Sometimes I feel sorry for men. Not very often, mind you – but I do have fleeting moments of empathy when I escape my Missyness and actually pay attention to the world around me.
She is sitting on the edge of the stage, a first violinist. It is dress rehearsal for the Bernstein MASS, a huge funky powerful 1970’s piece of what my grandfather called “long-hair music.” He’d have hated the Bernstein MASS – no Catholic worth his salt stops abruptly in the middle of the Miserere to chant, “ . . . half of the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election.” But, hey, why shouldn’t an agnostic liberal NYC Jewish boy celebrate the sacred mysteries of Rome? It is the era of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. Protest and cynicism hangs heavily in the air, in clouds of marijuana and patchouli.
Thanks be to God, the choir does not have to fling off its clothing and cavort wildly about the stage. We’re mostly middle-aged. Collective sagging nudity would drive the audience from the hall – The horror! The horror! – even if we put our handful of handsome youngsters out in front (they’d run from the hall in horror, too).
She is stunning, this violinist – tall and thin, with severe black hair cut in a flappers’ bob. Most of the players wear jeans and faded T-shirts. She shines in a royal blue dress, black tights, and discreet black heels. (Women will understand footwear so described. Gentlemen need to know that these shoes aren’t what’s quaintly referred to as “Fuck Me Pumps.” These shoes have class. There’s a time and place for 4” stilettos, certainly, but this is not it, and that woman knows it.)
The dress is what rivets male attention. Simply cut and not too short – with a deep narrow V neckline that’s cut about to the navel. I think she has used double-sided tape or rubber cement to adhere the fabric to her chest and keep her goodies from falling out. Every time she bends over that violin, you can hear a collective intake of then-held masculine breath. Or at least I can – I was in Observer Mode.
Here’s the thing: She’s showing all but her nipples and offering teasing hints of those, but the men around her aren’t supposed to notice, and if they do, they’re low-brow mouth-breathers who are sexually harassing her. Mind you, she’s certainly free to show-and-tell her nips if she wishes to – but others are therefore free to look at them. It has to work both ways.
Then again, I grew up in an era where an exposed bra strap at school meant endless hours of hot mortified shame. We even wore full slips.
I remember reading some 1970’s sex self-help book back in my babysitting days (plenty of interesting information was available on other people’s bookshelves, rendering my $.50/hour wages tolerable). To keep your man at a fevered pitch of excitement, you are supposed to whisper on your mutual way out the door that you aren’t wearing any panties. Such brazen hussydom!
In fifth grade, I win the local Daughters of the American Revolution annual essay contest. I remember sitting on the floor of my grandparents’ living room, shamelessly plagiarizing stuff from their set of encyclopedias. Grampa O’Brien was very fond of his encyclopedias. He was self-educated and well-read, and loved nothing better than catching his smart-ass college-student children in errors – casually mentioning Tierra del Fuego at the holiday dinner table, for instance, implying that “she” was a new neighbor, and then crowing with delight when that went over their heads.
So the DAR ladies have a fancy luncheon to honor their essay contest winners. My mother is invited to accompany me, even though we lack the blue bloodlines allowing us to take personal credit for US independence. The honor is almost too much. We are not worthy of those dried-out crustless cream-cheese-and-olive sandwiches.
My fifth grade teacher is the Grand Poohbah of the DAR at the time. I arrive at school the morning of the luncheon all dressed up and excited. She stands there in her black old-lady lace-up oxfords and peers chinlessly down at me under her steel-rimmed glasses. She tells me in front of the whole class that I am inappropriately attired. She sends me home in chagrin to change my clothes.
Here’s the thing: I am not inappropriately attired. I am wearing panties. I am cute as a button. My mother has made me a new jumper – dark blue corduroy printed with bright 1970’s flowers. I have a lacy white blouse on beneath it, with a demure tie at the neck, upon which I fasten my special initial pin. My hair is in pigtails, the better to display my father’s ears. The jumper is short, as fashion dictates, and I have on orange fishnet stockings. I feel like a queen.
Queen not even for a day, alas. I’ve not been able to wear fishnet stockings since. Husband just doesn’t understand.
The high school where I work has a formal dress code on the books, but enforcing it barely makes the building’s priority list. We need a tall self-righteous Mrs. Gibbs frowning at the front door, wielding a ruler she isn’t afraid to smack you with. Mind you, it’s not the adults who arrive half-naked; no Whale Tails are found on faculty (I just learned to identify the Whale Tail: a fashion refinement wherein one’s jeans are cut so low that the back of one’s thong rises above them. Ideally, the Whale Tail does not cover the Tramp Stamp tattooed just above it).
The high school is full of maturing young women whose mothers let them leave the house all but naked. The high school is also full of maturing young men, for whom I as the mother of boys feel sorry. If the girls have every right to undress, then the boys have every right to notice. Fair is fair.
Don’t be getting your panties in a bunch, here. I’m not suggesting that males are unable to control their native animal lusts or that females are whores who should be buried in burkas. I just want to bring back the fig leaf. For both sexes – the totally cool boys at school slouch around with their pants down below their backsides, belts cupping their butt cheeks. I can’t imagine what holds their jeans up, unless they’re hooked on the more or less constant erections found in front (see “all but naked girls,” above). And I don’t care to imagine that.
What’s not seen is so much more interesting than what’s out there on display – that’s the secret lesson of whispered lawless pantylessness. What we need – besides world peace and a cure for cancer and an end to hunger and poverty – is some elegant trashiness, some refined raunch, and some stately sleaze. We need the sacred Mass, but we also need Bernstein’s profane take on it. We need more clothes, worn less formally. We need Mrs. Gibbs, but we also need that first violinist.