People often ask, how did you get into comedy? I have a bunch of answers to that, but generally I respond thusly: my senior year of college I took a creative writing course with a personal essay component, and I did really well. My teacher told me she “fell off her stool laughing.” It felt like something I had a knack for.
Well, this month in prepping for a show I reread that essay, and it was GARBAGE. In down time at work while I wait for pages to load, I have slowly re-written it, deleting 3 pages, adding 2, over and over. Below is some semblance of what made me think I was good enough to try stand up comedy.
When I was sixteen, I went moonlight skinny-dipping with my girlfriends. I felt the breeze against my skin, and the cool water against my breasts. After that, ordinary pool visits just weren’t as fun. My bikini felt like a weight, pulling me down through the water, confining me.
That week, I learned in German class that some beaches in Europe have a “free-body culture” section, where people were free to swim au naturel. While in America, you’re practically a nudist if you take too long to get dressed after the shower, Europeans had found the time and the place for nudity. I was intrigued.
I was also terrified. Don’t men get erections when they see naked women? Will men get erections when they look at me? Am I the kind of person who gives men erections? Has my paleness really turned a grayish color, or is that just the lighting in my room? What if my friends and I accidentally touch when we’re naked? Will they think I’m coming on to them? What if my cooch gets sunburned?
The August I was 20, I moved to Germany. People think study abroad is supposed to be a fun experience- a party year. No one told me that in Germany, the sun shines for less than eight hours a day in winter, or that at Christmas it would be five months since I had seen a familiar face, and six months until would see one. I spiraled into a hole of Seasonal Affective Disorder, cancelled plans with the only friends I did have, cried at every mistake I made, cried in every public library. I tried to transfer back and I was told I could not, and then debated failing out on purpose so I could go home.
In February, life got almost impossibly hard. I was assigned the equivalent of forty-five pages of research papers, single spaced, in German, at the most advanced level of study. My roommates hated me because I burst into tears every time they asked me to do a basic chore, like clean the shower drain, or a coffee mug, so I was moving across town and in with some friends. My schedule was such that I was working forty hours a week in the library and moving all of my things across town without a car at the same time.
That was the first time I felt true happiness all year.
As it turns out, I am extremely smart and capable. My depression started when I had very little to do, little to prove to myself, but once I had to take on everything at once, I was a goddamned warrior. I finished all of my papers in time to have them proofread several times over, I moved into my new apartment and immediately started cleaning and baking so as not to fuck up a second set of roommate relationships. I planned a three week trip through the Balkans and slept on strangers’ couches and climbed mountains at UNESCO World Heritage sites. With nothing to hide behind and no one to help me, I relied on myself. It is the time in my life I attribute to having become an adult.
When I returned to Jena, I realized I was in control of my own happiness. I focused on building relationships, seeing the sights. I signed up for easier classes so that I could enjoy it all much more. I boarded train after train, visited cafe after cafe.
As I opened my eyes to the wonders of Germany, I learned that the city park- rather ironically named “Paradise” given the communist-era grey piping that ran its 10 square miles- had a clothing-optional section.
Desperate to leave my pre-AC dormitory, I nonetheless put off the possibility of viewing German genitalia for as long as possible. When my American friends and I ultimately went to the lake, we stuck to the portion of the beach devoted to the prudes, the body conscious, and the cancer-phobes. From our comfortable, clothed position, we occasionally caught a glimpse of a rubbery-skinned grandmother sprinting full-frontal into the general public to grab a naked runaway child.
The nudists bathed in an especially green area of the park, which was slightly elevated from the rest, and hidden behind a loose array of bushes and trees. It seemed we only ever saw the very old or the very young disappear into this veritable Area X. From the outside one could see over the shrubbery to watch disembodied arms hang their clothes from protective clothespins, the excess of elderly under-arms waving in the breeze.
Like the Garden of Eden, it beckoned. My imagination ran wild with images of fruit trees, hummingbirds, and pillows of grass. A sagging elderly woman at the entrance became Botticelli’s Venus, inviting me inward to a land where man had not yet learned shame. A senior member of Honecker’s original cabinet morphed into Michelangelo’s David, summoning me to join an ancient and beautiful tradition.
“I think we should go before we leave,” I said one day in July, gesturing toward the elevated enigma of the clothing-optional area.
“I think so too,” Tracey confessed.
Emma shook her pretty head and scrunched her flawless nose in repulsion.
“I don’t know,” I said, “it’s an experience we have to have once. We’re leaving for home in a few weeks and we’ll never have to see these people again.”
“Yeah,” Tracey concurred, “I think people at home would think it was pretty wild. You don’t have to be naked, Emma, just come with us. Hide in a book if you think it’s gross.”
And so, with a little further prodding from Tracey, the three of us agreed to go, the day after our final class.
On the day, we hiked the mile through the park to reach the lake, stopping at an ice cream stand to beat the heat.
“You’re so skinny, Emma,” Tracey said, licking her soft-serve. Emma had yet again not ordered ice cream.
“I bet you can see your vagina when you stand naked,” I said.
“What!?” Emma asked.
“You know. When you look down you don’t see the pooch above your belly button- you see your actual pubes and stuff. Like when I used to run cross-country. It was easier to shave.”
“Well, uh, I guess I do see my vagina, then,” Emma said.
“Oooooh,” Tracey and I crooned in unison, impressed by this now alien concept.
After a moment of thought, we grimaced at one another in discomfort at the fact that our very normal naked bodies were about to be juxtaposed next to this one. Emma had actually been mistaken for Courtney Cox so many times that all of her friends at home simply called her “Monica.” We flopped onward through the sand, slightly more downtrodden than before.
When we walked into the nudist area, the only shocking thing about it was the seeming normalcy. That part of the beach was indeed filled mostly with old people, many of whom lounged under trees, reading grocery-check-out books, and keeping a collective eye on the youngsters. It was like a window into the pseudo-egalitarian society that had prevailed in this region twenty years previous. Nudity as socialism’s ultimate equalizer.
We began laying our towels out in a row and realized that we only had two between the three of us. We looked at each other, debating what to do. This meant we would have to lie extremely close to one another. Tracey and I shrugged and started peeling off our clothes.
“You guys are REALLY getting naked!?” Emma shrieked through painted lips.
“What, did you think we were bluffing?” I asked, getting out a book and sitting my naked ass on the single rough green towel I’d brought along.
Emma sighed. She gathered Tracey’s and my clothes into a sort of nest and sat upright, her nose indeed buried in a Philippa Gregory novel. Her browned, toned body absorbed the sunlight that shined brightly from her new highlights and flashy bikini.
Tracey and I rotated on the ground. We were all white and flesh, exposing our palest and most protrusive parts to the sun. Unlike Emma, we were not athletes, and we each had a healthy taste for beer. Our curves spilled and squashed as we rolled to tan each part of our bodies, like bratwurst on a grill.
Once we felt thoroughly cooked, we broke to cool off in the water. As we splashed in, green ooze squished between our toes and threatened the purity of body parts normally so sacredly guarded.
Tracey looked toward me, terror on her face.
I looked back at her, nose squished, my hands a protective cocoon over my lady-parts.
At this moment, we had to decide exactly how far we were going to take this whole nudity thing. I took Tracey’s hand and pulled her in.
The water ran like freedom over my entire body, a rush of completely non-sexual excitement. Thousands of miles from home, I had conquered new territory, and now here I was, doing something that would have shocked the pants off of my conservative family at home. I popped out of the water and did a hair-flip Baywatch style, laughing despite the jiggle I felt as I readjusted to my shift in weight.
“This is so weird!” I shouted, and jumped up in the water.
Tracey was already following my lead, laughing. Perhaps my show of excitement had inspired hers, or perhaps flagrant jostling is something innate once green goop has settled like fig leaves across your hips.
I ran out of the lake and leapt into the air. Some of the elderly folks stared over their James Patterson translations, abashed looks on their faces.
“I’m naked!!” I yelled.
Tracey jumped into the air behind me. “We’re naked!”
We laughed and ran further, exalting at the bizarre feeling of the breeze on our skin and the elasticity of newly unsupported areas. We leaped and jumped and made half-assed attempts to recreate what we had learned as girls in ballet class. We spun around the grassy knoll, and finally jumped again into the lake. We splashed water at each other, the image of childishness, again free in the way that we were when we made our first big splash.
By accepting my body in all its jiggly glory, I felt truly free and independent. I felt twenty one, naked before the world, and yet ready to conquer it. I shoved a big wave at Tracey- momentarily obscuring her equally joy-filled face.
Emma sat on the bank, fully clothed.