WHEN IN ROME • by Wayne Scheer

Mark felt stranded in the middle of nowhere — naked. Not exactly stranded, since his car was in good working order and remained parked exactly where he had left it; and not exactly the middle of nowhere, since he had followed accurate directions to get there. But he was naked.

His heart pounded as a warm breeze whispered over parts of his body that had never been privy to nature’s breath. A young woman smiled as she clopped past him in sandals and nothing else. He gathered every bit of self-restraint to keep from turning around to check her out as she passed.

He stared at what had to be at least one hundred naked bodies — men, women, teenagers and toddlers — some swimming and others lounging poolside. Many stood, casually talking to one another, as if no one even noticed they had no clothes on.

He’d left his clothes in the car, as instructed at the gate, and carried a small bag with a towel, suntan lotion and a book — the three essentials of nudism, he was told.

What had he gotten himself into?

When his friends, Eliot and Sandra, asked if he’d like to join them at their club for a Saturday afternoon swim and barbecue, he said, “Sure.” When they told him what kind of a club it was, he tried acting cool and repeated, “Sure,” his voice cracking like he was fourteen all over again.

They had been friends since he moved into the house next door after his divorce. While he was still unpacking, they welcomed him to the neighborhood and helped him move furniture. When Sandra found out he was single, she wanted to introduce him to her single girlfriends. But he told her he wasn’t ready.

He and Eliot learned they liked racquetball and arranged a Tuesday and Thursday game, which they kept with almost religious devotion. He hadn’t realized how much he had missed having a male friend during a six-year marriage to a woman who had demanded most of his free time.

“Mark! Over here.” He turned to see his friends walking towards him. He had never imagined Sandra’s breasts were so… impressive. Trying not to stare, he took a step back when she greeted him with a hug, just as she always did. He was relieved Eliot merely held out his hand.

“I’m so glad you made it,” Sandra said. “We were betting on whether you’d chicken out.”

“Who lost?”

“Let’s just say I do dishes this week,” Eliot said.

Sandra led the way to their chaise lounges. Again, he tried not to stare, but she had a red balloon on a black string tattooed on her rear end.

Trying not to dwell on what he was looking at, he turned to Eliot. “Why’d you think I’d chicken out?”

“What I’ve discovered here is that men are generally more self-conscious than women.”

“Now that you mention it,” he lowered his voice. “I am a little worried that I… uh… might get excited and — ”

Eliot saved him. “That’s when you roll over and sun your buns. Or jump in the pool.”

When they got to their chairs, Eliot asked if he wanted a beer or if he’d rather take a swim.

“A beer.” He laughed. “Right now, I need a beer more than a swim.”

It took less time for him to adjust than he thought. Everything seemed so… well… normal that he almost forgot where he was until, while he sat in a crowded hot tub, a woman he recognized toed her way in. Once she adjusted to the hot, bubbling water, he caught her eye.

“Brenda? Brenda Fallon?”

She looked up and immediately turned red. “Mark?”

At work, her cubicle and his were adjacent, yet they had never shared more than, “Good morning.” He found her attractive but at work she seemed so austere in her pulled-back hair, pants suits and modest heels, he never dared pursue his feelings.

“Are you all right?” Mark asked, as he maneuvered to sit next to her. “Your face is red. The water may be too hot.”

She smiled. “The water’s fine. I just didn’t expect to see someone I know here.” After a few moments, she confessed, “This is my first time.”

Mark assumed so by her lack of an all-over tan. His friends had commented on what they called his cottontail.

“Mine, too,” he admitted.

“My girlfriend convinced me to join her after she found a two-for-one coupon. She claimed she was sick this morning, but I decided to come here anyway.”

Mark took a chance. “I’m glad you did.”

She smiled, and turned an even deeper shade of red.

They talked freely about work, their past marriages to controlling spouses and their desire to loosen up. “Maybe at work, I’ll undo my tie,” Mark joked.

By the time they admitted if they stayed in the tub any longer they’d turn into raisins, they felt like old friends. Mark worried, as they stepped out of the tub, he might embarrass himself, but to his relief he remained cool.

After introducing Brenda to his friends, he spent the rest of the afternoon with her. She left before the club’s chicken cookout because she had to get home to her dog.

At the cookout, Sandra asked Mark if he had a good time and would he consider joining them again.

“As a matter of fact,” he said, still trying to act cool, “Brenda and I plan on coming back next weekend. We rented a cabin so she can bring her dog.”

Sandra hugged him and kissed his cheek. “I guess that means you’re ready.” She immediately told him about a friend of hers.

He stopped her. “For the time being, I’m going to see what happens with Brenda and me.”

Eliot laughed. “Just don’t let her interfere with our racquetball schedule.”

Mark realized, as he stood talking with his friends, he had become one of those people who hardly noticed he wasn’t wearing clothes.

Wayne Scheer has been locked in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne’s, not the turtle’s.) To keep from going back to work, he’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including, Revealing Moments, a collection of twenty-four flash stories, available at http://www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews.htm. He’s been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. Wayne can be contacted at wvscheer@aol.com.

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