How I Learned to Love Unmentionables
LINGERIE DAY BEGAN in North Beach. It was one of those charmed days in San Francisco, where live jazz spilled out from The Savoy Tivoli and a flurry of chartreuse overhead turned out to be a rare sighting of the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. M showed me his favorite antique store, and we leaned into one another as we admired a tray of glass eyeballs. In truth, a part of me might have been stalling. I was the woman with dirt under her fingernails from gardening. I was the woman whose idea of putting on make-up was running some Burt’s Bees lip shimmer across my lips. I was the woman whose dressy shoes were Birkenstocks with rhinestone clasps. I felt like I was being initiated into a secret society, some savvy subculture of coupledom.
I have always had a complicated relationship to underwear. I was the only girl in house of brothers, so jock straps, boxers, and tighty-whities flapped on the clothesline like proud flags of masculinity. Looking back, I wonder if my mother hung our delicates in a clandestine spot, say, behind some hedges in the backyard?
But early on, M and I had exchanged wonderful lists of all the things we wanted to do together as the relationship progressed. Number Six on his list was “I want to buy you lingerie.” So here we were, stepping into a shop that could make that wish come true.
Inside the shop, we were greeted by an impeccably dressed saleswoman half my age stroking the tape measure around her neck like a pet snake. She invited us to peruse while she fetched us each a glass of wine. M nodded at me encouragingly, compelling me toward the racks of lacy wonderments. I was drawn to a bra that whispered huskily of a 1930s cabaret in Berlin, and a second that looked like it had sprung from the pages of a Brassai photograph of Paris after midnight. I ran my finger down its mesh and satin contours all the way down to a harsh cardboard price tag that alerted me to the fact that this tiny strip of prettiness cost more than the tune-up I had been putting off for my 8-year-old car. I chastised myself: This is not a time to be practical. Let yourself be treated and enjoy it.
M followed me toward the dressing room, but the saleswoman stopped him at the curtain and addressed me: “Would you like him to come in, or wait outside?”
Not blind to the value of mystery, I said, “Outside please, but he can come back and see once I have it on.”
M joined several other men loitering by the front desk, that small island in a sea of femininity. The dressing room was the size of my kitchen, with incredibly flattering lighting, a satin covered fainting couch, and an Art Deco vanity. I wanted to move in.
No sooner had I removed my blouse, the young woman was in the dressing room alongside me, unraveling her tape measure.
“What size do you think you are?” she asked, tacitly implying that whatever size I had been buying for the past several decades was probably incorrect. “Let me measure you.” While she was nothing but professional, I was instantly sent reeling back to that very first bra-buying experience, the awkward purchase of the iconic Carter’s Training Bra. Cut to the scary saleswoman bursting in on the shy adolescent, trying to measure her when anyone could see that she is a Double A. Why not just give her the damn Carter’s Double A Training Bra and let her get the hell out of there? And by the way, why is it called a “training” bra? What if we substituted the word “training” for all the other firsts, such as Training car? Training kiss? Or Training marriage?
“My” saleswoman returned bearing intimates. I skimmed her selections, and then I saw it, a bra-and-panty set that was so exquisite, it was art. Perfectly placed little strips of a black leather-esque fabric nuzzled loops of ivory lace and tender rows of black satin. And the panties! Ruched in ways that seemed custom made for my body. I was torn between never taking the items off, or appreciating them on my wall with their own track lighting. When I started to look at the price tag, she scolded: “You are not to look at that. Whatever it costs, you’re worth it.”
I stuck my head out of the curtains and beckoned M into the room, both of us grinning like idiots until the saleswoman came back in and we cleared our throats and began speaking of my balconette in the same appraising tones one might use when buying a lawnmower.
Before M left the room, I grabbed his arm and asked: “How can I call myself a feminist and yet enjoy this experience so much?”
“Are you kidding?” he said. “It’s a win-win for everyone. The guy gets to know that at least this one time, he is the only man on earth who gets to see you in these. And the woman, you, get to witness the effect that wearing these beautiful things has on him. And on you. It’s incredibly empowering.”
“Shall I take your new set up to the register?” the saleswoman asked, arriving with a pink bag.
“No, thanks,” I said, placing my old undergarments in the bag instead. “I’m planning to wear these out.”
Jill Koenigsdorf is the author of the novel Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunset, California Magazine, and others. She was the owner of Spring Fever Flowers in Rockridge for 24 years. She is currently at work on a second novel.
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