The only rule listed on the Naked Friendsgiving event website, italicized and in all-caps beneath a brief schedule of events—come watch movies, play games, eat yummy food!—was ABSOLUTELY NO CLOTHES. Then there are those assumed rules that always apply, even when not explicitly stated: Compliment Your Host’s Home. Don’t Stare.
I tried not to. Artie, the Friendsgiving organizer, towered over the front gate that separated his dwelling from the neighboring homes where the lowly townspeople lived. He’d bragged online that he was tall in person. But in real life, person felt like a misnomer. He was a giant. His toes dove off the edge of his sandals.
I followed his crouching form around to the backdoor, past the dimly lit laundry room where he instructed me to leave my shoes, through the kitchen with the cute French windows disguised behind blackout curtains and the cuckoo clock that read twenty after 1PM, into the dark living room, where the windows were also closed for privacy. It was decorated minimally and, Artie thought I should know, he did it all by himself.
He lifted a long, hairy index finger and spoke with the eagerness of a middle school snitch.
The purple couch on which a cluster of young men sat watching The Color Purple from a flat screen? “I upholstered that.”
The distressed turquoise console table that held several cellphones and a framed picture of a cat? “I painted that.”
The vinyl-wood flooring? “All me.”
I couldn’t help but notice that the living room was bordered by a trough filled with polished stones. “This is such a lovely…” I reached inside and and rubbed one of the rocks between my fingers, trying to distract myself from something that had been perplexing me from the moment I stepped into his home. “Garden?”
“Thanks,” Artie told me. “I have quite the green thumb!”
His heavy laugh boomed through the room, and the seated men watching Whoopi Goldberg mend a pair socks turned to stare at me, the Naked Friendsgiving newbie. I might have considered their blatant ogling a breach in the rules, but for one small yet remarkable fact:
I had my clothes on and so did they.
Artie guided me to a foot stool with a pretty daisy pattern. I sat down, pretending that it was totally normal that I was still in my sweatpants and hoodie. It was normal that none of us was naked. This was, after all, how normal people spent their Thanksgivings.
And isn’t that exactly what I wanted? To experience a normal Thanksgiving for the first time, no matter if it was with naked strangers, a week before the actual holiday? Reading the event page weeks before, I’d thought the nudity aspect lent it a more traditional quality. It’s not as if the Wampanoag tribe arrived at Plymouth Rock wearing wool scarves and tacky holiday sweaters.
But sure, clothes were fine, too. I’m open. I’m flexible.
An Asian man on the couch introduced himself to me as as Juan. Juan was twenty-five and wore his hair in a faux-hawk and his eyebrows pierced. Next to him was a nineteen-year-old Asian man named Tito, and a twenty-three-year-old White man who turned out to be Mexican named Hans. Standing by the table with the phones was a person who informed me neither of his race, age, or name. He reminded me of a totem pole of a bear I saw outside of a liquor store in Tijuana once. It had black jewels for eyes, and its mouth was frozen in a resigned yawn as it watched Californians prance in and out gushing over their cheap bottles of mezcal.
After telling me everyone’s stats, Juan placed his hand on Tito’s thigh. “So what brings you here?” he asked.
Whoopi Goldberg sobbed onscreen.
I worried telling the truth might bring down the room. It’s not that I thought it was sad that I’d never had a real Thanksgiving. When I was younger, my Nicaraguan mother never put too much stress on the holiday, and if my Puerto Rican father did give thanks wherever he was, I doubt he cared that much either. Mom’s fast-food job didn’t allow her to request Thanksgiving off, and because my family was scattered throughout several states and continents, we—my older brother, mother, and me—usually celebrated the day with a slightly elevated version of what we normally ate. Empanadas. Cranberry sauce from the can. Every few years, flan. As soon as we finished our meals, Mom would slip into her bedroom for a nap while my brother and me disappeared to our room to play video games. I never understood what the big deal was. As I grew older, my Birkenstock-wearing friends turned on Thanksgiving as well, parroting the well-known but often-avoided fact that soon after their bridge-building dinner, the pilgrims turned around and slaughtered Native American people throughout America. The Thanksgiving bandwagon burned down to a bed of hot coals. I’d missed it, and now that I was in my late twenties, I didn’t know if it was too late to climb on.
Yet every year it rolls back. In elementary school art classes, children discover their hands are the same shape as turkeys. Macy’s dusts off their Kermit and Snoopy floats and parades them through Manhattan. There’s Black Friday! Your favorite episode of Friends! At a diner in LA, a perky waitress recently offered me a special holiday menu that featured a turkey and stuffing burger. It was okay.
I didn’t want this year to be okay, like every other one I’d spent ambivalent to the holiday. I wanted it to be great, to share in the excitement. And if I didn’t have drunk uncles to argue politics around the table with, then I’d make due by dabbing some concealer on my ingrown pubic hairs, driving to Pomona, and sitting around a group of naked strangers watching The Color Purple. Except now they were staring at me, waiting for me to tell them what brought me here.
No, I didn’t think my answer was sad. It was pathetic.
My family was in Florida and Nicaragua and everywhere else, my friends had flown to their respective homes, and I’d bought the wrong concealer shade at Walgreens. Light to Medium instead of Median Tan. My genitals, if they ever got to see them, were orange. I was a poser, trying to pass these nudists as loved ones.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You know?”
Juan blinked at me.
I blurted out a list of acceptable-sounding reasons, hoping one of them might stick: “I guess I just thought it’d be fun.” “I’ll go anywhere with free food.” “I’ve always wanted to come to Pomona!”
The group nodded and settled back into enjoying the movie, apparently satisfied with my answer. Whoopi Goldberg continued to take her husband’s abuse. Her fist shot up to cover her mouth the few times she smiled. She was embarrassed of her teeth. She was afraid to look happy. Out of my peripheral, I watched Artie and Juan and Tito and Hans. The bear who never introduced himself glared down at his phone. This was what all the fuss was about? If naked Thanksgiving was a bust, I couldn’t imagine how boring the real thing must be.
I believe that, similar to X-Men and the Olsen twins, gay people have the ability to communicate with each other using our minds. Maybe that’s why, at precisely the moment the thought of leaving entered mine, Tito said, “ So…”
Which Juan followed with, “I know.”
Artie rounded out the conversation, adding, “Yeah.”
Hans peeled off his white Hello Dolly! t-shirt and set it on the ground. “There!” he said.
The Bear looked up from his phone.
Juan raised one pierced eyebrow and reached over to Tito’s crotch. “Need help with these?” he asked.
This wasn’t a sex party. I figured they knew each other. Maybe they were together?
Tito giggled. For a moment, a pair of buckteeth showed behind his lips. He hid them with the back of his hand and blushed. “Go ahead,” he said.
Juan dove in to unbutton Tito’s jeans. He struggled to pull the top button out of its slot. Tito giggled some more. “I’m sorry,” he said, pawing Juan’s hands away. “I’m ticklish!”
“You don’t have to apologize.” Hans wagged his finger. He was in his underwear now.
I hadn’t budged. I was mesmerized by the action surrounding me, too intent on seeing how this would end to realize that I was a part of it, too.
Artie hoisted himself off the couch and removed his shirt, revealing the rings of stretch marks under his armpits. With his arms up, and his shirt covering his face, he looked like an ancient, majestic Redwood. Once he freed himself, he chimed in to agree, “Yeah, Juan, stop apologizing for taking up space. You deserve to be here. Try saying ‘Thank you’ instead.”
This was the only time I’d heard Tito say sorry. It didn’t seem dire enough to warrant a Self-Esteem Master Class.
“I know, I know,” Tito said. He looked over at Juan, who’d finally released the button. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Juan stood up and stepped in front of Tito, lifting Tito’s legs on either side of his thighs like wheelbarrow handles. In one quick movement, he yanked his jeans off, leaving Tito in nothing but a jockstrap. “Voila!” he said. “Magic.”
“Nice underwear.” Hans smiled. It wasn’t clear whether he meant it for Tito or Artie or Juan, who’d removed his belt and let his pants fall to the floor on their own.
It certainly wasn’t meant for The Bear. He hovered by the cellphone table, quietly beaming with delight, pulling his shirt to hide his round belly. We were the only ones left.
I didn’t want to seem chicken, so I took my clothes off, too, watching The Bear out of one eye, suspicious that he might be taking photographs. This group had hosted several nude events in the past, I remembered from the website, so I assumed many of them were friends. But maybe The Bear was like me: Someone who came from nowhere, looking for something, lying about their intentions. Or was he insecure? Whatever his deal was, this was a nude event. It’s not like we were surprising him with an impromptu strip. He should have been prepared for this.
I used my eyes to point him out to Artie.
ABSOLUTELY NO CLOTHES, my eyes said. RIGHT?
Artie shrugged. He was a peaceful giant.
The rest of the group was too busy admiring each other’s underwear to notice The Bear being weird. “Feel these!” Hans told Tito, holding his candy-cane patterned briefs out for him to inspect. “Aren’t they so soft?” Tito’s hand fondled the material, his fingers inches from the outline of Hans’s flaccid hanging penis. “So soft,” Tito said. Hans’s penis stiffened.
“Oh man. Sorry,” he said.
“Now who can’t stop apologizing?” Tito giggled.
The Bear watched on in silence. I wondered whether being observed was part of the allure of Naked Friendsgiving. That’s not what I signed up for. But this wasn’t my house. Those weren’t my polished stones. I let it go, and resigned myself to staying out of his cellphone camera’s range. I’d done burlesque shows in the past and had half-nude pictures of me printed in local newspapers. I wasn’t that afraid of having naked images of me released, and I could have been paranoid anyway. If no one else minded, I wasn’t about to start any unnecessary drama.
An hour later, we sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor, picking at chicken wings and green beans from Styrofoam plates with our fingers. I’d brought along a nice harvest salad, complete with cranberries, sliced almonds, and an apple-cider vinaigrette, because that was the kind of thing people on TV ate during Thanksgiving. It remained in the kitchen, apologizing to the dwindling bottles of champagne for taking up space.
We were fully naked now and, of course, talking about boys.
“I haven’t bottomed in over a year,” Hans was saying. His long balls were pressed to the ground. They resembled grocery bags waiting to be brought inside.
Juan shuddered. “A year? Girl. That thing is probably sewn shut by now.”
“Mhm,” Artie confirmed. “Your bussy is like a piercing. You have to keep it open for six months or it’ll close back up.”
“Ew! I hate that word.” Hans scrunched up his nose. “Bussy. Why do we have to compare our parts to girls? I do not have a pussy. It’s a hole. Call it that.”
“How about bole then?” Artie suggested.
“That doesn’t even make sense, Artie!” Tito shook his head. “Everyone has holes, not just girls. Holes don’t have genders, stupid.”
Hans picked at his teeth with a pinky nail. “How could I keep it open? It’s im-pos-si-ble to meet guys looking for a serious relationship.” He smacked his lips to emphasize his frustration. “I swear, everyone just wants to hook up. When someone messages me on the apps asking for NSA sex, I tell them NEXT!”
“Really? That’s funny, considering we’re at a nude party.” I hadn’t meant to say that out loud.
Artie made an attempt to disguise a laugh as a cough, while Juan and Tito openly snickered. Hans looked me up and down. I felt his eyes on my flabby stomach, the zits on my chest. I adjusted my plate to cover my orange crotch. “It’s really not the same, hun,” he said. “Like, at all.”
I needed a drink. I raised the solo cup I’d filled with champagne to my lips, but it was empty.
“I’m gonna go get another one,” I announced to the group. “Anyone want a refill?”
Tito stared at his bottle of water.
“Tito? You want one?”
I’d briefly forgotten his age. That he was only nineteen suddenly came back to me. He answered before I could take my offer back.
“No thanks.” He polished his overgrown nails on his abs. “I’m not supposed to be drinking right now because of my meds.”
“Good call,” Artie said.
Juan patted him on the back. “Yeah, smart.”
The Bear emerged from the bathroom, the wet outlines of his hands on his jeans. How long had he been gone? He returned to his guard spot by the phones.
“You doing okay?” Hans asked.
This was not one of those times where I could read everyone’s minds. They were obviously hiding something. Tito kept his eyes on his bottle of water.
“I’m just going through a lot right now.”
The air in the room grew thick. I’d had one too many. My vision blurred. Something smelled burnt.
“But I’m fine,” Tito continued. “I’m just bummed my therapist’s office is closed on actual Thanksgiving.” He looked up at me. “I came out this Sunday. Like, this Sunday. My parents kicked me out.” My chest became hot. “They said I’m going to Hell. You wanna know the funny part? They’re not even religious. I’m the religious one. I go to church every Sunday!”
I felt my eyes water at the familiar story. I wasn’t sure why I was getting so emotional. I didn’t know Tito any more than I knew any of the thousands of homeless LGBTQIA2-S youth all over the world. I knew it was still a risk for us to come out. I vaguely knew, and later confirmed, what the statistics looked like: Some estimates indicate that 7% of the population is LGBTQIA2-S, yet homeless LGBTQIA2-S youth make up 40% of all homeless youth. I just wasn’t prepared to meet one at Naked Friendsgiving.
Out of all the places, he came here, to hang out with strangers, watch movies, play games, eat yummy food. I sometimes forget there are things that get in the way of watching movies, playing games, eating yummy food. That I’d spent my own nineteenth Thanksgiving at a gay bar in Orlando, drinking with a friend to avoid having to go home. It was one of the rare holidays when family visited. We sat at a booth listening to Kylie Minogue.
My uncle, I told the friend. He drinks too much and starts grilling me about girlfriends and shit. And my aunt sit there, not talking to anyone, and we all know he has a second family but won’t say anything. And my mom making flan and laughing like she doesn’t just want to go to sleep. It’s all so weird.
He followed with his own reasons for fleeing home after dinner: My tia, and my step-sister, and my primo, and…
And you’ve heard this story. But we got to choose to leave.
I wished I had a sleeve to wipe my eyes with.
“Where are you staying?” I asked Tito. I had a couch. Would my roommates mind? How could they say no?
“I’m between places,” he said. “My cousins are letting me crash with them for a while.”
“That’s good,” I said, stupidly. That’s good? It’s good that your asshole parents threw you into the streets? At least you’re not technically homeless yet? At the same time, I breathed with relief. He had somewhere. Yes, my roommates would mind—How long? and Why didn’t you call us first? and all kinds of smart questions I couldn’t ask right now. Did good people ever ask things like that? I would have wanted to know, too.
Tito stared at his limp dick.
“That…” I tried to find the perfect word. Something that would let him know that I understood, that I was there if he needed me, that everything would turn out fine. Something better than “It gets better.” None of those things were true. I didn’t understand. I was only here for the afternoon. I didn’t know if it would get better. This was bad, and it might just stay bad. “That sucks,” I said.
We were quiet.
Hans picked at a scab on his knee. “So, er, anyone want to watch a movie?”
“Is Mean Girls on Netflix?” Juan wanted to know.
“No,” said Artie. “Trust me. I checked.”
I reached for Tito’s hand. He placed his over mine. It weighed nothing. I squeezed and he took it back.
“It really, really does. I’m working through it with my therapist. Well, trying to.”
Everyone seemed unfazed. I looked at The Bear, but even he acted as if he already knew about Tito. He probably did. Maybe this conversation had happened before I’d arrived.
Still, I felt ridiculous. Naked. At some silly Thanksgiving dinner because I wanted to know what it’d be like to have a normal holiday? And here was a nineteen-year-old who only wanted his therapist’s office to be open. I felt gross. Not only were my problems trivial in comparison, I had the audacity to be learning a lesson. If my life were a special Friends Thanksgiving episode, this would be The One Where Naked Edgar Learns To Appreciate His Life. Even the metaphor was too easy: A group of gay men gather to expose themselves in more ways than one.
I felt ridiculous and gross and… angry.
Why the FUCK were these jerks treating Tito like he only mattered as much as what we should watch next? Even if they’d already discussed it, at the very least he didn’t deserve to be dismissed for Mean Girls. A ringing sound penetrated my ears.
This has never happened before, I thought. I’ve never been this pissed off.
I could hear my anger out loud.
“FUCK!” Artie yelled. “The pie! The fucking pie is burning!”
It was the smoke detector.
We all jumped to our feet.
“Open the windows!” Artie ordered. He stomped into the kitchen. “Someone get a towel and blow the smoke away!”
I ran to the nearest window, then paused. I couldn’t open the window. I was naked.
“Wait!” I shouted to Juan and Tito, who were at the window at the other end of the room. “Don’t! People will see us!”
Artie sprinted back into the living room carrying a pie tin. Whatever it was before, now it was ash. “My poor pie,” he groaned. Smoke was trailing rising from the charred top-layer. “I killed it.” He opened the front door and dropped it onto the welcome mat.
“Close that!” I told him. “Your neighbors are going to see you.”
His eyes were red-rimmed. From the smoke, or the loss of his pie, or, I want to believe, for Tito. “I don’t give a shit anymore,” he said. Maybe he didn’t know. “This is my house. My house!” Maybe we were all angry. “Let them see me!” He went from window to window, throwing each of them open. “I don’t care!”
I checked my phone. It was 4PM.
“What are they going to do?” The Giant bellowed.
His mighty testicles shook in the air. The smoke detector wailed on and on, a chorus of exclamation points. “Call the cops?! On me?! In my house?!”
The houses on the block were silent. The townspeople inside prayed for mercy.
The pie was burnt. The holiday was over.
I pulled my sweatpants back on, zipped my hoodie up. Tito giggled as The Giant continued ranting: “I worked so hard on that pie! Do you know how hard I worked?”
“I love you,” I told Tito. “Sorry. I have to go.”
“Thanks,” he said. Juan stepped behind him and wrapped his arms around his chest. Tito leaned into him. If I ignored, for a moment, that Juan’s penis was pressing against Tito’s back, they looked like brothers. “I’m fine.”
I wanted to believe that, too.
“This,” the pilgrims told the Wampanoag, “is America.” The Wampanoag rolled their eyes and passed the corn.