Authors: Jessi Klein
hen I was a little girl of about eight, I had this one very specific image of what it would look like to be a grown woman on my own. I am walking down Fifth Avenue in New York and I'm wearing a broad-brimmed hat, a full calf-length skirt and heels, white gloves, and big sunglasses. I'm carrying big fancy shopping bags in each hand. I am in control and living it up. Basically I am Julia Roberts in the second half of
About six years ago, when I was thirty-two and single and living in a somewhat shabby West Village apartment that Mike now calls “the lean-to,” I realized I was staring at the beginning of a weekend where I had forgotten to make a single plan with anyone.
, I thought to myself,
I'll just take care of all the apartment stuff I've been neglecting
. I took out a notepad to make a list, because that is what women do: We make lists. After twenty minutes of hard thinking, I had two errands: “buy pillows” and “get new plants.” Those were literally the
two things I had to do. Seeing these five horrifically lonely words in ink made me acutely aware of the possibility that if I were to die alone unexpectedly (a recurring fear), when the police went through my things they'd find this sad, pathetic list written by this pathetic, expired spinster. I pictured two of the older, more hardened cops kind of chuckling about it while a third cop, a younger rookie, would feel genuinely sad that this is how some ladies end up. Maybe he would even have to do the thing cops do on TV shows where they step outside to throw up.
I decided the only safe thing to do would be to circle the two things on my list, draw an arrow to the circle, and write “BIG PLANS” in as sarcastic a font as I could manage, so whoever found it would know that when I made this list, I was aware that it was unacceptably lame, and by signaling this awareness, the cops, or the neighbors who would smell my body, would know how cool and fun I actually had been. So I actually wrote the words “BIG PLANS,” at which point the note transformed from a banal weekend agenda to a full-on transcript of a crazy person's conversation with herself.
I ended up going out to buy plants that needed to be potted. Because I don't know how to do anything that isn't the Internet, I called my friend Becky, who is the most self-reliant person I know. She grows her own vegetables; she has chickens; she is everything. She agreed to come over to help, and I started to feel like now the weekend was really cookin': potting plants, girlfriend heading over. This was being a strong awesome independent woman. I threw on Carole King's
so that as soon as Becky walked in, the festive party nature of our hang would be clear.
Ninety minutes later Becky and I were busy potting at my kitchen table. Just as I was placing my new fern (or whatever sad plant it was) into a ceramic pot, I somehow knocked the whole thing off the table and it broke into five pieces, its landing in no way softened by the huge amount of soil that was now all over my floor. Carole was mournfully singing “So Far Away.” I looked at Becky and started to cry.
Sex and the City
, every now and then, they would include a short scene in which Carrie was alone in her apartment. She was always dressed a thousand times sexier than anyone would be dressed in their own home (or even how most people look going out, for that matter) and she was always perfectly content, either typing about the things that she couldn't help but wonder, or else happily reading and smoking by her window, a temperate breeze blowing first through a gauzy curtain and then through her fucking incredible hair. They never showed her just lying on her bed, staring into space while struggling to gather the will to think of something else to do. But as single people know, the real snapshots of living alone are often the most uncomfortable. The moments when you are shamefully eating a can of chocolate frosting for lunch (yup); the moments when you are scrolling through your phone, neurotically pressing
on all possible social apps to see if anyone has just now remembered they are in love with you; the moments when, if you were a part of a couple, your time would be filled with grocery shopping and brunch and bickering and sex; but since you are not, you sit frozen with anxiety on your couch as the clock seems to go in reverse.
There is a Zen saying that all men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone. But it's hard to be Zen when you feel like your time in this quiet room might never end. When I was severely uncoupledâno boyfriend, no prospects, genuinely and deeply singleâthe need to fill time in a way that felt sexy and purposeful always seemed like a difficult homework assignment. On top of this, I often worked from home, which meant every day had the potential to turn into one long Bravo marathon. I wanted to structure a day where a hypothetical random snapshot of me looked like Carrie Bradshaw in her kimono, totally relaxed, not Brittany Murphy in
, diddling an old chicken under her bed. The key to doing this in a life devoid of the anchors that a spouse and kids usually provide is to build your day around tent-pole activities, things that will make you feel tethered to the calendar of humanity even though you are a single lonely alone person with no responsibilities.
When I lived by myself, these were mine:
6 a.m.âWake up, be happy for two seconds, then remember every piercingly sad anxiety currently at play in my life. Get up to pee. Feel ever so slightly better for having peed. Try to go back to sleep.
9:15 a.m.âGo buy the
New York Times
from local head shop. Try to make friendly eye contact with the Arab guy at the register so he knows I'm not some typical American racist and that I like him and want to be friends. Always get rejected.
9:30 a.m.âTake the
to my local cafÃ© to read while eating my regular, balanced, healthy breakfast: scrambled egg whites with a mixed cup of blueberries and bananas on the side. Ordering the blueberries and bananas, instead of the normal fruit cup (which is chunks of hard melon and cantaloupe), is part of a fraught negotiation with the painfully adorable girls behind the counter, who always look confused. Explain that this has been done for me in the past. Get annoyed that this conversation has to be repeated every day but realize it takes up more time so it's not actually that bad. Once settled at my table with my paper and my food, take a moment to appreciate the peacefulness at this quaint old place.
10:30 a.m.â12:15 p.m.âReturn home. Sit down and try to write something. Look at everyone I've ever dated on Facebook and also join LinkedIn just to look at them on LinkedIn. Proceed to receive hundreds of LinkedIn requests a month for the rest of my life, never figure out how to get off LinkedIn.
12:30â1:30 p.m.âLunchtime. My lunch is spinach-and-cheese ravioli with two glasses of white wine. Boil the ravioli and also heat up a store-bought artisanal tomato sauce to feel like I am really a home cook, like Julia Child. Turn on the DVR'd episode of that morning's
to watch Hot Topics.
1:30 p.m.â4 p.m.âLose steam on writing. Eat two dainty squares of a Ritter dark chocolate bar that feels a little fancy, put the bar back in the fridge, sit down as if to stop eating it, get up again, and then gobble the whole thing.
time. I was devastated when
ended. For years, watching
was my closing tent pole of the day. No matter how badly I'd written, no matter what I'd failed to complete, as long as I tried to work until four, that was a day I'd shown up. And the reward was watching Oprah talk to sex addicts or sad moms or Jane Fonda for an hour, during which I'd have another glass or two of wine and know that I could now downshift into evening and figure out who I would call to go get a drunkish dinner.
Together, these activities gave my day a shape, a journey from waking to sleep. But that journey was always fraught with the idea that I should be having more fun somehow. One night me and my three single girlfriends decided we should go out. We spent probably about forty-five minutes total reassuring one another we were just a group of friends getting some drinks and food, and we were
having a Girls' Night Out, because Girls' Night Out is a clichÃ© and it's embarrassing. On our way to dinner we ran into a handsome male friend of mine whom we all had a secret crush on. We stopped to chat.
After exchanging hellos, he looked me up and down and said, “Nice girls' night out shirt.”
He was trying to be nice. And in fairness to him, I was wearing a gold sequin tank top. But his comment highlighted the problem when you are single: No matter what you are doing, there is always the danger of looking exactly like the kind of person you are trying not to look like.
The question, then, is whom do you aim to look like, in this tenuous world of being an unmarried, unboyfriended woman? How can you look, when you are alone in your house, like you are not trying too hard, or neurotically frozen, or called out by strangers for your glitter top, or crying to Carole King at home as you scrape a fern off your floorboards?
Ironically, maybe the answer is Carole King.
I have always been obsessed with the picture of her on the cover of
. It's one of those iconic 1970s lady photos, of Carole barefoot in bell-bottoms and a shmata blouse and frizzy Jew hair, seated in a window, in front of a patterned hippie curtain, with her cat at her feet. She seems content; not overjoyed, not sad, justâ¦fine. She's not self-conscious, and she's not letting us stare at her without meeting our gaze. She definitely doesn't give a shit what we think of her outfit, or the fact that she's by herself. She doesn't give a shit because she wrote “Natural Woman,” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and “You've Got a Friend,” and “It's Too Late,” and “I Feel the Earth Move,” and hundreds of other masterpieces. She's a badass. She can have as many fucking cats as she wants.
Â About a week after I wrote these words, I found out that one of the regulars of this cafÃ©, a man I sat next to many times a week for years, had murdered his wife with an ax in their home.
have never known what I'm supposed to do about underwear. I'm saying
because I don't like the word
. “Lingerie” seems to exist solely to make you feel bad about yourself if you're still just wearing “underwear.” (Poodles wear lingerie. Wolves wear underwear.) I understand lingerie even less than I understand underwear, but what I'm saying is I fundamentally don't understand either. Add to the equation the question of what men want me to do re: my underwear, and the fog gets even thicker. And lastly, if you want to know what
want men to want when it comes to my underwear, I have no idea anymore. I want to be sexy and comfortable and I want men to want to unwrap me like I'm a Christmas gift, but I also want to be left alone and take a nap.
The whole thing is a massive tangle for which I place a large degree of blame on the Victoria's Secret catalog, an insidious publication that has inevitably shown up at every address I've ever been attached to, no matter how much I don't want it and have expressly put it out into the universe that I would like to never see it again. Does anyone know how to make this thing go away? Do the Obamas get a Victoria's Secret catalog at the White House still addressed to “Jimmy Carter or Current Resident”? I've made every effort and still, once a month, I open my mailbox to find it curled up and waiting for me like a snake.
I always almost throw it out and then I take a quick look at the tawny scrawny lion-maned lady on the cover, her perfect boobs hovering perfectly in their Angelic
sling, and I think,
Well, maybe I should just check in
. And then I drop it in the magazine rack next to my toilet and the next time I am in the bathroom,
I start thumbing through and, page by decimating page, get the sinking feeling that I should be disqualified from being considered a female, if that hasn't happened already.
Victoria's Secret sets the standard for what underwear is supposed to look like. According to them, no woman should ever leave the house without wearing a matching bra and underwear set that is, at the very least, sexy enough for a fifteen-year-old boy to jerk off to. There is nothing in their catalog that sanctions what I do, which is to wear the same six pairs of basic Gap underwear in rotation for years until they start to resemble tattered old pirate flags.
Victoria's Secret's advertising is so ubiquitous, and their brand so vividly marketed, that if you live in the United States at least, it's abundantly clear what they think you should look like when you take off your clothes, even when there's no one else around and you're just home alone making a peanut butter sandwich. It's also clear they don't want you to be eating a peanut butter sandwich.
But before my idea of what underwear was supposed to be was informed by the thong-industrial complex, I was a little girl. My underwear came in three-packs, sealed in plastic bags that hung on hooks at CVS or Duane Reade. (I continued to buy underwear this way into my twenties.) I was severely flat-chested even after reaching the age when puberty normally begins, so when it came to bras, I knew nothing. Around the seventh grade, a group of boys began sidling up to the girls, draping their arms around their necks, and rubbing their fingers along our shoulders. They would make bullshit conversation while not-so-subtly feeling for a strap. In this ingenious manner, they discovered who was wearing a bra and who was not. I was not. If you are wondering if it was cooler to be on the wearing or not wearing a bra list, it was one million times cooler to be wearing a bra. Even though I absolutely didn't need one, I began to feel like unless I owned a bra, I was somehow only a girl on a technicality.
I didn't even fully understand what a bra was for; what inherent mechanical problem breasts posed for which bras offered a solution. Part of this was because I rarely saw my mother's bras. My mother is tall and very lithe, so her bra needs were not vast. She wasn't one of those ladies from a Tennessee Williams film adaptation who has her bras perched to dry on a shower rod like rare birds, or flung dramatically around a couch. A bra appearance was like the fleeting sight of a mouse in the house. She had maybe three of them and they were all plain white cotton.
At home alone after school one day, I dug through my mom's drawers until I found a bra. After creating a cat's cradle out of it for the better part of an hour, I finally wrangled myself into it correctly. I wanted to gaze at myself to see if I was now a sexual being. Unfortunately, we did not have a full-length mirror, so I went into our bathroom in just the bra and my purchased-in-a-bag underwear, climbed up on the side of the tub, held on to the shower curtain rod, and leaned toward the medicine cabinet mirror, trying to strike a sexy pose. I didn't look sexy. I looked like someone trying to escape from a storm drain.
But what I remember most vividly, despite the reality of how pathetic I looked, is that I suddenly
sexy. Even though the bra (which was very small) was too big, for the first time I had the sensation of feeling as if I had
to have breasts. Wanting to push my pinup look farther, I decided to try rolling up the sides of my underwear (there were significant sides) to create more of a “string bikini” effect. It didn't work. It didn't matter.
It was the first time I looked in the mirror and
something from what I was seeing.
I wanted to look like a Sexy Lady.
Either my mother noticed that I'd rummaged through her bras, or else maybe I was beginning to have some pre-adolescent floppage, because one weekend she announced that it was time to take me to get my very own bra. I was excited. I pictured visiting a dream-like feminine space where I would go on an intimate journey of bra discovery and feel sexual and womanly and wouldn't the boys in my seventh-grade class be surprised when they reached around my shoulder again and felt the telltale sign that I was now a sexually alluring sex woman.
I pictured bra shopping this way because I hadn't yet been introduced to the concept of bra ladies. I didn't know that getting a bra, especially your first bra, most often involves standing topless in front of a slightly cranky Jewish/Russian woman of a certain age who isn't happy to see you or your tiny tits, who then takes out an ancient tape measure that always has the same color and texture as the original Constitution and wraps it around your torso.
My mother took me to a store on 8th Street called Lee Baumann, which was less a feminine fantasy space than a warren of plastic bins and old cardboard boxes filled with utilitarian bras that you would most definitely not see on the cover of Victoria's Secret. I remember the woman who measured me had that hair color that only a certain kind of old lady has, a kind of unnatural pink-brown, and if she noticed my shyness about taking my shirt off in front of her she did not say or do anything to put me at ease.
The whole experience was horribly embarrassing, but I did leave with maybe two bras, both the color of Band-Aids, and I felt triumphant. I was now strapped in, ready forâ¦whatever happens when you wear a bra that resembles a medical-grade compression stocking.
I didn't have a boyfriend until I was nineteen. He was almost as virginal as I was, which meant sexy underwear wasn't required for him to get excited. Still, my primitive understanding of how humans have sex meant that he was supposed to want to see me in lingerie. At each holiday and birthday, I expected him to gift me with some kind of naughtily wrapped box, but it never happened. He did buy me an electric foot massaging plate from one of those open storefronts on Canal Street, and I also recall a top from H&M that had the price tag hanging off it.
In our second or third year together, I recall insisting that he buy me lingerie. Because there is nothing sexier than receiving sexy underthings that you have DEMANDED of another person. The result of this request was a white satiny slip thing that he presented with the dutiful obedience of a cat leaving a dead mouse at your bedroom door. It was the most virginal version of sexy underwear imaginable. It was loose and was at least a size too big. At best, it could be described as sweetly unflattering.
Still, in my mind, it checked off an important relationship box: My boyfriend had bought me lingerie. I remember putting it on for the first time and waiting for him to get some kind of super-intense steroidal erection in response to the exotically attired temptress before him. I don't remember exactly what happened, but I know it wasn't that. If anything, when I think back to that relationship now, I mainly remember us watching Mets games and eating spinachy Indian food.
When we broke up after six years, I found myself single for the first time as an adult. I felt ill prepared. At some point in that relationship, I had upgraded from regular Hanes-in-a-bag underwear to their “bikini” line, which still came in a bag but had a higher-cut leg on the sides. It was more breathable than sultry. I figured if I was going to be Hot to Trot
in the Big City
it was time to step up my underwear game. I didn't actually think in those exact words; it was more like I just felt lonely and sad and isolated and was flailing for a way to feel attractive again. But Hot to Trot in the Big City sounds better.
So I made my way to Victoria's Secret on my own. Even though I was now in my mid-twenties, I still harbored a bit of my lingerie-shopping fantasy from when I was a kid, that I would walk into Victoria's Secret and transform into a tawny scrawny lioness like those ladies on the catalog with the wings and the smiles and the brond hair.
That is not what happens at Victoria's Secret.
Victoria's real secret, or at least it was a secret to me, is that their stores are shitshows.
The first thing that strikes you when you walk into a Victoria's Secret is the color of the walls, which are an aggressive, relentless pink. I suppose the purpose of this is to reinforce an atmosphere of undeniable femininity, but instead I always feel like I'm walking into someone else's vagina. And not just any old vagina, but one that employs an army of women in inexplicably mannish black suits. Unlike the bra fitters at Lee Baumann, who exude the toughness of a people who've escaped the Cossacks, these ladies, in their corporate attire, look and act more like bank tellers in a land where the economy is tits and the currency is demarked in the cup sizes A, B, C, and D. Their main task is rifling through little drawers under the display cases for your size. The little drawers seem to be unlocked, and you could rifle through them yourself, but it seems to be understood that you mustn't do this. I don't know what would happen if you did. But you mustn't.
The second thing you notice is that the tawny scrawny lionesses from their ads do not seem to shop there. Instead, I am there, along with an average assortment of deer and mice and hipposânone of us tawny, most of us pasty.
And more often than not, their bras and underwear, which seem in their campaigns to have been beamed down from a planet that's thinner and more precious than ours, are carelessly stuffed into sale baskets. We
patrons, yearning to be Sexy
, crowd around and elbow each other for $5 thongs sadly tangled into rat-king-level knots.
Often these buckets contain deals that are shockingly, almost disturbingly, generous, i.e., fifteen pairs of string bikinis for $4; the kinds of prices that serve to remind you that the “panty” you're hoping will make you Alluring
was probably assembled by an underpaid, potentially underage, laborer
in the third
Still, like the rest of the hopeful
shoppers, I would leave Victoria's Secret with an embarrassingly pink bag, filled with optimism that what I'd purchased there would turn me into a
. I remember one of the first things I bought there was a pair of red bikini underwear that had the store's name on the waistband. I had never owned a pair of red underwear before, and putting them in my drawer that night I felt like a slutty little nymph (in the best way). I wore them to work the next day, and it wasn't long before I was attracting male attention. It should be noted that the male attention I received was only from a friendly married co-worker who beckoned me into his office and then, embarrassed, whispered into my ear that my underwear had bunched way up over the top of my pants in the back and I might want to tug them down.
Was any of this agita worth the bother?
Over the years, I would ask boyfriends if they cared about lingerie, and the answer was always no. Their standard explanation was that for men, nothing is as exciting as getting all of a woman's clothes off, and fancy underthings are simply a speed bump in the way of that goal. But I never believed them. How can there be a gadillion-dollar industry around tricked-out lady underwear if there aren't gadillions of men demanding it? It doesn't seem possible.
What began to bother me the most was the idea that they were lying, that they all loved lingerieâand they simply didn't want to see ME in lingerie. This irritating little burr of an idea grew into a full-fledged paranoia. I worried that me trying to wear expensive underwear had the same visual effect as William Wegman's photographs of his Weimaraner dressed as a chefâcomic, jarring, slightly repulsive.
This fear continued to gnaw at me until the spring of 2007, when for the first time in my life I had an affair. Not an affair like a married affair, but an affair like the kind of affair where you meet someone from another country who's in town for just a few weeks, and in that short amount of time you decide you are maybe in love with them, and after days of long walks and showing them where you went to elementary school, you kiss on a New York City sidewalk at two in the morning. The whole thing was short and intense, unlike most of my relationships in the years leading up to it, which had tended to be long and dull.