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Personal Essays

Bra Mitzvah: Becoming a Man Through Lingerie

Those afraid of flying get on a plane to somewhere, while acrophobes take elevators to the tops of skyscrapers. Confronting your deepest fear with a journey through a Parisian lingerie shop.

I was never the type who could, with a single, graceful snapping motion, unclasp a bra. For me, lingerie removal was the errant shortstop between first and second base, a prolonged awkward fumbling that kept me from scoring. Other boys—and here I’m thinking of my junior-high-school nemesis—told stories that smoothly progressed from necking to groping to intercourse. In these episodes, layers of clothing effortlessly fell away—obviously, like petals from a blooming rose. And obviously, it was all bullshit. But the germane point was that, for many people, bras didn’t constitute the end of something—as they did for me—but a beginning.

Though we’ve by now happily lost touch, I feel assured in saying my nemesis can stride fearlessly into a lingerie shop. I, however, cannot even get inside the door. Instead, I bow my head and scurry past the windows of legless mannequins in lacy nighties and brassieres. And though I’ve read every Maxim on the subject—and there are many—the world of lingerie to me is terra incognita, a great and fearful underworld.

So, then, to buy lingerie as a gift is to navigate a hostile, silken wilderness. Attractive saleswomen congregate in small prides, eager to pick off the weak. But more than the wild things themselves, it is the gift of lingerie that is dangerous. Not only do you go into the jungle and come face to face with a python, but you pick up that python, wrap it in crepe paper, and bring it into the bedroom.

Lingerie cuts to the quick of what makes us vulnerable: desire, expectation, vaginas, boobs. Delicately dangling the bra between her thumb and index fingers, she says, “Thank you so much, it’s beautiful!” and thinks, Is this what he thinks is sexy? Is this what he wants me to wear? Is he saying he doesn’t like my cotton briefs? Later that night, after goose and figgy pudding, she’ll obligingly emerge from the bathroom. Though wearing only the negligible negligee you have just given to her, she is more naked than nude. The gift reveals more than it covers, about you, about her, about what and how you want each other to be. And even as that fraught tango of ideal selves trails off, the gift exchange itself remains.

Buying a present is always an investment and investors are obviously wed to the investments they’ve made. If the panties bunch awkwardly or the silk stretches strangely, you are faced with an essential and unpleasant dilemma: Is it your present or she who has failed?

 

It’s Christmastime in Paris. The streets glow with small galaxies of holiday lights by night and course with shoppers by day. A fiberglass igloo has been built in front of Hotel de Ville, and a large ice-skating rink fills the plaza. Couples hold hands as they glide in lazy ovals, stiff with cold, or possibly fright. In the display windows at Le Bon Marché, a herd of sock-puppet reindeer, limbs held aloft with fishing line linked to rotating motors, ceaselessly herk and jerk in their cardboard Santa workshop. Paperies have spread out their best handmade Italian paper. Traditional Bouches de Noël appear in boulangerie windows. Animatronic Santa Clauses ceaselessly wave from cotton snowdrifts. There are sales. And for the first Christmas in a long time, I’m in a relationship. I’m in a relationship with a woman who likes lingerie. Nice lingerie, Parisian lingerie, and I know this because it’s what she told me. Though my fears need conquering, they do not go gently as I press the buzzer of an old, bronzed shop door.

 

Sabbia Rosa is the name both of a luxury lingerie boutique nestled in St. Germain-de-Pres and of the woman who runs it. That the latter is so warm and inviting softens the anxiety inspired by the former. The store is small. The buzzer at the door rings like a house’s. To the left of the door is a small glass counter. Straight ahead, a few steps lead to a curtained changing room, and further back, a few more stairs to a small sofa. Contrary to hostile modernity of Eres’s nearby store, Sabbia Rosa feels homey; a thick carpet softens steps, a lamp gives off a caramel light. By far, though, the most striking feature is the silk. Thousands of silk nighties line the wooden alcoves, rustling like reeds. Hangers hang laden with dozens of spaghetti-string camisoles, one inside the other. And strangely, there are no bras or bottoms to be seen. They are kept, I soon discover, behind the counter, in old-fashioned blue boxes labeled in spidery European cursive.

Like most American women, she tolerates an underwire, and prefers padding.

In the middle of all this fabric is Sabbia Rosa herself, an elderly French woman wearing a black nightie with green lace as a dress. Her compact body well kept within the silk chrysalis, she is tanned and highlighted and made-up and faded. The beauty of her youth, though still apparent, is softened—like a bright coin at the bottom of a shallow pool. “Bon soir, she says and beckons me to the back of the store.

She perches on the armrest of a small sofa and bids me to take a seat. As we chat, it takes me a moment to realize that her investigation has already begun. Like a priest or a detective taking a confession, Rosa probes gently, takes nothing for granted, and passes no judgment. She tells me that when helping a customer select lingerie, she becomes Sheerloque ‘Olmes. Her face remains imperturbable; botox and gentillesse keep her brow serene as she sifts for clues. The woman—my girlfriend—who emerges from her questions is a 26-year-old with auburn hair, turquoise eyes, and pale porcelain skin. She wears a 34B; like most American women, tolerates an underwire, and prefers padding. But no matter her figure, no matter what her preferences were, I doubt Rosa would have batted a mascaraed eyelash.

“Size,” she confides, “is the easy part.” What is more difficult is finding the perfect set to match hair color, skin tone, eye color, age, personality, and derriere. “Peach, rose, sky blue,” Rosa says, “flatters pale-skinned women, while bold reds and vibrant oranges and yellows complement women with darker skin. A la limite black.” Thongs should be reserved for skinny women, though don’t tell that to our 42nd president. Ass-shaking mamas, Rosa counsels, fit better in briefs. Boy shorts—my personal favorite—tight across the buttocks, cut flat along the bottom—are good for perky butts. When I tell her that Joanna’s skin closely resembles “the dawn sky on an autumn morning,” Rosa, with only the most discreet rolling of the eyes, suggests cream.

“What about black?” I counter.

She gently laughs dismissively (or dismissively laughs gently). Most men, she tells me, when left to their own devices, default to black lace, and most women, when left to theirs, prefer pastels. We move to the glass counter. She extracts box after quilted box and places them on the countertop. From one she draws silk thongs, boy shorts, and briefs. From another: bras, full cups, demi-cups, padded, unpadded, with lace, without lace, of every theme and variation.

Briefs, in my mind, hang diaperishly from the butt—clinging, desperately, in the wrong places at the wrong times.

She carefully lays each one out until the counter’s glass surface is covered in silk. She draws out a cream bra with black lace rimming the top of the demi-cups. It is beautiful, breathtaking in a way I did not know lingerie could take breath. Breathtaking like a beautifully crafted pocket watch—beautiful in that way that renders unnecessary the technical knowledge of an object since it is beauty itself that is so overwhelming and recognizable. I gasp.

Rosa rummages through another box, humming softly, and extracts two pairs of matching bottoms: boy shorts and briefs. Briefs, in my mind, hang diaperishly from the butt—clinging, desperately, in the wrong places at the wrong times. They cover flesh in a way that suggests shame. I nod toward the boy shorts.

Rosa says that one should buy two bottoms per bra. She says that although silk should last forever with proper care—wash it like your hands, she advises—a woman naturally will go through more bottoms than bras. I am tempted. But when I inquire about the price for the boy shorts and bra—200 euros each—my non-mascaraed eyelashes flutter, strobe-like. If, when I get back to New York, I live with my friend Zoe’s mom in her yoga room in DUMBO, I think, if I eat spaghetti, ketchup, and water for the next month, if for Christmas I make cards and burn mix CDs for the rest of my family, I can buy lingerie for Joanna. And so I buy it.

 

It is two days after Christmas. I am 30,000 feet above Ohio in seat 4A of a Boeing MD-81. My dad loved his compilation of Chopin, Otis Redding, and Glenn Gould. Joanna is sitting in 4B, gazing out the window at the glowing arteries of downtown Toledo. At 30,005 feet, in a black rollaway in the carry-on luggage bin, wrapped in blue tissue paper and ribbons, the lingerie, like the sword of Damocles—or the apple of Eve—hovers above our heads.

Two nights earlier, after her parents had fallen asleep, spent, and her siblings sated, I nervously handed her the small gift. We were seated in her parent’s den, side-by-side, junior-high style, while the glow of a ‘60s lamp cast our long shadows up across the fold-out sofa. She weighed the package in her hands, and by the furtive, late-night delivery, must have known the gift couldn’t be kosher—and since dildos don’t come in silk, that she was about to receive lingerie. We sally forth. Her fingers gently undo the ribbon. Unfolding, the wrapping paper grows dull against the shimmer of the lingerie. Joanna extracts the bra and gently dangles it between her thumb and index finger.

She asks me to turn off the lights before she enters the bedroom; when I finally see her, she is bathed in blue moonlight. Her skin, the silk, the lace, the light, a poster from an old black-and-white romance. It lasts a moment, then jump-cuts. She’s under the covers and I can’t see a thing. The cool, soft slipperiness of the silk and the rough topography of the lace accentuate the warmth of her skin as we embrace. It feels good and nice and Parisian and adult. We kiss and my arm reaches behind her. A quick snap, a wriggle, a fling. The lingerie, loved and cast aside, lingers in the air a moment before arcing to the carpet and dissolving into a silver, silken puddle—just as I’d always imagined it would.

Joshua David Stein recently returned from Paris, where he was working as a freelance writer and personal shopper. He bought many things for himself and a few things for others. He currently lives in the West Village until his friend returns from Africa and kicks him out. His next article will appear in Warrior magazine, exploring the black-market trade of Dalmatian pelicans. More by Joshua David Stein