by Penny Jackson
The reason why my mother had to buy me a bra was because of a letter from our school’s headmaster to the parents of the 7th grade girls. It was noted that many girls who were “maturing” were not wearing the proper undergarments. Teachers would now routinely check each girl who came to the school by tracing a finger down their backs. If the necessary “item” was not worn, the girl could be sent home.
This was 1975 and my headmaster was a bridge partner of my father’s. My mother was mortified. I was just confused. They didn’t check if boys were wearing underwear. I didn’t want a bra. I liked my white undershirts. My breasts were annoying buds that hurt me when I slept on my stomach. The girls who wore bras and had big breasts were teased mercilessly by the boys. I just wanted to be left alone.
That November before Thanksgiving my mother took me to Saks Fifth Avenue. The entire first floor smelled of Charlie, that year’s perfume. The doorman had winked at me when we had entered the store as if he knew of our mission. I hid my face beneath my wool scarf, terrified of running into anyone I knew. The store was hot and already my forehead felt clammy. The lingerie department was on the top floor, escalator after escalator, as if you were ascending to the top of a castle. I wasn’t prepared for so much stuff: pantyhose, girdles, translucent nightgowns, which I knew were called negligees from the romance novels I would read from camp, stockings that looked so fragile that a wisp of wind could knock down the entire rack and then the brassieres. I quickly glanced at them and noticed that many of them had metal hooks and clasps. Instruments of torture.
A saleswoman who wore lipstick the color of dried blood and had hair that looked like a shellacked helmet approached us behind a display of rainbow striped socks.
“We don’t want any training brassieres,” my mother announced which reminded
me of the training wheels on my old bike which were too big and once ran over my brother’s right index finger.
The saleslady squinted her eyes at me–her piercing stare directed at my chest like an arrow.
“Definitely not training,” she said. Her voice sounded like she had smoked a hundred cigarettes that morning. She could have been forty or eighty–it was hard to tell because she was wearing so much beige foundation on her face. “Please wait for me in the dressing room on the left,” she instructed, waving a hand to a corner of the floor.
“I hate it here,” I told my mother who hushed me as we found a dressing room filled with too bright lights and shiny mirrors. There was one pin on the floor that someone had forgot to pick up. It looked dangerous. I had a wild fantasy of sticking the saleslady with the pin and watching her mouth open in shock.
“Please” my mother pleaded. “Afterwards we can have ice cream at Serendipity’s.” But I didn’t want ice cream. I wanted to be back in my room with my Narnia books. Although I knew I was too old to still be reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I was always comforted knowing there could be another kingdom where I could escape.
The saleslady, whose name we learned was Florence from a black label on her red jacket, returned with a heap of bras in her arms. I winced as she hung each one on a hook. These bras could have been twisted hangers. I craved lace, flowers, anything pretty.
“Let me just check her size,” Florence told my mother and suddenly she grabbed my right breast, weighing it in the powdery creases of her hand as if testing a grapefruit. “Yes,” she said, nodding. “I think this is the right size–Double B.”
How could I be a double anything? Face steaming, I tried to hide behind a veil of white tissue paper which nestled the bra like a precious present. Florence instructed me to bend to my waist, my breasts hanging like half inflated balloons. The bra itched me the same way as the black wool tights I wore to school. What I saw in the mirror: two styrofoam cones.
My mother wiped at her eyes. “This is how I’ll feel at your wedding,” she told me as she opened her purse to find a Kleenex. The sales lady’s fingers pushed and pulled the bra with maroon painted claw-like nails. If these were what breasts were for, I didn’t want them. I unhooked the contraption, threw it on the floor, and hugged my old undershirt. “Leave me alone,” I shouted and even the dressing room curtains seemed to shiver.
“I’m sorry,” my mother told Florence, which infuriated me since I wanted my mother to be apologizing to me for this humiliation. “Why don’t I find you something you like,” my mother said as she parted the red curtains. That was my cue. I grabbed my sweater, my coat, and ran out of the dressing room. The escalator was only six feet away. I ran down each step as women with shopping bags made annoying noises but still stepped aside. The sun on Fifth Avenue blinded me and I wasn’t sure which way was home. I watched the doormen whistle for a yellow taxi for a woman staggering with brightly wrapped packages. For all I knew my mother could still be looking for the right bra. If this meant becoming a woman, I didn’t want anything to do with it.
I felt a hand on my right shoulder. I turned around and there was my mother. She must have been running to find me because she gulped a few times to catch her breath. “Don’t worry about it, darling” my mother said. “We could still get ice cream at Serendipity’s.”
Later that day my mother called the headmaster and said that male teachers checking the female students’ backs for brassieres was illegal. Teenage girls’ brassieres had nothing to do with education. If he didn’t cease with this nonsense she would contact a lawyer. My father stopped playing bridge with him. A year later, the headmaster died of a heart attack right in the middle of the holiday assembly. Only a few teachers shed a tear as they wheeled his body out of the auditorium. All my friends were wearing bras then. My new friend, Pauline, took me to a boutique on Columbus Avenue owned by her Aunt from Paris. All the bras were so beautiful – almost like sugar-spun confections. They were very expensive too but my mother had given me a hundred-dollar bill. Pauline’s Aunt, a tall skinny woman who wore tight jeans and Frye boots, encouraged me to buy a red bra. A bra that was the same color as a Valentine heart box of candy. I didn’t show my mother the bra when I came home but she could tell by looking at my chest that something had changed. And something had changed too. Josh Heller, a boy who had ignored me all year, asked me if we could study for our English class in the library. There in the stacks, by the encyclopedias, he kissed me. I pushed his hand away from my chest–he didn’t earn that right yet. But I knew I wasn’t in Narnia anymore.
Penny Jackson is the author of the novel Becoming The Butlers published by Bantam Press and L.A. Child, an award-winning collection of short stories. Prizes include a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. She is also a playwright and a screenwriter. pennybrandtjackson.com