Public nudity wasn’t a subject Charles Grossman had considered for the first sixty years of his life. From sixty-one to sixty-three, it was all he ever thought about.
He believed himself to be a lucky man, and under the protection of a guardian angel. Look at what happened on 9/11: he was at his father’s funeral in Palm Beach on the morning his South Tower office imploded. When Charlie told his story, as he often did, that was where he started. That was the “wake-up call.”
Then came the series of events he called his “liberation.” First, the divorce. It wasn’t a bad marriage, but it had never been great. She’d had no interest in having sex after the hysterectomy. He didn’t blame her, but he didn’t particularly want to spend the rest of his life with a dried-up pussy, either. He gave her everything she asked for, without rancor. He didn’t miss the apartment on East 85th, or the house in Amagansett. His two grown children — son working for a bank in Hong Kong, married daughter in Chicago undergoing fertility treatments — accepted the change without much complaint. He had no mistress, he would only remarry with a prenup, he was done having children. There would be no new family to split his will. That was all they needed to hear.
So that was Phase 1.
Phase 2 took three years and involved working out with a personal trainer, hair plugs, electrolysis, a tummy tuck, and active profiles on Match.com and J-Date. Nothing serious. He enjoyed his status as a wealthy, unattached older man — the kind of guy who could fuck his personal trainer, if he wanted to. And he wanted to. With her muscled flanks, cheekbones, and fine blond hair, Lynette made him think of a Russian farm girl. The kind his forebears in the shtetl lusted after. Charlie was proud of himself after he fucked her; proud he felt no guilt. He bragged to his therapist about it. Dr. Kaufman was impressed.
He managed a hedge fund, and his luck held. He made back over half of what he’d given his ex-wife. More than he’d expected, and he was grateful for it.
Then, one morning (he loved this part of the story) he woke up and heard a Voice clearly speak the words: “Time to go.” Maybe it was a neighbor, maybe it was someone in the hallway. He could acknowledge that. But Charlie chose to believe it was his guardian angel. “Deep knowing” were the words he used.
He listened. Quit the business and liquidated his assets. Just like that. His colleagues thought he was nuts. A few years later, when the recession hit, they envied him. He’d had some money with Madoff, got every penny out. Deep knowing.
In Phase 3, Charlie realized a dream of his youth. He moved out west. Bought a house a mile from the beach in Malibu and took surfing lessons. He was clumsy, but he loved being in the Pacific. Loved the “Zen” of it.
Inspired by his experience with the guardian angel, Charlie delved into New Age spirituality and attended a week-long yoga and meditation retreat up at Spirit Rock.
It was a seminal experience. While doing a two-hour sit — blinking at a wall, his knee killing him — another deep knowing came: if he’d stayed in Manhattan one month longer, he’d have gotten cancer. There was no way to prove it, but it was an assertion he made to everyone.
“One more month. Colon cancer, I’m positive,” he’d say, then pause for dramatic effect. “I would have died.”
“Ahh, you’re so lucky,” people would say.
Charlie nodded. He was lucky.
He met Peggy at that retreat, a divorced yoga teacher, 48, Jewish. She was built like a prehistoric fetish of the Earth Goddess, with wide mama hips and big, hanging tits. Peggy was the one who turned him on to nudism.
The first time Charlie took off his clothes he felt anxious. Intellectually, he knew he shouldn’t. He was in good physical shape, more so than most of the other naked people at the “clothing-optional” Desert Hot Springs resort — a mix of hippies, middle-aged swingers, and Germans. People had sometimes told him he resembled the actor Ricardo Montalban. His cock was of a respectable length and girth, his scrotum admirably firm for his age.
Still, he had a hard time taking his swim trunks off in front of strange women. An image of his dead mother flashed into his mind, horror in her face, “oy.” He thought of his bar mitzvah, his pubescent voice cracking, zits on his face, Rabbi Cornfeld’s sour armpit smell. He thought of Passover twenty-five years ago, his wife with layered eighties hair and shoulder pads, his daughter Debra at fifteen, chubby and miserable. Flourless cakes dry as his wife’s snatch. Dai daiyenu…stop!
Charlie closed his eyes, breathed the yogic breath. Silenced his monkey mind. And stripped.
He stood at the pool’s edge, dick swinging, desert breeze tickling his nuts.
It was good.
He was free. Shameless. Adam in the goddamned Garden of Eden.
He grinned at Peggy, goofy. She was in the pool, tits floating like water balloons. She gave him a thumbs-up.
He got into the water. Looked down at his buoyant cock and balls. Felt the mineral spring cleaning out his ass until the puckered hole felt shiny and new.
Charlie called this his “baptism.” His “born-again moment.” (He’d always smirk when he said “born-again.”)
Phase 4 began with Charlie dropping $45,000 on a custom Harley-Davidson and $21.95 on a new edition of Hot Springs and Hot Pools of the Southwest. His life became a series of long highway rides in the regal seat of his black Harley, interrupted by dusty hikes through desert scrub and hillside chaparral in search of geothermal pools.
“Juvenile water,” they call it, water that hasn’t seen the light of day since the age of the dinosaurs, rich with iron and stinking sulfur. Native shamans had used hot springs for medicine, sallow Victorians for their wellness retreats. They “took the waters.” And, just as Charlie knew that leaving New York had saved him from cancer, he knew that these primordial immersions would grant him health and longevity.
Nudity was key. It “opened him to a whole new level,” “made his body receptive,” “harmonized him with the chi field.” At which point the scalding heat of the springs — 115?F or more — would “penetrate the core of his being,” opening his pores, flowing up his rectum and into the tip of his penis. As he soaked and sweated, he loved to think about long-necked plesiosaurs gliding through this same water a hundred million years ago, when California was a shallow sea. His pulse pounded. He breathed the air, the rotten-egg sulfur smell (good for the lungs), looked at the sky, listened to birds. He’d emerge clean and strong. He’d live to 90, easy.
At first, Peggy went with him, taking day trips up to natural pools in Ojai, jaunts out to the nude beach in Santa Barbara. But she couldn’t keep up with his rigorous schedule — he’d soak four, five times a week — and they drifted apart. Charlie didn’t mind going alone. Sometimes he’d get a hot spring all to himself. He’d feel glorious in his solitude, the last man living. Or the first: Adam, before Eve.
Often other folks were there. White-bearded hippies and their soft women. Sagging bellies and boobs. But sometimes he’d get lucky, and there’d be a young girl or two. Girls with dreadlocks, tattoos, piercings in exciting places. Thin, high-breasted, beautiful. They came with their boyfriends or in a group of women. They smelled of pot and patchouli. Charlie would get hard looking at them — a pleasant sensation in the bubbling water.
He was proud of how easily he still got erections, like a man in his twenties. No Viagra. His doctor had recommended blood-pressure medication, a standard preventative measure for men of his age. Charlie refused. He knew guys who took the pills then couldn’t get it up anymore. Their wives were invariably pleased to be relieved from duty. But Charlie wasn’t ready for penile retirement. He didn’t need beta blockers. Diet, exercise, and the hot soaks kept him healthy as a horse. With a functional dick, thank you very much.
Once, at Mercey Springs, off the 5 — a hole-in-the-wall camping/cabin resort with some tubs and private soaking rooms — he saw a young girl with a man his age. She looked nineteen, short bleached hair, freckles, flat-chested. He was gray, grizzled, fat — and happy as a pig in shit. Charlie heard them fucking in one of the private baths. Grunts, squeals, water splashing, asses slapping against ceramic. He wondered what their arrangement was, what was in it for her. He couldn’t stop thinking about the couple, the hard nipples on the girl. It blew the experience for him. He felt constricted in the bathtubs, wanted to get back to something rougher, more natural.
He ventured further afield, up to the Oregon wilderness. Cold fresh air, rain, lakes, rivers, mossy spruce, Douglas fir. Volcanic mountains that pumped magma-heated water into green forest pools. It was there, up at Breitenbush, that he saw her.
Breitenbush was an old hippie commune that had been renovated as a clothing-optional hot springs resort for crunchy Oregonians. It retained its hippie vibe, with a resident community that serviced the springs, kept the geothermally heated guest cabins warm and clean, and fed the visitors organic vegan meals three times daily. It was too crowded for Charlie’s taste. But the pools were excellent, offering stirring views of the Breitenbush River, swollen and white-capped in late May.
And the girls were beautiful. Oregon girls, healthy, unshaven. They put the “bush” in Breitenbush. Sitting on the lawn outside the main lodge, breastfeeding babies, hula-hooping. They made Charlie feel like the ’60s were back. He didn’t appreciate them the first time around. He was too young, too square. He was still listening to Johnny Mathis, Allan Sherman. The Four fucking Lads. Trying to decide if he’d rather be a doctor or a lawyer. (Jesus.) But it wasn’t too late.
Charlie’s guardian angel led him to her. He was up in the main office, booking a massage, flipping through their brochure of healing practitioners. The old gal behind the desk with the turquoise earrings was pushing the shiatsu, but for some reason Charlie was drawn to the “Hawaiian Lomi Lomi.” He had no idea what it was, but he liked the sound of it: “Lohhhhmee Lohhhhmee.” The masseuse was named Shantara, and there was a photo of her: silky dark hair, big eyes, shy smile. He scheduled the appointment for the next morning, ten a.m.
He saw her in the dinner hall that night, carrying a bowl of quinoa salad to the buffet table. One of the residents, doing her service. She was a little thing, half Thai or Vietnamese, maybe. He put her in her late twenties. Green hemp sweater over an orange sarong. Thin brown legs, shapely feet, rings on her toes. Small, pointed breasts — dark-nippled, he imagined. Her skin looked soft. She reminded him of a wild animal. He felt himself get hard. Thought, she could be your daughter. Then he considered his fat, anxious daughter, and looked at Shantara. And knew this nymph would never need an injection to quicken her wet womb.
He slept poorly. He hadn’t been a worrier since his Manhattan days, but that night his mind raced. What if he got an erection on the massage table? This was the first time since high school he’d been concerned about this issue. He’d been able to conceal all his hot pool hard-ons underwater. He’d never gotten more than a chubby during a massage, and hadn’t particularly cared about offending the sensibilities of someone he was paying to knead his ass.
But Charlie cared about Shantara. She seemed so innocent. That sweet smile. What if she was horrified? There he’d be: supine on the massage table, his Casper the Ghost dick poking up from under the sheet. What if she refused to touch him? Asked him to leave?
Charlie tossed and turned, sweating from the geothermal heater, which had only two settings: too cold or too hot. An owl hooted outside. He masturbated. Then he had to pee.
There were no toilets in the cabins. He had to strap his headlamp on and march out into the woods to use the communal bathroom. He shivered in a bathrobe and sandals. It got down to the thirties at night here, freezing and damp. Some animal rustled in the undergrowth. Charlie was starting to dislike Oregon, its outsize Lewis and Clark wilderness. Hairy girls at the vegetarian buffet talking about homebirths. He thought of his Malibu beach house. He’d leave in the morning, set the Harley’s GPS to lead him back to the 5. Maybe he’d call Peggy.
He heard the Voice.
It said: “No!”
Might have been an owl. Wind in the trees. Some couple having a fight in one of the cabins. That didn’t matter. Charlie heard “No!”
He hiked out to the hot pools in the early-morning darkness, rocks in his sandals, teeth chattering. No light, other than the thin beam of his headlamp. He removed his bathrobe, hung it on a hook designated for that purpose, and slid into steaming water. The Breitenbush River rushed down below.
The sky went from black to gray. Fog drifted over the treetops, cooled Charlie’s face. He floated in the pool, comfortable as a fetus. He thought death might be like this. If so, he wasn’t afraid of dying. Not that it would happen for a long time, but he let go of his fear. He felt that something deep and portentous was about to happen.
Just as he was ready to get out of the pool, she appeared.
Shantara wore only her sarong, but she didn’t seem cold. She peeled the garment off in one movement and hung it beside Charlie’s robe. Slipped off her sandals.
She turned to face the east. Began a slow sun salutation to greet the dawn.
He squatted down to hide his underwater erection.
Her brown-nippled breasts were larger than he’d expected. The tuft at her groin looked soft, pleasant to the touch. A tattoo of a serpent ran the length of her spine, its head nestled above the crack of her round ass. She leaned over, placed her palms on her ringed toes. Charlie stopped breathing.
She finished her asana and stepped into the pool.
She smiled at Charlie, but they didn’t speak to each other. A posted sign prohibited talking in this pool, which was meant for silent reflection.
She closed her eyes, leaned back, and floated. Dark hair wreathed her head.
Charlie silently reflected.
His feverish brain roiled with images of taking her from behind, the snake tattoo writhing up and down, hot water splashing as he smacked up against that perfect ass…
He breathed. The movie dissolved.
This was more than lust.
She was pure. Unspoiled. Trusting.
Charlie loved this girl.
He thought of Gauguin and his Tahitian women. Fletcher Christian. John Smith. He got it.
Shantara opened her eyes and exhaled.
She stayed only for a short soak. Then sprang forth from the pool, fresh and lovely. She wrung water from her shining hair. Put on her sandals, but not her sarong, which she bunched up in one hand. She walked off, naked, into the morning mist.
Charlie got out a few minutes later. He’d been in the pool for a long time. He was overheated, dehydrated. But he didn’t feel the discomfort. He was too giddy.
Following Shantara’s lead, he walked naked in his sandals, letting himself drip dry. The air no longer chilled him. He was Superman, impervious to cold.
The guardian angel was in command now. Charlie could feel it. Shantara’s presence in the pool was a sign of divine intent. She was meant for him.
It was written in stone.
He thought of his son, Teddy. Last he’d heard Teddy’d gotten engaged to a Chinese girl in Hong Kong. The kid always had a thing for Oriental girlfriends; he’d had one at Princeton, Mei or Wei or something like that. It had unnerved Charlie’s wife. Charlie was indifferent. He’d never felt an attraction to that type, but he knew some guys went for it. He’d assumed Ted would grow out of it, was startled when he didn’t. But now he felt a rush of warmth toward his son. Ted had always taken after him. For all he knew there might be a genetic component. Maybe a deep love for Asiatic women was something that had lain dormant in Charlie until now.
He ate breakfast in his bathrobe: tofu scramble with veggies. Took a free yoga class afterward, feeling strong in his down dogs, throwing in some Kundalini breath work like Peggy had taught him. Felt the prana climb up his spine. Then he sat for twenty minutes in the sauna, a wooden structure positioned directly over a boiling spring. Got a good schvitz. Took a cold shower afterward. This was how Japanese sword makers forged samurai blades: heated, then plunged into icy water.
Clean and tingling, he went to the massage house.
She wore an orange tank top and purple peasant pants. Sleek hair in a ponytail. She smelled of lavender oil.
If she remembered him from the pool that morning she showed no sign of it.
She asked him if there was anything she should know about before she began.
Her voice was gentle, girlish. Blood rushed to his penis.
All confidence left him. He couldn’t speak.
He thought of the prayer from synagogue: “Adonai, s’fatai tiftach, ufi yagid t’hilatecha.” “Lord, open my lips and my mouth will sing your praise.”
But Charlie could not open his lips.
Had he ever felt this way about anyone? No. Never.
Shantara continued: “Any injuries?”
Charlie could have mentioned his slipped disk, his wonky knee. But he shook his head, no.
“Are you experiencing any stress?”
Charlie swallowed. “No.”
“Is there any intention you’d like to set for the healing today?”
“I’m…open to whatever happens.”
She smiled. He nearly wept.
She asked him to remove his clothes and lie facedown on the table.
Facedown. Thank God.
She left the room. He took off his robe, gave his penis a nervous squeeze, and lay down.
She returned. He smelled lavender. Listened to her little feet padding on the carpeted floor. She put on a CD of whale songs and crystal bowls, and began.
She caressed him. Long, slow, gentle strokes. At one point, out of the corner of his eye, he saw her doing some kind of Hawaiian hula dancer movement, hips swaying.
He pressed his aching erection into the massage table.
She worked on a knot in his left shoulder. He drifted off. Remembered his first furtive fuck at summer camp. Judy Lebowitz, short, stocky, big boobs. They were out by the lake, and she was paranoid about her frizzy hair, the humidity.
Shantara’s hair was straight and silky-black.
She asked him to turn over.
He didn’t move.
She asked him again.
“I’d rather not.”
“Is there a problem?”
He was sweating. His heart pounded. He felt hot, then cold.
“Nothing! It’s nothing.”
He might as well have been thirteen. Masturbating in the bathroom, thinking of Miss Gianetti and her bouncy Catholic rack. His mother outside calling, “Charlie, what are you doing?” “Nothing!”
He heard a roaring in his ears. His stomach gurgled. His bowels were loose.
Shantara bit her lip, worried.
“Are you feeling all right? Do you want some water?”
“Sometimes the energy can be very intense. Do you want me to keep going, or should I stop?”
His pulse whooshed in his ears.
“Do you want me to stay with you?”
“No. Please go.”
She left. Padded out like a cat. Closed the door behind her.
Charlie got up, reeling. He felt queasy. He struggled to put on his robe, his arm numb from lying under him on the table.
He ran out of the massage house. Shantara watched him go, wide-eyed.
He staggered past Frisbee-tossing girls on the lawn outside the main lodge. He shivered, nauseous. The girls paid no attention to him, showed no concern. At that moment, he hated them.
He ran into the main lodge, found a bathroom. He vomited tofu and veggies, then squirted out the remains of last night’s quinoa salad.
What the fuck was he doing here.
He flushed. He washed his hands, paper-toweled his face. Looked in the mirror.
And saw a dirty old man. Who liked to expose his dirty old dick to young girls.
There was something wrong. The numbness in his arm, it was still there, it wasn’t going away, and he had a headache now. A knife behind his eyeball. Maybe he needed a doctor. Were there doctors in a hippie commune? No, there were “healers.” Some fat witch named Spiral Moon would light a candle and talk to fairies. There was no way out. There were no cities within a hundred miles of this place, no hospitals. No cell phone coverage. “Oh, Charlie,” moaned his mother.
Charlie breathed. Struggled to get a grip.
The pools. He’d go soak. Juvenile water — that would fix him up.
He wasn’t old. Sixty-three wasn’t old these days. His father was old at sixty-three, but not Charlie. He did yoga, ate organic food. Rode a Harley!
He walked to the pools, huffing, doing “ujai” breath to stay centered.
He passed a completely nude family. A couple in their thirties with a six-year-old boy, a two-year-old girl. The naked girl stared at Charlie as if he were a zoo animal.
Charlie remembered giving his daughter baths at that age. She’d wriggle like a fish and squeal with laughter. He loved her then.
He’d call Debra when he got home. See how she was doing with the treatments.
But first: a nice, long soak.
He took off his robe — ignoring his sluggish arm and leg — and slipped into the hottest of the pools: 120?F, maybe more. A surefire way to realign his chi. The pool was empty. He was Adam in the Garden.
Unwinding, Charlie could see now how silly he’d been. A girl like that, living at a hippie hot springs commune — is that a girl who’s going to have a problem with some guy’s erection? What a schmuck. And here he’d been so proud of himself for having gotten over his neurosis. Well: that was it. No more.
He’d find Shantara. Apologize. Schedule another massage. Give her a big tip.
He’d see her in the dining room. Sit at her table. Talk to her. He’d stay on at Breitenbush for a week or so. Long enough to get to know her. Hear her story. She probably had an unstable childhood: some druggie father who’d imported her mother back from Cambodia or wherever. No money, no security. A girl like that might be interested in an arrangement. She might even go after him.
Good. Let her come. It would make her more amenable to signing the prenup. And why wouldn’t she? He’d give her anything she wanted. Wealth, travel. A life of leisure. She could pursue a path of spiritual development, do intensives and retreats. They’d evolve together. Seek enlightenment.
Maybe he’d even have a baby with her. A slender, straight-haired little girl. His princess. He wouldn’t be away for this one, wouldn’t always be working. She’d grow up by the beach, and surf, and meditate. She wouldn’t drink, wouldn’t need antidepressants, like Debra. Wouldn’t be distant, like Ted.
He felt the deep knowing. It would happen. Phase 5: Shantara. Phase 6: Baby.
Charlie’s head swam. He was overheated. He felt a troubling sensation, his body unbalanced — one side blistering in the heat, the other numb. Time to get out, and cool off in the damp Oregon air.
He couldn’t move.
He was paralyzed. Nothing worked. Nothing responded.
He was having a stroke.
He tried to scream. Nothing came out. The pool burbled. The Breitenbush River roared below.
The Voice said: “No!” He could not, would not die this way.
He hadn’t been saved from 9/11 for this. He was lucky. He had a guardian angel!
Boiling to death, he pleaded with his celestial agent. He’d do whatever God wanted. Donate his money to charity. Make amends. To the thousands of people he’d screwed over in business. To his wife. His children.
His heart beat faster. Blood hemorrhaged in his frontal lobe.
His limbs were on fire. Burning. Burning! Sulfurous hell water.
Charlie struggled feebly…and went under.
The waters took him.
A German couple found him an hour later. Floating facedown, lobster red. They fished him out with Teutonic efficiency and notified the front desk.
The death caused a minor uproar at Breitenbush, though they weren’t legally at risk. Posted signs warned of the dangers of hot-pool use to people with blood-pressure conditions, and all guests signed a waiver releasing the commune from liability. Still, it was bad mojo. They closed the pool for a week, and a shaman named White Bear McGregor burned sage and prayed that the spirit of Charles Grossman pass into the light.
Shantara remembered him as “the weird old dude who freaked out on the table.” She shed a few tears for him. She was a sensitive soul.
It took some searching to locate Charlie’s family. His ex-wife, Mindy Grossman, was confused, to put it mildly. She, daughter Debra, Debra’s economist husband Steve, and a Portland-based mortician arrived nine days later to collect the body. Charlie had been placed in a freezer unit normally used to store vegetable stock and soy ice cream.
Mindy had seen the bushy girls on the lawn. She took one look at Charlie’s face — the rictus, the scalded eyeballs — and said: “You deserved it.”
Steve pored over the paperwork Charlie had signed and grudgingly accepted the futility of a lawsuit.
Debra was a wreck. She’d had to leave Chicago during her fertile week. That meant the whole month was down the drain. She was furious at her brother. Ted disengaged when he heard the news, said he was too busy to deal with this now. Said he’d try to make it home for the funeral, but couldn’t promise. Typical Ted. She couldn’t even contact her therapist. What kind of place had no phones or email?
They were stuck in this hippie shithole. They’d gotten there later than they’d intended. It was sleeting, as it does in Oregon, and they were forced to stay the night rather than risk death on a mountain road.
The gal at the front desk suggested that Debra get a massage. On the house.
Debra thought, what the hell.
She received Lomi Lomi from Shantara. She sobbed on the table. Shantara stroked her curly hair, and hugged her.
That night, the mortician went for a soak and hooked up with a blue-haired midwife named Rowena Raven.
Debra and Steve made love in a stuffy cabin.
Nine months later, she gave birth to a girl.