I already miss Bill Clinton. I miss the man who once revealed his underwear preference on national television. When the then-future president of the United States spoke out in favor of briefs over boxers (however lamentable the choice), he not only rocked the vote, he rocked my world. In retrospect, I understand that candidate Clinton's moment of candor equipped me with everything I would ever need for navigating the hormonally enhanced years of his presidency. Why? Because in the end, it's the underpants, stupid. Monica might have known that all along, but it took a trip to Venice for me to really get it.
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My husband sat studying his map, camera bag slung over one shoulder, water bottle by his feet. His prescription sunglasses and cotton porkpie hat still on, he could have been a poster boy for BoBos in paradise everywhere. But I was the real BoBo, and this was my paradise.
Standing in my baggy, pilled thong behind a sumptuous damask silk curtain in a lingerie shop in Venice, I was a living, breathing "before" picture, the makeover candidate of Helen Gurley Brown's dreams.
There were no wall-size posters of impossibly proportioned, backlit supermodels striking rapturous poses. There were no loop tapes of lingerie shows and jiggling saunters pulsing on television screens overhead. Strikingly, there also seemed to be no lingerie besides the sweet little nothings that had lured me into the shop in the first place. Beyond the spare window display, there was just the suggestion of lingerie: butter-colored walls lined with drawers but no hints of what lay inside. Drawers of drawers! I thought nervously, awash in my inexperience. This, I understood, was underwear that was chosen for you, and I felt lost without the usual wall of bras to hide me.
That didn't matter. I had been in the shop for less than five minutes and already Daniela, the exuberantly full-figured owner, had cajoled me out of my clothes and into the flattering light of her single-curtained dressing room before my husband had even looked up from his map.
"Ah yoo raydee?" Daniela asked expectantly. There was enthusiasm in her voice. Interest, even. I had never heard anything like it at Victoria's Secret, and I was moved, excited. "Si! Certo!" I fairly shouted, mimicking the goofy intonation of the Italian tape that had taught me the words. It was my 30th birthday and I was so ready. Daniela whisked back the curtain and threw out her arms as if welcoming me home from a long journey.
"Bellissima!" she lied, gesturing for me to turn around. "I hav-uh all dee best-uh styles for you!" I was too stunned to cover my small breasts, too startled to register anything approximating self-consciousness. All of a sudden, decades of Catholic guilt, fear and loathing about my body vanished under the approving gaze of a woman I had just met, and all I wanted was to feel the reassuring hug of some good underwear.
Daniela returned after a few moments with her first offering, holding it up to me with a reverence I had only seen reserved for the Eucharist, or dessert. It was made of stretchy, wine-red netting that, in its unstretched form, looked like it might fit a large sandwich or maybe a toddler, but certainly not me. Daniela pulled on it lengthwise to reveal its detail. She purred about the hand-wrought, cream-colored silk embroidery, her accent thick with rapture. I was eager and afraid.
As it turned out, the stretchy one-piece number required a certain understanding of spatial relations to put on. After forcing my torso through what turned out to be an armhole, I managed with only the faintest few grunts to right my wrong and get it all into place before Daniela whipped back the curtain again.
Slapping her hands to her face and rolling her eyes in what could have been either disgust or delight, Daniela was all hyperbole and gesticulation. "Beautiful!" she exclaimed, golf-clapping. "And-uh look at dat ass!" As if to punctuate her sentence, Daniela reached in and gave my right butt cheek a hearty, hot-handed slap. "What ees your-uh husband's name? He must-uh see dis!"
In a flash, she was calling out to him, stirring him from his map-induced lull, commanding him to come and behold this thing of exquisitely toned, raw sexual beauty (I'm sure that's what she was saying), his wife.
When he saw me, he looked stunned, though not in the good way. The negligee criss-crossed in the front, leaving my sides bare and creating a neckline that plunged to a tiny mole that sits just above my navel. This was not what he was expecting. He was silent for a few moments, and I guessed that he was trying to summon the same spontaneous wit that had spared him the burden of truth all those other times when he knew I couldn't take it. It failed him now.
"Does that hurt at all?" he asked, gesturing to the reflection in the mirror behind me. I hadn't noticed. There, just below the side cutouts where the feather-light fabric wrapped my hips, was a giant embroidered butterfly perched right at the top of my crack. The G-string connecting it to the rest of the ensemble was nowhere to be seen, and it looked as though it were there through sheer force of will, or just force. I waved my husband away and pulled the curtain shut. There would be no insulting the butterfly.
Daniela was back, this time with a yellow bra-and-panty set that reminded me of all of the stained glass windows we had seen in the too many churches we had visited. The bottoms, an almost geometric swirl of lace and silk in the not-quite-full-coverage back, were sheer golden net in the front. They fit like a thong, only better, and before my inner censor could intervene, I was lunging in the dressing room, squatting and reveling in not feeling a thing. Nothing to pick out of my bum. Not a tug anywhere. It didn't matter that I hated yellow. This was Italian yellow. This was good underwear.
But the bra was a hurdle for me. It was unpadded and looked flimsy and insubstantial to my WonderBra-accustomed eyes. What's the point of wearing a bra if it doesn't give you boobs? I thought. A martyr in the cleavage wars, a woman with aspirations beyond her cup size, I was suspicious of anything passing itself off as a bra that didn't hike my tits up to chin level for all the world to see. I had triumphed recently with the WaterBra, wearing it with a slutty, low-cut dress to my sister's rehearsal dinner and getting roundly chided by my family for trying to steal her thunder. Yeah, right. My sister's boobs have the storage capacity of an entire dairy farm. Someday, she will be summoned to help feed nations in the battle against world hunger. There would be no stealing that thunder. But I digress.
Daniela peeked in. "Try eet," she implored. "Not-uh so many wee-myn can wear dees." I wondered if she was speaking in euphemisms now, like the time my mother-in-law saw an ugly baby and exclaimed, "Now that's a baby!" I worried that she had pulled my golden getup from the Ugly American basket, knowing that refugees from the land of Olga and Maidenform would wear just about anything if you told them Italian women dug it. "You hav-eh beautiful breasts," she insisted. "Dees is da purrrfect bra for dem!" That was enough for me. Ever the cheap date, I was powerless in the face of empty flattery. And so I tried it on.
It fit perfectly, my breasts gently suspended like twin suns that Picasso might have painted. Yellow was becoming my new favorite color. I raised my arms overhead, tentatively at first and then with more vigor. I was expecting to have to yank the bra back into place, as I have done with every bra that I have ever worn. It didn't move. I could hardly believe it. I flailed my arms now, determined to budge that bra. Nothing. Daniela laughed out loud, a throaty, charming, movie-star laugh, and I realized I hadn't closed the curtain. Just then, she slipped in behind me and clamped her bronze hands down over the gilt cups. "You see?" she said. "Dey are so ahpee een dare. Ah-pee Ah-pee ..." She trailed off, taking it all in, perhaps, or thinking of her next move. I caught my husband's eye in the mirror's reflection. He had finally put down the map.
Next came an ensemble that positively thrilled me. It was exactly what I had envisioned when I declared to no one in particular that all I wanted to get in Italy was nice underwear. Girly and pretty and soft, it was the kind of lingerie that I had always wished I had on those dates that went too far. Not since Wonder Woman Underoos had I been so enchanted by the promise of underpants. Devoid, at this point, of any lingering inhibition, I stood stark naked in my post-nubile anticipation, wiggling just a little bit, as Daniela held them out to me. They were crisp white with hot-pink clusters of what looked like lily pads -- embroidered camouflage for all the right places. The bottoms were skimpy and spare and only looked like they might pinch. Once on, they felt like nothing at all. But despite those strategically placed lily pads, I understood that buying them would be tantamount to committing to a Brazilian bikini wax. Courage, I told myself.
Encouraged by my success with the Picasso-esque bra, I was undaunted by this unfortified demi-cup. In it, my not-quite-B cups came alive, little swells of pert cleavage. I was transformed, a busty victor of style over substance. Suddenly, I wanted everyone I knew and even didn't know to see. Sisters, girlfriends, co-workers, ex-boyfriends, strangers ... I'm going to hell, I thought. And then, heaving toward the mirror and squeezing my brand-new boobs together as though for all the world to see, I whispered, "This one's for the boys." I was lost in a flight of imagination, overcome. For one fleeting moment, I was Marilyn Monroe at a G.I. camp.
Inspired, or maybe drunk, Daniela yanked me out of the dressing room and nudged me into the middle of the shop. My husband stood and took off his sunglasses. I had his full attention. An older man walking by the shop waved and shouted, "Brava, signora!" And were those the sounds of little boys serenading me, or just a flashback to an Italian McDonald's commercial? It didn't matter. I felt invincible. Irresistible. Italian. Daniela hugged me. My husband raved. I wagged my pink-festooned bottom back to the dressing room and wondered if there could possibly be a better way to turn 30. Daniela, my champion, returned again and again with increasingly stunning combinations of silk and spandex. I imagined the shop's drawers as magical little vessels of sweetness and light, even though I never caught a glimpse inside a single one.
I was undressed for hours. My husband left, had lunch and came back to find me prancing, the subject of my own private sleepover fantasy. Remarkably, everything fit. We had not discussed sizes, Daniela and I. She just knew, and it was one of those little everyday miracles they like to end the 5 o'clock news with. The goddess of Italian lingerie had smiled on me. Great lighting, great underwear and great persuasion had combined in deadly force against my fragile American ego. I would never be able to shop at Victoria's Secret again.
I handed my credit card to Daniela, feeling ill but feigning calm at the total and congratulating myself for finally making it to "after." It didn't matter that I couldn't bottle Daniela and spray her on during moments of doubt. It didn't matter that the moment I stepped out of her shop I'd never really look like that again, not even in my underwear.