Eighth grade, 1984. Enough of spring had popped through the soil that the scent of daffodils trickled up to the third floor of the Princeton primary school, which was set right up against busy Nassau Street. As the building was nearly 200 years old, we relied on cross-breezes for air conditioning, which, given that each classroom had windows on only one side of the room and given that New Jersey air does not come pre-conditioned, meant that we were all overheating on a regular basis at some point after April 6. Our core temperatures, however, to a great degree reflected our disparate uniform code: boys could wear thin polo shirts once winter was over, but the girls’ dresses were heavy and scratchy, not much of an improvement over their woolen vests and kilts.
It meant that the female students of St. Paul’s were subjected to more unworldy temperatures than their male counterparts. I would put dollars to whatever that this was an additional measure against girls wearing makeup, which they weren’t allowed to do anyway, but which they kept trying. It’s hard to sneak contraband onto one’s face, especially when it quickly melts off from one’s over extended, personal heat index.
In part because of the hellacious uniform policy, I was more than ready to graduate and move on to a new school. Hindsight informs me that Princeton is a town to be missed; I didn’t realize at the time that few places would have as many resources, be as picturesque, or have an ice cream parlor like Thomas Sweets (I’m looking at you, chocolate with peanut butter cup Blend-In).
But the most significant motivator for graduating was to get away from the flock of mean boys who teased me daily. “Maroon the Goon,” one of them called me. I was Bigfoot to another. And the one I detested the most loved to ask me, a known epileptic, to make him a milkshake. Trust me, if I’d have been able to make one for him, he’d have been wearing it. My 13-year-old self wasn’t good at snappy comebacks, though I read them avidly in each new issue of MAD Magazine. I usually just shied away from the mocking or tried to distract them out of it, which wasn’t too terribly difficult.
Girls’ taunts were milder, but I was more afraid of them, because I cared more about what they thought. Still as flat as a board, I didn’t need a training bra, but I saw in the locker room that there were only three girls left not wearing bras. I couldn’t be the last braless kid standing.
At home, I read the same passage helpfully labeled “How Do I Know When I Need a Bra?” in the book on puberty my mother had supplied to me. Well, not so much me as my bed, where she’d laid it when I was out of the house one day. She couldn’t risk walking into my room when I might be there, and handing me a book on teenage sexuality. That would be like offering me party streamers made of condoms so boys could just reach up and grab them from my four-poster bed like so many candies at the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory. Better I should read about such matters on my own time and in secret.
This stupid passage said that if I could hold a pencil under my breast, I needed a bra. Because I had nothing approximating actual breast tissue, I could not for the life of me understand what the hell pencils had to do with judging when I was bra-ready. That seemed useless, and yet still I stood in front of my vanity with a Harcourt No. 2, holding it against my skin and waiting for some indication from God that I needed to pester my mother to take me to Bamberger’s for a training bra.
Eventually I decided to pester away, pencil levitation or no pencil levitation. She seemed instantly excited, and we motored off to the mall in 3.7 minutes from the first word of my request. I would be bare chested in the locker room no more.
If bras signify something about womanhood, training bras are stuck in some kind of purgatory—part lollipop cute, part kahuna holder—they’re in a middle space of maturity, and they easily cross the line into creepy. To my mind, being a bra means that childlike sweetness should be left out of the calculation. I looked at the rows of colorful prints disdainfully. My mother noticed my hesitation, and not wanting to leave the department store without a purchase, lest I never show interest in brassieres again, pointed to an ivory-colored one. It had shiny roses embossed in the satin. I sighed. It would do.
Or so I thought. It crapped out on me almost immediately, as in three days later. As there was no chestage to hold the fabric in place, it meandered all over my torso, getting bunched up if I was, say, eluding Jim Malone on the playground. And I’d thought my uniform was scratchy—this training bra felt 10,000 times worse, and I started to worry I’d somehow scrape my nipples off my body.
By Thursday, on day 4 of my undergarment experiment, Danny McGuinness, otherwise known as my personal milkshake requester, was aware of the change in my status, having been informed by Carolyn Westermann, a classmate I truly abhorred for her perfect hair (mine was a snarled mess), perfect teeth (I was on year 3 of braces), and perfect figure (I was an Amazon). McGuinness sat behind me in homeroom, but we took opposite classes for the rest of the day. Instead of lockers, which apparently weren’t de rigeur when the building was constructed in the Middle Ages, we had homeroom desks, and that’s where we kept our things. Coats went on hooks on the classroom wall, but items like lunch and books went in the desk, which had a pivoting surface. Lord knows how many students’ fingers were crushed in those desks, but for the nuns at St. Paul’s it was just another character building moment, and they never seemed to think 15-pound desk tops were any kind of danger to us.
“Look who’s wearing a bra now,” Danny cooed at me from the seat behind me.
“Shut up, Danny,” I said. I didn’t bother to look at him.
“What color is it,” he asked, still in a sing-song.
“The color of your mother’s bra, dumbass.” Like I said, I was no good at snappy comebacks. Of course this goaded him on. I could hear snickering.
Then McGuinness leaned in and attempted to snap my bra. Now then, for would-be bra snappers everywhere, one is supposed to target the horizontal beam of the garment, not the supporting side structures known as bra straps. But that’s where he went, and it hurt. Mrs. McGuinn was too preoccupied with finding her pen (it was usually in her hair bun, but it still never occurred to her to check there) to notice the shenanigans going on 30 feet from her.
And the poor bra story only gets funnier from here. (To be continued)