The Naked Man

The first naked man I saw in my life was a cadaver. I was sixteen and a precocious college freshman. Around that time I had second thoughts about the crazy idea of signing up for medical school and knew that, unless I could prove myself able to face the morgue without fainting, it was a lost cause. A group of classmates and I walked to the Health Sciences Complex, went in to the anatomy sciences lab and asked the maintenance guy in charge, Don Jose, to let us in.

Don Jose gave us the standard tour designed to scare away students. He showed us formaldehyde-filled jars containing brains, lungs, a liver, a leg in the process of dissection. And then, as the last treat, he opened the large freezer and wheeled out one of the two-story stretchers where two teaching specimens lay.

I took in the view of the freezer-burnt, partially dissected body lying atop the tray in front of me.

In the background Don Jose explained, “The main source of cadavers for the university is the hospital morgue.” Now, in the Dominican Republic, where I lived back then, there’s no concept of donating your body to science. “When nobody shows up to claim a body, they call us to come get it.” Don Jose continued, “That’s why we barely have any female bodies – it’s much less common for a woman to die stranded away from home, without any griever searching for her.”

So, yes, I kind-of knew there was a naked man in front of me. Yet, that was only a vague awareness in my mind compared to the real conversation going on inside of me.

My first thought was, “Oh, no. So, somewhere right now, in another city or country, there’s someone missing this person and wondering what happened to him.”  But that question was quickly overtaken by others. “So…this man is dead. He’s no longer alive. Where is he now, the real him? Whatever energy  that used to make this empty shell alive, the electricity that made his heart pump and his brain think…where did it go?” And of course that other voice going on in my brain repeating, “And, you know, you are going to be dead someday too.”

The visit was a success. I didn’t faint, or even feel nauseous. The lab didn’t smell bad, besides the sinus-piercing formaldehyde. Maybe I could survive medical training after all!”

That night, as I related my life-changing experience to my family at my grandmother’s house (I didn’t have a college dorm experience, during college I stayed with my grandmother, Mama Casilda), it was my aunt Rosina, visiting for dinner, who put things “back into perspective.”

Who cared about the scientific interest? Who cared about the soul-stabbing philosophical questions about mortality, so premature for my age?…Something much more important had happened!

She almost jumped in front of me and yelled “What!? YOU HAVE SEEN A NAKED MAN AND I HAVEN’T!?”

It’s worth explaining that my aunt Rosina was then a single, 33-year-old, highly successful accountant. Unmarried at such an “advanced age” – and in my family unmarried woman still meant being a virgin – she was defying the societal stereotype by living alone and by having a busy social life, instead of staying home taking care of her parents, wearing modest long dresses and submerging herself in religion like a “jamona” (a spinster) was expected to do. In retrospect, I think she was seen as an aggressive feminist, a dangerous woman and a potential home-breaker. Indeed, I can understand her frustration at having the ( false) reputation of a seductress without having any of the perks.

Fast forward a few years and let’s talk about the first living naked man I saw. It was during one of my first clinical rounds in Medical School. My medical school training curriculum differed from the American one in that it called for an early exposure of students to patients, simultaneously to basic science teaching. They called it “The Modular System,” inspired by British schools.

But I always suspected it was a third-world-country excuse to use pre-med students as cheap labor.

So there I was, not even 19, wearing a white coat and strolling hospital hallways with a herd of other clueless young students.

In my memories, this patient was about eighty-years old, but he could have been much younger, considering that at that age, any man older than thirty seemed ancient to me. When the attending physician asked him if he’d be willing to volunteer for the medical students to practice with him, he agreed so quickly and enthusiastically that his joy in itself should have been a red flag. That’s particularly true if you take into account that what he had volunteered for was a rectal exam.

The “old man” disrobed quickly and with no signs of shame or shyness. My memory of his sad, low hanging genitals is obscured by the memory of his joyful smile (go figure) as the eight of us, students, lined up to examine him. Also by the surprising finding that the temperature inside of an anus could be so warm.

Have I turned you off enough? Please forgive me. My intention was not to shock you, but to give you a small idea of how grim my introduction to men was.

Maybe I should have instead started by saying this simple sentence: I had delivered over a dozen babies before I was kissed for the first time. 

Yes, that was me, the queen of theory, with no practice. Hearing veiled dirty-jokes from teaching instructors about the XII cranial nerve – the one controlling movements of the tongue– was my first hint that the tongue had something to do with kissing – My ideas of kissing came mostly from PG-13 rated soap operas and Barbara Cartland novels. (That they may have been talking about something else didn’t occur to me until now, typing these paragraphs). There I was, reading about the neurotransmitters involved in the stages of the male and female sexual response and becoming an expert in the branches of the pudendal nerve – the nerve that carries all sensation from the genital area – years before touching a man.

Actually, the first time I ever touched a penis I was putting a urinary catheter in it. That man did not like it at all.

Before you slap me, I swear I have a point –- just give me a moment to try to remember what it was.

Oh yes. My point is: having all the scientific knowledge in the world ahead of time, didn’t save me from being completely lost when my turn came for facing the world of dating and adult sexuality – on the contrary, I think it made it worse. Can you imagine creating a pleasant association with sex after having had that type of start?

But that’s not even half the story! That was even before considering the generations and generations of sexual taboos genetically and socially inherited from my oppressed and devalued Dominican female ancestors (one third Spanish, one third tortured African slave, one third exterminated Indian) – my aunt’s story may give you a hint of the parallel dimension in which I grew up. Maybe, being screwed up was impossible to avoid.

If your transition to adulthood and the world of sex was completely free of taboos or small traumas you later on had to heal, you’re my hero, and I hope you understand how lucky and rare you are. Yet, if you’re like the rest of the world and you ever – ever – felt clueless and lost about the world of sex. If you ever wondered if you were abnormal (too prudish, too slutty, too vanilla, too kinky, too horny, not horny enough…), even if you know or suspect you’re sexually wounded (from devastating childhood sexual abuse, to the ubiquitous traumatic experience of having to go through puberty), rest assured: You’re not alone.

I believe that almost everybody is a little sexually screwed up and a little traumatized. And it’s okay. It’s part of being human. 

The human species is one very finicky species regarding sex. It comes with the large cerebral cortex, that predisposes us to over-worrying. I doubt that the male pig ever experiences performance anxiety. I doubt that the cow ever lets a few extra pounds make her hate herself and lose her libido when she’s in heat. I doubt that when the salmon finally makes it swimming upstream, finds a female salmon saying. “I’m sorry, but you forgot to send me flowers for my birthday, so there’s no honey for you tonight” –bad example, since salmons don’t have intercourse, they spawn, but you get the idea.

Animals are blissfully blessed with no sexual self-consciousness, taboos or bad associations, thanks to their smaller cerebral cortexes. I believe that the more intelligent, well accomplished and put together we are, the more at risk we are of losing touch with our instinctive sexuality – the one before shame and complicated self-image issues. The more we learn to intellectualize, the more complicated life gets. And this is especially true of sex.

But here’s the good news: Once you can laugh at it, more than half the work of healing it is done.

And the way to heal the other half is love. When the person you sleep with is also the person you’re crazy about, trust me, it all gets better.

How did I ever overcome my rough beginning? What ever happened in the following two decades plus, from my first day at the anatomy lab to when – a divorce and four children later – I was able to enjoy sex for the first time in my life?

That’s a long story.

Actually, that’s a whole collection of stories, preliminary entitled Sexless in the Boondocks, I’ll tell you some day – if you’d like.

Stay tuned for more.