I will never know whether this really happened or not.
One of my earliest memories is one I could never discuss with the only witness, so I don't know if it was a memory or a dream so vivid that it is with me now, fifty years later. That witness was my mother, and the occasion was the first time I saw a woman naked.
As I remember it, I was three or so, and my mother had taken me with her to visit our neighbor, a young married woman with no children. In those days, locking the door was considered paranoid and unfriendly, and close friends might even enter your house in your absence, looking for you. So it was that we came to her house. I recall like a photograph the stairs that led to her door. It was in Panama, and houses were on stilts for protection from animals and the elements.
We came inside after my mother called her name, Kathryn I think it was, and she responded from somewhere out of sight. We sat down. I must have been at least two, but if I were much older, than there should have been a sister with us, a newborn, and there was not. I couldn't have been more than four. I was not carried, and I did not sit in my mother's lap. The two women continued their conversation across the distance between the rooms, and then Kathryn stepped through the hallway door.
She had been taking a shower, and she was drying her body with a light-colored towel. She stood there unself-consciously, one foot raised on something, a chair I think, dabbing bright jewels of light from her leg, then scrubbing her black hair. She was dark gold, the color of polished cherrywood. I think I heard my mother describe her to someone and add ominously, "There's only one way to get a tan like that."
Did I see 'it'? Nipples? Pubic hair? I don't remember. Now, when gynecological details proliferate on the web, what difference? Kathryn became a vision of the truly sensual, as relaxed in her nudity as a deer or a great cat. It was not what I saw but how she revealed it that stayed with me, the sheer lack of self-consciousness. She was, probably, in her early twenties; my mother would have been afew years old than that. Perhaps she was Chicano, or that race my mother always associated with looseness of character, French. Perhaps her coloring was just an effect of the dim light.
What remains, these years later, is the image of a woman completely comfortable with her body. It was, in that moment, not a weapon to subdue men nor an embarrassment to cover. She neither flaunted nor hid herself.
And if it happened and my memory has kept the detail intact, my mother was scandalized. I can hear her describing the whole thing to someone and how shocked she was that a woman would expose herself like that in front of a child. My mother's savage Puritanism may have bent and twisted me, but she was unable to taint the beauty of that moment. Like the taste of fresh berries and the smell of sage, it is there for me, now and forever, that epiphanic moment of revelation, my Araby.