Ode to Swimming Naked
By Pia Z. Ehrhardt
On a cool and breezy day in April, my friend, Anne, and I worried about where to take a visiting writer for dinner. He was in from Boston for two nights to read at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where Anne teaches and I sub, and to run a master class at Lusher Charter School.
Since Katrina, there’s this heightened pressure to present our city in the most authentic way, to patronize neighborhoods that don’t depend on tourists. We ruled out the French Quarter and the Warehouse District. It’d been a long, productive day and we wanted a good, stiff drink, delicious food, and a place where we could talk and linger, if our guest felt up to it. We decided on the Bywater, which is downriver from Faubourg Marigny and upriver from the Industrial Canal. Anne lives there with her husband and two sons.
“There’s a place called the Country Club,” she said, “around the corner from my house. Food’s gotten good.”
“Sounds fancy, “ I said.
“It’s also a nude swimming club.”
Oh, I said. I hadn’t skinny-dipped in public since I was twenty, the night I lost my virginity in Washington, D.C. That night I felt certain and brave in my new body, not immodest but natural, and freshly in love. How had so much time passed?
The Country Club is a pale yellow, classic nineteenth-century Creole mansion with a grand front porch. Inside are fifteen-foot ceilings, polished hardwood floors, and palms in pots. People dine in the house’s rooms, and there’s a bar in the back near the pool where Anne, on her way to the bathroom, saw a naked woman ordering a drink.
We found a table on the porch with comfortable wicker chairs and we sipped cocktails: gin and tonics for Anne and me, bourbon on ice for the writer. Men outfitted in robes and carrying towels started arriving. A drag queen in a purple bathing cap left her dog on the front porch, and it hung out with the diners.
We agreed to share our food: crawfish beignets, grilled flat-bread with duck confit, ravioli with green peas and Gruyère, pan-fried soft-shell blue crab, a side of truffled macaroni and cheese, pot de crème for dessert. We ordered another round of drinks.
“New Orleans doesn’t usually get wind like this,” I said. White clouds raced across a navy blue sky—fast as time lapse—and gusts played around with the fronds of a dwarf palmetto. The boy in D.C. had wanted to be a photojournalist, but when I Googled him I found out that he sold turbines to wind farms.
We asked the writer about the films that’d been made of his books, and he asked concerned questions about our city’s progress, the schools, people’s homes, crime. He didn’t sound like he could live here, but then New Orleanians are hypersensitive lately about their city still being desirable, rubbed raw by the doubters.
Another NOCCA teacher, Ken, joined us. He’d just come from criminal court where a young thug had been acquitted of shooting Dinerral Shavers, a well-liked drummer who ran the music program at Rabouin High School. “The killer’s out right now walking around,” Ken said, looking down Louisa Street. The waiter brought him bourbon on ice and we pushed the mac ‘n’ cheese his way.
The moon rose high in the sky and swimmers walked out with wet hair, got on bikes or strolled home to Bywater shotguns. We settled the tab and ventured to the back, and I timidly asked the bartender if we could see the pool.
“Sure, doll,” he said. “A one-time swim is seven dollars.”
“We’re just looking,” I said, and fumbled. “Not looking, but, well, can we take a look?”
The property went on for days—there was a country club back there—and dozens of men relaxed on chaise longues, talking quietly and sipping drinks. We didn’t stare, but we noticed. We marveled at the moving sky, at the rush of wind that felt more Chicago than New Orleans, at this lovely private swimming club behind an elegant house that’s a restaurant.
Two long-limbed naked men left their chairs and dove into turquoise water, perfect in their bodies, silky water on skin with nothing in the way. How good again would that feel? We hoped the writer would fall a little in love with the city, presenting herself like this for him, and not forget.
Read more from our Summer 2008 issue.