tfw is a mini-essay series I’m try to do on Tuesdays to recount second-person experiences of feelings and experiences we all have. Or maybe I’m the only one who has them?
When it’s cold, people wear sweaters. It could be your office, your home, a restaurant, a store, a busy bus where people are constantly jumping in and out of seats and onto the street: people wear sweaters in all places when they are cold. A pullover sweater is the easiest way to put on and take off warmth.
It is not foolproof, though. Sweaters are clingy. Sweaters like to pretend that they are a shirt and they latch onto whatever you are wearing because it is their nature to contain you, sucking everything in to keep you warm. This is a predicament when it’s time to take off your top layer because your sweater tries to turn the individual act into a duet, this double fun curtain rising that revealing your inside outsides to all around.
This is a brilliant moment. It is a moment of fear, a moment of anger, a moment a vain. It is a tragedy and it is a comedy. It is a private moment made public. You see your coworker or your lover or your brother or the bus driver lift off their sweater and accidentally lift up their shirt and maybe even their undershirt and you get to see their bits. You get to see their tan and their body hair. Are they flabby? You find out. Are they surprisingly fit? You find out. Do they have a stained undershirt? You find out. You don’t want to look but you feel like you have to because deep down inside everyone wants to know what each other looks like naked. It does not matter if there is any sexual attraction involved: we just want to see each other naked because we are curious monsters.
Seeing someone else accidentally almost take off their shirt is a brief fatal accident. Something in that person is killed. Likely pieces of dignity. The feeling of seeing that shirt ride up is a lot like walking in on someone as they take a shit or catching someone masturbating or a walking in on a couple having sex. This is a moment and a look that is not for anyone else but the self. We are not in a locker room. We are not in a locked bedroom. We are in a place where we wear clothing and the removal of clothing is left alone to the oning and offing of a sweater. That is all you can take off in polite company. Yet, we see more. We see our assistant’s pubes accidentally or our father’s saggy teats. That man in the supermarket trying to keep all his kids together looks like he was a burly muscle man until he took off his shirt. That woman has on no bra. This is common x-ray vision. Thank you, sweaters.
We always want to see these people. We want to peep at them. We want to see them out of the side of our eyes and we want to lock that image into our nude rolodex, an assortment of puzzle pieces of people’s various state(s) of intentional and unintentional undress. You never want to be in anyone’s rolodex, though. You stay out. You pull up your sweater as you pull down your shirt. You stand against a wall or go belly up to your desk to remove anything. You don’t want that shirt to ride. You don’t want anyone to see you. “Look the other way: I’m taking off a sweater,” you fax out to all around you. The removal is never small, though. You raise your hands and make a flag of your sweater and you signal for all eyes to be on you. “See what I see when I am alone,” you broadcast. “Is my belly button inside or outside? Find out!”
You take the sweater off and your shirt is half up and half down and you feel like you did something wrong. You find no one looking at you and you feel better until you look to your left or to your right and a head quickly turns the other way. Were they looking at you? No? Yes? They saw that you took off your shirt and then they looked away. You do that: you don’t actually stare. You try to but then you look away. “Keep mine eyes from thine,” you pray. “But let me see it all.” The gaze of the sweater drawing crowd is that of a runner avoiding hurdles: if you clear the hurdle, you see the belly unnoticed—if your jump is clipped by even a toenail, you have been spotted.
Ride that shirt up, ride that shirt off. Look but don’t, be seen and not seen. Never take off your sweater. Or maybe wear a jacket? But you like sweaters too much. You’ll risk the accidental show. You will wait until it is warm again and you don’t have to wear sweaters anymore. Then, it begins anew: the literal naval gazing is left to pools. And you will pool. Everyone pools. Everyone sweaters. We all see each other kind of naked at some point or another.