Years before me, Robert Bly, astride his horizon, saw a starfish with nineteen feet. I read this piece of his on my second or third time under the sun and by the beach of the nudist camp. I had gone there enough times to wear the I have seen everything scowl as if it were my true face. Alone, I had roamed there enough times to know that a book in a nudist camp is just another cloth, just like white shirts and whiter toilets, like calculators and cigarettes, like average-wage jobs and go-for-broke vacations, exactly like the cities and the sea.
After Bly, I stopped bringing books to the beach. I learned to stop measuring the morning sun by how good it was as reading light.
I walked more, explored further. I jumped from one tree shadow to another rather than wear the practical sandals. Sometimes, I walked long enough to withstand the heat of the sand. Always, when under a chain of shadows, I walked my I have seen everything and I have been everywhere walk. Expertly so too, until that summer afternoon when I walked right into something new.
A young man stood four or so trees away from me. He had my back to me as he stared down a woman lying on the shore. Was the woman dead? Thus went my first thought and, with it, the jagged swallowing of the idea that I might have not seen everything yet. But I thought, Wait. Maybe the man just some greenhorn, standing and staring the way he did? No. Something felt off. He stood too close. Nudist newbies look obliquely and from a distance. Almost all of them wore eyeshades, sitting cocksure, as if they have gone to these places since circumcision or elementary graduation. Whichever came first. Then, he turned his head as if a child caught looking up his mother’s skirt. I was walking toward him when he saw me, then he walked away.
When I came close to the spot where the young man stood, I saw that the woman who lay still on the sand had many, many teats. As my head usually works, I was certain there were nineteen even before I recalled the poem. As my head usually works too, I instantly shrugged the number off pending a proper survey. For in fact, that was a years-ago poem, a bunch of words, but strange flesh lay before me under the same sun, with the same sure waves attending our encounter.
I endowed the manifold breast long seconds of regard. Then a breath before I noticed that I was standing on the same spot where the young man stood and that the position was the nearest possible place to the woman without getting in the way of her sun.
I started counting the teats, by the nipple, to be sure. I counted nineteen! Each a finger or a bulbous fist topped with a hazelnut aureole and slightly stronger-hued nipple. However, there lay no equity of sunlight among them. Only five wholly basked in the sun. Five lords of the chest, pillars of the woman earth! Elect by their size and position, these five threw shadows that prevented the full tanning of their brethren.
I counted, and then I counted again. I felt a curious gladness to keep my shadows off her, to preserve her golden chiaroscuro. Even the shadow of my right pointer made sure not to intrude as the finger took its survey. I counted for the fourth or fifth time, until I felt certain that I did not miss a nipple that could have been tucked between an armpit and another teat or count one extra where there could have been a mere fold of skin or stomach.
Nineteen! Somehow feeling full, I left. Promptly, another took the spot as if relieving me of my post. I knew I was one of many who came, who saw, who counted. Then we, each in our own turn, made our way in the shifts of sand and surf.
Did it occur to the young man before me or the faceless man after me or to any of those who came before or after whomever that, hey, maybe we were the ones counted? Nineteen nipples and five of them, interestingly or interestedly, were erect. I cannot know if the thought occurred to anybody else. After having given up print and both sides of the page, I publish this piece to communicate. Please consider this possibility: we were the ones counted!
While I have no way of knowing how they observed or reflected on what they saw, until any one of them comes forth to contradict me, I remain dead sure of three things. One, we all came back to that stripped stretch of shore hours or years after and did not find her; two, we all took for granted that she was alive; and three, not one of us remembers if the woman was smiling.