There’s an underwear catalog on the boss’s desk; you notice it when you’re in his office filing invoices. Not Victoria’s Secret or anything. It’s not some pathetic substitute available for men too embarrassed to buy Hustler or even Playboy. In fact, there are no models in this catalog at all—it’s just underwear. Men’s and women’s. Boxers and panties. No bodies; the bodies have been erased. The underwear is categorized, like this:
You mean to page slowly to romance, to find out what, exactly, romance looks like without a body, but before you can get to glossy page 32, Adam, your boss, returns from his meeting and finds you in his oversized desk chair with his underwear catalog in your hands. He smooths his tie and smiles slightly. Just the corners of his mouth.
“I don’t know why I get that,” he says. He doesn’t look at you, but you look at him. His suit is old and unfashionable. The wrong cut and the wrong brown. Still, it fits well. He works out. Cardio—every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You know his schedule. Adam’s hair is gray on the sides. He is fifteen years older than you. “One day,” he says, glancing at the catalog, “it just started coming in the mail.” He laughs, maybe nervously. But you’ve dropped off his mail every day for two years and you’ve never seen this catalog before – which means, you think, he must have brought it to work on purpose. You don’t check for his home address on the cover, because now he is looking at you.
“Well,” you say. “Underwear is important.” You force a smile. Maybe, you think, Adam just needs new underwear. Or his wife does. Then you feel yourself blushing and place the catalog back on his desk and pick up the stack of filing, stand up, smile, and say: “Almost done here.”
“Okay,” he says, sliding past you, into his chair. “Good.”
You try to behave normally, like you haven’t been lounging in his faux-leather chair-on- wheels, paging through his underwear catalog. Like you both aren’t thinking about underwear. Or sex. But it’s no use. The weight of the subject remains heavy in the room: underwear. Intimates. As you file papers, Adam types at his computer and whistles the melody of a song you don’t know.
Romance underwear. You’ve never worn it, not really. You wear cotton briefs in stripes and dots, sometimes floral patterns. Practical underwear. Goes in the washer and dryer no problem. You buy your underwear at Gould’s Department Store in a section called Foundations, where little old ladies string measuring tape around their necks, ready to fit you for a bra. Maybe, you think, your boring panties helped drive Mark away. He bought you lace panties once – black, with a bow. A last ditch effort? You only wore them for a moment. You put them on and said, “Well?” and then Mark slid them off and you never wore them again.
The filing cabinets are old and metal and stuffed too full. Sometimes the drawers stick and squeak, and you struggle to pull them open. Sometimes there’s no room to slip another paper in. You don’t know why Adam needs all this paper in his office, but it’s your job, and it’s not hard, and you haven’t come up with something better to do.
You entertain seducing Adam. You’ve never thought about it before, but now with the presence of underwear here in Adam’s office—the pages and pages of panties—seduction, perhaps, is unavoidable. Yes, Adam is married and yes, he’s your boss, but isn’t that, you now think, part of your role as his secretary? To be a seductive distraction? Don’t all men have secretary fantasies?
Bend over in your skirt to pull out the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet and cram papers, one at a time, behind the wrong letters. Wonder: Does he notice your ass? You are not attracted to him, not really, but all the same, you would like him to notice your ass. You think it’s all right, or at least not bad. It’s twenty-four years old. Embrace the word “ass.” Say it softly and slowly to yourself: “Ass.”
Now think about the catalog underwear. The bodiless panties, freed into the world, neither revealing nor hiding anything. No insecure thighs peeking out the leg holes. Does pink like red? Yes, but it doesn’t matter. Each panty is already a pair. A pair of panties.
Think of everything you know about underwear. You remember how your dad offered advice once before you gave a presentation on As You Like It in high school. “Just imagine the audience in their underwear,” he said. “That’ll take care of the jitters.” And you did, you imagined it, but you found it distracting. Now, looking back, you wonder: did Ms. Enders, your English teacher, ever wear romance underwear? Did she wear hipsters or briefs? Cotton or silky? At the time, you’d pictured everyone in plain white granny briefs. Boys and girls, teacher, everyone. Large white cloth up to their belly buttons. But it didn’t help; it made you lose your concentration, the thought of bare legs and chests and arms everywhere. It made you blush. During the presentation, you stumbled over your words and spoke too quickly. You were aware of your own underwear.
If Adam notices your butt, your ass, he doesn’t do anything about it, although you aren’t sure what you’d expect him to do. Grab it? Do you expect him to just roll over in his big chair and grab you with both hands and sigh and yell, “Such beauty!” He’s not even looking. He’s a good man.
As you reach over and grab a few more papers from your stack on the floor, notice Sally, the office manager, standing in Adam’s doorway, staring at you. Sally doesn’t like you. She’s older, closer to Adam’s age, and wears her curly hair very short, close to her head. You slowly lower yourself into a more ladylike squat, tucking the back of your skirt between your thighs and your calves. Even though she’s looking at you, Sally gently knocks on the open door.
“Hey, Adam,” she says sweetly.
Adam stops whistling. He brightens. “Hey, Sally,” he says.
“Don’t forget the review,” she says, and nods her head in your direction. She smirks, you think.
“Right,” he says, nodding. “Right.” Adam looks over and gives you a tight-lipped smile. You smile back. You pick up the last five sheets and put them all in a folder behind Y, then quickly return to your own office. You phone your sister, Beth.
Beth is older than you and far more beautiful. She is darker than you are, her hair is thicker, her eyelids heavier, her breasts larger. She is curvy where you are straight. Neither of you looks like your parents. When Beth answers the phone, her toddler is in the background, demanding a cookie.
“What kind of panties do you prefer?” you ask Beth.
Beth is quiet for a moment, and then she sighs. “Did Kevin ask you to find out?” she asks.
“No,” you say. “I’m just not sure I’m wearing the right kind.”
In truth, you are certain you’re not wearing the right kind. Your panties are uncomfortable, although you’ve only realized this today. They shift and bunch. They slide down. Or up, in the wrong places. You probably have panty lines, if anyone is looking, and now you wonder how long you’ve been tortured by your underwear. Forever?
“It depends on the outfit,” Beth says, in her patient, beautiful, practical way. “Different panties for different pants.” Sometimes you hate Beth. You hate her for her beauty and her underwear and her patience and the way men notice her ass.
It’s been six months since Mark broke off the engagement, and you still think you see him everywhere. You think you see him alone, driving in cars, or walking with women who look like Beth. Beth tells you it’s time to move on. She thinks you should embrace the heartbreak, get drunk and listen to sad songs. Then move on. “You need to get laid,” she tells you, but it’s not as simple as that.
At lunchtime, the other office ladies gather in an empty conference room and eat reheated spaghetti or microwave popcorn. You never eat lunch with them and only occasionally eat lunch with Adam. Instead, you walk two blocks down the street to a diner. It’s next to a tailor where a tiny, dark-haired woman always sits in the window sewing. You wonder if she ever goes home. She’s measuring a customer. You watch through the window as she slips the tape around an older woman’s waist and then marks down the inches on a pink sheet. The older woman does not look at the tailor; she stares ahead, out the window, across the street—at least you think so until her eyes meet yours and she frowns. You turn and run into the diner.
André, the diner’s owner, greets you when you walk in. “Alone again?” he asks, and as always you say, “Yes, just me.” André walks you to your booth and you slide in. The booth is blue, and the wallpaper is flowered mauve. Your skirt shifts a bit as you slide into the booth, and with it, your underwear. You wonder if Adam is paging through his catalog. You wonder what Mark is having for lunch, and with whom.
Sometimes André sits with you even though you don’t ask him to join. “You must be married,” he says. “Pretty girl like you.” You are not pretty, however; you know this, you are plain and sometimes wonder if André is mocking you. “Pretty girl,” he says again. “But then, why no ring?” André takes your left hand in his and stares at you, at your eyes, waiting for an answer. Under his gaze you feel fixed, immobile, unable to reply. You only shake your head. No. Order eggs over-easy and toast. When André brings it, break the yolk with your toast and smear the runny yellow around the plate.
The T.V. behind the lunch counter has a baseball game starting. The players are bowing. The sound is off, but they look like they could be praying, their faces are so intense, so serious, so earnest—they want everyone to know how much they love God and their country. They look like they might cry, and you want to hug them. You want to help them. You want to so badly that you almost start crying, too.
The other diners don’t notice you. They are wearing suits and twin sets and talking about their jobs. Some of them are talking about movies they’ve seen recently; some are talking about their kids. They are talking about their lives, and they don’t notice that you’re not eating your eggs and almost crying over baseball players.
What kind of underwear is beneath those suits and twin sets? Decide: The blonde woman is wearing a thong. The man with the too-short sleeves has on boxers. André probably isn’t wearing any at all.
He—André—returns and sits at your side, not across, like he usually does. “I have something to show you,” he says, holding his closed fist in front of you. “Take a look.” You look at his hand.
“Open,” he says. He loosens his grip easily as you straighten each finger, one by one. He’s holding a smooth, gray rock.
“A rock,” you say, looking away. “A rock,” he says, smiling. “I found it. It made me think of you.” He’s sitting so close your thighs are touching. “Why?” you ask, but he doesn’t answer. He just stares at you. You could, you realize, get laid and move on right now. It wouldn’t be so bad. André is both attractive and repulsive, but that’s better than just being repulsive. He’s attractive, perhaps objectively, with his frightening eyes and broad shoulders, and his attraction to you is mildly flattering (when you believe it), but it’s also what is so repulsive. You shrink under his admiration. That was never a problem with Mark.
You could take André’s hand and say, “Where’s your office?” When he looks surprised, just tell him the time has come. He will be happy. Lead him through the kitchen. “Tell your workers to stay up front,” you’d look back and say. Whip your hair wildly. Show a little leg. Push him into his tiny office. Toss the receipt book aside. Unbutton his pants (no underwear, right?), lift up your skirt and, when you first kiss him, tell him not to close his eyes.
You lean toward André. He smells like a starlight mint. Whisper: “Why does this rock make you think of me?”
“Because it’s pretty,” he whispers back.
After lunch, you pretend to work. There’s not much to do, anyway, and you’re nervous about the surprise review. For a moment you think maybe you are going to be fired. Sally would like you gone—you know this. You could call Beth again, but instead you play Tetris online and try to wait for 4:30. By 3:30 you can’t take it and decide to remind Adam. His door is closed and instead of knocking you just walk in to get it over with. When you open the door, there’s Sally. She’s sitting on Adam’s desk, facing him, his keyboard pushed aside. Adam’s hand is on her thigh, his fingers hidden beneath her tweed skirt. Sally pushes his hands away and slips off the desk. She covers her mouth with her hands. Adam rubs his neck. Whether this means you are certainly going to be fired or certainly not is unclear. You don’t know if you care, really, or if you’re jealous. But here’s the question: Why Adam would choose Sally for an office romance and not you? Sally and her short curls.
“Nina,” Sally says. “It’s not what it looks like.” Of course she says that. Sally looks at you sharply. “Don’t say anything, okay?”
But who would you tell? You don’t really care about Sally and Adam. You don’t care if Adam is buying Sally romance panties or if they’ve been screwing in front of the filing cabinet for years or how Adam’s wife would feel or anything. You don’t care about Beth and her sensible advice or André and his back room office or the crying baseball players. You don’t care about invoices, either. Leave work early. Tell Adam and Sally, “I’m going home now.” Yes, they nod. You are going home now. Back out of Adam’s office and shut the door.
Decide to walk home. Usually you take the bus, but this time, keep moving. You don’t want to wait. You don’t want to sit next to anybody or say hello to the bus driver. It’s chilly out, but you want to take off your sweater and drop it on the sidewalk. You want to unbutton your blouse and leave it there, too. To step out of your skirt, to just keep walking, keep peeling off layers until you are walking in your underwear. It doesn’t matter if anyone notices. Just keep walking, past the diner and on, past your apartment building, past Mark’s apartment building, past your childhood home, past your high school. Just keep walking in the cold in your underwear until, maybe, you start to fade. First your arms and your chest, then your legs, erased. Your face, your feet. No one will notice. You’ll walk on, past parks and shopping malls, and out of the city, and maybe across the country to the ocean, and into the ocean. You’ll never stop. You’ll just keep walking, on and on, until all that remains is cotton panties, no body, with nothing left to reveal or hide.