Just an Exhibitionist

Lynn Cohen is a writer living in West Hollywood

I spotted him for the first time early one morning late last summer outside my West Hollywood apartment. My dog had stopped to give the once-over to a lamppost. As usual, he refused to budge until he had identified every trace of urine left so far that day. Standing, yawning, squinting in the half-light, I noticed a man on a bicycle, a block away, riding toward me. As he approached, I was struck by the contrast between the bright yellow of his hair and the homogeneously neutral effect of what looked to me like a beige bodysuit. I could hear the whir of his tires as he glided slowly past. Our eyes met. He raised himself to a standing position. I realized then that he was not wearing a bodysuit. Or anything.

Apparently satisfied that I had seen what he wanted me to see, he sat down and rode away.

I was surprised but not frightened. Maybe because he was in motion, giving me no sign that he intended to stop. Or because my associations with bicycles are wholesome ones. Or maybe because my 70-pound black Lab was by my side.

I laughed.

He looked back at me and stopped pedaling. I felt my smile freeze. He was thin but muscular. Up there on his bike he loomed tall. In his 50s, I guessed, though in that light it was hard to tell. His cropped hair, which initially had looked artificially blond, was really white, with a synthetic sheen. There was something eerie and inaccessible about his expression, as if he were wearing a stocking over his face. Perhaps he wore makeup? His eyes could have been blue or green or gray. He watched me. I watched him. He continued to coast, receding into the dawn. When his bike slowed to a teeter, he turned away and pedaled on.

Moments later, a woman walking a cocker spaniel appeared across the street.

"Did you see that guy?" I rasped, my voice a loud whisper.

"What a kook," she answered. "He should be arrested."

Another woman approached from across the street. She said in a pronounced French accent, "Ah, did you see the naked man?"

"Yes," I called back. "He gave me a private fashion show."

"At last," the Frenchwoman exclaimed, raising her palms to the sky. "Someone else has seen him! My friends accuse me of making it up! I've been seeing him for years. But he's quite harmless. Just an exhibitionist."

The three of us stood for a while, silent, observing one of those exhilarating moments among strangers who witness something extraordinary together.

"Well," the Frenchwoman finally said, "have a good day." And she continued on her way. The woman with the cocker spaniel walked on. Tyson and I headed home.

Over the past nine months, I've seen the naked man seven or eight more times. I've deduced the following: He prefers weekday mornings, from 5:30 to 6:30, when it's just growing light. He favors clear, cool days. He does not come out in the wind or rain. He mostly walks or runs--that time on the bike was apparently a fluke--sprinting sometimes. He seems to revel in the gaze of a solitary female, avoids the elderly and seeks cover from passing cars.

I have reason to believe he lives down the block from me. Twice I have seen him disappear into the back entrance of a nearby building as the sun appears. Though I have wondered about him--Has he ever been arrested? Doesn't he get cold?--I have never felt the need to avoid him. The Frenchwoman's insouciant confidence that for him, this activity is routine, as well as Tyson's presence, have reassured me.

It's not just that. Each time I'd spot his fluid naked form, I would feel an unbidden rush of giddy joy. My walks had taken on fresh energy, acquired an adventuresome quality. I had begun to look for the naked man the way a kid might watch for the ice cream truck. Mornings without him were a letdown.

The other day, a little after 6:15, Tyson pulled me over to the lamppost to take one of his notoriously protracted pees, which I have clocked at as long as 73 seconds--his personal best. I had nothing to do but stand and wait, yawn, gaze about the still-dark houses and empty streets.

Then I saw him. He was across the street, down a ways, crouching on the sidewalk, watching me. Possibly I had startled him into a protective cower. Had he seen us emerge from the apartment? Did he now know where I lived?

Tyson was breaking his record, or so it seemed, holding both me and the naked man hostage. Standing there being watched, I felt a disorienting mix of mortification and elation, feeling as if I--not he--was exposing myself.

Finally, Tyson's stream burbled to a trickle, stopped. Now I had to walk. Where? With a surge of courage, I pulled Tyson across the street. When I stepped onto the curb, I looked straight at the naked man and said in my most pleasant manner, "Good morning!"

I guess I expected him to dart off like a terrified rabbit. But he did not stir.

"Good morning," he answered me in a mellifluous alto.

Our relationship had lurched forward. For a moment, it didn't matter that he was naked. We were just neighbors, being friendly.

Tyson and I made our way slowly up the block. Each time the dog stopped, I glanced back, where I knew--I could feel--the naked man tailing us at a respectful distance. Now lurking behind the tree; now walking placidly past houses with closed blinds; now sprinting across the street to peek around the emerald Mercedes. He moved like a dancer, lithe and graceful, bursting briefly, then relaxing into a controlled stride.

What did he do, I wondered, to prime himself for his ritual? I pictured him in his apartment preparing to come out--a dark studio with a poster of overblown lips and eyes with exaggerated lashes--brushing his hair in a full-length mirror. Perhaps he lifted weights or, more likely, pumped himself up with chin-ups on a bar installed across a closet door before slipping outside, biceps buffed.

What did he do during the day? Might I have seen him in clothes and not known him? Had he ever locked himself out?

We tracked each other, mutually riveted.

But then, all too quickly, the light crossed from dawn to morning, and it was time for him to go. He disappeared, leaving me strangely uplifted.

The next afternoon, El Nino arrived in full force, and even Tyson opted to stay inside. I almost forgot about the naked man.

Two days later, the rain stopped. The air was fresh and cold, the sidewalk puddles glassily still. As Tyson and I set out a little after 6, I remembered my anticipation of other, similarly clear mornings, and wondered whether I'd see my neighbor.

I didn't. Too many other people were out--an elderly man on his daily walk, a bottle-collector pushing his rattling grocery cart, a young couple jogging. Too much activity.

Tyson and I were a block from home when he appeared. He stood, facing us, in front of the brown stucco building I had come to think of as his. I yanked on the leash. "Come on," I said. "Let's go see the naked man!"

I wasn't afraid. And I was.

How close would I dare get? How close would he allow me to get?

As if he had read my mind, he took a step into full view and waved at me. At me! There was no mistaking. His arm went up as if holding a pennant, waving left, then right. I felt, again, that mortified joy. It was the first sign that maybe I existed for him, between encounters, the way he existed for me.

Seconds later, he vanished.

I walked home at a faster-than-usual pace. I have not stopped thinking about him, affectionately, curiously, cautiously.

I hope my decision to regard this peculiar man as nonthreatening is a wise one. I suppose we will go on seeing each other, and I'll wager that our encounters never amount to more than the exchange of stealthy, scintillating glimpses and the occasional polite word. Maybe some morning, years from now, I will come upon a woman who has just seen him for the first time.

"He's harmless," I might say. "Just an exhibitionist." We'll stand in silent reflection. I will remember my first sighting. "Well," I'll say after a moment, "have a good day."

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