It’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen my ex-fiancé, and of all places, I didn’t expect to see her on the same 1 p.m. ferry that my friend and I had impulsively jumped on for a spontaneous trip to Salt Spring Island.
Say what you want about coincidences, but some things are a little too on the nose.
Something that I have learned from experience is that not all breakups are made alike. Unless you’re one of the few people (I seem to know more, but I grew up in Manitoba) who found their person at 22 or maybe even in high school, sometime in your late 20s or early 30s, you will have a breakup. It won’t be the cry and feel better kind of thing. It will change the entire trajectory of your life in ways that you’ll be grateful for while also trying desperately not to become bitter.
I kind of wish someone had warned me about it. I mean, they probably did. And what would I have done? Assumed that I would handle it better, probably. It wouldn’t hit quite so hard. We’re all special, aren’t we?
Seeing the person you broke up with isn’t quite like seeing any other ex. It makes you do weird things. It makes you sit on a hill at the Salt Spring farmer’s market, seemingly rooted into the ground like the garry oaks that grow there, looking but not looking as she sits 20 feet away, also looking but not looking. Afterwards, you cry and eat the best sour cherry ice-cream you’ve ever had while your friend patiently passes you a joint and silently watches you clutch at the grass like you’re at risk of floating off into space.
And, maybe, you go to your first nude beach.
Beach isn’t quite the word in this case. The place that we stumbled upon that day was actually just a dock, and it juts out into what is called a lake but is more like a pond. An island resident had pointed us toward it and determined to salvage the day, we decided to stop by. It’s fine if we don’t get naked, my friend and I agreed. We weren’t “naked friends,” as far as I was concerned. He’d already watched me cry, and that seemed vulnerable enough.
But then we got there. The whole thing was like a parody written by someone who has an offhand idea about what Salt Spring Island is all about. Tan, naked people sprawled out along the length of the dock. Some were reading, others playing guitar and singing languid songs in other languages. Joints were passed back and forth among the people there, conversation as well. Someone produced a bag full of dried mushrooms, explaining that these ones were chill, man, they were really mellow.
I knew I needed to jump in the water. I needed to baptize myself of the day that I’d had, the apparition from my past that was suddenly real and three dimensional and completely unnerving. When my friend stripped down to nothing without any warning, I realized that not only did I need to jump in, I needed to be naked when I did it. The act of cleansing would be complete if there was nothing between me and the water a few feet away. Even if it was kind of just a pond.
When I climbed back out, I first wrapped myself self-consciously in the one towel we had brought.
Being naked had, until that point, been reserved for myself and the people I had sex with, and even then, hardly. For most of my life, I had averted my eyes from what I saw in the mirror before showers, tired of wishing I looked different and choosing instead to put it out of my mind as if having a body was just a side effect of being a human, and not something integral to my life. There are plenty of ways to have sex without being aware of your body as well. There are ways to relegate the act of being naked to some quiet and undisturbed part of your mind and contain all the unsettling feelings that accompany it.
And then, you’re naked on a sunny dock in full daylight, in full view of not only a close friend (closer now, surely?), but also an entire band of Woodstock characters. The best part is nobody cares. Well, the best part is jumping into water that’s just the right temperature for a hot summer day and feeling the water flow uninterrupted around every inch of your skin. The second best part is realizing that when everyone is naked, being naked stops being a big deal.
It was less than a week before I sought out another nude beach to spend the day at, this time closer to home and without someone to accompany me.
When I woke up that day, I felt disenchanted by everything in my life. All I had was questions. Would I ever have the kind of career I want? Do I really like the person I’m seeing, and does it make sense to date someone who lives in another country? When can I pay off my credit cards? I felt drained by life, and something persuaded me to put it aside and go lay in the sun.
When I arrived to my destination, I was greeted by the sight of naked men—just men. Still, I laid out my towel and sat there in my bathing suit, wondering momentarily if it was completely stupid to be a woman and come somewhere like this alone. It’s an ugly thought, but not one without validity. If something happened to me here, I would definitely be seen as having asked for it.
But then a man in his 20s said hi and smiled in a way that reassured me. He asked me what I was smoking when I lit up a preroll I had bought in the city and actually knew the strain when I told him it was Harlequin. He laid on his back, naked and unabashed, making conversation as if we were in line at the grocery store. And thanks to him, I was able to strip down and do what I’d come to do. I didn’t even run immediately into the water. I just lay on the towel I’d brought and read my Stephen King book and ate McDonalds apple pies out of a brown paper bag.
If you’ve never eaten McDonalds apple pies naked on a dock, I don’t think I can recommend it enough.
We are funny animals and simpler than we like to act. Something about being naked seems to drive home things that I could affirm to myself until I was blue in the face without much success. I’m safe. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to take myself as I am, as a person with a body who doesn’t live within predetermined parameters.
All of this is doubly healing as a queer person. As a kid, I never found that sense of safety within locker and change rooms the way my straight female friends did. Instead, like most queer people, I found myself anxious to be there—anxious to look too long and what it meant or said about me as a person. There’s an inherent fear of preying on your friends as a queer person. It’s the same feeling I sometimes have when a friend holds my hand or pulls me in for a hug or offers me any physical affection at all. What am I getting out of this? What kind of intruder am I, accepting these offerings with the knowledge that they mean more to me?
Chalk it up to some form of religious guilt, maybe, but from speaking to my queer friends, this is a sadly universal truth.
There’s the autonomy as well. Choosing to be naked after decades spent being objectified by strangers and lovers alike feels like taking myself off the chopping block. No, I’m not up for debate. No, not even if you find me attractive. I’m not here for you. I’m here for me.
On this sunny dock with a joint in one hand and the sun kissing every part of my skin, I’m here for me.