Our Maui travel plans hadn’t included a nude beach. The bohemian escapade happened by accident, when, after a stroll down Big Beach and nary a shell for my mother to collect, she asked which beach I liked best.
I decided to be honest. “Little Beach. Quaint and clothing optional.”
It was the spring of 1998, four years into the Clinton administration’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. At the time, my sexual orientation was subject to a similar self-imposed policy within my family.
I was 36, and for over 20 years I’d scrubbed gay life from our conversations — boyfriends, drag parties, the gay swim team, the law firm homophobia — all nonexistent. Even the two mentors lost to AIDS, a painful awakening to the fragility of life, omitted. I’d created a social distance I hated and now wanted to close with this vacation, pitched as a parent-son bonding experience — no siblings, the three of us, alone.
“Any shells?” my mother asked. Not the response I expected. We didn’t lead ascetic lives, but prudish attitudes had invaded our psyches. Body exploration was private; porn, proscribed; sex, kept secret. My inner teenager, that prone-to-shock kid, dangled visions of shells and fun lava pools. Her eyes lit up. “We should go tomorrow.”
My Air Force-trained father lowered his binoculars and turned from watching a humpback whale fluke slap the water. Had his petite Christian wife with a puffball of permed hair just asked to go to a nude beach? His grunt, almost inaudible, said everything. This was going to be a disaster.
In bed that night, I tossed, guilt-ridden over pushing my suburban mother out of her comfort zone.
My first au naturel experience on Little Beach had been a liberating proclamation of emotional comfort — naked, before you, this is who I am. The adult-me deserved to share that, I rationalized. And the child-me yearned for tradition, as when, on family vacations to the Outer Banks, my mother and I had searched for sea treasures. Knobby whelks, scotch bonnets, Queen Helmet conchs — the shells, once hard exoskeletons for soft-bodied sea creatures, were chinked with tide-tumbled battle scars. “Not perfect,” she’d say, placing a shell into my bucket. “But a keeper.”
Now we were all adults, I thought to myself. What could go wrong? My mother would collect shells for her expanding pile in the hallway bathroom back in North Carolina — spiny urchins, weathered sea glass, fishing nets with skate eggs and sand dollars, displayed like shiny brass trophies.
On visits home I had pressured her to cull her collection. My toothbrush barely fit on the bathroom counter. Wasn’t the goal to keep the perfect, dispose of the blemished? For years, I, the abnormal son, had covered perceived character flaws with my own trophies — straight A’s, class president, choralist, swimmer, biochemist, patent attorney — the creation of a hard shell like the Queen Helmet conch, where underneath, in the hollow birth chamber, I hid my soft, vulnerable underbelly.
The next morning, we returned to Makena State Park, hiked over a jagged lava outcrop, then down through thorny kiawe trees to Little Beach — a pristine stretch of sand at the base of a cinder cone. The shore break was gentle; the water, a bright shade of turquoise; the briny air, warm. Bare-bottomed sunbathers crowded the umbrella-dotted beach, a spectrum of gays to straights with an ambiguous mix in the middle.
My stomach pitched, nervous over my parents’ reaction and the onslaught of beach-goer ridicule I envisioned. While I was shirtless, in boardshorts and a Speedo underneath, my parents stood out like neon warning signs in shorts, knee-high socks and tennis shoes, their matching polos buttoned-up. Sunscreen had been applied with a trowel. Straw hats had been anchored around chins. The gawking haoles, as native Hawaiians called visitors, have arrived!
My father and I stepped onto the hot sand. But my mother hesitated, dazed and unsure. I held out my hand. Come. Come experience this together.
We searched for an open spot, maneuvering around a gray-haired woman with a goat, past a clique of sun-kissed college girls, and away from a rowdy pack of locals, one of whom I called Tarzan — a Little Beach legend with stringy bleached hair and skin like an old leathered satchel.
We staked a claim in front with the beach walkers, body surfers and a doughy man with a Hula-Hoop, his appendage swinging in sync with each hip gyration. Next to us lay a three-generation Bostonian family so at ease with nudity it made me jealous. And nauseated, visualizing being naked, haunch-to-haunch, with my parents. I stripped to my Speedo. My parents removed their shoes and socks.
Silent, I watched them sneak peeks of fresh novelties — tattoos and piercings, rolls and folds. My father was inscrutable; my mother, fidgety and itching to beach comb. I escorted her along the shoreline to the lava pools at the north end, warning her not to venture into the trees.
She found the reason wadded at our feet — someone’s used protection. My face burned. I flicked sand over the condom, said nothing.
An hour later, she returned to the towels, a stash of shells cradled in her shirt. Each one she laid before us with contagious enthusiasm. Look at that rainbow of stripes and spirals. See that glimmer of iridescence. All I saw were chips and rough edges, none of her treasures perfect. To her, each one was a keeper.
As the day progressed, the bucking in my chest subsided. Idle conversation, ocean dips that soaked my parents’ shorts, a shared taboo experience — it fostered a closeness, warmed by their willingness to push boundaries, for a time, at least. Until Tarzan strutted in our direction, his large endowment at half-mast. My mother glanced up from her book as his fluffed genitals passed at eye level, less than two feet away.
She examined her nails.
“Mom? Time to go?”
“The sun,” she nodded, her voice strained. “The sun is too hot.”
That evening at dinner, our relationship shifted. We were comrades cloistered in a booth, emboldened by inhibition-free nudists. Laughter loosened us — Who brings a goat? Does he always strut? We hadn’t freed our undercarriages to the ocean breeze, but Little Beach had stripped a layer of emotional clothing, enough for me to reveal a painful secret.
Chopsticks down, I choked out a confession about a failed relationship that ended in an early midlife crisis. I had achieved my dream of the perfect marriage — an affluent gay couple, two high-profile jobs, two homes, two swanky cars — only to find it an illusion, depressing, empty.
My father, the first to well up, pushed at fried tempura. My mother, shoulders compressed, placed her hand on mine.
Our shared experience opened a dialogue.
Our vacations became a ritual — Italy, London, Australia, Prague. Over time, I removed layers of exoskeleton, revealed more flaws of my soft-bodied underbelly and what it meant to be a gay man. In turn, they revealed what it meant to have a gay son, their hopes and fears, misunderstandings and shame. And eventually, their pride.
Just as I have now come to love the beauty in the chipped edges of my mother’s shells, I came to see my imperfect self through my parents’ eyes and to know that I am a keeper. That I am enough.
Matt Knight is a San Francisco-based writer and intellectual property lawyer at work on two novels.
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