When I first met David I was fat—I mean, fatter than now. How clearly I remember that day, as if it never happened but was only a daydream I’ve played over and over, polishing every tiny moment into shining perfection. In the slow-mo of an instant replay I can see every heavy gesture, the charged dance of attraction, the dawn of recognition between us. Like ancient weighty swamp monsters in some primeval mist we circled one another, just to the left of the Yves St. Laurent and behind the Armani. It was a muggy day around the Fourth of July.
I worked in an office near Penn Station back then and shopped the stores on my lunch breaks, scouring the racks for panties size 16 and bras with a padding in 44 or 46. It’s expensive to shop for unusual sizes, you know. They make pay more when you’re special. And for a receptionist at a third-rate collection agency, lingerie can be a hungry habit to feed. Fortunately for myself, however, I’ve always made it a practice to steal something equal in value, give or take a few pennies, to the thing I’m actually buying. They never think you’re a suspect if you pay for things at the counter.
I’m just palming a bra in my special color—peach—about to drop it into my Macy’s shopping bag, when I notice this guy staring at me between two racks. Slowly, I slide the bra back onto its hanger, turn to inspect some vulgar black babydolls. The guy doesn’t look like your typical undercover, but who knew? Maybe they’d started hiring guys who looked like serial killers to patrol the womens’ panties. I mean, with guys like that lurking around, who had time to think about stealing?
As our eyes meet in that instant between racks, something in his makes me think of my first sexual experience, which also took place in a department store. I was about six, trailing after my mother, bored and nauseous in this bright windowless place where even the air seemed trapped. In a resentful stupor I got separated from her and soon I was surrounded by staring mannequins who all had one face. Fear rose in my throat, dragging vomit behind it. I stood perfectly still and looked at my feet where they met with the floor.
A man appeared, a tall man in a black coat, coming toward me through the racks of women’s clothing. He jerked open his coat. Inside, there was a pink snake stuck to the front of his pants, silly and fake-looking like someone wearing a stick-on nose. He moved closer until the snake was inches from my eyes. After a while he closed his coat, hurried away. Later, I was reunited with my mother. She was frightened, angry. She hit me, the first time.
So I’m examining the black babydolls, hoping this guy isn’t employed by the store, when he walks up behind me and grabs the very bra I’d been filching right off the rack. And just stands there. I can feel his breath, hot on my neck.
“You want this?”
The man is talking to me. I turn to face him, keeping my eyes on my feet where they connect to the floor. The man himself wears filthy work boots, shocking atop the little-girl pink of the carpet.
“You want this?”
I look up. The man has black eyes like holes. His eyes are all I can see. In them I see anger and fear and some intention so strong it almost knocks me back against the nightgowns.
“Look.” He jiggles the bra in front of my face. “You want this, I’ll get it for you.”
I almost laugh, and not just with relief. There’s just something undeniably comic that there exists in this world a man who wants to buy me underwear. I mean, the guy might crazy, but he isn’t blind. He isn’t even bad-looking if you go for that sort of unkempt, driven look, like I do.
We gaze at each other. What does he see? Time gets longer and longer, then stops. I’m pretty sure by this point he doesn’t work for the store. If then he is what he appears, this is a moment whose importance can barely be told. I stare and stare in his black eyes till I can see his emotions, bright and quick like shadows passing over the sun. The sun is black. I have never been sexually wanted.