I declared my unofficial major in the Male Gaze a week into college. It began that first Tuesday, when I saw, from the drab turret of the Crossroads residence hall, a girl with a cream bandanna threaded through her short-cropped hair. She was lounging with her friends on a green swatch of quad hedged in by brutalist brick, pliant and tan and completely naked from the waist up.
I wanted to know how often I’d encounter this sort of exhibitionism. Was the topless sunbather the exception or the rule? A local character or an unofficial landmark? I mentioned her in my first meeting with Dr. G., the school psychologist, who specialized in autism spectrum disorders. “The school paper has a ‘Naked Issue,’” she said, “but you won’t see a lot of that here.” By “that” she must have meant the human form paraded around free range (this wasn’t Bard or Oberlin).
It was an art school, though, and soon I was to learn that one of the purest, earliest and most expansively pretentious expressions of collegiate freedom is nudity in the service of art. The taboo desire to see people stripped down after borrowing their pen in the library, being served by them in the Food Co-Op, or peer-reviewing their comparative essay on The Second Sex and Seducer’s Diary was one I saw seconded everywhere. It was on view in figure drawing classes, in nude studies at thesis photo shows and, most importantly for me, a playwriting major, in the more well attended productions mounted by the student acting company. But none of these matched the demand of “The Naked Issue,” an annual survey of student bodies, so sought-after that securing a copy required setting a six o’clock alarm. My roommate did the early rising for both of us freshman year and I was very popular that morning in my Cinematic Expression class, flipping through idly before a screening of a Wong Kar-wai movie.
Between these pages the interest was anthropological, not prurient. The spreads were all staged with body positivity in mind—mostly group shots of alternative-looking kids (blue dreadlocks, full-sleeve tattoos, minor-to-major body modifications), often with props (hats, Nerf guns, plastic dinosaurs) covering the relevant parts. Skimming “The Naked Issue” brought on the sort of sideshow frisson one gets from The Guinness Book of World Records. But for me there was a just-out-of-reach tourism in the enterprise. Seeing people I recognized laid bare was like auditing all the sex I wasn’t having.
On Halloween weekend sophomore year, a girl named Alexandra contrived to sneak into my bed from my suite’s common room and nuzzle up alongside me while I slept. I didn’t know Alexandra all that well, but if I had a type at this juncture, she was it: petite and pale with those lemurish eyes suggestive of a thyroid condition and slightly kinked black hair that fell to her waist. There she was, curled into a “c” on my twin mattress. If there was intent in the maneuver, and logic indicated there was, I didn’t act on the encroachment. I contorted myself to a contour that allowed for little to no contact. Everything I mumbled, and none of it was of any consequence, prompted a searching response.
“What did you say?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” I insisted, my voice softer than hers, aware of my roommate waging war with his apnea, three feet to our left.
“But didn’t you just say…?” she kept on and trailed off. But, truly, it didn’t matter; I was too afraid to say much of anything.
When I was younger, a few years after my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, I learned through role-play. Thursday nights after middle school, in an office building in the Bronx, I participated in a social-skills group, reading from stilted scripts diagramming conversations with store clerks and waiters. The idea was to hold forth a model of manners and assertiveness—things that don’t always come easy for those on the spectrum.
Me: I would like the cheeseburger with fries, please.
Waiter: I’m sorry, we’re out of fries. Is a side salad ok?
Me: That would be lovely. But could you hold the onion please?
Foot Locker Employee: We don’t have these in this color in your size. Can I get you the ones in black?
Me: I was hoping for blue, could you order them?
These scripts were a typical tool in groups like mine. They helped to lubricate transactional situations. The above examples test the need to accept compromise (the side salad) or assert oneself calmly (the blue sneakers). Like many in my cohort I was pretty rigid and inflexible when it comes to change and struggled to communicate what I needed in an appropriate way, or to conform to society’s arbitrary-seeming expectations. Sometimes service workers would bear the brunt of my frustrations—usually quite a bit of screaming. But these stock characters and scenarios were limited.
In cases that involved more regular attachments, like my parents or teachers, the rote scripts were abandoned and specific instances of tantrums stemming from a misunderstanding of my afterschool plans, my incomplete homework, or my insistent kicking of the living room TV cabinet were probed with these questions: Why are others upset? How did I make them feel? What are some ways I can tell whether people don’t like what I’m doing even if they aren’t telling me?
I was trained to look for the signs in people’s faces. An amateur student of physiognomy, I had a notebook crammed with worksheets of poorly sketched heads, each telegraphing by knit brow, downcast eye or upturned mouth an emotion to be named in a blank space below. I filled them out—upset, angry, sad, happy—and searched for how they presented in life.