The Naked Game
My daughters used to tell themselves stories that went on for hours, and sometimes days. They developed characters through dialogue and described scenes in painstaking detail. I often tuned them out before I could discern any plot. When they merged their stories with each other or with friends, they called it a “game,” though from a distance it sounded like “make-believe.” If I interrupted, they’d protest, “But we’re in the middle of a GAME!”
I wasn’t sure how these stories got “game” status: there was no clear object or winner. But there seemed to be two rules: each game commenced with a simple request for consent (“Do you want to play?”) and each player got to decide the fate of her own character.
Observing these rituals reminded me that games are not just for fun: they teach us how to create a world we want to live in, with others. I’d had a hard time learning this stuff as an only child in the high desert.
When I was six years old my mom and her new husband built a passive solar adobe house on a nearly vacant mesa above the Rio Grande Valley. The locals down in the village played only with each other. Kids tend to self-segregate. For example, Maria and Anita were cousins who wore their hair in long braids over shawls crocheted by their grandmothers. They were timid and kind, their cheeks red and round like the apples that grew in their family’s orchard. Then there were Lynnette and Dolores, who feathered their frosted hair and wore tight jeans. They often threatened to beat me up. Some of the locals called me “Bruja,” which is Spanish for “witch. I didn’t understand why. Maybe it was because I wasn’t afraid of La Llorona, the mythical woman who wandered the edge of the irrigation ditches, crying for her lost children. Maybe it was I because didn’t go to their Catholic church, or any church, for that matter.
For spiritual instruction my mom gave me the record album Free to Be You and Me. Marlo Thomas and Friends taught me that we learn how to be boys and girls, so we can learn how to be anything. Also Transactional Analysis for Tots, an illustrated guide of 1970s pop psychology, written by Dr. Alvyn Freed, who taught me that we humans constantly give and receive “warm fuzzies” and “cold pricklies” in the form of comments, gestures, and actions. Warm fuzzies felt like Anita’s smiles and my mom’s back tickles; cold pricklies felt like Lynnette’s stink eye and the tumbleweed thorns that kept me from running barefoot out the back door.
I spent many Sundays playing by myself outside, where I noticed that the tumbleweeds grew only in the churned-up sand next to the new roads and houses. Just beyond the neon-tipped wooden stakes that marked our property, grew giant chamisa (yellow rabbit brush), sagebrush, and white flowers that smelled just like SweetTarts. It was there I found a dark sandy lichen that would hold a footprint for months, blue-tailed lizards, and horny toads. But before long, the bulldozers scraped off the topsoil for more cement slab foundations and two-car garages.
These brought new kids, and I befriended a few. Some had never heard of La Llorona, and they followed me into the brown irrigation ditches to look for crawdads, where we’d dig out holding ponds, and swim on the hottest days.
Some of these girls had parents like mine who came from “back east” and listened to Pink Floyd and Stevie Wonder. These were the girls who would want to make up musicals and radio stations, draw restaurant menus, and perform for the grown-ups after dinner. These were the girls who would also play “The Naked Game,” which we never named then, but I would name later because it involved getting naked and following a few unspoken rules. The first was that you never spoke about the Naked Game, the second was that you never really initiated it—it just sort of happened. And finally, you never actually touched each other, though the thrill of playing it made our hearts pound and our skin tingle.
Other newcomers had parents who came from Texas or Oklahoma and listened to country music. These kinds of girls liked to play board games and dress up, watch TV re-runs and cartoons, and re-enact them. These were the girls who would definitely NOT play “The Naked Game.” I am not sure how I knew this; I just did.
In fifth grade I met Betsy Watson, who had just moved from Houston with her family. She had a hearty laugh and a sturdy frame. I liked going to her house because her mother was always pulling something sweet out of the oven. I don’t remember her ever coming to my house. Now I wonder if she was allowed.
One day she invited me to go with her to “Bible Camp.”
“It will be the funnest weekend ever!” she said, her green eyes sparkling.
When I asked my mom for permission, and she said something like,
“Sure, but be careful. Don’t believe everything you hear.”
It turned out to not be a camp, but a sleep-over at a fancy house in the Northeast Heights of Albuquerque. A young couple and their yappy dogs greeted us at the door. They introduced us to the other campers: two other girls and three boys. Each had a different shade of blonde hair, something I had seen only on TV, or when I visited my dad in Minnesota.
At supper, I bowed my head with the other kids while the man said grace before plates of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. After supper, we sat on the shag carpet in his den. I remembered Betsy’s instructions to not say “Oh God!” to express disbelief or awe, and to instead say things like, “Oh wow!” and “Jeepers!”
The man told us about “sin.” He said it could start out harmless, like wanting to buy a certain brand of shoes, but then it could force you to do evil things, like lie to your parents, drink alcohol, and worst of all, smoke pot. I thought about the plants that grew behind the pea trellis in our backyard. Once they grew taller than the trellis I stopped inviting kids over until my parents could harvest and hang them to cure in their bedroom closet.
Then the man asked us if we were “saved.” I asked him to explain what that meant.
“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?”
“Have you been baptized by a minister?”
I shook my head. Betsy looked embarrassed. Then the man asked me about my family.
“My parents are pretty cool,” I said.
He said, “I always get nervous when children say that.”
Later, after “lights out,” we kids folded up notes like little footballs and tossed them between the girls’ and boys’ rooms. On one we wrote our names and so the boys could select their favorite. The name of cutest girl got all the check marks. I felt jealous: not of her, but of the boys, who got to choose.
On Saturday we met up at a park with hundreds of kids who had slept at other houses the night before. We played kickball and grilled hot dogs. On Sunday we gathered at the Baptist church. I marveled how all the kids knew the words to songs I had never heard before. I mouthed along, stood up when the others stood, and sat when they sat. Then the minister invited us to come up to the stage and share what we learned that weekend. It was the first time I had ever spoken into a microphone. I heard my voice explain that a boy in our group hurt his ankle while playing kickball and we prayed around his leg,
“His ankle was better by morning and I thought that was pretty amazing.” The faces in the audience stared at me. No duh, they seemed to say: you prayed.
Then the parents arrived, including Betsy’s. I sat beside them while she joined the other kids who would be baptized.
We looked up to a balcony where the minister stood. He summoned each child, one by one, to approach the basin of water. Each wore a white cloak, like an angel costume without the halo. Finally it was Betsy’s turn. The minister asked her if she accepted Jesus into her heart as her personal savior. When she said “yes” he leaned her back in a ballroom dip and tipped the pitcher over her wavy blonde hair. When the water flattened and darkened it, he declared her saved and sent her offstage. Then, as if on a conveyor belt, another child appeared. I longed to be up there, too, but when I asked Betsy’s parents, her mother said I needed my parent’s permission first. She squeezed my arm and smiled, “Honey, why don’t you ask them to come along next time?” I knew that would never, ever happen. I think she did, too.
They dropped me off at home, and when I let myself in, I smelled the familiar mix of pot roast and pot smoke. From the couch my step-dad watched Sixty Minutes and from her chair under the lamp, my mom read a book. The brick floors, curved walls, and pot belly stove looked so rustic and strange.
I sat on the corner of my mom’s chair. Her eyes were red. There must have been a Sunday fight.
“How was it?”
I described what we ate, what we played, how Jesus died for our sins, and explained that if we didn’t get baptized we would spend eternity in hell. She rubbed my back. I could hear her callouses scrape the fabric of my shirt. She must have spent the weekend digging post-holes for the horse pasture.
“I am glad that you had fun, but there is no way we are joining that church. I’m still recovering from Catholic school. I think Jesus was a cool guy, but I don’t think he was the son of God. Everyone is.”
“Praise Jaysus!” shouted my step-dad. My mom shot him a look.
I felt a pang of despair. I knew there was nothing I could say to persuade them. We were doomed. A few days later my mom said I could go to church and Bible School with Betsy on Sundays. I went a few times but I never got baptized. Truth was, I didn’t want to be the only person in my family to go to Heaven.
Right around that time, a little past my eleventh birthday, Betsy and I were playing in her pastel bedroom when I suggested the Naked Game. I don’t know why—maybe I was bored, stuck inside another game of Life, the decision of pink or blue, and the inevitable payment of taxes. Maybe I just felt a pang of desire. It had been a long time since I last played, but Betsy was nothing like the girls I used to play with.
“What’s the Naked Game?” Betsy asked.
“It’s kind of like House, but without clothes,” I said, but that didn’t describe it at all. There were no babies in the Naked Game.
Betsy hesitated. I took off my shirt first. Then she took off hers. She was wearing a training bra to cover her puffy nipples. My chest was still flat. We took off our pants. We did not remove our underwear. In mine I did not feel the tiny pounding heartbeat that I had felt before, with the other girls.
Betsy told me to play the husband. I said yes, but I didn’t want to—in the Naked Game no one ever played the boy—we were just girls, being ourselves.
I led her to her white trundle bed, dipped her wavy hair down onto the pillow and laid down on top of her. I felt her body stiffen beneath me. Her eyes met mine. In them I saw terror. That’s when I knew: this was sin. I was making Betsy sin. I leapt up, found my shirt and shorts, and watched her put on hers. She joined her mother in the kitchen and I went home.
Betsy and I never played together again. I never went back to her church. Worse, she told other kids what I did, and in a few weeks no one would sit next to me on the bus. Over the green vinyl seats I would hear my name, then whispering. Until that moment, I had never considered that I could be a lesbian. Getting naked with other girls was just something I used to do. It felt fun and innocent, until it didn’t.
Soon after, puberty took hold. I started worrying about how I looked, and I liked being noticed by boys. For them, I started to feel the same kind of excitement I used to feel in The Naked Game. I realized that it was easier to be The Pursued than The Pursuer, though the risks were actually greater. I played coy, hard-to-get, then girlfriend, ex-girlfriend. Eventually I became a wife, and then a mother. Now and then I feel attracted to a woman, but I don’t act on those feelings.
When my eldest daughter was in fifth grade I heard her casually mention a girl in her class who liked other girls. I asked her if kids gave her a hard time. She said, “No, why would they?” Then she went back to playing Minecraft with an acquaintance who lived in Australia. She asked for my password to download a new skin. Then she showed me the angular modern house they built together, complete with waterfalls, fireplaces, and bottomless air shafts. As my eyes followed her cursor I felt dizzy. My own childhood games and worries seemed a million years old–obsolete. Praise Jaysus for that.
Airia Gneiss's work has also appeared in Indicia. She uses a pen-name to respect the privacy of her family, and to keep her own ego in check. You can write her back at airiagneiss [@] gmail[dot]com.