by David W. Landrum
She was going to do it—she and five other women. Her parents, livid at the idea, warned her there would be consequences. She had thought of bailing but finally affirmed the covenant she had made. Loyalty to the cause demanded it. He parents could do what they pleased. She intended to go through with it. It did bother her a little, though, that her boyfriend, Isaac, was so enthused about the project.
That she and five other women planned to shed their clothes and ride ponies through campus and down the main street of town to protest human trafficking had been widely publicized. It had been overpublicized. Someone said major news outlets would be there. Bridget Klein told them the Today Show had assigned Lester Holt or Ann Curry to cover the event (she doubted this). Most certainly it would make the papers and the local news; perhaps state news broadcast as well. But wasn’t publicity the whole point? To be noticed? For the thousandth time, she steeled her resolve, which had a marked tendency to weaken and go flaccid.
That morning Isaac had wanted it. She was too full of anxiety and said she didn’t feel like it.
“Headache?” he quipped.
“You might say that.” Immediately afterwards, though, she felt guilty. After lying quietly on her side for a couple of minutes and contemplating, she said, “Okay.”
“Not if you don’t want to.”
“I want to.”
She enjoyed it—an unexpected positive. It was a great tension buster. It cleared her soul and she went to class refreshed and relaxed. Tina Sims met her at the door to the biology lab.
“So are you really going to do it?” Melissa nodded affirmatively. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll get arrested?”
She had thought of this, and their group had discussed it. Secretly, Melissa hoped this happened. It would be easier than the planned nudie ride and would make the same statement.
“We might get arrested. If they do”—she shrugged.
“People will take pictures of you. They’ll be all over the internet.”
This also bothered her. Her bare butt, boobs, and vadge would be sent all over the world via social media. She could see the phone-cameras raised in a wall of slick black and the flashes exploding in an uninterrupted light show. Still, she would go through with it. She and Tina got their lab project ready as the other students filtered in. Melissa chided herself for being so prudish. Isaac had seen her buff. They lived together. The four other guys she had dated and slept with had seen her. She had sunbathed topless on a beach in Greece and naked on a beach in Germany (by the Bodensee). So what was the hang-up?
Herself, she thought. Her parents were still authority figures to her, even though she had been away at college three years and away from home for two and had an apartment and a live-in boyfriend. And, worse, she wondered about herself, how she would look, what people would think of her body.
Every day for a week she had stood in front of the mirror after her baths and studied herself. She was trim (she ran and played volleyball on the JV squad at her school). But she was not one of those tall, leggy Nordic types men found so attractive. She had a more rounded frame. She had pretty good boobs—not big but not small, and the freckles on them would be a plus. Standing with her back to the mirror and looking over her shoulder, relief had swept over her that her butt did not sag—or did it? Melissa felt pique at her attitude. She was not auditioning for a porn film. Just the opposite. She was making a statement. She and the others intended to say something memorable in their fight against slavery and human trafficking. The Lady Godiva thing, they had agreed, would be the best way to call attention to their cause.
Not everyone took the same viewpoint. One feminist critic had excoriated them. “Why in the name of rationality would anyone think they could make a statement against the exploitation of women in the sex trade by imaging the same sort of behavior that is the sex trade’s primary mode? Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynn might applaud their effort, but I cannot. Lady Godiva became a sexist symbol, her design to help the poor by riding naked through the city notwithstanding. The same is true of these misguided, self-exploited women who will go for the Godiva mistake nine-hundred years later.” She had seen similar attacks online and in print.
Whatever critics said, their plan seemed to working. Their volunteers estimated a crowd at ten thousand had gathered along the route they had announced. Either the police would arrest them right away or they would get to go through with it. Anja, a police woman, and partner of Clea, one of their group, said the chief had decided he would not interfere. “He doesn’t want the bad publicity,” she said. But Anja was flighty and the information she had might not be accurate. She was sure the police were under a lot of pressure to stop the protest before it got started.
She finished her classes and went to the parking lot outside the Wege Center, her anxiety rising. She fought it down. She saw Isaac’s blue Camaro pull up in the circular driveway, climbed in and kissed him. “You okay?” he asked.
She nodded. “A little anxious. I’m afraid we’ll get thrown in jail.”
Isaac did not reply. She felt annoyance that he looked so smug, as if he was looking forward to seeing her parade her bare butt in public. Melissa fought back her anger. It was tension, she told herself. She should appreciate that he was supportive. They pulled into a parking spot by the van. “There’s Ella,” Seth remarked. “I see Tara and Liz.” Melissa saw them too. They looked cheerful and conspiratorial. None showed trepidation. Maybe being with the others and feeling the solidarity, the sisterhood of those committed to the cause, would enable her to throw off the dread she felt.
Isaac kissed her good-bye and went to join the crowd. She waved at her companions, who waved back, cheered and, when she came near, embraced her. The clock on the carillon tower rang. She saw Reb Rauley, a local circus owner who had lent them the ponies. Standing by the side of the road, he held two of the small, shaggy-maned animals. His grooms held four more—bridles, saddle blankets, but no saddles. The ponies, he had told them two days ago, were docile, used to being ridden by children, and would give them no problems. A crowd already lined both side of the street as far down as Melissa could see. She spotted no police officers, though she did notice news trucks for all three local outlets.
Tara, who had naturally fallen into the role of leader, said, “Well, ladies, time to take it all off. Let’s go.” They piled into the long, white, windowless utility van.
Inside, they undressed. The director of the Fund and two college interns were there to assist them. Melissa sat down. She took off her shoes, peeled off her tights, slipped her tunic over her head, and wriggled out of her underwear. She had not worn a bra.
She stood up. The other women had stripped as well. They were all taller and older than she. They all smiled sheepishly. “Girls,” Tara said. They walked toward the center of the van. Tara put out her hand. The others joined her hands to hers. “Okay. Ready. Let’s go on three.” She paused and then said, in a steady, confident voice, “One, two, three . . . go!” They shouted in unison, pushing their hands apart in an energetic salute. The back doors to the van opened. Light flooded in. Tara led the way. The others followed single file, Melissa last in line.
She felt the sun of her bare body. The crowd was large—a lot of women, quite a few men. Cameras clicked and flashed, as she imagined they would. The group moved toward the ponies. No police. No one appeared to interdict them. Maybe Anja had been right. She saw signs supporting their organization and a few funny ones: SHOW THE BARE TRUTH, A BETTER RIDE THAN PAUL REVERE’S and—this one made her laugh out loud—GO DIVAS! Interns representing their organization—in yellow t-shirts and blue shorts, their organization’s colors—formed a barrier for Melissa and the others as they walked toward the line of ponies a few feet from the van.
Melissa hoped she was not blushing. Everyone in the crowd was snapping pictures. The TV crews also had them in their lenses. No police. They were not planning to arrest them.
She neared the ponies. The owner stood by the line of reddish brown animals. He grinned widely. Tara stopped and kissed him. He nodded appreciatively at Melissa as she passed by him. She approached the pony. A female groom helped her up. She climbed on the animal and settled down on the saddle.
Melissa immediately worried about a parasite or some blob of filth getting in through her openings. One did not wear clothing just for the sake of modesty, she thought. She had hoped the curve of the saddle would hide her genitals, but they had only horse blankets that did not curve upward at all. She would shoot a beaver at everyone she passed. Her breasts jounced as the pony trotted along. The crowd roared, cheered, gave thumbs up as the bare parade passed. A crowd of guys yelled “Nice tits!” loudly and in unison at Tara, who held her arms up and shook her body so her breasts shook too. The men cheered. As Melissa, who was last in line, passed, the boys did the same thing. She thought to ignore them but then turned to face them, put her arms straight out, and, gripping the sides of the pony with her knees, raised her body up to a semi-standing position and twisted toward them. She smiled, showing her teeth. They cheered. Cameras flashed furiously.
They had four long blocks to go—four blocks lined with people who held cameras and with camera crews. Nobody was missing this one, Melissa thought. Some in the crowd held signs supporting them. Their workers, in the blue and yellow uniform, walked up and down with buckets and gathered contributions. The buckets Melissa could see looked mostly full, and full of bills, not coins. Of course, she thought, they were getting a girlie show with no cover charge like a topless bar would make them pay. The pony’s motion hurt her buns.
They neared the end of the course. Grooms were there to take the ponies. The six women dismounted, gathered in a circle—still not concealing their nakedness—and joined hands, giving a loud salute. The crowd cheered and waved support signs. Melissa and her co-protestors turned and walked into a building where they had rented a room. Cameras flashed incessantly.
Inside, there was much applauding, hugging, and kissing. One of the volunteers brought Melissa the clothes she had left there and helped her dress. She put on underwear, a blouse, and a denim miniskirt. Putting on clothes made her feel as if she had done something inexcusably wrong and unfathomably stupid by going naked in public. She thought of the thousands of pictures of her bare body traveling at cyber-speed all over the world via the internet. News crews would be editing film and debating how much to show and how to show it. Her parents would get the report and would possibly even see photos of her in all her unclad glory. She would soon find out what form the consequences they had threatened might take.
Clothed, the women gathered again. Tara said the size of the crowd was close to 5,000. People had given $15,000 in contributions. The police had not arrested them. “It was a success,” Tara said. “Now we get to talk about our mission. Thank you, Liz, Melissa, Clea, Diana, Paula. Women all over the world will go free because you were willing to do what you did.” After more hugging and kissing, they went back outside.
Once more, the crowd roared with a prolonged ovation. The women waved, smiled, and blew kisses as people shouted, applauded, held up signs, and whistled. Melissa tried to feel her exhibitionism had been worth it, but guilt blocked jubilation. She tried to rejoice with the others, but her rejoicing was all outward show. She cursed herself for the way she felt.
A podium with a lectern had been set up on the green in front of the building. Tara walked up to give her speech. A prolonged cheer rang through the warm afternoon air. Melissa and the others sat on chairs a few feet back from the podium. Three of them would speak, Melissa last of all.
Tara spoke about their cause, offering statistics about how sexual slavery and wage slavery did not occur only in remote nations overseas but right in the City of Grand Rapids. There was dead silence as she spoke. Passion enlivened her words. After she had finished, Paula talked about supporting the group. Then Melissa spoke.
“One afternoon in the eleventh century,” she said, the mic squealing when a gust of wind caught it, “Godgifu, wife of Leofric, Earl of Westmoreland, rode naked through the village of Coventry. Most people know the story, but few people know why she did this. Lady Godiva’s ride was a sacrifice. The people of her city suffered under her husband’s heavy taxation. She constantly pleaded with him to ease the burden. He quipped that he would when she rode naked through the streets. She did—though in her day everyone was ordered to stay inside and close their windows so no one would see her.
“People remember what she did. We have done the same as a sacrifice to a worthy cause. We bared ourselves so everyone could see us. A huge crowd did. And everyone took pictures too.” This got a quiet laugh. “In the spirit of Lady Godiva, we rode not for the sake of sensuality and not as exhibitionists. We rode, as she rode, to assist the oppressed in our own community. It is only by community support that we can combat the crime of human trafficking. We got your attention today. I hope your attention will be focused on the plight of the suffering and the exploited, right here in this city, in the days and years that are to come. Thank you.”
The crowd broke into cheering and applause. Melissa’s eyes teared up as she walked back to the join the others. However cheesy she might have sounded, her conviction was sincere and heart-felt. Their plan now was to go out and greet people in the crowd.
The next day the cover of the Grand Rapids Press carried a photograph of Melissa when she responded to the shout from the young men at the side of the street. The editors had blurred out her breasts and intimate parts, but the blurring was select, precise, and sparse, hiding just the essentials. The photo had caught her smile, which looked provocative, self-satisfied and (she thought) slutty. Visible in the photo were a woman with shocked, wide eyes and a young man gleefully grinning and pumping his fist in air; his lips were shaped to suggest he was saying “Yes!”
As she sat in a chair and gazed at the photo, her cell phone buzzed. It was Tara.
“Did you see the GR Press?”
“I saw it.”
“They blotted out the best parts.” Her quip sounded weak and sorrowful.
“It’s fine, baby.”
“We wanted to get attention and publicity. We did. Two pages up, there are more shots—
one of me, one of Pam.”
“I got to be the cover girl.”
“Are you okay, Melissa?”
“I’m worried about what my Mom and Dad will say. They were really against me doing this.”
“Do we need to talk? Greg and I have to go to with the girls to a soccer tournament this morning, but we could get together for coffee this afternoon.”
“That sounds good.”
“Okay, let’s make it 5:00 at Mad Cap. Hang in there, sweetie.”
Melissa closed her phone and went to her desk. She got on the internet. As she had expected, photos of their group in full buff were all over the net, including the pose the Press and many others had captured and posted—without censorship. She stared at herself, naked as the day she was born, her image available for all to see.
What did it matter? she asked herself. Actresses—she thought of Hallie Berry, Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet, Kate Beckinsale—had all done nudie scenes in films and these were subsequently posted. Why was she such a prude? She looked good—better than her examinations in front of the mirror had led to believe she would look. Her trim, toned body showed nothing to be ashamed of—unless, of course, you were ashamed of showing it all to the general public.
As she searched, her phone buzzed once more. Her mother.
“Hello, Melissa.” Her voice sounded stiff; she had used her full name, not “Mel” (Melissa hated the nickname “Missy”). “Are you proud of yourself?”
She breathed in and wondered how to reply. “Yes, Mom,” she said after a moment. “I am proud of myself. I know you didn’t want me doing this, but I felt I had to do it.”
“I’m mortified. I could die.”
“Mom, lots of women do this sort of thing—movie stars, models. It’s no big deal.”
She instantly knew she should not have said this.
“No big deal?” her mother let loose. “It is for me when I see friends or go to church. I want to hide for the next ten years. Melissa, how could you do this to me?”
“We’ve been over this,” she answered, her voice flat.
“Yes, and ‘over’ is the right word. Melissa, you are our child and we love and won’t ever repudiate you. But I think it would be best if you stay away from us for a little while until your father and I can process all of this.” A measured pause; Melissa perceived she had rehearsed what she was going to say. “And we can’t continue to pay for your school. If you want to engage foolish, obscene actions, you can engage in them at your own expense.”
So these were the “consequences” her mother had spoken about. They had it all planned out. She could hear her mother breathing on the other end of the line.
“Well, Mom, that will be tough,” she said, trying to make her voice sound even, “but if you think it’s what you have to do, I understand.”
Her mother did not reply. She had not expected such a response, Melissa noted. After a moment she said, “Okay, Melissa, I’ll call you,” and the line went dead.
Melissa sat in front of the computer screen bearing the picture of her doing an elevé on the pony. Her parents had never retaliated against her two brothers for their antics in college. Melissa, who was the youngest in the family and the only girl, had held a special place in their hearts. Maybe, she pondered, that was the reason they were reacting with such uncharacteristic vehemence and extreme emotion. She wept—no sense in trying to stop it. But even in her distress, the practical considerations of what her mother had said troubled her mind.
Melissa worked in Tech Support for the college she attended. It paid fairly well but she did not make enough to live on and to pay for school—not without taking loans, a thing she did not want to do. She would have to cut back, maybe even sit out a semester or two. It would take her forever to finish school without her parents’ support. She cried, trying to rally. She did not want Isaac to see her this way.
After a time, she wiped her eyes, blew her nose, and turned back to the computer. She went to Isaac’s webpage and saw a new link on titled MY GIRL. Clicking on it, she found a whole set of photographs—a slide show—of her at the rally. Thirty in all, he had set them up with forward and back arrows so viewers could work through the sequence more easily.
The first two slides encouraged her. He had written a preface in which he outlined the nature of the protest and the work Melissa’s organization did to combat human trafficking at the global and local levels. The next slide featured the famous painting of Lady Godiva by John Collier—the one in which she sits sideways on a horse and looks down, most of her lovely body hidden by her hair and the saddle. Beside it he had posted her story. The sidebar emphasized how she had ridden to ease the burden of the poor.
The next twenty-eight slides, however, distressed and then enraged her. All of them but one showed her nude. They were taken at various stages of the parade. He must have followed her through the whole course and snapped photographs all along it. Isaac’s photo shoot displayed images of her riding along taken from every angle—a Grey’s Anatomy of her on a pony in the open air, riding down a city street. The last one showed her dressed, speaking to the crowd.
She turned the computer off. Isaac had a good job working as a consultant for contractors who wanted to build environmentally safe buildings. His expertise was much in demand and he had thought of hiring staff and starting his own business. Money had flooded in of late. He had also talked of moving out of the apartment and purchasing a home. He paid the rent and utilities and the bulk of expenses in their place. Melissa’s contributions were minimal, almost token. He bought most of the food they ate.
If she moved out, she would have to find an apartment. That would mean finding a roommate—or roommates. Melissa like quiet and liked her privacy and liked it that Isaac valued the same things. He did not play music or watch TV all the time. Their evenings together were quiet. They read or talked. She loved the domestic environment they had created in the year they had lived together. Isaac had never said anything about wanting to marry her.
She tried to qualify her anger at him. She knew Isaac felt something real for her. And, after all, she had been the one who had decided to bare it all in public. Why should she feel spite that he had, in a way, endorsed her decision? Did she want him to be upset at what she had done?
Maybe she did, Melissa thought. Maybe she had wanted him to be upset about it. Perhaps, she mused, his support of her venture had dashed subconscious hopes she had nurtured that he might stop her from going through with it.
She sank into misery. Was her commitment to justice a sham? Did she care more about whether she had a nice-looking rear than she cared about the oppression of women and children? No, she did not. But the human soul had layers, crevices, rooms that stayed shut up and dark. This episode had given her a glimpse into some of those rooms in her soul. She did not like what she saw. The revelation showed her she had a long way to go.
Now she felt like a kept woman living with Isaac because she could not afford to live on her own. Would he offer to pay for her classes? Would it be right even to expect him to? If he did, would it be a whore’s wages? She glanced at her watch. 10:13. She thought maybe she would go downtown and hang out in the library or in the Public Museum until it was time to meet Tara. If people recognized her, what would they say? What would she say? What kind of looks would she get after being on the front page of the paper this morning? She would be glad to meet up with Tara, who had always offered wise solutions when the women in the organization had troubles.
She sat back and looked out at the traffic passing on Michigan Street. A dove lit on her windowsill. On the sidewalk below, a mother with two children walking alongside her pushed a baby carriage. Melissa went to change into a nicer outfit to wear downtown, to have on when she met with Tara.