The closer I got to my high school graduation, the more I began to take off my clothes.
I don't mean I took them off in front of a boy, desperately hoping to please him, desperate for validation, self-conscious, daring myself to show my body to another person even if I hated it myself, acting out something I'd seen on TV or acting out of pressure or the fear of losing someone.
At first, it was spontaneous. Once, my friend Meredith, who lived down the street from me, and I were rollerblading through a nearby neighborhood. (It was the '90s.) It was May, and the heat was already oppressive. My T-shirt was saturated with sweat.
"I wish I could take off my shirt," Meredith said. "It's not fair that we can't. Boys can get some relief, and we get nothing."
I nodded my head in agreement and shrugged. It was unfair, yes, but that was just the way it was.
Meredith reached out and touched my damp forearm. "Wait a minute. What if we did? I mean, there's no one around, and who cares anyway, right? Soon we won't even live here."
A wicked smile played across my lips. Finally, a touch of wonder to what had otherwise become my drab, predictable universe. "Yes." And like that, we wriggled out of our shirts and balled them up in our fists. We threw our heads back and laughed at our own brazenness; the air felt charged.
Sometimes I was alone. I'd started driving out to the beach after dark to stare at the moon and squint through the diaphanous light from the nearby street lamps, past the soft curve of sand, out into the riotous swell of the ocean and black night. In front of me were shadows. I'd sit on the hood of my car and take off my shirt, letting the temperate breeze wash over me. In just three months, I'd be away at college.
I was saying good-bye.
I was saying hello.
For my high school graduation I chose to wear a sleeveless, beige dress with imperceptible belt loops and a stiff belt the same color. I wore stockings and nude kitten heels. I wore a cap and gown at the ceremony, like everyone else, but I was excited to reveal my outfit at the small party my mom had thrown for me. Really it was more of a gathering, just me and three senior friends drinking soda and eating pizza.
At seventeen I hadn't realized how misguided the outfit was. The dress and heels were something a career woman would wear, to an interview or meeting or lunch with a client. I should have worn a flouncy, flirtatious skirt or my most comfortable jeans. But instead, subconsciously, I'd chosen to dress for the future, even though, in reality, I had no idea what that might look like.
Once my mother went to bed, I devised a plan. My friends and I would take off our clothes, each put on one of my mother's coats, go to the end of my block, then toss off our coats and run down the street naked.
At first my friends scoffed at my idea, but before long, I'd convinced them and they'd become giddy with excitement.
Fortunately, even though we lived in Florida, my mom had held on to a few decades-old coats that she kept in the downstairs closet. One was a denim ankle-length coat with fat navy buttons and a sash around the waist. Another was a brown rain jacket with a hood that hit my friend Jackie just above the knee. My friend Lauren chose the pale-yellow trench coat that brushed her mid-calf. That left just me without a coat, so I offered to take off my belt, shoes, stockings, and underwear in advance, and just heave the dress over my head when it was time.
We crept out my front door, giggling, shushing each other and telling each other to "be quiet," and made our way to the stop sign perpendicular to my street. It wasn't late, but it was very dark and still. The plan was to run naked a full block down the street, past the church and a couple of other neighborhoods, and then run back to the stop sign to throw back on our clothes.
I held still for a moment, my dress still on, looking out into that authoritative blackness. I thought about how confident my friends were, how they all seemed so sure that they could design their futures, and how I, no matter how intensely I looked, still couldn't see what was ahead of me. I was nervous to run naked down the street, yet I felt this persistent urge to tear into that immersive blackness, to tear through it. I would know the end when I got there.
I started counting: one, two ... We gave each other furtive glances, but when I said three, we flung off our clothes and took off like a shot, gulping for air, one of us squealing, our silky sheets of hair flying behind us.
We made it back to the stop sign without incident. I was panting, exhilarated. The shapeless night had been a worthy audience for my nakedness, both literal and figurative. I had been wholly unselfconscious, uninhibited, perfect. I had shed that laughable dress, never to be worn again, leaving it behind for good. I had loosened myself from where I stood and rushed into what was in front of me, even though I couldn't fully see it.
And even though I didn't know it then, I had given myself a gift. I had given myself an insight: It didn't matter how I chose to dress or act based on other people's expectations or even my own expectations of myself. Underneath all that, there would always be a certain purity, as real as the body I was born with, that could be hidden away but never denied. The distinction between actual and artifice can be hard to make as a teenager, but knowing that the real me was a constant, not something that could be changed as easily as a dress, was comforting in a way. As I was about to move away from home and attend college, I knew that the learning curve might be steep and that I'd make mistakes along the way, but I also knew that I'd always be the same girl I've always been and that I could trust myself to recover from missteps and land right where I needed to be. It's funny sometimes how striving to have an adolescent adventure can instead lead you to do something you'd never planned on doing -- growing up.