I don’t know what took me so long to do this here on my own blog, but here is the first chapter of The “Volunteer” in its entirety. The entire novel is available in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Volunteer-Novel-D-H-Jonathan/dp/1534635246/
Chapter One: The Proposal
“Forgive me for disturbing your weekend,” Dr. Hallum, the president of Coachella Valley University, said to me after introducing himself. I was still trying to fathom why a university president would be calling a lowly undergraduate student’s personal cell phone and not just any undergraduate student but one facing a suspension for academic dishonesty.
“That’s OK,” I said after swallowing my mouthful of meatloaf.
I was in a mostly deserted dining hall, eating lunch on a Sunday, the last day before spring break ended. I had flown back here via the Palm Springs airport the day before after spending an anxious week with my parents at home in Texas. I had only ever seen Dr. Hallum once, at my disciplinary hearing two days before the beginning of this spring break.
“This is highly unusual, which is why I’m calling you personally, but there may be a way for you to have your suspension rescinded.”
My heart jumped in my chest. “Really?”
“Yes. Dr. Lorraine Slater is hoping to launch a landmark study, and she needs a… Well, she needs some assistance. She’s the chair of the Sociology Department, you know.”
I didn’t know, but I said “Uh huh” anyway. “What about my scholarships?”
“If you cooperate fully with Dr. Slater, your whole record would be expunged. It’ll be like the incident never happened. So your scholarships would continue, provided you maintain the GPA requirement.”
This sounded too good to be true. Daddy had told me throughout my life, over and over again, that if something sounded too good to be true then it probably was.
“What would I have to do?” I asked, trying to keep the skepticism out of my voice.
Dr. Hallum cleared his throat. “Well, it’s not something I can really talk about. Dr. Slater wants to go over it with you herself. In person. Can you be in her office at 8:00 tomorrow morning?”
“Yes, I can.”
“Good. Oh, she did want me to have you Google something. ‘Andrew Martinez, Berkeley, 1992.’”
I scrambled to find a pen in my purse and jotted the terms down on a paper napkin as I repeated them back to him, the napkin ripping twice as I tried to write.
“Yes, that’s it. And one other thing; what’s your shoe size?”
“Six and a half,” I replied, wondering why he would possibly need to know that.
“All right. That’s it then. Remember, Dr. Slater’s office at eight AM tomorrow. It’s in the sociology department office in Carlisle Hall.”
“OK,” I said. “Thank you so much for this opportunity.”
“Well, you may not want to take it. But whatever you decide, I wish you the best of luck.”
I may not want to take it? How bad could it be? I had visions of having to write some kind of full thesis as I scarfed down the rest of my lunch and rushed back to the dorm. I bounded up the stairs to my room, and I resolved that no matter how ridiculous the offer sounded, I had to take it, even if the work required killed any semblance of a social life. Getting my degree was the long term goal, and I was going to do what I had to do to achieve that.
When I got into my room, I sat down at my computer and typed in the search terms. Google came up with a long list of results starting, of course, with a Wikipedia article. I read with curiosity and wonder how, in the early 1990’s, Andrew Martinez had attended his classes at the University of California at Berkeley wearing nothing but a pair of sandals and a backpack. I had to laugh at the photos of him walking across campus naked. Apparently, he got away with this for quite a while and had become a minor celebrity, appearing on a few nationally televised talk shows.
Martinez was once quoted as saying, “When I walk around nude, I am acting how I think it is reasonable to act, not how middle-class values tell me I should act. I am refusing to hide my dissent in normalcy even though it is very easy to do so.”
I learned from that Wikipedia article that his naked student act ended in December 1992 when UC Berkeley explicitly banned public nudity on campus. The city of Berkeley passed a new ordinance against public nudity the following year, and Martinez was, of course, the first person arrested for violating it. He started wearing clothes after that but struggled with various things for the rest of his life, including problems with mental illness, and committed suicide in a jail cell in 2006.
The whole story was both funny and sad, and I wondered what it had to do with Dr. Slater’s offer. I figured I would have to be her research assistant as she wrote a dissertation or book on the guy. I sincerely hoped I wouldn’t have to write the book myself.
I spent the rest of that afternoon unpacking from the trip home and working on a paper for one of my lit classes. Sleep was difficult to come by that night, especially when Diane, my roommate, returned from her San Diego vacation at one AM.
“Sorry,” she kept saying every time she bumped into something in the dark.
I thought about telling her to just turn the light on, but I thought that if I kept pretending I was asleep maybe sleep would finally come. If it ever did, it was not the restful sleep that made getting out of bed difficult. When my phone’s alarm went off, I got up only because lying in bed hadn’t been doing me any good. The shower didn’t revive me much, and after brushing my teeth and hair, I shuffled back to my room in my robe and slippers in a haze. With the effort to keep my eyelids up, my eyes didn’t want to focus. This was no way to go to a meeting that would determine my entire future, so I took one of Diane’s energy drinks from her mini-fridge, resolving to pay her back for it when I saw her awake later. I drank it as I got dressed, deciding against my normal campus attire of jeans and a tank top. Instead, I put on my sleeveless yellow dress with the full pleated skirt, which I have always liked because it hides how thick my thighs and butt are.
I am only 5’4”, and I have always thought that my body was too wide for my height (or lack thereof). My ex used to tell me that my legs looked like those of a bodybuilder due to my years of softball and Tae Kwon Do, but I could still never get over my self-consciousness about them. I rarely wore shorts even in the hot climate of the Coachella Valley. At least my breasts were a somewhat normal size and shape.
The energy drink seemed to be helping as I noticed that eight o’clock was nearing. I checked my purse to make sure my room key, cell phone, and wallet were inside, slung the strap over my shoulder, and headed toward Carlisle Hall. During the walk over, I reiterated to myself that it didn’t really matter what Dr. Slater asked me to do; I was going to take her offer, avoid suspension, and finish my degree program.
The Sociology Department office was on the second floor of Carlisle Hall, right at the top of the main stairwell. I went inside, and a receptionist in a white blouse looked up and smiled at me.
“Good morning,” she beamed with far too much enthusiasm for the Monday after spring break, looking at me from head to toe, almost as if she were evaluating me.
“Hi, I’m Danielle Keaton,” I said, and I couldn’t help but hear the nervousness in my own voice. “I have an eight o’clock appointment with Dr. Slater.”
“Oh yes. Just have a seat, and I’ll tell her you’re here.”
I turned to where she gestured and sat in one of the three chairs against the wall across from her desk. I clasped my hands together to keep them from shaking and said a silent prayer that I could handle whatever it was I would have to do. The receptionist continued to glance from her computer screen toward me every few seconds, smirking whenever she did. I looked at the two paintings on the wall behind her and tried to pretend that she wasn’t there.
After a couple of minutes a tall woman with graying red hair emerged from one of the inner offices. I recognized her as one of the three members on the disciplinary board at my hearing. She beamed at me, holding her hand out.
“Danielle!” she said. “I’m Lorraine Slater.”
I stood and shook her hand. “Hi.”
Dr. Slater looked at the receptionist and made some kind of facial gesture, but I couldn’t see what it was.
“How was your spring break?” Dr. Slater asked me as she led me into her office.
“To be honest, it could have been better.”
I walked in, and Dr. Slater closed the door behind me. Her office was small with several photos and degree certificates on the wall behind her desk. There was one window, and it looked down upon the commons, a large open space in front of the library. Her desk was clear except for a small gym bag.
“I can understand that. Did you go home to Texas?”
“Yes,” I said as she went around and sat behind her desk. She motioned for me to sit in the chair facing her.
“How were your parents?”
“They were OK,” I said as I sat down.
“Now, it was your uncle who passed away, right?”
It had been my Uncle Robert’s sudden and fatal stroke that had started my downfall. I had gotten a late start on a history paper, and I had intended to pound it out over the weekend before its February 26th due date. But Uncle Robert died the Thursday before. He and I had never been close, but he had been my mom’s only brother. I felt compelled to fly home to Dallas that weekend to be with her. So I canceled my Saturday date with Kevin (I hadn’t been that excited about going out with him anyway) and booked a flight home.
The day before I flew out, Amanda Johnson, valedictorian of her Oregon high school class and with a perfect 4.0 grade point average throughout her college career, had come into the print shop where I worked wanting to print out an assignment on the color laser printer. I helped her open the file from her USB drive and get it formatted and printed. The name Dr. Finfrock on the cover sheet had caught my eye, and I realized that she was in the same course I was in, although in a different section. I distracted her long enough to make a copy of the file on the PC’s hard drive, which I then copied over to my own USB drive.
I flew home that Saturday morning and spent a difficult weekend with Mom before flying back late Sunday night. I had just a few hours to get that paper ready, so I changed the font and what I hoped would be enough of the text on Amanda’s paper, removed her illustrations, which hadn’t been required for the paper anyway, put my name on it, printed it, and turned it in. What I had failed to change was the citation page, which listed sources for those illustrations (with the phrase “Used by Permission” notated as well).
A week later, Dr. Finfrock asked me to stay after class and confronted me about it. I confessed, telling him about my uncle and the difficult time my mother was having. He told me that that was no excuse, which was something I really couldn’t argue with, and that he would have to refer the matter to the dean. The resulting hearing had been, for me, an ordeal of humiliation. I did the only thing I could do, falling on my own sword and absolving Amanda Johnson of any guilt. But I had received a one semester suspension, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t also resulted in the loss of my scholarships. Without those scholarships, I could never hope to afford to continue at Coachella Valley University. My plans of finishing my undergraduate degree with no debt and then starting law school had been shattered.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Dr. Slater said.
“Thank you.” I nodded and forced a smile.
“Did you tell your parents about the trouble you’ve had?”
I shook my head.
“I just couldn’t bring myself to do it,” I said with a shrug. “My mom was still dealing with Uncle Robert’s death, and Dad had a big project going on at work.”
“Well, maybe you can get out of this without ever having to tell them a thing.”
“That would be so incredibly wonderful!”
She leaned back in her chair, and her face turned serious. “Did you read anything about Andrew Martinez?”
“Yes, I did. It was… interesting.”
“Yes, he was an interesting guy. I was a graduate student at Berkeley the semester that he was running around naked.”
“Really!” I said. “Did you know him?”
“No, we never talked. But he did fascinate me. I used to follow him around campus, at a distance of course, and study people’s reactions to him. I was sad to see the university enact that prohibition on nudity just to get him to stop. It was a blow against true freedom of expression.”
She stopped for a moment and looked out the window and down at the students walking across the Commons. With a sigh, she leaned forward and put her arms on her desk.
“I think attitudes are changing though,” she said. “Brown University hosts an annual nudity week, designed to promote body acceptance. They have naked yoga sessions, nude body painting sessions, and other clothing optional events on campus.”
“That sounds interesting,” I said when she paused, trying and failing to imagine such a thing at any school I had ever attended.
“Yes. Outside of academia, ESPN Magazine publishes an annual Body Issue with photos of top ranked athletes posing nude.”
She pulled a copy of one out of her desk drawer and slid it toward me. The cover featured a photo of a nude Venus Williams. She was in profile, arms over her breasts and her hip thrust out toward the camera, the curve of both buttocks very visible. I didn’t even know ESPN had a magazine; I had thought they were just a television network. Dr. Slater continued speaking as I thumbed through the magazine.
“Discovery Channel has a very successful reality show called Naked and Afraid where two survivalists, a man and a woman, have to live for three weeks in the wilderness without clothes, food, or water. Have you ever seen it?”
I shook my head no.
“VH-1 has a show called Dating Naked, one of those silly reality shows like The Bachelor except that everyone is naked. There’s also a show about a realtor who specializes in property in an upscale nudist community in Florida. The genitals on all of these are pixelated of course, but I have a feeling that in ten or twenty years, these kinds of shows will be airing unaltered. And in the last few years, World Naked Bike Rides have been held in many cities. Nudity in public has also been prevalent at several different events in the San Francisco Bay area despite a city-wide ban on nudity that was imposed within the last few years. In fact, a small group of committed ‘urban nudists’ is vigorously fighting the new ordinance.”
Dr. Slater seemed to be in full lecture mode. I was trying to make sure I remembered the names of these TV shows she had recited, and I shifted nervously as I closed the magazine on her desk and pushed it toward her. “Should I be taking notes?” I asked when she paused.
“Oh no, no, not at all. This is just background information for the project I’m launching, an in-depth study of people’s reactions to nudity and how those reactions change after continued exposure. If you volunteer and participate for the full project, your suspension will be cancelled, and your scholarships continued, pending your grades of course. I couldn’t get you your job in the print shop back, but you might feel comfortable with a new campus job in the art department that pays a lot more.”
“OK,” I said tentatively. A higher paying job didn’t sound like much of a punishment, so I was worried about a catch. “What, exactly, would I have to do?”
“Well, you would be confined to campus. But you live in the dorm and eat in the cafeteria, so that shouldn’t be a problem. As for a social life, I know there are dances in the Student Union as well as other events. You could go to those if you wanted.”
“I’m OK with that,” I said, eager to get my scholarship restored.
“As for what you will be doing, you’ll be attending classes like you normally do. I’ll have a team of six research assistants who will take shifts monitoring your interactions.”
Dr. Slater stopped talking and looked at me, as if trying to gauge my response. I was still perplexed.
“Is that it? Going to class. Is that really all I have to do?”
“Yes, that’s all you have to do. The research assistants will monitor people’s reactions to your nudity and keep all the records. They’ll take video, and you’ll be wearing a tiny microphone that will transmit to a receiver that the RA on duty will have. That will record all the audio that we can then go back through in detail.”
She kept talking, but I didn’t hear any more of what she said. My head was spinning.
“Wait,” I said, holding up my hand. “Did you say my nudity?”
“Yes. If you accept this assignment, you would be required to spend the rest of the semester without any clothing.”
Dr. Slater had an intense expression as she looked at me, and I realized that, as outrageous as her proposal sounded, she was serious.
“You mean go to classes naked?” I said, thinking aloud more than anything. “I could never do that. No. Not in a million years. That’s crazy.”
“Are you sure? Andrew Martinez did it.”
“And he was crazy. The articles that I read said he was diagnosed with mental illness.”
“Several years after he left Berkeley,” Dr. Slater said. “And after policymakers had squashed his freedom to be who he really was, to make a bold statement about our society. It’s sad really that he was never accepted. We as a society can be cruel to those who are truly different, who don’t fit into what is considered the norm.”
Silence descended on the room as Dr. Slater sat and watched me as I thought. I had been going to Coachella Valley University for a year and a half. I had friends. I had two guys that I had dated briefly during my freshman year. And there was Kevin who had been trying to get me to go out on a date with him for over a month. How could I ever just let them all see me naked? And not only once, but on an ongoing basis for the rest of the semester? Today was March 16, and the semester ended in the middle of May. That was two months. I couldn’t think of a time that I had ever been naked for longer than two hours; now this woman was asking me to run around naked for two months, and in public?
“That’s nuts,” I said. I thought of my two options: leaving CVU forever after this semester, my reputation in tatters, or staying and doing this and ruining my reputation in other ways. I felt trapped, like I was being blackmailed or extorted. They couldn’t do this to me! “How can this be legal?” I said, breaking the silence in the room. “This, as an alternative punishment?”
“It’s not an alternative punishment,” Dr. Slater said. “It’s an alternative TO punishment. If you do this, you would be performing this department, the university, and the entire field of sociology a huge service.”
I was still shaking my head. The idea of someone freely walking around the university bare ass naked was ridiculous. That I would be that naked someone was so far beyond the realm of possibility that I couldn’t believe it. Was this meeting even happening? Perhaps I was in a dream, one of those dreams I used to have in high school where I went to school in my underwear without realizing it.
“I can tell you’re having a problem with this,” Dr. Slater said, “but that’s because of the years of social conditioning you’ve undergone, conditioning that has ingrained in you this notion that our bodies always have to be covered when interacting with others of our own species.”
“But what if I get arrested?” I said. “Aren’t there indecent exposure laws or something?”
“No, not really. Thanks to court rulings, nudity in public without any lewd conduct is legal in the state of California. That’s how Andrew Martinez was able to get away with attending classes nude in 1992. There are quite a few cities who have implemented nudity bans, like Berkeley unfortunately, but Coachella Valley University doesn’t fall under any of those.”
“Palm Desert doesn’t have a nudity law?” I asked.
Dr. Slater shrugged. “It wouldn’t matter if they did or not. The university’s mailing address may say Palm Desert, but the actual campus is on land that has never been annexed by any municipality. We are in unincorporated Riverside County.”
I didn’t know what was more unbelievable, that it was perfectly legal to walk around naked or that my university was asking me-—no, requiring me–to do that very thing. Of course, this was California, and I had just read the stories about Andrew Martinez.
“There may be people who will call the police on you,” Dr. Slater continued, “but any calls to 911 on campus are routed to the University Police Department. Everyone there is aware of this project and are even helping us compile statistics on the calls they receive, whether it’s people calling to complain because they’re offended or calling because they’re concerned for your safety and well-being. But you will have nothing to worry about, legally.”
I thought back to the summer between ninth and tenth grade. I was spending a Friday night with my friend Samantha. She lived in an apartment complex and as we were talking, she said that she had always had thoughts of sneaking out late at night and skinny-dipping in the apartment complex pool. That sounded so exciting to me at the time, and I told Samantha that we should do it. We stayed up until almost two in the morning working up enough nerve just to leave the apartment. Once we did, we made our way to the pool, which officially closed every night at ten o’clock, and climbed over the gate. We huddled in the darkest corner, quickly stripped, and darted into the pool, careful not to splash or make any noise. Being in the water naked had felt strange and wonderful. Samantha and I held onto the side and whispered to each other. I had forgotten what we talked about so long ago, but I remember being startled by the sound of footsteps and seeing the figure of a man walking outside the pool enclosure. I felt real terror right then, and I think Samantha felt it too. We both held our breath and froze. I remember how vulnerable I felt, naked and in the water so far away from any clothing. I couldn’t even move for fear of making waves in the water that the guy, whoever he was, would hear. My biggest fear had been of getting in trouble. I had visions of being arrested and taken to jail and of having to call my parents to bail me out. Luckily, the guy kept walking. We thought at the time that he was just some drunk who had walked home from a bar up the street. But we jumped out of the pool as soon as he was out of hearing distance and put our pajamas on over our wet bodies because, like idiots, we had forgotten to bring towels.
I never skinny-dipped again after that. In fact, I always made doubly sure that everything I ever wore was properly buttoned up whenever I was with other people and that I wouldn’t have a “wardrobe malfunction” anywhere embarrassing. Now, Dr. Slater was proposing that I just go everywhere without a wardrobe and that the university would be just fine with it.
“If it’s legal to just walk around campus naked,” I asked, “why doesn’t anybody do it?”
“Because it isn’t ‘socially acceptable,’” she replied, using her fingers to accentuate the quotation marks. “And that’s the point of this entire project. Can it become socially acceptable? Which groups of people will accept you; which will applaud you; which will shun you? Will there even be anybody who joins you?”
Dr. Slater shrugged. “You never know.”
I turned my head and looked out the window at the Commons. Students were walking to and from different parts of the campus. A guy and girl were sitting on the bench beneath the three tall palm trees, talking and drinking coffee. Another girl in shorts and a halter top was lying on her belly on a blanket on the grass, text book opened in front of her as she studied. I tried to picture myself walking through the area with nothing on. What would it feel like to be so naked and vulnerable and free? Something caught in my throat when I thought of the word free. Would being naked really feel free, I wondered. Was I actually considering doing this?
I turned back to Dr. Slater and asked, “Would there be any alerts going out, telling people about the project.”
“Oh no. If people knew about the project, they would alter their responses and interactions with you.”
“So if I did this, what would I say to people about suddenly going everywhere naked?”
“I’d prefer that you never said anything,” she replied. “Just act like you normally do when you’re dressed whenever someone talks about what you’re wearing. But I know that’s not realistic. People will be persistent about something so… unusual. So, you could just say that you wanted to try becoming a full time nudist and that you just discovered that nudity on campus was legal. And if that doesn’t work, use some of Andrew Martinez’s quotes. That’s one of the reasons I had you look him up on the Web.”
I turned and looked back out the window. I thought of the people in my dorm, in the food hall where I ate, in my classes, and I wondered what they all would say to me, what they would think. How did I feel about that? Afraid, mostly. I had spent a year and a half building up a network of friends and acquaintances here, both male and female. All of that had the potential for falling apart. But the alternative was leaving the school forever at the end of the semester. That social network wouldn’t matter one tiny bit after that. And I didn’t come to Coachella Valley University to socialize; I came to get a solid degree that would get me into law school. I had promised myself on the walk over here that I was at least going to try to do whatever it was that Dr. Slater proposed, no matter how outlandish it sounded.
“OK,” I said, still looking out the window at the people outside and imagining myself naked among them, my voice sounding far away as if someone else were speaking. “I’ll do it.”