I come from a family of exhibitionists. My mother had no qualms about ambling over to our mailbox in a Warners bra and panties. At sale time, when Macy's is bustling with shoppers, my older sister and mother still plead with me to share a large dressing room with them instead of waiting for my own.
I am not like that -- at the age of 27, my prudishness astounds them. I have no explanation, only a resilient, alien modesty that leaves me scrambling for cover in moments of undress. For me it's never been an issue. I felt content slinking through life with this debility, but my friend Elisabeth would have none of it. Arguing that I needed to get over my fear of public nakedness, she put me on an anti-modesty program. I consented, albeit reluctantly. This, I agreed solemnly, was no way to live.
For my first trip to the women's bathhouse near my apartment in San Francisco's Mission district, I called ahead. "Is it crowded right now?" Now, with only two other women in the hot tub, I felt that it was an obstacle I could overcome. My friend Elisabeth dropped her towel close to the side and slid in. I panicked and brought my towel into the tub with me.
After several trips to the bathhouse (all after 11 p.m. -- the crowd disperses then), Elisabeth suggested that we "move up," with our naked plan. Moving up meant Wilbur Hot Springs; Wilbur Hot Springs meant men and women. I packed my bathing suit.
After four hours winding through the hills near Clearlake, we found Bear Mountain Road and drove the five miles to the historic bridge the woman on the phone had told us to look for. I got out and opened the metal gate and quickly noticed that my silk pants were splattered with mud -- overdressed already. I could smell sulfur and hear the sound of water. We drove to the "hotel" -- a medium-size home with a cozy fire in the lobby.
A calm, friendly woman at the front desk gave us the rundown. "The hottest pool can take out a perm and tarnish jewelry," she warned us cheerfully. I was reminded of the urban legend about a woman who goes to a tanning salon only to have her insides cooked.
"Can we have our room key?" Elisabeth asked. The woman responded with a large, sympathetic smile. No room keys at Wilbur.
As required, we unloaded our gear and move our car a fifth of a mile away from the main house. Lugging my bag to our room, I thought about just how much I had packed for two days of planned nudity.
That night in the communal kitchen, our fellow Wilburs strolled around in flannel robes, nightgowns and muumuus, unloading their trays of lasagna, whole-wheat tortillas and braised tofu. In similar get-ups we unpacked our jar of Welch's Grape Jelly with "Muppets in Space" printed on the front and began to worry about starving. Why did we think we needed so many clothes but no food?
I tried to ward off the constant feeling of unease -- lounging in someone else's Victorian living room with no underwear on under my robe felt unnatural. Antiques carefully placed throughout the hotel were a constant reminder of my underdressed state. That afternoon I escaped to the library -- which was mercifully empty -- and hoped that Elisabeth wouldn't notice, but of course she did. I promised her I would hit the baths with her after dinner -- when it was dark.
As we ate our potato soup, the weight of getting naked hung over my head like a punishment. And then I said it: "I'm afraid. I'm afraid of seeing and being seen." I told Elisabeth I must have been born with a turtleneck on. "Aren't you worried?"
She slipped off her glasses. "No, I'm as blind as a bat without these."
I decided the only way I could handle this new stage of nakedness was to look around the bathing area. I led a blind Elisabeth into the darkness, down the trail. Crossing the street in our robes and slippers, we entered the small, wooden deck area.
Under the roofed area the first thing I saw was a large woman sitting naked. Then I spotted a couple of people in one of the three long, rectangular pools. Not a bathing suit in sight. No one was in the sauna, and the outdoor pool was half-drained. No one in the cold plunge either.
I tried to reassure myself that I would be naked for a purpose, like a visit to the doctor's office or sleeping with a lover, but all I kept thinking was that I had been sent away to a rigorous kind of training camp: naked camp.
Elisabeth dropped her robe and slipped into the middle rectangular pool. A hip-looking couple in their 30s kissed in the pool ahead of us. Standing on the side of the pool, I whispered loudly that there was not supposed to be any intimate behavior. "Or talking," Elisabeth added and closed her eyes.
Finally, after playing with the belt on my robe, looking at the sky and debating about whether I should go back to the library, I took down my robe and rolled it into a small wad next to me. The hook on the wall seemed unbearably far away. Then I slid into the pool. The bottom was rough stone. My skin felt slippery in the sulfur water. The moon was almost full. And because it was dark, I knew no one was looking. I could breathe a little easier. But I still don't know if I'll ever be ready for the group room at Macy's.