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Le Brassierre
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Vicky's Secret

by Mary Saracino

I don't know why I'm telling you this. It's crazy to think anyone would give a damn about what I think about America's obsession with super-sized everything—from 8,000 square-foot McMansions and breast implants, to those god-awful Hummer stretch limos. The bigger the better, I guess, unless you're talking about waistlines or the size of your butt or your nose. Trouble is, it's all a big fat tease—whether it's Oprah yakking on about how losing those extra forty pounds is going to transform your life or the nattering in your own head that swears fitting into a size 4 dress is the fastest route to Nirvana. The lies we tell ourselves are as artery-clogging as a double order of greasy fries with a salt-soaked double cheeseburger, layered with Day-Glo plastic American cheese, and a double-huge Diet Coke (just to hedge your bets and keep that caloric intake in balance).

Balance is important.

That's what all those TV commercials and magazine covers proclaim. In every supermarket checkout line I've ever been in, the holy voice of America's psycho-babble conscience insists that the middle way is the only way. Balance is the mantra that's going to set me free. Funny how the double-speak headlines on those rags mess with our brains. 'Lose ten pounds in ten days!' is splayed across the cover beside 'Triple-Chocolate Cake a Real Winner!' It's all super-sized bull if you ask me. But nobody's asking. And that's the gist of my gripe. Most any woman, who's being honest, will tell you this balancing act is tough. I have to add: "Is it even attainable in this day and age?" Jeez, give me a break.

Freud wanted to know: "What do women want?"

I'll tell ya, it ain't fast food restaurants or cheesy tabloids and vapid women's magazines. And it ain't a bunch of unattainable nonsense—like the perfect orgasm, getting your man to share his feelings, or weekend spa treatments.

Although I do consider myself to be an All-American girl, I'm not one of those women who go around complaining because life isn't offering them weekly pedicures. I'm what you might call one of the last of a dying breed of women. I'm all for equal pay for equal work, and back in the day I supported the ERA and Title Nine. I think equality is the American way. Shouldn't matter one bit if you're equipped with a vagina instead of a penis.

What I'm not for is some lame excuse for a boss yanking my chain about why he can't give me a raise even though I put in more than my share of overtime at the thankless job I've had for fifteen years, even though he piles on the work and the responsibility and the occasional pat on the ass, just to keep me in the know about who's really in charge around that place. Burns my butt to be honest with you. But what can a gal do? Especially when she's got two kids she's raising on her lonesome and an income that's as anemic as an old fart who can't afford a daily dose of Geritol. But I'm not whining. Honest.

I'm your average fifty-something woman, five foot four, one-hundred-forty-eight pounds, with green eyes and hair the color of cigarette ashes. I don't know what my BMI is, nor do I care. I do have a bone to pick with the powers that be. But I can't seem to find that bone-picking tool I read about in all those self help books I've got stacked up on my bookshelf at home, right next to my collection of cookbooks and Reader's Digest. And I can't locate an email address for the 'powers that be.' When I googled it, all I got was some lame Wikipedia definition, saying how the phrase refers to entities—like politicians, TV and film writers, CEO, etc.—that lord it over others they deem lesser than.

So, I'm kind of stuck in the proverbial corner. I'm starting to feel like that 'silent majority' the politicians used to talk about—all the folks in Middle America who had a thing or two to say about the way the country was being run, but who were too timid-or too polite, I could never decide which was more accurate—to open their tired mouths and say how truly fed up they were. Somewhere along the way I stopped believing in all the things my mother told me about how girls should have opinions but never share them in mixed company. She was concerned I'd never find a husband. "No man in the world wants a woman smarter than he is," Mother cautioned. If a worldview like that gets hammered into your psyche by age ten, it becomes a part of the Ten Commandments of Womanhood by the time you reach fifteen, at which point your life turns into a maze of rules and regulations about everything from how to sit (with your legs crossed at the ankles) to the proper application of makeup (a little eye shadow and rose-pink lipstick) for a first date.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself...

My husband left me two years ago, said he was tired of not feeling fulfilled, said he needed room to breathe, space to let his hair down. What he really meant was he'd fallen for the auburn-haired twenty-something UPS delivery babe at his office and had taken up rollerblading with her. She doesn't cramp his style, or so he says when he comes to pick up our sons every other weekend and take them over to the park for a spin around the asphalt oval roadway. He bought rollerblades for them, too. "They need to be fit," he explained.

Fit for what, I wonder.

Most mornings I stand in front of my bathroom mirror and wonder what has gone wrong with the American way. I see a tired face, mine, with eager wrinkles kissing the corners of my eyes. My breasts sag and my tummy isn't as tight as it used to be, before I had two kids and an incessant craving for things I can't seem to acquire, like happiness. Sure, I've tried all the diet fads more than once-South Beach, Atkins, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Slim Fast (that one really cracks me up)—and I've lost and gained at least 150 pounds over the last ten years. Trouble is, my pounds are the only thing in my life that doesn't seem to feel much like taking off for good. Try as I might to outrun them, they always find me and tag along for the company. I walk two miles every day over my lunch hour, when my rabid boss allows me to take one that is. I amble over to the park and circle the small lake, watching the ducks and geese fight with each other. Not even the birds can get along with one another these days. Jeez.

Even with all that walking my pounds stay put. Gotta love their sense of loyalty. Too bad nobody else appreciates such steadfastness. Oh my sons don't mind. But they're too young to think much about a woman's body except for the occasional hug I give them when I want them to know how much I cherish them. They haven't latched on to some girlfriend's breast as a substitute for self-care yet. I had them late in life, of course, as was the way of my generation. Career track first, then babies. Had my first at 40. The second at 42. Give them a year or so, and then watch. Their testosterone will kick in and they'll see rounded nipple-clad clouds hovering over every skyline, sure as rain in August.

Sometime between 10 and 12 something in a boy's brain goes haywire and the cute, cuddly child who once loved his mother with absolute conviction disappears. His twin emerges, the one who smells sex in every rustle of wind, launching his penis as if it were a scud missile. Blame it on the TV commercials, those skinny fashion models, those MTV videos, magazine ads, RAP music. God only knows what else. I blame it on bad water and polluted air, politicians. Maybe alien invasion, I don't know. Poison lingers 'round every corner.

Some days I think I ought to just lace up my Nikes, stroll down to the corner and buy myself an unregistered, stolen gun, take some hostages at the Safeway and make the world listen up. Seems like the only way to get someone's attention these days is to grab an Uzi and pop your face onto the evening news: Deranged woman slaughters butcher at local grocery. Update at 10.

My god, but things have gone to hell in a hand-basket, as my mother used to say.

My sister's eleven year old daughter is giving blow jobs to twelve year old classmates in the boys' bathroom at the Horatio Alger Junior High.

My sister found out when her daughter complained of sores on the inside of her mouth. Turns out she had gonorrhea. God.

What's next.

The neighbor girl, a sixteen-year-old over at the high school, sports bright orange and black tattoos across her midriff, an area of her scrawny body she keeps perennially exposed thanks to belly shirts and low slung jeans. Maybe she wants to be a walking billboard, maybe she already is. Maybe it's the 21st century's version of the old sandwich board method of advertising. Eat at Joe's. Indeed. She likes to go to Raves—parties where they take Ecstasy and fool around. Who needs Spin the Bottle any more? That's what Orson, my neighbor, said when he told me what that girl had said to him one Sunday afternoon when they were sharing a ciggy butt in the alley back behind their houses. He's an old hippie and likes to keep up on what the youth of America are into these days. He wants to feel hip, cool, mod, Man. He wants the youngsters to trust him even though he hasn't seen thirty in nearly thirty years. Far out.

Not that the girls today have the market cornered on wanton activity mind you. Seems to me the old adage remains true. Tangoing still takes two. And those wayward girls can't go wayward on their lonesome. Their companions of choice still seem to mostly be boys, although what with all that queer eye for the straight guy stuff on TV these days, perhaps some of them are into girls, instead. Ya never know for sure. Boys, it seems, still get the better end of the deal.

That's the way it was in my day. The more things change the more they stay the same. Another one of my mother's infamous sayings. Hard to believe a woman who's been dead for twenty years could be so insightful about what passes for popular culture these days. Anyway, those boys get their pleasure without returning the favor, if what my gonorrhea-inflicted niece says is true. But the girls don't seem to mind. They get other goodies to make it all worthwhile, like attention and some off-kilter form of respect. They used to stone women for less grievous behavior. But that was way, way back.

I know we fooled around too. Plenty of girls got pregnant in my day before they got married. Plenty got abortions. Plenty more got shipped off to homes for unwed mothers. Nowadays they just keep them in school, if they can manage to, put them in desks side by side with the virginal girls—or at least what passes for virginal. Maybe a virgin these days is just a girl who hasn't gotten pregnant yet. Then there are the fools who don't want sex education in schools. Figure it's the role of the parents to inform and educate. Hell, those kids could teach us parents a thing or two about good sex, if you ask me. Silly to waste all that hands-on expertise. Ought to pay those kids to teach adults. Better than a part-time job at the burger joint. And more useful, too.

I watched the Grammy awards the other night. Saw a commercial that said Brian Wilson was gonna be on it, lots of other musicians, too, but he was the only one I recognized. I tuned in, with my bowl of buttered popcorn, and watched half-naked women gyrating and writhing as if their pubic hair was on fire. Guys in tight pants that would make Elvis cringe. I know I sound like a moralist, a prude, a dried up old hag of a woman who is bitter that her husband ran off with a lithe young UPS delivery girl. And maybe that's true. But there's also something else going on, something that no one is talking about; something that is as true as the need to fill your stagnant lungs with clean, fresh air and swallow a cool sip of spring water when you're parched. And that something else is more sinister and has nothing to do with being a puritan, anti-sex crazed, lonely zealot. Which I'm not, by they way.

One sunny spring afternoon when my boys were at the movies with friends watching some film with car chases in it, I decided to take a walk. I opened my front door and stepped onto the concrete sidewalk, one foot in front of the other, like I always do, when I looked up and laid my eyes on a bus shelter ad, not ten feet away. There, right in the middle of suburban America, splayed for all the world to see, was the larger-than-life, opulent bosom of a Victoria's Secret model, cradled in a red lacy push up bra. She needed the extra support for those fancy store-bought breasts she was sporting, a gift from her wealthy boyfriend perhaps. Maybe just an investment she shelled out herself to stay at the top of her game. Her shiny white teeth glistened and her come-and-get-it eyes beckoned. Had I been a man, my penis would have been hard in ten seconds or less, of this I'm certain. Had I had a brush and a bucket of paint, I'd have plastered a shawl over her exposed lusciousness and went about my business. Had I been able to do so, she might have smiled, relieved of her duties to titillate. The burden to be ultra-erotic must weigh down upon the poor thing, don't you agree?

Instead of going for a walk, I sat at the bus stop and decided to take my own survey. "What do you think of her?" I asked everyone who graced my presence.

"Too bad there's only her," one guy replied. "I like it better when there's two girls."

"Wish I had boobies like that," one woman answered. "But with my paycheck, it ain't gonna happen."

"What do I think of who?" another woman asked, oblivious to the image.

"Her," I said, pointing to the scantily clad female.

"Oh, her," the woman said. "It's ones like her that make my husband buy me those god-awful undies. They scratch. I throw 'em out, soon as I open them. One Valentine's Day he bought me a pair with an edible crotch. Can you even stand that?"

"Ooooh, yeah," a teenaged boy replied. "Sugar is sweet. Wish I could get me some right now." He grabbed his crotch and adjusted his penis, winking at me.

"Don't get fresh with me young man," I scolded. "I have two sons at home and I know how to handle you."

He scoffed, but backed away and turned his gaze to the ground.

The remarks from teenaged girls took me aback. "My boyfriend told me he'd give anything in the world if I looked like that," one said. "I'm trying hard to lose ten pounds. If I get skinnier, he promised to buy me a lacy black bra for my birthday."

Her best friend added, "Guys gotta have it these days. And we girls gotta go along. What else we gonna do? It's the men who make the rules."

"Think so?" I urged.

"Damn straight," she came back at me, eyes flashing. "Ever try to tell your man to back off and let you be just the way you are?"

"Got a point," I agreed. "But, we aren't all made the same way. Us women I mean. Some of us have big breasts. Some small. Some of us are fat. Some thin. Some old. Some young."

"That's the sorry truth," the girl continued. "Sorry for us. The men, they still get to have their coffee served just the way they like it."

"How old are you?" I asked.

"Fifteen," she replied.

I shook my head and sucked in some air. "But, it ain't gonna change unless we women change it," I offered.

"Ain't gonna change, 'cuz we women ain't gonna change it," she retorted. "We get some juice out of it, too. Not just the guys."

I thought about her comment all that night and into the next week. What kind of juice did we women get? And was it enough to off-set the poison? Those girls seemed to think so. But I wasn't buying it. Sure, women get attention, affection, sex, maybe even someone to pay their rent and put food on their tables, educate their children. But the price tag was tattered. Its gilded edges had long ago lost their glitter. Way more than anti-mother's milk was served up with those lacy-bra clad breasts; a woman's entire self—all the complicated, mix-match of jumbled feelings, sensibilities, brains, spit-fire, venom, and kindness that makes us human and lovable and elusively real—was reduced to tits and giggle, and a glimmer of ass. And while sex is fun and beneficial (think of the pluses that go along with procreation, not to mention the sheer joy in a kick-ass big O), we are so much more than that. When did our brains morph into nipples? Are women's bodies today's version of the fast-food fix? I'll take two super-sized titties and a salty cunt to go with that large shake. Jeez. We need to get a grip.

I sat in that bus shelter every day after work for two weeks, surveying men and women, teens and youngsters who came and went. I waited through rainstorms, chilly winds, full moonlight, starry brilliance and cloudy haze, wanting to gather as much representative data on the impact that red-brassiere clad image had on the "man on the street" as was humanly possible for a nonscientist such as myself.

Midweek of my survey experiment, one guy who was an engineer said it the best. "You gotta understand the physics of it all, Ma'am."

"The lines and angles?"

"No. The gravitational pull. It's the magnetic field of power and dreams, the lure of counter-point forces swirling in the vacuum of lust and envy, human greed and our animal desire to conquer and own. Possess."

"So you guys want to possess us women?"

"Indeed. And you want to possess us. It comes down to who's zoomin' who, as that old Aretha Franklin song said."

"Seems rather cynical and sad to me," I replied.

"Can't disagree with you," he affirmed. "Try to look at it this way. In the long run, the species gets repopulated, guys and gals get their jollies, and life goes on."

His reasoning was sound, of course. You'd expect that from an engineer. Still, there was something unsettling about a Universe that spiraled around such a shameless lust for control and power. It wasn't what I'd seen those summer evenings of my childhood, lying on the lawn, still warm from the heat of day, staring eyeball to eyeball with the Big Dipper and her twinkling friends. There seemed to be a certain sense of order up there, that was true, but the order seemed contained in something less willfully mean-spirited and more co-creative. Something wide enough and deep enough to swallow paradox and spit back compassion.

It hadn't proven to unfold that way in my own life, of course, with my own husband or with the boys and men I'd dated before I married. Each encounter was guided by other, less benign, laws of nature or at least that's what I told myself. Opposites attract. Men are stronger; women are more loving. Men hunt; women gather. Stone Age principles that survived the test of billions of years because they were simply true. But maybe they weren't so true after all.

I still found myself choking on one nugget of thought when trying to swallow this theory whole and complete. In my childhood, women weren't considered social equals to men; but they were considered moral peers — sometimes even moral superiors — even though one could rightfully question whether that distinction was merited. The "fairer" sex didn't mean lighter skinned or lesser build; it meant more just and compassionate. Way back before I was born, a woman couldn't own property or vote. Our wombs were too problematic, they believed. Being in bodily possession of a uterus would get us into trouble, muddle our thinking if we tried to solve problems. A uterus simply oozed strange hormones and made us weepy and unfit to run businesses, countries, churches, universities, board rooms. That was the plain fact of the matter, in those days. Case closed.

What would those folks say now about wardrobe malfunctions at Super Bowl half-time events? A woman's exposed breast controlling the airwaves — or at least sending the FCC into a tailspin. Did it matter that the exposed flesh belonged to a black woman? Would we have turned away if the skin revealed during that fateful song-and-dance number had been rosy Caucasian? Or would we have looked closer, deemed it less obscene, in a world that still defines white skin as preferred flesh?

The way I see it, we're all tapping our way through one long song-and-dance number. Sometimes we can hear the music, memorize the beat and repeat the steps without thinking, autopilot dancers shape-shifting to the cultural rhythms. Other times, we lose the bass, get confused and fall out of sync. That's called middle age for most of us. Especially most of us women. When our breasts no longer swell into the contours of a push-up bra or worse yet, when our wardrobe malfunctions elicit disgust rather than scandal, we lose our usefulness, our purpose. Beyond our prime as mothers, no longer seen as sexy lovers, we wallow in the wasteland, our aging hands tugging at our sagging flesh, cursing the added pounds in a dirge of grief that should rock the world, if only it had ears to hear such wailing.

That summer, after my random sampling, non-double-blind study at the bus stop, I bought a red lacy Victoria's secret push-up bra. One morning I wore it under a silk shift dress and walked to my favorite bus shelter. There, under the bright light of day, I unbuttoned the shiny pearl buttons of my dress, exposing my ample, lace-encrusted breasts to the sun and the gentle summer breeze. I sat on the bench inside the shelter, as bare breasted as I have ever been in public, and waved at the people who came and went, waiting for the Number 9 Downtown Express to show. I smiled, but few of the passersby, or the other people waiting at the bus stop, smiled back. Most glanced my way, the beginnings of a grin tickling their lips, then quickly averted their eyes to inspect the graffiti, the dirt collecting in the corners of the bench, their wrist watches, the roadway, searching the horizon for the bus. While most knew me by now, thanks to my long survey project, none called me by name or asked me what I was doing. Someone must have used their cell phone to phone the police, though. An hour after my self-imposed sit-in, a squad car pulled up and out spilled two scrubbed-faced youngsters in blue uniforms. They sauntered up and addressed me.

"Ma'am. You need to button your dress or we'll have to haul you in," the blond-haired man said. A slight blush colored his pale cheeks.

I smiled but did not respond. I continued to sit, hands folded ladylike in my lap, breasts cooling in the air.

"Ma'am," the first officer's brown-haired partner spoke. "We're serious. You can't sit here like that. You're defacing public property."

I stared at the blond-haired officer, then at his buddy. "If I go, so does she." I nodded at the Victoria's Secret poster.

"That's paid advertising, Ma'am. That's not indecent."

"I'll pay then," I insisted. "I'm advertising, too."

"What you selling Ma'am?"

"Common sense, young man. Human integrity. Respect."

"That wouldn't fit in an ad, Ma'am," the officer chuckled. "Now, come on. Be reasonable. Get yourself decent and go home. We don't want to cause you no trouble."

"What about her?" I asked, pointing to the Victoria's Secret model. "Does she have to go home, too?"

"Don't start up again on that, Ma'am," the brown-haired officer grunted. "No sense in making a scene. Write a letter to their corporate offices if it'll make you feel better. But you can't do a damn thing about her right now."

"I see," I replied. "Well, I think I'll just sit here a bit longer, then."

I undid the rest of my shift dress and shimmied the cloth off my body, dropping the cloth in pools around my ankles. There I presided, enthroned in my cotton panties and my lacy red push up, my sagging stomach proclaiming its right to live and breathe in the presence of that bus stop lingerie model's more nubile flesh. I swear I felt a tiara settle on my graying head.

"Get a grip, woman!" the blond officer yelled, as he grabbed my wrists and twisted my semi-nude body, pushing me to my knees. He cuffed me then and hauled me to the squad car, leaving my dress puddled on the bus shelter floor.

I rode in the back of their cruiser, humming Helen Reddy's 1970s classic anthem, "I am Woman" as forcefully as I could. I smiled and tapped my feet while the young officers shook their heads.

At the station house, the sergeant told them to get me a blanket or something to cover my ampleness. Apparently he found it overpowering. Or distracting. He is only a man after all. How could I expect him to concentrate and complete his paperwork while he was bedazzled by my Victoria's Secret push up bra? You just can't suppress the potency of a sex symbol.

I spent the night in jail. I called my ex-husband and asked him to pick up the kids, feed them dinner and house them for the evening. The following morning he came to fetch me. The police must have told him to bring me a change of clothes. He arrived with my gray sweats in hand, and my Nikes.

"Vicky, next time you feel like taking a walk," he told me, "choose more suitable gear."

I glanced at him without reply, pulled the sweatshirt over my head and tugged on my sweat pants. Underneath the soft fleecy top, the lace from my push up bra rubbed against the arc of my breast, reminding me that I was still an outlaw. I felt sexy in a funny sort of way. Sexy. And powerful. Not because my sagging breasts were launched into permanent perkiness under the astute support of Victoria's secret invention; but because I had invented my own secret weapon, one that would forever change the way I looked at the world.

Now, each time I stroll pass a Victoria's Secret billboard or bus stop sign, I smile and wink at my sister-in-arms. Incognito as she may be. Once, on a fleeting summer day, we stood shoulder to shoulder embracing our fierceness. She'll never spend a night in the slammer for exposing her breasts to the world, but it doesn't matter. I'll never spend another night worrying if I'm obsolete. I've tossed the Ten Commandments of Womanhood into the Red Sea of Wake Up and Smell the Coffee. I'm no longer a has-been creature who has lost her purpose in the world. If you sit in that bus stop as long as I did that summer, you're bound to hear it, humming like a drunk bee stoned on rose nectar. Beneath that lingerie model's coy, come-on smile lurks a secret message sent to all the women of the world, if they would only listen.

"Your hidden power is safe with me," she whispers. "Use it. Or lose it."

Mary Saracino is a novelist, memoir writer, and poet who lives in Denver, CO. Her latest novel, The Singing of Swans (Pearlsong Press 2006) was named a 2007 Lambda Literary Awards finalist in the Spirituality category. Mary's first novel, No Matter What, was a 1994 Minnesota Book Award fiction finalist. Her second novel, Finding Grace, earned the 1999 Colorado Authors' League "Top Hand" Adult/Mainstream Fiction award. Mary's memoir, Voices of the Soft-bellied Warrior recounts the author's four year body-mind-spirit healing journey to reclaim her voice after the onset of a rare voice disorder.

Mary's poetry and creative nonfiction/memoir writings have been published in a variety of anthologies and literary/cultural journals, both online and in print. Mary also teaches writing classes, offers writing coaching services, and teaches workshops on the Sacred Feminine. For more information about Mary visit www.marysaracino.com/

Vicky's Secret was the winner of the Fall/Winter 2007 Glass Woman Prize, http://www.sigriddaughter.com/GlassWomanPrize.htm

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