By Laurel Dammann | Featured photograph by Antony Mayfield of the work of Cildo Meireles
She is tall, towering over the other customers as she peruses racks of silky nightwear and lacy lingerie. Conscious of the way her long limbs use space, she avoids the busy sale section and deftly dodges the employees flitting about who, despite her size, seem to have overlooked her.
There are rules she has made for herself; you can see them in the perfect match of her shoes and purse, in the precise fit of her slacks. She holds herself painfully erect, her spine so rigid as to be brittle, her well-contoured jaw tense, preemptive — she sells it as good posture, but it’s the pretended confidence of someone who is painfully aware of their own existence.
I’m already making notes in my head of how her character might look on the page of a short story and how to capture her cautious entrance into a film, overpainting her for other’s eyes. I am so caught up in a web of inspiration that I belatedly register that she is eyeing my name tag.
“What can I help you with, ma’am?” I sound too genuinely curious to be professional.
The woman has to bend her neck until her chin is resting against her sternum to meet my eyes.
“I need a bra,” Her voice is the E string of an upright bass, so rich and low it startles me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a co-worker flinch. I prepare myself, but then I see that she’s evil-eying a little boy who’s knocked a row of bras off of a clothes tree. Two women giggle together nearby and I gather my righteous indignation, but then I realize that their attention is on a backless panty. No one is looking at us but me.
My paranoia seems maddeningly misplaced, almost as if I have no right to it, but it’s there, strange and encompassing. The worst battles are the ones you never needed to fight in the first place.
I ask her if she would like a bra fitting because normalcy is all that I feel I can really, truly offer.
“If you’re not too busy. I imagine a bra fitting will take time,” her voice wavers a little over the words “bra fitting,” as if she’s never said them before. I must have said it once like that too, before my world became one of women’s bodies and how to shape, support, and contain them.
She eyes a navy blue push up with silvery lace, tracing the straps with one perfectly manicured nail. Her lips purse and I notice that the shimmery pink is faded slightly in the middle. An imperfection, all the more glaring because it’s the only one.
“I wonder if you’d even have something that would fit,” she muses out loud, blatantly wary and also a little hopeful. “Are you sure you have the time?”
“Absolutely,” I smile.
It takes her a moment, but she gives me a small smile back that doesn’t reach her eyes, then slips it away.
“Call me Violet,” she tells me on our way to the fitting rooms.
“Welcome, Violet,” I say both to remember her name and to try to loosen the stiffness in her shoulders and the white-knuckle grip she has on her purse.
The fitting rooms are unusually empty given that it’s a weekend afternoon, but Violet is visibly relieved. I attempt to guide her into a middle stall, but she moves swiftly ahead of me and into the one in the far back corner. When I enter behind her she seems surprised to see us reflected together in the long mirrors tacked against the wall.
The door closes behind us with a metallic click and she inhales sharply. I’m reminded of being twelve in the JC Penny’s lingerie section, staring at the rows of underwire bras as if they were carnivorous plants with an appetite for girls who’d just begun puberty.
“Have you ever been fitted before?” I begin to pull the measuring tape from around my neck and she watches it slither from my shoulders as if it were a snake. The small terror working its way into the corners of her mouth, the flutter of her fingers against her collarbone, is my answer.
“To get the best measurement, I’ll need you to just turn around and slip off your shirt, please.”
Slowly, as if the pole in her spine is swiftly fracturing glass, Violet sinks into the cream leatherette chair nestled in the corner. She engulfs it with her lanky frame, though the expression on her face shows she’s wishing it would fold her away.
I could pretend that I don’t see her crumbling around herself and do the customer service dance, but it’s difficult to keep up the sales persona when something so human is happening. Suddenly I am afraid in that throat-clenching way one gets when one wants desperately to do right, but is unsure of one’s ability to do so. I am scared that, in my ignorance and uncertainty, I will hurt her.
She stares intently at her hands, square and sturdy except for the elegant frosted nails. She takes a deep breath, looks at me. There is no question in Violet’s eyes, no silent conversation; she is telling me what she has decided.
Violet radiates heat and I warm the measuring tape between my hands before using it, afraid that the cool plastic will startle her. I have to stand on tiptoe to position the tape over her chest, taking steady breaths to maintain my balance. If I tripped and fell into her I am worried she would run.
“It’s not naturally like this,” she tells me, jerking her chin towards her chest, all sinewy muscle and barren of any hair. “I have to wax. I’m a very hairy woman.”
She calls attention to it almost as if she needs to and I’m not sure if this is the part where I laugh, nod, or just keep my mouth shut.
Pulling the tape tight against her back to get her bra band measurement, I tell her to relax. She exhales and her ribs expand so quickly I almost lose my grip on the tape.
“I have a friend who doesn’t shave. Just lets it all grow. I’ve been thinking about it myself.”
She looks flabbergasted by this, then considering. I want to ask her what she’s thinking, but I’m worried I’d be trespassing. Instead I make note of the number on the tape and mentally sort through bra brands in my head until I realize that she is watching me in the mirror.
“Now you’re holding your breath,” she smiles and this time it’s genuine. Her eyes almost close when she beams, like a cat’s, and I feel as if something has been quietly exchanged. She has decided that we are not strangers anymore.
We decide that it’d be fun for her to pick her breast size, maybe even get a few different ones so she can match her bust to her mood.
“The perk of having nothing to begin with,” she says wryly. I let myself laugh and she chuckles back.
I shower Violet with bras ranging in size from B to G and we marvel at how good she looks in the colors of flowers. There is a bra that matches her shoes and purse and she asks me to cut off the tags so she can wear it out.
“I’m sorry we didn’t have the navy push up in your band size.”
She pets the delicate lace one more time, then shrugs and shimmies back into her blouse, eyeing her new shape in the mirror.
“I’ve got big ribs. Anyway, violet’s more my color.”
- Though this story is based on a true meeting, it is by no means a work of absolute fact. Artistic liberties have been taken and, in order to maintain anonymity for those involved, I have also changed identifying characteristics and details.