2016 EDITOR’S CHOICE for NONFICTION
Copyright © Teresa Civello
My graduation from P.S. 88 was two weeks away, and I dreaded it. At thirteen, I was 5’4” and 160 pounds and jiggled when I walked. My father was ashamed of me and refused to attend the ceremony, even though I was receiving two awards. He blamed my mother for stuffing me, but it wasn’t true. She’d been cooking low-calorie meals just for me. I’d already lost ten pounds but was still the chubbiest kid in 8th grade, including the boys.
Mom was sewing my new dress of embroidered pink eyelet with a satin under slip. She grew tired of ripping out seams where my body stretched the fabric, so she basted the dress, hoping it would fit me by graduation.
I needed a miracle.
The Sunday Daily News advertised a one-day Gimbels’ Bargain Basement sale of “Slightly Imperfect Playtex Magic Controller Girdles.” The miracle Fabricon® guaranteed to hold its wearer in smooth comfort and was marked down from $9.99 to $1.99.
My mother also saw the ad.
The next morning, she took off from her factory job. I played hooky and we went to Gimbels’ Department Store to buy me a Playtex Magic Controller Girdle. We traveled by subway from Queens to Manhattan on a train packed with passengers. Mom dashed to the last two empty straw-woven seats. I sat by the window. Colorful advertisements plastered the train platforms. High Society was opening in July. Macy’s showed spring dresses with full skirts and wide elastic cinch belts. I imagined how pretty I’d look wearing the Playtex under one of those dresses, while Johnny Callahan and I held hands in a dark movie theater. He was my secret crush and the best-looking boy in school.
We arrived ten minutes early at the ten-story Gimbels’ store across from Macy’s on Herald Square. Hundreds of women of different shapes, sizes, and ages were lined up along the street, most wearing fashionable outfits and heels.
As we walked to the end of the line, I compared their clothes to my mother’s. She was in a white cotton dress with red poppies and a bright yellow long-sleeved sweater. Instead of nylons, she had on white socks and laced oxfords, the shoes she wore when she swept the sidewalk.
Mom noticed my frown. “I’m dressed perfect for this sale,” she said. “The basement’s as huge as your school.”
I trusted my mother. But a store basement as big as P.S. 88?
We took our places at the back of the line. Without warning, screams roared up from the front. I grabbed my mother’s sleeve.
“They’ve just opened the store,” she said in a soft voice as women screamed and began shoving each other, breaking the line to get through the doors. A police car sirened up to the entrance. Three cops jumped out. Two of them stood together, their arms linked like a fence, admitting women two-by-two. The third blew a whistle, waving his arms to restore order.
“Mommy. There’s cops. I don’t want the girdle. Let’s go home. I’ll eat cottage cheese three times a day.” I pulled at her, but she didn’t budge.
“It’s a one-day sale.” Mom’s forehead creased. “We’re getting you that girdle.”
Two minutes later we neared the entrance.
“Walk fast,” she said, holding back a woman cutting in front of us as we pushed through the revolving glass doors.
Shoppers swarmed the first floor as Mom propelled us inside the elevator. The operator stretched her arm across the open door, warning shoppers to step to the rear or we wouldn’t move. We all shifted back.
A female voice whispered so everyone heard. “Maybe little fatty should be in school.” My eyes watered. Fatty. Gail O’Malley’s nickname for me. Mom squeezed my hand.
Finally, the operator closed both the outside bronze door and the metal accordion inner gate. She turned a metal wheel, and the slow-moving elevator creaked its way to the basement. The doors cranked opened. Mom and I were swept up inside a tornado of scrambling shoppers. I could hardly feel my feet touching solid ground. Finally, my mother led us to safety behind a huge column.
She was right. The basement was enormous. Fluorescent lights hung from low ceilings and round concrete pillars stood like Atlas the Titan supporting the store above. Saleswomen holding wooden poles with signs pointing to various bin sizes were being elbowed and jostled as women squawked and pecked each other to reach the girdles. My heart pounded. A gray-haired saleswoman took refuge beside us against the column. I stood close to my mother, afraid we’d be crushed. All this danger because I wanted to look thinner at graduation.
Mom and I walked lock-step toward the chaos.
Women shrieked at each other. “That’s mine.” “I had it first.” “Let go, bitch.”
I was shocked to hear the B-word used by dignified women as they snatched girdles from each other.
My mother remained calm. “Hold my purse.” She looped the handles over my shoulder and placed me away from the pandemonium, right next to the saleswoman standing by the column. They nodded to each other.
“Don’t move till I get back.” Mom kissed me, straightened her body as if wearing armor, and went off to battle.
I watched. Exhilarated. Terrified. My mother was slender and petite. How could she reach the X-L girdle bins all the way in the back and emerge alive? My eyes followed her yellow sweater as she maneuvered like a slalom skier through the jammed aisles. She stopped in front of a mob of shoving women, clutching as many tubes as they could carry. Mom’s yellow sweater was still visible. A hair-pulling match between two women distracted me. One had an arm full of girdles. The other pushed her. Tubes flew up in the air, scattered across the floor, and were devoured by the surrounding women, who were like a pack of hyenas tearing at fresh meat.
I turned back toward the X-L bins. No yellow sweater. I stretched my neck and stood on my toes. Mom was gone. Visions of her flattened body being lifted off the floor by the police ran through my mind. How would I explain to Pop that my mother had been trampled to death while buying me a girdle in Gimbels’ Bargain Basement? I jumped up and down, sure my mother was hurt. I had to rescue her. “Sarah,” I screamed Mom’s name.
“Miss, please help me find my mother,” I begged the saleslady next to me.
“She’s all right.”
I didn’t believe her. I cupped my hands to the sides of my mouth like a Brooklyn Dodger fan at Ebbets Field and yelled again. “Sarah! Sarah!” No yellow sweater. No Mom.
I held my mother’s purse close to my body, ready to plow into the crowd. But the saleswoman stretched out her arms to block my escape. “You stay right here, missy. If you move, your mother won’t find you.”
“But she’s vanished,” I shouted over the noise. “Maybe she’s fallen into a bin. Or is being stomped on.”
The woman stood in front of me, feet apart and fists planted against her hips. “No one’s ever been killed at Gimbels.”
Helpless, I waited. Finally, my mother emerged, hair disheveled, face flushed, clothes wrinkled. A button dangled from the yellow sweater. But there she stood like the Statue of Liberty, clutching a tube above her head like a trophy.
“Mom, I was so scared.”
“I’m an experienced bargain hunter.”
“But you disappeared.”
“I climbed into the bin for the last one. Next sale, we’ll buy another.”
During the slow train ride home, I fondled the tube and read about the girdle that promised me a slim and shapely figure. “This girdle is made of unlined rubber with little holes for breathability. It has no crotch or panty.” The ad described all the benefits of the Playtex. “It has magic hidden fingers to keep you firm, flat and flattered. It’s flexible with a self-roll top that stays up and won’t roll down, giving you the convenience of easy on, easy off. Detachable garters let you choose to wear the girdle with or without hosiery.”
The model pictured on the tube wore a Playtex bra, girdle with nylons, and a see-through lingerie jacket. Her blonde hair flowed in the breeze as she leapt through the air. Maybe my wishes would come true. Johnny would become my boyfriend. The cute girls would like me. My graduation dress would fit me. My father would be proud of me. He would work every day. My parents would be happy. I would go to college. Love would find me.
I caressed the tube. All my dreams were rolled up inside a slightly imperfect rubber girdle.
We returned home at noon.
“Read the instructions before trying it on,” Mom reminded me. “I’ll make the beds and then go to work. Less than four hours and I won’t get a half day’s pay.”
I dashed into the bathroom and unrolled the girdle. It looked exactly as promised with breathing holes and dangling detachable garters. The model didn’t seem to wear panties, so I removed mine. The heavy, sour-smelling rubber wasn’t wide enough. I checked the tube size. Extra large. I held my breath to make my stomach smaller and stepped into the Playtex.
The miracle Fabricon® twisted and hooked around my ankles. I inched it off, powdered myself and inside the girdle with Mom’s lavender talc. Second time, the garment clamped my knees together. “Mom. I can’t get it on,” I yelled.
She came to the door. “Let me see.”
“No. I’m naked.”
“Then put on your underpants and read the directions. Do it now, before I leave.”
The illustrations demonstrated how the girdle should be rolled down. After stepping into it, I was supposed to pull the coiled rubber to my hips, and then uncurl until it reached the waist. I unwound the girdle by rolling it inside out and down my legs. I put my panties back on and followed the drawings. Once the Playtex was past my hips, I uncurled it, jumping and zigzagging until the rubber squeezed my soft sweaty flesh inside. To test the garters, I slid on a pair of my Sunday nylons that were draped over the shower rod. The front garters didn’t quite reach the stocking tops. I scrunched forward until they attached. The back ones hung about two inches short forcing me to stretch backwards until they snapped shut.
“Mommee. It’s the wrong size.” I wailed. “Come see.”
She came in and checked the tube. “Extra-large is the biggest they sell.”
Tears filled my eyes.
“The rubber will loosen the more you wear it.” Mom pinched my cheek. “Besides, you look slimmer already. See for yourself.”
That’s all I wanted to hear. I twirled in front of the mirror, admiring my new hourglass shape, when some fat escaped the waistband like ice cream spilling out of a cone. I tucked the extra skin back inside.
“Get dressed.” Mom lowered her voice. “Not a word to your father or Bella about today.”
“I promise,” I said, crossing my heart. My kid sister was Pop’s favorite and she told him everything. “Oh, Mom. I don’t want you in trouble because of me.” I bit my lip.
“The money’s from my wages, not the grocery allowance.”
I’d heard my parents fighting all the time about me being fat, his meddling mother, and his not supporting us.
She checked her watch. “Gotta go. Help your sister with her subtraction. The Chicken Oreganato just needs reheating when I get home.”
“Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll take care of everything. Thank you again for my Playtex,” I whispered and kissed her goodbye.
That evening, I was exhausted and fell asleep early, my girdle tube beside me. During the night, I awoke to my parents arguing in the parlor.
“Sarah. You look like Hedy Lamarr. She’s Fatty Arbuckle.”
“Do you even like her?”
“You’re jealous because you never went to high school.”
Footsteps stomped toward the door. “Another thing, if you keep hitting her, I swear I’ll leave you.”
“You don’t have the guts.”
The door closed. I heard my mother crying. I fell asleep weeping into my pillow.
The next morning I woke up extra early to put on my girdle. The cotton A-line skirt Mom had sewn flattered my new silhouette. I crossed the street to the school yard. Johnny Callahan with his sky-blue eyes, freckles, and dimpled smile sat on the concrete embankment waiting for me with his text book open. I was helping him raise his “C” average to “B+” so he’d be admitted to Aviation Tech High School after graduation.
“You were out yesterday,” he said. “You sick?”
“No. I went to the city with my mother.”
“Thanks to you, I got an 85 on my essay about President Eisenhower wanting to be a baseball player when he grew up.” He waved the paper.
“You did the work. Besides, you’re doing me a favor. I’m practicing to be a teacher.”
“Ya know, there’s an arithmetic test today.” Already nervous, he rubbed the back of his neck.
“Okay, let’s study,” I said, lowering myself with care onto the cement. We reviewed the chapter until first bell. I rose and sashayed away, hoping Johnny would notice my backside. I turned. Gail O’Malley stood in front of him. Her button nose wrinkled as she chatted and touched his arm. I couldn’t hear what Johnny said, but he circled around her and got in line behind me. She drew her eyebrows together and scowled.
The girdle bent with my body as I sat at my desk for first period English. At the bell, we marched to history class. So far, the morning had gone well. Nature called me during recess. I stood inside the end stall of the girls’ bathroom and lifted my skirt with one hand. The other struggled to unroll the girdle. I clenched the skirt between my teeth and arm-wrestled the Playtex. It wouldn’t budge. Where were those magic fingers when I needed them?
The tight rubber made it impossible to sit or stand over the bowl. Catastrophe loomed. I looked down. Liquid puddled on the white tile. My shoes and socks were drenched, the hems of my slip and skirt damp. I wanted to crawl into the bowl and flush myself. But I was too fat. I covered my face and wept silently.
The bell rang. Recess was over. The bathroom was empty. I couldn’t return to class. I needed a plan. Mom was working. Maybe I could sneak out of school, go home, change my clothes and pretend I was sick so she wouldn’t find out. Maybe Mrs. Leschner, our math teacher, would look for me instead of sending a hall monitor.
The door opened. Uta, my ex-friend who now belonged to the pretty-girl clique, called my name as she pushed open every door. She reached mine. It was locked. She peeked underneath.
“Uta, please don’t tell.”
She ran out laughing. I shook as tears flowed down my cheeks. At last, Mrs. Leschner arrived. “Teresa, are you ill?”
I opened the door and faced her. “My new girdle wouldn’t roll down fast enough. I wish I were dead.”
“Accidents happen.” She pulled a wad of paper towels from the wooden dispenser, wet them under the faucet and brought them back to me. “Freshen up while I get this stall clean.”
I closed the door and thought about Uta announcing to the class what I did. Tears flooded my eyes as I thought of Johnny finding out that I wet myself. When Mrs. Leschner returned, I opened the door and saw Marta, the lady janitor with a mop and bucket of sudsy water. “Thank you,” I said.
“No worry.” Marta smiled and swabbed up my mess.
“Teresa, I’m sorry, but Uta already told the class.”
My shoulders slumped.
“Go home and clean yourself up.” Mrs. Leschner escorted me out the side door exit. “We’ll see you tomorrow.”
Our apartment was empty. I removed my clothes, showered and changed into pajamas. I rinsed the girdle, my clothes, and white shoe strings and hung everything over the shower rod. I scrubbed my saddle shoes with Bon Ami.
I went to bed and started re-reading my favorite book. Skymountain was the story of a beautiful rich girl who transferred to a small college in Vermont just to take slalom ski lessons from the best women’s instructor in the country. When she learned her family wealth had been squandered, she cried and felt sorry for herself until she took a job to pay her tuition. Finally, she figured out what was really important. The way she took charge of her life made me feel better and believe anything was possible.
I fell asleep until my mother came home.
“What are you doing in bed?”
“I got sick and have to stay home a couple days.”
Mom squinted and crossed her arms. She might have believed my fib if Mrs. Leschner hadn’t telephoned. She listened to my teacher and thanked her for checking on me. My mother was quiet. Then she sent Bella upstairs to watch television with Pop’s parents. I was relieved. The last thing I needed was my kid sister blabbing about my accident to all the kids on the block.
“Teresa, why didn’t you just tell me what happened?”
“It was horrible.” I ran into the bathroom.
Mom followed. “I’m sorry you were embarrassed.” She eyed my damp clothes, pulled the girdle from the rod and patted it dry. “Let’s figure out how to get this darn thing on and off.”
We practiced rolling and unrolling the Playtex until I got the hang of it.
I refused to go to school the next morning. I explained about Uta and being laughed at. “You have to face them,” Mom said. “The rubber will slide easier if you wear panties. I put an extra pair in your book bag. Just in case.”
“It doesn’t matter. You don’t know how rotten these kids are to me.”
“Maybe I do.”
“When we were in school, the kids called us dirty wops.” Mom’s eyes watered. “Grandpa told us to smile at them. We didn’t believe him, but we followed his advice. We laughed. Soon the kids stopped calling us names.” My mother held me close. “Be brave and remember. sticks and stones…”
I twitched my mouth into a tentative smile, wondering if words would truly never hurt me. I skipped my breakfast juice and milk to avoid another toilet disaster. No fluids in. No fluids out.
I entered the school yard and the taunting began. I smiled to control my quivering bottom lip. The louder the name-calling, the broader my grin. Johnny waited for me at our usual spot, his math book open. I hesitated.
He patted the cement next to him. “I heard. I feel bad for you.”
I sat down beside him.
He smiled and put his hand over mine. “Ignore them. They’re a bunch of stuck-ups.” Johnny leaned over and whispered, “We’re good friends, right?”
“Yeah, guess so. Only I wish you’d defend me.”
“I’m not brave like you.” He lowered his eyes.
“Whaddya mean, I’m brave?” My voice trembled. “I cried myself to sleep. My mother forced me to go to school.”
Johnny put his arm around me. “I’m sorry. Maybe next time, I’ll have more guts.”
“Okay, let’s review the homework.”
His blue eyes brightened as I tutored the cutest and sweetest coward in the class.
At the bell, we marched into school. Mrs. Leschner took me aside. “If you need the bathroom, just leave the room. Your teachers will understand.”
“But everybody will know.”
“They already do. Unfortunately, a few will keep teasing you until they find someone else. The jabs might stop if you laugh back at them.”
“Ya know, my mother said the same thing.”
“Well, she’s right. Try it.”
During recess, I jumped Double-Dutch, leaping in between the two twisting ropes until my Playtex decided to inch up with every bounce. Another trip to the restroom. The girdle was twisted around my stomach. As I wrangled it toward my knees, the bathroom door opened. I stopped breathing. Gail and Geraldine, the clique leaders came in. They kept talking as they went into their stalls. I turned around to face the back wall and gripped my hands around the tops of both partitions. I waited until they flushed. So did I. The rushing water and noise from the old groaning pipes gave me time to haul myself up onto the top of the toilet seat without being heard. I braced my hands against the walls before realizing that school toilet seats have no lids. I prayed not to fall in.
The girls continued chatting at the sink. “That fatty’s always with Johnny,” Gail muttered in a sarcastic tone.
“They study together in the morning.”
“They also sit on her stoop after school doing homework till her mother comes home.” Geraldine sounded almost glad Gail was jealous.
Balancing on the loose toilet seat with my knees bound together by a rubber girdle, I could do nothing but wait for them to leave. Finally, the hall bell rang. Recess was over. Gail kept grumbling about me and Johnny as she left. Now I understood why she hated me. I jumped to the floor and rolled the girdle down my legs and over my shoes. I balled up my Playtex and stared at it. My mother was almost killed buying you. And now you’ve let me down again. I pushed the girdle inside my book bag and returned to class.
During supper, I wore my Playtex as I ate my broiled fish with lemon and salad.
“Your diet is working,” Pop said while holding a forkful of eggplant. “You look very nice. Doesn’t she, Sarah?”
My mother half grinned. My father rarely complimented me. Now I was even more determined to lose weight. “Yes. She’ll look lovely in her graduation dress when she’s called up to the stage.”
My father merely nodded.
The next morning, I prayed to St. Jude, the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes, for help with my Playtex. I wore socks with my nylons, hoping to keep the girdle from riding up.
I slid into my desk and felt the front-right garter pop. The left-back one opened later as I worked at the blackboard. My nylons wrinkled down along my thighs. I finished the arithmetic problem. Even though Mrs. Leschner had told me to just leave when I had girdle problems, I still asked to be excused.
Back to the bathroom, I sat on the toilet seat, unlaced my shoes and removed my socks and stockings. Without nylons, the girdle would ride up again, so off it came. Why can’t you stay in place? You’re supposed to help, not ruin my life. I put on my shoes and socks, bundled everything else inside my light jacket and folded it over my arm. My romance with Playtex was over, but I still needed to wear it.
After school I marched over to Jay Rose, the ladies’ lingerie shop on Fresh Pond Road. I walked to the girdle counter, where Madeleine, a saleslady who knew my mother, greeted me. She wore a black and white print dress with a wide black cinch belt. Just like the Macy’s ad.
I opened my jacket and showed her the Playtex.
She examined it.
“We didn’t buy it here,” I confessed. “There was a sale. But I can’t wear it,” my voice trembled. “Three days. Three disasters.”
“Let’s see.” She led me into a curtained fitting room. I put on my girdle with the nylons, and stretched like a contortionist until I finally snapped the garters to my stockings.
Madeline measured my thigh length and width. “Take off the girdle, but keep the nylons attached and bring them to me after you’re dressed.”
She stood behind the glass-top counter with a satin-lined box filled with elastic girdle fasteners. She compared them to mine. All were longer than my garters. “Where’s your mother?”
“She’s working. But she’ll be home in about an hour.”
“Show her these.” Madeline wrapped them with pink tissue and placed them inside a black bag with Jay Rose written in pink. “Try them on, and then come back with your mother. We’re open until eight tonight.”
“Thank you so much, Miss Madeline.” I blew out a breath of hope for me and my Playtex.
My sister was in the kitchen doing her homework. When Mom got home, I fibbed and said the washing machine was making a funny noise. We went down to the cellar and I showed her the new garters.
“Longer ones could work,” she said. “I was going to take you to Jay Rose on Saturday morning while your father went fishing, but we’ll go tonight instead.” Mom examined the price tags and laughed. “The garters cost more than the girdle.”
“I can help pay.”
“It’s gonna be okay.”
“Mom, I hear you and Pop fight all the time. He doesn’t like me. I wish we could move away from him and Nonna Trezza.”
“Teresa, you know we can’t.” Mom’s eyes watered. “How could I support you and your sister on my take-home pay?”
“You could leave Bella here.”
Mom smiled. “You’re both my daughters, and I want the best for you. So for now we stay together.”
I let out a deep sigh.
“Your father’s working late. After supper, I’ll send Bella upstairs to watch television. She won’t be down for about two hours. We’ll leave the dirty dishes soaking and go to the store.”
We went back upstairs. While Mom cooked supper, I practiced with the new garters attached to my girdle. Sitting. Standing. Jumping. Bending. Using the toilet. My Playtex stayed in place.
After supper, I went into our all-purpose little room next to the kitchen. I opened my desk center drawer and shuffled the papers until I found the envelope with my secret snack money.
“Mom, I have four dollars and fifty-three cents saved up.” I held out my open palms.
She put hers over mine and closed them. Mom went into the little room and sat by her sewing machine and opened each drawer, sorting through patterns and containers of threads and bobbins. She opened a straight pin box that hid six rolls of quarters. From a tattered McCall’s pattern, she pulled out a ten dollar bill.
“This is the change left over in my purse every night,” she said in a low voice. “I save it for emergencies. Your Playtex definitely qualifies.” Mom patted my cheek.
We rushed back to Jay Rose. Madeleine greeted us. Mom showed her my girdle with the garters that fit me best. They were three inches longer than the ones that came with the Playtex.
“We’ll take one set of the off-white detachables.” Mom smiled at me. “And a pair of those white elastic bands with pink ribbon.”
My eyes widened. Mom was also buying me bridal garters.
Madeleine made out the sales slip, wrapped my girdle and the new garters in tissue. Mom counted out five dollars and fifty-cents and put everything inside her shopping bag. On our way home, we giggled about my Playtex misadventures.
The magic Fabricon® rubber never really stretched, even though I wore it every day with the long detachable garters. I was determined to look good for graduation, so I gave up bread and pasta and ate a lot of tuna fish. I stopped drinking fluids before school, not wanting to press my luck. In two weeks, I’d lost another ten pounds, but was still the biggest kid in my class.
My embroidered pink A-line graduation dress was beautiful. It had no waistline, so it gave me a sleek look over my Playtex girdle that I wore with both the detachable and bridal garters. Just in case.
Mom and Pop both attended my graduation. My father stood and clapped when I received my awards.
Johnny introduced me to his father, an Army Sergeant who came in his uniform.
“Miss Teresa, thank you for helping Johnny get into Aviation Tech. He’s always wanted to be a flight mechanic,” Sgt. Callahan said as he handed me a bouquet of flowers.
“Thank you, I love roses, but you didn’t have to do this.”
“I just want to show my appreciation. You’ve helped my son build up his confidence. Thank you again,” he said. “Excuse me. I want to meet some of the teachers.” Sgt. Callahan left Johnny and me standing together as he walked over to Mrs. Leschner.
Johnny took me aside and hugged me. “Without you, I would’ve never graduated.” He kissed me on the cheek.
My face grew warm and tingly. “I just helped you study. You got yourself into Aviation Tech.”
Johnny grinned. He escorted me over to my parents, and then joined his father.
Pop put his arm around me while he bragged to the principal about me being one of a handful of public school students accepted to Catholic High Schools that year. Sadly, my father acted affectionately toward me only in front of strangers. But it didn’t stop me from trying to be perfect.
Johnny and I never dated, but we remained close friends for two more years until his father was transferred to San Diego. He gave me a real on-the-lips goodbye kiss. We promised to stay in touch. I never heard from him.
But me and my Slightly Imperfect Playtex? We became inseparable.