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Ostrich Theory

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

Ostrich Theory by Pam Houston          
I was twenty-two years old the first time I went to Europe with a backpack, a strict ten-dollar-a-day limit on spending money and a dog-eared copy of Let’s Go Europe. I was there with my boyfriend — though in retrospect I can say that the relationship was so friendly and passionless that I’m tempted to call him my roommate — and we had become experts, due to our budget, at all the best things in Europe that are free.

    One such place was the Englischer Garten, a clothing-optional park in downtown Munich, where Bavarians of all shapes gathered at lunchtime, removed their clothes and flung themselves into a series of ancient stone canals that carried water through the park. It was a weekday, and the piles of three-piece suits and rayon dresses out-numbered the piles of T-shirts and shorts. There were piles of hospital scrubs and janitorial uniforms, there were Gucci loafers and Armani slacks.

    I had been raised to be ashamed of my body, had been told I was fat by my anorexic mother since I was old enough to form the word. What I wouldn’t give to have that twenty-two-year-old, 5’6″, 125-pound body right now — even for five minutes — just so I could apologize to it for never letting it feel like the sexy thing it must have been, with its perfectly shaped breasts, its slightly rounded tummy, its tight backpacker’s ass and my mother’s dancer’s legs.

    But sitting in the Englischer Garten, contemplating being publicly naked for the first time, I was paralyzed. It took my boyfriend exactly thirty seconds to get bored with my hesitation before he threw his clothes off, jumped in the canal and disappeared around the first bend. I moved as close to the canal as I could get and still look casual and pulled my dress over my head. I threw it and my underwear and my glasses (on the ostrich theory) onto the grass and slipped into the canal so fast that no one could have seen me. The water was colder than it had felt when I tested it with my toe. The world outside of my three-foot radius of vision was soft and fuzzy, blue sky, oak trees, flesh-colored shapes moving, lounging, laughing and shouting to each other in that Bavarian German that’s half bark and half song.

    After a few minutes the water felt right, and my brown feet stuck out of the water in front of me in a happy way and I arched my back so that my breasts did too. I tried not to think about the inevitable: that I would have to get out of the water and walk, naked (and blind) past hundreds of people on the way to my clothes.

    At first, it was like I didn’t know how to walk without clothes on. It was as if I believed the object of the game was to keep my breasts from bouncing, which I soon discovered was impossible, and then I discovered I liked the way they felt when they bounced. I liked the way the soft summer air felt on the tops of my thighs, and I started taking bigger strides, letting my hips move from side to side like a stripper takes a stage all lit up by her own fire. I had never even had sex with the lights on at that age, but I was performing in the Englischer Garten, from the safe center of my own myopia, and I wasn’t quite blind enough to pretend that no one was watching me. It was a subtle performance, the occasional cupping of both breasts as if to wipe the sweat from underneath them, the more frequent breaking of stride to stretch this way and that as if to look for my boyfriend, the less frequent absent-minded brush of the back of my palm against the curls of my pubic hair.

    It was just then I felt arms encircle my waist, and, sure it was my boyfriend, I turned around. The man had dark hair and what looked like a perpetual laugh on his thirty-something face. He had a lot of chest hair and about half a hard-on, and he pressed every part of his body against every part of mine, said a short sentence into my ear in
a language I did not understand and then kissed me first on the neck and then on the mouth. I thought I might come, or faint, or scream, but all I did was kiss him back and match his smile when the kiss was finished. He released me, than squeezed my shoulders and trotted back to his clothes — a waiter’s dark pants and white shirt — which sat beside a nearby oak. I turned toward the part of the park where my dress, and possibly my boyfriend, lay waiting.


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For more Pam Houston, read:

Ostrich Theory
Confessions of a First-Time Pornographer
Places to Hide a Body


©2000 Pam Houston and Nerve.com, Inc.