort, or even past trauma. Is there anything…?”
There wasn’t, that I could think of, if you didn’t count three straight years of English Lit. A naked woman, metaphor had taught me, was either a weakness or a strength. She might be a panther or a worm, depending on the book that you were reading, but a naked man just was, like a rock pool: as neutral as the Swiss. The therapist, however, did not seem to find hackneyed similes suitably traumatic. At the end of the hour, she made me an appointment for the following week, and suggested I come alone and prepared for real honesty.
I saw her three more times after that: 180 minutes of something that felt an awful lot like interviewing for a job, twitching and sweating through my blouse and jeans while she asked me question after question. Later, I told Ad that I thought she turned the AC off before our appointments, to see whether she could get me to roll up a sleeve. Later, Ad told me he thought I’d made that up to get attention, and that maybe that wasn’t the only thing.
It was like that one month set a pattern for the rest of my life to follow. After Ad came Liam and Dr Youssef, after that Nico and a counsellor named Yuri, but the end result never differed. The men I dated didn’t like a woman who couldn’t get changed in front of them. Or they liked her, sure, but not well enough to put up with it. By comparison, the counsellors were more varied, ranging from earnest to disbelieving, but therapy was an expensive habit, and I was trying to put myself through university. In the end, I took to visiting the library instead: first the research one on campus, and then the local one over summer break. It was about as helpful as the therapy, and certainly a good deal cheaper.
For the first three months, I worked my way through the library’s catalogue aimlessly, from self-help and pop-psychology to history and anthropology, as much exposure therapy as information gathering. Then, on my first visit since the new semester, the part-time librarian whose name I’d eventually learn was Dana paused for a long moment after I pushed my returns over the counter towards her; long enough that I fancied I knew what was coming.
“Listen,” she said, “I’m not supposed to comment on anyone’s borrowing habits, but you’ve been coming here for ages now, getting out nothing but books on a very particular topic, and I just thought I should ask—is everything OK?”
Maybe she thought I’d been traumatised in some way; that I’d had something happen to me, and the books were my way of making sense of it. I was twenty-five years old and straight, with four long-term boyfriends behind me, so of course I’d had something happen, but so far nothing a strong drink hadn’t fixed.
“Everything’s fine,” I said. “It’s not even, well, sexual. It’s just—” Dana was leaning forward as I spoke, elbows propped up on the counter in a way that made it pretty clear I wouldn’t hear the last of it if I didn’t confess to at least something “—I just don’t like getting naked much, if I can at all help it.”
Whatever she’d been expecting, I could tell this wasn’t it.
“You don’t like getting naked?” Dana repeated, loud enough that the young boy waiting in line behind me stifled a giggle into his wrist. “Who doesn’t like getting naked?”
“Well, the Victorians, for starters,” I said, nudging one of the tomes I’d been trying to return pointedly, and Dana gave me a sceptical look over the rim of her purple glasses.
“I see you haven’t made it to the revisionists yet.” She tore a scrap of paper from a block on the countertop and fished out a pen from a holder to write with. “Here—these are good ones to start with.”
They were good ones to start with, but like every other book I’d taken out so far, they didn’t seem able to change how I felt about anything. The next time I came back, one week later, to swap them for another set, Dana scanned the pile without comment but didn’t let go when I tried to take my receipt.
“You didn’t think about, I don’t know, doing this research online, or something?”
She didn’t say it like she was pissed off about it, like she was getting tired of re-shelving Philip Carr-Gomm’s “A Brief History of Nakedness,” but like it was a real question; something that had occurred to her in the middle of the night and maybe even kept her from getting back to sleep.
“Oh, I’ve done some of it online,” I said. The notion of potentially having contributed to the suitcases under Dana’s eyes made me feel like I owed her at least a bit of an explanation. “Wikipedia, mainly. I just didn’t want to get too much into it, and have all that stuff in my search history, you know? Have Sainsbury’s start sending me coupons for—I don’t know, naked-yoga mats or something; Amazon recommending herbal Viagra.”
“You’d rather have your name in every library card in Sexuality and Naturism,” Dana said, sceptically. “Which is a figure of speech, before you say those don’t exist anymore. I know they don’t, I’m a librarian.” She paused, as though the thought had just occurred to her. “You’d rather have some random librarian know all about it.”
“I’m not too worried,” I said. The questions were finally starting to annoy me. “After all, who’re you going to tell?”
For a moment, Dana looked surprised. “You know, it’s an unpleasant stereotype that librarians don’t have social lives.”
“That’s not—I just meant that you know how to keep a secret.”
“No, you didn’t,” she said, but she suddenly let go of my receipt, making me stumble back in surprise before she leant forwards and closed back the distance. “Listen, I break for lunch in ten. Why don’t you take a break from your research as well, and come try some ethnography with me instead?”
We went to the bagel shop across the street, Dana humming as we walked, me with both hands in my pockets, so stiff I tripped mounting the sidewalk. As we waited in line, first to order and then to collect, Dana delivered on her promise with an account of her accidental stay at a naturist resort in Andalusia, three summers ago during a gap year around Europe. All the while, I could hear her question building behind her teeth, so bad that I flinched every time she opened her mouth to speak. It wasn’t until we’d both sat down on someone’s stoop, and I was mid-bite with my guard slowly lowering, that she finally asked it.
“How can it not be sex, though? That’s what I don’t get. How are you so sure it isn’t?”
“Well, because I still have it,” I said. A month ago, this kind of conversation with a relative stranger might’ve made me blush, but shelves 306 to 307 and therapist number three had driven the last of that particular kind of prudery out of me. “Quite a lot, actually. I still like it, too. So that part’s fine.”
Dana squinted at her bagel as though it wasn’t quite what she’d been expecting. “Clothed?”
“It’s much easier than you’re probably thinking.”
I could see her trying hard not to ask for details. “Your partner doesn’t mind?”
“He does. He did. Most of them, anyway. Even if they didn’t say so.”
“Right.” From the way she said it, she seemed to know she’d hit a nerve. “So what do you do when you’re not, you know, intellectualising your phobia? Student, right?”
“Sort of. I’m…in between degrees at the moment.”
By now Dana had finished eating, and was engaged in aggressively trying to light a cigarette. “Yeah, tell me about it. Funding’s a bitch. Hey—what time is it?”
It was half one. Dana took off at a run, leaving me to clean up our brownbags and napkins. I was just easing open the one padlock-free dumpster on the street when my phone buzzed in my pocket with a text from a number I’d saved as HARGROVE LIBRARY. It wasn’t the automated reminder of due dates I was expecting.
was fun! see you next week xx d.
She was right, of course. She did see me next week, and the week after that. Some days we went for a drink together at the pub near the station when she got off; others, we’d just sit around in the library chatting until it was time for her to lock up. Aside from my neurosis, and her only partially academic interest in unpacking it, we didn’t have much in common, but that had been clear enough from the beginning. All the same, there was something about her company that kept me coming back to it.
Like me, Dana was a student, also caught in the cycle of a PhD endlessly pausing and restarting. Unlike me, her field was physics, and she’d managed to bag herself a scholarship. When Dana talked about herself, which she did with some frequency, she liked to give detail rather than context, so that you knew exactly the shade of her kitten heel and what alcohol she’d been drinking, but not where she’d been or who she’d been with. I knew she was turning twenty-eight in June, and had been working at the library since last September. By her account, when she wasn’t stacking shelves or avoiding study, she could be found playing the keyboard or listening to East Coast hip-hop almost exclusively. A born Londoner, she’d spent most of her summers on the Isle of Man, where her father had retired unexpectedly in his early sixties. Her mother, I guessed, was either dead or had never featured. Unlike me, Dana didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the past, or even the future. I knew she liked working at the library. It was bad pay, and worse hours, but I knew she liked it, and she liked me.
“Listen,” she began one evening. She began a lot of sentences that way, in a kind of confidential librarian hush, as though imparting some great secret. “Listen, I do modelling for a life-drawing class after work sometimes, at the college across the road. Nude modelling, in theory, but half the time they’ve got me wrapped up in a toga because they want to practice drawing folds or something. You should come. It’s good money.”
“I don’t know,” I said. I did need the money. My late fees weren’t going to pay themselves, and my student debt was an abyss that was yawning wider daily. “I’d only be good for that half of the time.”
“That’s fine,” Dana said. We had been in the process of closing up together, and now she started jumping to catch hold of the top of the shutters. The effort punctuated the rest of her words with small huffs of exertion. “We’ll split it between us—I can be the nude model—and you can be the clothed one. They’ve usually—got two classes sketching at once—anyway!”
Surprisingly, it worked out just as Dana had suggested. More often, there were two classes present, but when there weren’t, the class was split in half and we were set side-by-side for contrast and comparison: Dana stripped to the bone on a stool opposite, and me stuffed into something dug out of the next-door theatre department’s boxes. Sometimes, our stools stood facing each other, by accident rather than design, and though I didn’t mind nakedness in other people, it was still strange to see her out of the clean, preppy skirts and blouses I’d always seen her in as she wrestled the copy machine.
Afterwards, we were ushered into an adjacent bathroom to get changed again, out in front of the sinks since the narrow cubicles didn’t have enough space for me to manoeuvre off the complicated things they had me wearing. The first time it happened, I worried that Dana might say something. I’d gone to a mixed high school growing up, so my apprehension wasn’t totally unfounded. I knew the way I changed was peculiar, sleeve by sleeve, leg by leg; never more than a limb’s worth of skin bared in any one instant. By contrast, Dana liked to drop her clothes wherever she was standing, and then walk over to the sinks to splash her face with water before dressing. She said it kept her shirt from getting wet, that it was the same way she washed and brushed her teeth in the mornings. On the one hand, I couldn’t imagine it; on the other, I couldn’t seem to stop trying to.
One evening, as I finished changing out of something I imagined a British tourist might’ve worn to India during the Raj, a still-topless Dana looked me over with a beaming smile.
“That’s a new record, you know.” She turned her phone over in her hand, to show me the screen and the stopwatch she’d had running. It might’ve felt like a betrayal of trust if it hadn’t been so perfectly in character. “You’re getting slower about it. Isn’t that funny?”
Funny wasn’t the word I would’ve used, but it was certainly something. A therapist, if I’d still been seeing one, might’ve even called it progress.
“Why do I feel like you’re gearing up to write a paper on me?” I said, only half joking, and Dana snorted as she shook out her shirt.
“Not my discipline. Besides, you’re far too interesting to waste on academics.”
This was comforting to hear, and I must have believed it, because by the end of summer, changing had become easier in Dana’s presence than outside it. As a result, I started going around to her apartment in order to shower, to shave—to do anything at all that required even the minutest fraction of prolonged nudity. Before long, we had fallen into an odd kind of routine: every other day, Dana would sit on the toilet lid doing her readings while I stood under the water behind her polka-dot shower curtain, listening to her make comments about Eugene Hecht’s “Optics.” By the end of autumn, I’d learnt more about diffraction than I knew what to do with, and Dana’s perpetually absent flatmate had surfaced just long enough to insist that I chip in on utilities. I’d no sooner agreed than the boiler in Dana’s apartment stopped working for three long, frigid, early-December weeks.
The landlord was contacted and portable heaters dug out, but with respect to hot water there was simply nothing to be done. After a few days of ice-cold showers, rather than shell out for the tube to my place, Dana took to filling the bathtub by boiling jugs in the kitchen kettle. It was a long process, and the water cooled quickly, so we bathed one after the other and flipped a coin to decide who had dibs. I hadn’t taken a bath since early childhood, but with enough foam on the surface and Dana’s voice from behind the curtain, I hardly felt naked at all.
Then one evening during the second week, the temperature dropped by another three degrees, and a soapy hand appeared on the edge of the bathtub much earlier than I’d been anticipating.
“Come on. You don’t have to wait, there’s room enough for both of us.”
I’d been reviewing the latest list of Research Council studentships, and my thumb froze against my phone screen. “I’m not cold.”
“Please, I can hear your teeth chattering.” The curtain jerked back, just enough so that Dana could sit forward and glare at me. “Come on, I’ve seen you naked before, remember?”
Although this was true, she closed her eyes as I undressed and got in, sinking down until the bubbles reached my chin. The water was cooling already, though still warm enough to be a relief.
“There,” Dana said, opening her eyes again. “Better, right? And now you can pass me the shampoo so I don’t have to reach.”
It was better, if a little uncomfortable. Like the rest of Dana’s flat, the bathtub was old and peeling, and though it was wide enough for two I had to bend my knees to submerge completely, leaning them lightly against Dana’s shins. I’d seen her naked so many times before, I suddenly couldn’t remember if I’d ever touched her the same.
“Thanks,” she said, as I passed her the shampoo bottle. “I swear to God, I’m going to kill the landlord if it’s not fixed by the end of this week.”
This didn’t seem likely, but I knew better than to say it. “Well, the holidays are coming up. If it doesn’t happen soon, it won’t till after Christmas.”
“Fuck. That’s a month, practically. That’s got to be illegal, right? Even for London, that’s got to be illegal.”
I shrugged, and Dana scowled. From the hallway came the sound of the entry door slamming, and then a few minutes later the same sound again, as her flatmate came home and then left again almost immediately. Dana leant back to rinse out her hair in the silence that followed, clouding the water with soap suds around me.
“At least that means winter break’s coming up,” I said consolingly when she resurfaced. It was rare for Dana to have bad moods, but she was usually open to cheering when she had them. “Are you going to do anything?”
“See Dad, probably.” She slapped a desultory hand at the water’s surface, like a dog greeting its own reflection. “I have to take, like, five days off around the 25th anyway, so I figure I might as well.”
“Does it get cold over there in winter?”
“Not much more so than here. Why don’t you come and see for yourself, if you’re not busy?” She stood up as she said it, making the bathwater surge around me. “I mean, if you like, obviously. No pressure or anything.”
I watched Dana as she climbed out of the tub and stood dripping on the bathmat, naked and lightly shivering. It wasn’t candlelit, exactly, but she had dragged one of the portable heaters into the bathroom earlier, and its three glowing red bars were reflecting in the foggy mirror like neon through rain. The light made her body look different, almost organic, like a still from a nature documentary. “Maybe,” I said. There was something about her offer that felt weighty enough to make me hesitate, so different from her usual casual intimacy. “I’m not sure what I’m doing yet, actually. Can I get back to you in like, a week?”
“Of course,” Dana said. She’d been wrapping a towel around her wet hair, and now that it was securely in place, she turned back to me with a hand extended. I stood up to take it without thinking, and like she’d first done at the library with my receipt, she didn’t let go immediately. “Whenever you want; there’s no hurry.”
Out of the water, the reflected light hit my skin the same way it did Dana’s, warm, like a flame lit in the wick of a mandarin. The glow made my body look normal, anatomical; the Vitruvian Man at last standing at ease.
About the author
Yen Radecki is a writer, poet, and perpetual traveller. Born in France and raised across three continents, they're now based somewhere or other on planet Earth, exactly where depending on when you read this. Online, they can be found more easily at @yenradecki.
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