As promised in my last post, here is the first chapter, as it was published in Panther City Review, of my sequel to The “Volunteer”. The final version may vary somewhat as I continue working on the novel and go through revisions, but this is enough to see where the story might be headed, along with the point of view shift…
Los Angeles is loaded with girls willing to take their clothes off on camera for a part in a movie or television show, hoping it would lead to a shot at fame and fortune, but Adam Munch still drove out to Palm Desert just to meet a naked girl. She was known as Naked Dani, and he had, of course, seen the news reports over the past few months about her and had watched her live appearance on Stossel when it aired. But he had been in the film and television production business long enough to know how staged even the news could be. Sure, they had gotten footage of her walking naked through the campus, and she had been naked for the Stossel show. But was that much different than the nude-in-public videos that were shot in Europe and marketed as soft porn on the web? Surely she wasn’t naked twenty-four hours a day seven days a week as was being claimed. First of all, how could she legally get away with it? And wasn’t she leaving herself vulnerable to all kinds of attacks: verbal, physical, and sexual?
By chance, Adam had found an advanced reader copy of her upcoming memoir The “Volunteer” at a book festival in LA. He read the entire book in one day, and her story resonated with him. Adam was especially intrigued by her philosophy of combating sexualization of the body in pornography and mainstream media by going about casually nude. He was also fascinated by her religious upbringing and her desire to go to church services even in her undressed state. The ideas started turning, so the first thing he did was contact the girl’s literary agent, Audrey Lambert, to inquire about film and television rights. Those had not been optioned yet but two other producers had inquired about them. Adam had asked for a meeting with both Audrey and the girl. Audrey had referred him to a publicist at the girl’s school, Coachella Valley University, since any such meeting would have to take place on campus due to her constant state of nudity.
The meeting was to take place on the fourth floor of the main administration building which Adam found with minimal difficulty after the security officer at the campus entrance gave him a map and directions along with the visitor parking pass. Adam rode the elevator to the fourth floor and found the room number he had been given, a conference room with a clear glass wall facing the corridor and large window overlooking most of the campus. The room was empty since Adam was almost twenty minutes early. He set his briefcase down on the table and stood at the window watching the foot traffic below. Seeing Naked Dani down there without a stitch of clothing in the middle of everybody was jarring even after seeing the news reports and reading her book. Two women in business attire walked on either side of her. Adam recognized Audrey Lambert, the agent. He had met her before and, remembering the name, had researched her before calling her to ask about the film rights. The other woman must be Sylvia Smith, the university’s publicist. The three of them were heading toward the administration building, each with a Starbucks cup in hand.
Adam watched the rest of the people walking to and fro. Those walking the opposite direction seemed to be nodding or saying something in greeting to the naked girl, but only one or two took a look back at her once they had passed. Adam was surprised to see how many people seemed to take no note of Naked Dani at all. Had seeing her naked and out and about on campus really become so commonplace? According to her book, she had started going naked right after spring break. It was now early October. She’d been doing this for seven months, minus the time spent back home away from campus.
Adam watched the three women until they disappeared from sight at the foot of the building below him. He turned away from the window and opened his briefcase to make sure his written questions were still there on top of everything else. They were, so he closed the briefcase without latching it shut. He sat down and tried to look casually comfortable when they came into the conference room. The three of them walked in talking and laughing but quieted when they saw Adam stand to his feet.
“Hello, I’m Adam Munch from Munchie Productions.”
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry we weren’t here to greet you,” said the woman he didn’t recognize. She stepped forward and offered her hand. “I’m Sylvia Smith with Coachella Valley University.”
Adam shook her hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
The other dressed woman offered her hand and said, “Audrey Lambert. We spoke on the phone.”
“Yes, we’ve met before. About two years ago, I think. You were representing Claudia Coker.”
“Ah yes. I remember you now. I’m sorry that project didn’t work out for you.”
Adam shrugged. “She seems to have found something better.”
“Yes, she did.”
“Hopefully, we can work out something here.”
“I hope so,” Audrey said.
The nude girl stepped forward, about twenty-one years old and darkly tanned from a summer in the desert sun. Adam reminded himself to maintain eye contact no matter how much the shapely bare breasts hovered in his peripheral vision.
“I’m Dani Keaton,” she said, smiling.
“Adam. Please, call me Adam.”
The four of them stood beside the table for an awkward moment, as Adam marveled at how poised Dani seemed. She didn’t appear to be in the least self-conscious about her nudity.
“Thank you for meeting with me today,” he said to try to break the ice.
“Thank you for coming all this way,” Sylvia offered.
Audrey was already walking around the table to take a seat on the other side, and Dani followed her.
“Why don’t we all sit down, and I’ll go over my proposal,” Adam suggested.
They all sat, and Adam couldn’t help but notice that Dani’s bare breasts were visible through the glass wall to anyone who happened to walk by in the corridor. Her brown hair was long enough to touch her shoulders but not long enough to cover anything below that. Adam pulled his Advanced Reader Copy of The “Volunteer” from his briefcase and set it on the table.
“Let’s talk about your book first,” he said.
“OK,” Dani said before either of the other two women could respond.
“It ends in June, and we’ve only gotten to October. That’s a really fast turnaround.”
“Yeah,” Dani replied. “I wrote almost all of the first two-thirds when I was at home between the spring semester and summer session. And it didn’t take long to write the stuff that happened in May and June.”
“And it’s a true memoir? You didn’t make any of it up?”
“No, everything in the book is true. I had to leave a lot of stuff out of course. That project did run two months, and I didn’t want to give a day-by-day account of all sixty days.”
“Well sure,” Adam replied. “No one could have included everything.” He checked the questions he wrote on his notepad. “Is there anything you left out that you wish you had included?”
“Oh yeah,” Dani said. “When I got home, my friend Samantha and I had a long talk about the project.”
“The nudity project?” Adam interrupted.
“Yes. I told her that I was glad it had ended, but not. If you know what I mean. She really is my best friend, so she agreed to arrange a few scenarios where I could be naked. I even wrote it that way the first time.”
“Her editor thought the scenes back in Texas might read better if there was someone to root against,” Audrey said.
“Yeah,” Dani agreed. “So I rewrote them and kind of made Samantha look like a bad guy. But really, the swim party and everything was pre-arranged. She wan’t being mean; she was doing what I wanted her to. I did put in the book that she agreed to go to that nudist resort with me after that. I tried to make it clear that we were still friends and just hoped that people could, you know, read between the lines.”
Adam was busy writing notes on his pad before stopping and looking in his briefcase.
“Would you mind if I took video of the rest of this meeting?” he asked.
“What for?” Audrey said.
Adam held up his pen. “So I don’t have to take as many notes, for one. And for another, I want to see how Dani looks when talking on camera.”
“Why would that be important?”
“I’ll get to that.”
Dani and Audrey looked at each other, and Dani shrugged. “Sure, I don’t mind.”
Adam took a small camcorder from his briefcase and set it on the table pointed at Dani. Once he made sure it was running with Dani in the frame from the shoulders up, he resumed questioning.
“Has your friend Samantha read the book?”
“I gave her a copy and told her that it kind of made her look mean. I don’t know if she’s read it yet.”
“Did she seem upset when you told her about how she might come across in the book?”
Dani shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Audrey said your editor wanted readers to have someone to root against. That would be this Dr. Slater for most of the book. What can you tell me about her? Was this sociology project of hers real?”
“It was,” Dani nodded.
“Her first article on the project will be published in Cultural Sociology Journal next month,” Sylvia said.
“Is she still collecting data?” Adam asked. “Since you are still going nude?”
Dani shrugged. “Probably. They have all those ultra high def cameras everywhere on campus.”
“Why did you continue going naked? You said in the book that you did it to save Dr. Slater’s project, along with her job. Was that the reason?”
“No, not really. It’s complicated. I just know that for two months, I was special. Everyone looked at me everywhere I went. People treated me like a rock star or something. And when I put clothes on after the semester ended, I was like everyone else. Just another face in the crowd. A nobody.”
Adam was nodding, not because he was agreeing but because he was trying to get her to open up and keep talking.
“So when I was back here on campus after the break,” she continued, “I realized that I still had that opportunity to stand out from the crowd, and that if I didn’t continue taking it while I could, then I would probably regret it when I didn’t have it anymore. Do you know what I mean?”
When Dani paused, Adam looked down at his list of pre-written questions and closed the tablet.
“I think I do,” Adam said. “Now, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but is there an element of sexual excitement by going nude all the time?”
Dani shook her head. “No, not really. I think it would be if I only went naked just every once in awhile. But going like this all the time, it just becomes a part of who I am.”
“But in the book,” Adam said, picking it up and thumbing through some pages, “you talk about feeling aroused and at one point having to duck into the Science Building just to find a bathroom and give yourself some relief.”
Dani’s face blushed a deep red. “Well, that was my editor again. He wanted to play up the sex. He told me that people would want a read like 50 Shades of Grey or something. Said it would sell more copies. The only problem was, I wasn’t sexually active.”
“So those parts aren’t true?”
“Oh no, they’re true. That was the only ‘erotic content’ I could honestly put into the book,” Dani said, making air quotes with her fingers as she said the words erotic content. “Like I said, it was very important to me to not write anything that didn’t happen or wasn’t honest. And there was an adjustment period to the project. When you’ve been told all your life that your body is impure and has to be covered, and then you’re told you have to go naked everywhere, that ingrained belief in its impurity becomes almost self-fulfilling. If you know what I mean. So yes, I felt sexually aroused by my nudity at the beginning. That gradually wore off as I got more used to it. And that time in the Science Building; yeah, that did happen. I wrote it and hated what I had written, but my editor insisted that I keep it in.”
Adam nodded as he watched Dani talk on the viewfinder screen on his camcorder, containing his excitement as he realized his idea might actually work. The three women in the room would just have to buy into it.
“Ok,” he said. “I came to talk about film and TV rights, so let me tell you my proposal. I don’t think a movie adaptation of the book will work.”
The surprised looks on all three faces almost made Adam laugh, but he held back.
“Why not?” Dani asked.
“A lot of reasons. Number one, there’s a lack of external conflict. The appeal of the book is you telling your story, what you are feeling. That’s all internal conflict and very difficult to portray onscreen. It would take a hell of an actress to pull it off. Which brings me to another issue, casting. I don’t know of any A-list actress who would take the role because of the constant nudity. And without a big name in that role, it would be relegated to the low budget B movie bin. And without that strong external conflict, it would just be seen as a naked girl running around.”
“So why are you interested in the book?” Audrey asked.
“Because of Dani here. The main reason a movie wouldn’t work is because it wouldn’t have her. It would, presumably, only be an actress playing her. People have seen her on the web or on TV. I think that’s what people want to see. What I want to propose is a reality TV series. Short episodes, maybe only a half hour each, focused on Dani going about her normal day-to-day life interspersed with shots of Dani sitting down in front of a camera talking about her philosophy like she was just doing.”
“A reality series?” Audrey asked.
“Exactly. Some successful television shows have been reality series. And Dani’s story and situation are very compelling. People are interested in it. They will watch it.”
“They’ll watch it just to see a pretty naked girl,” Audrey said.
“And they’ll keep watching because of Dani’s personality and outlook on life. She’s positive and has something that people will respond to. That’s why I wanted to come out here for a meeting rather than do business over the phone like every other project I’ve worked on. I needed to meet her and see how she talks when the camera is running. And these past few minutes have convinced me.”
Dani looked at Audrey, and Adam could tell they really wanted to talk about things. He could also tell that Dani was really excited about the proposal.
“So you don’t want to option the film rights of her book?” Audrey asked.
“Like I said, I don’t think a film adaptation would work. But if we move forward on a reality series, that’s going to keep others from optioning it.”
Audrey looked at Dani. “What do you think? It’s you who would be the focus of this reality series? Do you think you are ready for the spotlight?”
“I’ve already been in that spotlight since right after the sociology experiment started,” she said with a shrug of her bare shoulders, ” and especially since that Stossel show.”
Audrey was still looking at Dani with questioning eyes.
“What would you need from us right now?” she asked Adam.
“Well, I don’t have the funding to shoot a pilot right now. I’ll be meeting with someone at Netflix this week to try to secure that. I have a friend on their review board. If I can’t sell it there, I’m probably not going to be able to sell it anywhere else either.”
Adam took two copies of a printed contract from his briefcase and slid them toward Audrey and Dani. “That’s a two week option agreement. I pay you five hundred dollars for exclusive rights to your story, including the book, for two weeks. If I can’t get a deal with Netflix, you keep the five hundred, and you’re free to option the book to anyone else. If I do get a deal, we start production on a pilot episode this month. I’m proposing that you, Dani, get paid ten thousand per episode to start. It’s all in there.”
Audrey was already reading the agreement. Dani just stared at it as if in a daze.
“Five hundred dollars for two weeks,” Audrey mused.
“Yes,” Adam said. “I’m betting my own money that Netflix will go for it. If not, you’re not out anything. The book won’t even be out then, so you’d be free to negotiate with anyone else. But if Netflix does go for it, we could get a pilot episode together before the book comes out. The marketing of both the show and the book could be tied together.”
Everyone looked at Dani.
“What do you think?” Audrey asked. “You would be putting yourself out there in a way that no one has ever done before.”
Adam couldn’t help but see Dani’s eyes shine as she smiled, and he knew she would say yes. This Dr. Slater really hit the jackpot by finding her, a latent exhibitionist, to use in her study on reactions to nudity.
“Like I said, I’ve already had the spotlight on me for the last few months. I don’t see a downside to this.”
Audrey looked to Silvia. “How will the university feel about a film crew following Dani around?”
“Dani has been huge for this university. Our enrollments are hitting new records. If Dani wants to do this, then I don’t see how the university could refuse any reasonable accommodation.”
“The crew would be small,” Adam said, to reassure Silvia of the reasonableness of any future requests, “just me, a sound guy, and lighting guy. We’ll have a makeup artist set up somewhere before each shoot. But other than that, this will be a small, inexpensive production. Especially since we’d be confined to campus. That’s why I think Netflix will go for it.”
“Actually,” Silvia said, “you wouldn’t be entirely restricted to the campus.”
“How is that?” Adam asked.
“We have arrangements with Deal’s grocery store, Mary Ellen’s bar, and a Denny’s in Palm Springs. Dani is as free to be nude there as she is anywhere on campus.”
“Really,” Adam said. “Those businesses just let her walk on in?”
Silvia shrugged. “Fame has its advantages. And Dani is usually a big hit wherever she goes. The Denny’s is the same one we went to after the Coachella Music Festival. They called me a couple of days later and made it clear that Dani, Naked Dani, was welcome back any time.”
In spite of the video camera still running, Adam wrote down the three off-campus locations. They would have to take advantage of all of them during a full season of shows, if the project got that far.
“How is she going to get to these places?” he asked.
“The university has a pool of vehicles,” Silvia replied. “We can appropriate an older one for the show if we need to.”
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Audrey asked Dani.
“Yes,” she answered, looking at Adam’s camcorder as she spoke. “Absolutely.”
“OK,” Audrey said, motioning toward Adam to see the contract. He slid it over to her, unable to hide his smile.
I check the Amazon page for The “Volunteer” regularly to see if any new reader reviews have been added. It is up to 46 reviews on the American Amazon site now, quite a lot for an independently published novel that has never had a major advertising campaign. Even better, the average rating per review is a lofty 4.5 stars. Thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed The “Volunteer”.
I saw something interesting when I checked the paperback edition’s Amazon page this morning. In the “Customers who viewed this item also viewed” section was another book, a novel, called The Volunteer.
Of course, I clicked on this other novel to check it out. It is by an author named Salvatore Scibona whose previous novel The End was nominated for a National Book Award. His The Volunteer is scheduled to be released on March 5, 2019. I also saw in the “About the Author” section that Salvatore Scibona is the director for the Scullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Coincidentally, I worked as a librarian at the New York Public Library in the early 1990s.
I have mixed feelings about seeing another novel with the title The Volunteer. Titles, of course, cannot be copyrighted, and I’m sure there were other books called The Volunteer published before I submitted mine to the world (although I doubt that anyone put the word Volunteer in quotation marks as part of the title). No, the thing that bothers me just a bit is someone searching for Mr. Scibona’s The Volunteer and finding mine instead. Sure, it might make for more sales for me, but most of the people who have bought my The “Volunteer” have done so because they were attracted to the concept. They knew what they were going to get. I’m not so sure those wanting to read Mr. Scibona’s “epic story of a restless young man who is captured during the Vietnam War and pressed into service for a clandestine branch of the United States government” are going to want to read a first person account from a young woman who reluctantly chooses to go naked in public for a sociology experiment.
Part of my misgiving comes from the fact that I am, like many writers, a bit insecure about my writing. I mentioned this in my last post, that I felt an affinity with William Goldman when he said that he was truly proud of only two of his works. For those who search for Mr. Scibona’s book and find mine, I can only say that I hope you enjoy it. It was written just for the pure fun of writing.
Back in February, I posted that an audio book version of The “Volunteer” was in production. Due to a series of technical difficulties, that production was delayed for several months. I an now very happy to report that the audio version is now available on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.
Merry Christmas everyone!
I was recently a guest on Sean McGuire’s Share a Slice podcast, where we talked about my book The “Volunteer” and several of the aspects of that story: public nudity, nude modeling, activism by Andrew Martinez and Gypsy Taub, and sexualized nudity in media versus commonplace nudity in practice. We even talked about an old episode of MASH and my 2001 appearance on the TV gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Give it a listen here: http://shareaslicepodcast.com/2017/11/07/volunteer/
Imagine being at home, looking out your front window, and seeing your neighbor checking the mail or taking the trash to the curb. Your neighbor is stark naked. What do you do? Do you call the police? And if so, why? Is it because you think you are witnessing the “crime” of being naked in public and feel obligated to report it? Or would you be worried about the mental state of your neighbor and want to get that person help? Or, perhaps you have a live and let live attitude and just decide to ignore the neighbor’s behavior as you continue watching. Would the gender and attractiveness of said neighbor affect your actions?
When you really think about it, why do we as a society have such an aversion to seeing an unclothed human body doing regular (i.e. non-sexual) things? Is it because we associate nudity with sex? Or is it because our media has so inundated us with images of what “attractive” bodies should look like that we just can’t stand to look at “normal” bodies? Whatever the reason, society has conditioned most of us to react negatively to the sight of a nude body.
I have worked as a nude model for art classes for over 30 years, and these societal aversions to nudity have even found their way into the art studios as I am expected to be covered with a robe while not posing. Since I love my job as a model and wish to be asked back to model again, I am not about to challenge such expectations. I therefore tend to think of the model stand as a little oasis in a desert of textiles. In this oasis, I can be free and pure, just as God created me, without having to hide from anyone.
While I’m posing, my mind, left to its own devices, tends to wander. These wanderings provided the genesis of my novel The “Volunteer”. The novel began, like most stories, with a “what if” question: What if someone could be naked anywhere and everywhere? During the development of the story and needing more conflict, that original question was changed to What if someone HAD to be naked everywhere?
The finished book has really been resonating with body freedom activists, those few who hope to challenge that societal aversion to nudity. The following review was posted to the book’s Amazon page a couple of days ago:
And within the last couple of months, the book was discussed on the blogs of two other body freedom activists. The first was the first post of a new blog by a young lady in Oregon. It can be seen here (be aware that the background image may not be NSFW, depending on where you work, of course): http://brookesbarebody.blogspot.com/2017/07/living-nude-publicly.html . The second post was by another author who has apparently been advocating body freedom for a number of years: https://fantasyramblings.blogspot.com/2017/07/i-get-to-be-nude.html
During the writing of The “Volunteer”, I never consciously tried to make a social statement; I was just trying to write a fun story, one that amused me and that I hoped would entertain those who read it. It is gratifying to see it resonating with others. As I work on the sequel (which will pick up right after The “Volunteer” and not 20 years later as the Amazon reviewer above suggested), I hope to continue challenging readers, giving them something that really resonates.
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.”
Get the rest of the book at https://www.amazon.com/Volunteer-Novel-D-H-Jonathan/dp/1534635246/ It’s available in paperback, Kindle, and Audiobook editions.