The mayor told us not to wear clothes anymore.
It was really a crazy thing for him to say. We couldn’t believe it.
No one thought he’d make it into office and then no one thought he’d make it one year and then two, and then there we were in his third term, and he told us to strip down. At first, we thought it was a bad joke. Our mayors had never been sensational before, but this mayor often was. We’d grown accustomed to fading outrage.
At the press conference, the mayor and his staff filed out onto the stage stark naked and conducted business as usual. Employment opportunities, they said. Crime rates under control. They talked about everything but the nudity. We watched it on the local station, and the decency censors blurred on and off, confused with all the body parts and what to do with them. The reporters were stunned silent. Their seats were right up close. The mayor and his staffers carried themselves with the same postures they’d used the day before, but without the wrappings—the grayed suits and ill-fitting dress shirts, gone. Not one of them looked embarrassed or covered themselves up.
This mayor had done a number on us. He was vulgar and rude and only good to people who were exactly like him. We’d thought at first that he was a simple, stupid man. We’d made efforts to unseat him, but he’d outsmarted us, often seemingly by accident. We thought our systems were better equipped to handle a man like him, but in fact they were flimsy and largely untested. There wasn’t a scandal or a soundbite our mayor couldn’t withstand, couldn’t twist in his favor. He’d punished his opponents and gathered enough power to seem almost untouchable. We’d learned that our town was a scattered, split place—that our beliefs and values were not things we held in common. The whole thing made us scared and disoriented. How had we gotten here? Why had we chosen this man to lead us?
The mayor announced the nudity decree behind a glass podium. We saw that he literally flexed his muscles when he figuratively flexed his muscles. He grinned through the whole speech. This stunt was only the latest power play; he wanted to see how far he could push us from who we’d been, before him. Surely this was the final straw. We thought that we would be rid of the mayor, now that everyone could see how small he was.
But the first to disrobe were conservatives. They marched down our streets, naked and loose. They carried signs that asked What’ve you got to hide?—that proclaimed, Look what the Lord has made! and My Body, My Choice! It was quite a thing to see—droves of bodies, reddening where the sun touched their newly exposed skin. The demonstrators called for us to join them. We stood in our offices and watched them through the windows. We tightened our ties and pulled at our pencil skirts and didn’t know what to make of it.
We’d used nudity against them before. We’d made walls of ourselves and undressed to upset them, and they’d cited us for decency. Once, we unleashed a row of women on the town hall lawn with letters printed across their bellies like they were football fans. R E S I S T, said the bodies. Printed beneath rows of bare, hanging tits. We called them tits, too. It’d upset the supporters then, but the mayor enjoyed it. Our elected official issued a statement the next morning that read, Sure, I love boobies! It had unsettled us. And now, with this new decree, we feared we’d given him the idea.
It was strange what the nudity did to us—what the nakedness undid.
The mayor’s supporters had to follow along or risk admitting that things had gotten out of hand, that in fact they’d been bamboozled in the first place. They filed into banks and churches and sports stadiums, bare and fleshy. They swayed and bellowed in those arenas of worship. Their children were confused, but resilient, as children often are. They questioned their parents, then grew unfazed. The supporters breastfed publicly and learned to make eye contact with one another again. They let their body hair come in thick and full because the mayor had. They developed wonderful body images in order to prove a point.
The rest of us layered up. We covered our skin with baggy jeans and sweatshirts. We hid our outlines in order to rebel. That first winter, we were at clear advantage. Supporters could only wear shoes at all times, carried umbrellas when it snowed. They sprinted from place to place, or else stayed indoors. They talked about moving to Florida, but ultimately stayed put.
But the black smog from the local petroleum refinery—in which the mayor had a large investment—climbed into the sky and parted the clouds to let the sun through hot and early that spring. We suffered in the hot seasons, sweltering in our political statements. We carried water to keep hydrated. At public swimming pools and lakes, we watched our opposition splash and frolic. From inside our fabric tents, we squinted through the glare of the sun bouncing off of every part of them. We thought that they looked free.
You might guess that sex happened all the time, but it didn’t. It probably happened less. Something about the naked body being readily available, so out in the open, made it less desirable. You’d see bodies crammed into bus seats, bodies slouching through produce aisles, bodies exposed to harsh and unflattering lighting. All that flesh laid bare in every kind of setting made it look almost natural. The places, not the people, began to look strange.
Porn habits faltered and dimmed. Gone was the need to click through videos in dark rooms, feeling guilty and depraved. Consumers only needed to go outside and join the world. The sex appeal that emerged was more honest. Lacy underthings were trappings of the past. We stopped asking for nudes, stopped receiving those that were unsolicited in the first place.
We noticed that the women who supported the mayor often went missing—in groups, or on a one-off basis. Sinister, we called it, at first. We considered launching an investigation. Though the mayor claimed to love women, he also clearly hated them.
But when the women reemerged, they seemed unharmed. We learned—painstakingly, in whispers—that they self-elected to remain indoors during their monthlies. They were permitted to wear underwear and pads (the purest cure for menstruation) for a week each month as long as they stayed out of sight. While many of our own used tampons or silicone cups or strategic plastic devices tucked deep that stopped up a flow entirely, it was reported that more than one woman of the resistance caught herself wishing for a dark room—for snacks and rest and unfettered time to bleed alone, in peace.
The mayor shut down half the town’s retail. Clothing stores put everything on sale, then liquidated. The night before Black Friday, supporters burned down the outlet malls. Firefighters arrived sporting hoses and nothing more. They cowered, refused to tame the blaze. Though the arsonists stood just beside their crimes, keeping warm against the chilly night air, they were not prosecuted.
Instead, the remaining resistance was strip-searched and left bare. Our houses were raided, clothing criminalized. Neighbors reported neighbors when they saw them through windows, still brazen and covered in the safety of their homes.
In the wake of such force, we relented. Resistance was tiring, and it was hard on us to feel singled-out and strange. To feel powerless. We were so hot in our layers that when they were stripped away from us, we mostly felt relief. Those required to cover up by faith or culture experienced shame, but our town was learning to cope with that emotion differently, or to ignore it altogether. The mayor felt no shame, and he seemed happy. We hoped to be happy, too.
The nudity was hardly an inconvenience. It took us no time to get ready in the morning—we stepped right from our showers and out the door, climbed into our cars to spend the day filing the same reports that we had filed the week before. And we belonged.
The mayor appeared on television to gloat. He was not a humble man. He strutted to the podium, grinning and posturing. He used our tax dollars to golf daily, and we saw that his tan was evening out. He shushed the constituents gathered before him with a finger to his lips—smiling or sneering behind his upheld pointer. We leaned in. Surely this was the last he would ask of us. The glow of the TV screens bounced off our pure, naked skin and we waited for him to tell us we were beautiful.
I think that, probably, I am growing a white baby. Even now, in the cocoa dome of my belly, there is a white baby swelling larger each day.
I only call it White Baby in my head. When people say, Oh, you’re having a baby, I say, I sure am! Or, Is it that obvious?
I think, Yes, and the baby is white.
Last week, my husband found me sprawled on the kitchen floor with sheets of paper strewn around me.
We’re having a white baby, I said.
Do you know something I don’t? he asked, even though I’d just told him exactly that.
I gestured to the papers.
Windows? he said.
They were Punnett Squares. Our baby might inherit his intellect, or mine. It will have curly hair, brown eyes. But the tint to our skin came to us from different corners of the world. Our baby will be ¼ his father and ¼ mine and a whole ½ our mothers, who are white.
My husband said, You’re being crazy, which is a word he’s agreed not to call me while I’m carrying our baby—our white baby.
He said, We’ll love it any which way.
But I am not so sure.
White babies are my least favorite. They are sometimes transparent, sometimes pink and squashed and gauzy. I worry they’ll bruise if I touch them at all, which I don’t.
Brown babies look like kin, and I am likely to reach for them, to press my finger into their palms. The babies in my family are off-kilter at first, and grow into their heads. My husband was born dark, and lightened up with time. We could be further blended—he and I—or else, almost unmade; the brown of us and before us: paled, pallid, gone.
What’s more, if this baby is white, will anyone believe it’s mine? Will I?
My mother says that when she walked me in my stroller, women stopped her and peered in. Oh, these white women would say, what a beautiful tan she has!
My mother wanted to say, You think I leave my baby in the sun?
Sure, she said instead.
I am loved—my mother loves me—but I worry about loving a white baby. Not for any of the heavy, meaningful reasons, but because it is easier to love what we find beautiful—what is, in part, ourselves.
I’ve heard stories of hormone-frenzied women: pregnant and hunched over the ground, chewing chalk straight from the earth. I consider dark chocolate and coffee grounds, charcoal briquettes. I eat pimento cheese, pickles, beets—colors a baby could not possibly be. After, I run my fingertips, stained red with Hot Cheeto dust, in spirals over my stomach.
White Baby, White Baby, I whisper, streaking my skin with imitation spice, and a foot or an elbow slides across the rim of my belly, like I am calling it forward.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.