Near the end of my acting gig, my Frederick’s of Hollywood maribou slippers faltered. They could practically touch the finish line, one mere show’s worth of clomping away.
When I picked up the right slipper, the strap yawned at me. Spent. The top of the shoe was separating from the heel, hanging from glue strand gums. “Broken shoe?” My castmate asked. “Guess you’ll be tossing those after tonight.”
“They’ll make it,” I vowed, and gently slid my foot onto the sole. The fishnets hugged the satin shoes, turned a barefoot horse-clop into a coy pitter-pat.
* * *
The slippers had been packed up and moved nine times. Two dorms, three apartments, four houses, nearly four thousand miles. I bought them in 2004 with my first Frederick’s paycheck. I was working a few hours during the week to stay busy during college and the 80-ish dollars went right back into the register.
I can’t remember what else I bought with my employee discount. It’s all long gone: lace underwear unraveled on its hundredth wash, a babydoll nightgown that I decided I was too fat and ridiculous to wear. Through my twenties I grew up and away from who I used to be, writing her off as a footnote, a failed bastion of identity. I threw away her Hello Kitty alarm clock, her Betty Page pin-up prints, her DVD copy of Secretary. That girl who hustled lingerie was non-canonical.
Remarkably, this one segment of her remained. It remained over and over, a small shoebox that was too easy to pack to bother throwing out. The shoes hibernated here, in their original tissue paper for 11 years, not worn since the first time I slept with my now-husband. Like a time capsule, they enshrined a part of myself I thought I’d been able to kill. A part I never thought I’d need again.
* * *
Years ago, Lumina—manufacturer of light switches and dimmers—scooped up a smaller, quirkier company: a fixture company based in California that provided stage lights and controls to Hollywood film sets and Broadway stages. Through the years, as Lumina slowly digested their acquisition like a Sarlacc pit monster, the entertainment industry became less of a focus—it was a niche market, a much harder profit than light switches. The product line shrank, its prominence on the company PowerPoint whittled down to a single slide.
During most days that I spent as Lumina Marketing Coordinator, it was easy to forget that there had ever been a theater division at all. My job could be described as “dry,” researching lighting trends and laying out brochures about occupancy sensing. It worked for me, though. It required a minimum amount of creative energy or heart. I could go, I could come home, I could keep moonlighting as a writer.
Then on some idle workday, Gary the Accounting Manager set a meeting with me. Posters, the Outlook appointment described. This wasn’t uncommon for me; someone is always trying to pull together a potluck or a blood drive or rule list for the company refrigerator.
“Have you ever heard of the Intel Choir?” Gary asked. Gary was one of the many men at my company I’d never seen in anything but a polo shirt and khakis. Our desks were separated by twenty feet, but we’d never had a conversation beyond “good morning” in the hallway. That’s what happens when you work in disparate departments. I had a cubicle neighbor die and it was two weeks before I learned what became of him.
So I also didn’t know that Gary was one of the entertainment ghosts, a former director. The Intel Choir, he explained, was a team of Intel employees that performed at company get-togethers and held a holiday concert at the end of the year. “I was thinking that instead of singing, we could put on a play.”
I knee-jerk cackled. “Corporate’s not going to let us do that, are they?” It was a revolution last year when they opened the dress code up to “clean and professional denim jeans.”
They already had agreed, and granted him the training space to build a stage, and a project budget. He had three hours of my time to use on promotional materials. “Would you be able to make us a tryout flyer? And I hope that you’ll try out!”
I stared back down at my empty notepad. It was my first audition invite in twelve years.
* * *
I didn’t start working at Frederick’s for the money. I was living on-campus at Concordia University on a theater scholarship, driving a hand-me-down 1993 Ford Aerostar minivan. My bills were minimal, charged on a Sallie Mae IOU to my future self. If I was after a paycheck I could have delivered brunch or mixed cocktails and basked in tips. But I didn’t want to be rich. I wanted to be sexy.
Specifically, I wanted to be Frederick’s sexy. The cartoon bombshell airbrushed onto their posters and catalogs, tomes that get racier the further you flip. My spirit animal was Jessica Rabbit. I dreamed of walking down the street and making some guy choke on his coffee. There goes one sweet slice of cheesecake.
Because when you are nineteen and have never been one sweet slice of cheesecake, have never had a boyfriend, weren’t invited to prom and want to move past this geeky adolescence so hard it makes your marrow ache, being wanted is all you can think about. Invent all the time machines you want, load them up with copies of Tiny Beautiful Things and Bad Feminist. Go ahead, tell that permanently single girl that being desired doesn’t mean being appreciated. Shake her. Promise her. But you, oh happy future one, you are old. Moot and worthless. There is no cutting through the din of your adolescence’s fresh, foolish lust.
Every shift, when I stepped onto Frederick’s threadbare cheetah-print carpet, all of the bullshit that was my real, everyday life sealed up in my heart. My voice climbed an octave and I smiled at everyone, from the middle aged man who thought he was the first one clever enough to ask me “do you have this in my size?” to the stripper apologizing over and over for paying with a hundred singles. “What can I help you find?” I gently probed. If they were cagey I held back, otherwise I was their best friend. “What’s the occasion? How long have you known each other? Have you ever tried a corset?”
Once they were in the dressing room, they were mine. “Take a deep breath,” I told them. “And close your eyes. I want you to be surprised!” As the breathless woman stood, twitching her palms or clutching her breasts, I yanked the back laces as tightly as they’d go. Eep! Oof!
“Okay, open up!”
They stared back at the woman in the mirror, a new woman transformed by string and bone. They would gasp, pivot, run a hand along their new torso. They had no idea. They could not believe. I know, I’d say. Just wait until you get into the matching thigh-high stockings. And the maribou slippers. You simply can’t wear this without matching maribou slippers.
* * *
“So, as you can see, the bedroom doesn’t have a door,” explained Director Gary. The set for Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy had been erected over the weekend in our company’s cavernous training room, the same space used for 401K Benefit PowerPoints and the end-of-year president’s. The north side was transformed from a slide screen into a 60’s British flat, complete with vinyl shelf and bar cart. On the left side of the stage, up a small cobbled staircase, was the bedroom.
I was following in the mighty footsteps of Dame Maggie Smith and Her Royal Captain Highness Kate Mulgrew to play Clea, the central character Brindsley’s ex-girlfriend who waltzes back into his life midway through the show (at the worst possible time for our miserable anti-hero). She’s a creative, a bohemian flake, a painter whose dubious talent hangs about the flat. Clea returns from Finland after a change of heart to seduce her former love who has—in the six weeks since their breakup—become engaged to an idiot debutante. Clea is sultry. Clea is playful. Clea is insane.
According to the script, Clea is supposed to disappear into the bedroom’s bathroom, reappearing in nothing but Brindsley’s button-up shirt and her underoos. The narrow platform that comprised our version’s bedroom vaguely had room for the requisite bed, let alone a concealed changing area. Clea’s got to strip, it’s right there in her lines. “Well then I’ll get undressed and quietly go to bed and when you’ve gotten rid of them all…I’ll be waiting,” she vows.
“I have an idea,” I said. “But it’s kinda racy.”
“WHAT!” The entire cast wanted to know.
“Well… Clea is trying to seduce Brindsley back, right? What if she comes in wearing a dress and underneath she has on, like, this whole sexy get-up. A bustier, stockings, so you know. It’s an entire other outfit.”
“I love it!” said Gary. “Very Benny Hill.”
It wasn’t until after rehearsal, corralled back into my cubicle with the company Values Statement glaring at me from the hallway that I realized I’d slipped into what Clea would do. She was a knockout, but I was still me.
* * *
“I need to talk to you about the script,” I told my director in 2005. It was the last show I was in before my ten-year stage hiatus, the Concordia University Revival Edition of Nunsense! “That scene where the picture flashes up on the projector?” It’s supposed to be a photo of my character, frumpy old Mother Superior, lounging in her swimsuit. It’s a shitty fat joke shoved into the last act.
The director stared at me without a whiff of comprehension. I’d spent the last few days working up the nerve to broach the subject. Ever since she demanded in front of the cast that I “bring my bathing suit next time! Photo shoot!” My throat felt like sand, my tongue fighting against pitch.
“I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do that picture,” tumbled my point.
“Can you tell me why?” It was the same tone I got when I cried cramps to get out of middle school volleyball day.
“I don’t want people laughing at my body,” I said, knowing that the only thing worse than openly admitting this was hearing the audience roar.
“They’re not laughing at your body,” she argued. “They’re laughing at Mother Superior.”
I looked down. Nope, still no magic hole for me to crawl in and die. “But I am Mother Superior, and that is my body. It’s not just a joke about her. It’s a joke about me.” Me at the smallest I’ve ever been, scooping up fringed bras and lacy slips at Frederick’s, still too curvy and broad, still too much for a swimsuit. Still good for a laugh.
“Fine. We’ll put you in a funny sombrero hat or something,” she said. “Or is that somehow offensive too?”
I kept replaying that conversation. I replayed it while I ordered my sturdy halter top costume corset. I replayed it while I memorized Clea’s lines of seduction. I replayed it when my mother caught wind of the show: “no one will ever take you seriously if you go up there dressed like that!”
She wanted to know, why are you doing this? I couldn’t articulate it on the spot. I hadn’t realized yet that this was the other end of a fight I started a decade ago, when I quaked but stood. I would not grow up into a woman who said, “We need to tone this down, my body’s not good enough.” This was beyond a script. I had to prove to myself that I could. I didn’t want to say to anyone, anywhere else again, that I was ashamed.
* * *
The first time I vamped up on my lunch hour was bizarre. I locked my PC, grabbed my Whole Foods bag of tricks, and speed-walked down the hallway like I’d just set my cubicle on fire. The bathroom smelled like shit sprayed with vanilla aerosol, a scent that will forever linger in my mind with double-sided tape and corset laces. I took off every last Ann Taylor Loft scrap to Level Absolutely Naked, my underwear traded out for a pair of black tankini bottoms. Seeing yourself full-frontal during a workday is unnerving, the antithesis of the neutered world I live in forty hours a week. Office Tabitha doesn’t swear or have an opinion. I keep my personality the consistency of mayonnaise, because that’s what ten years in a corporate setting teaches you. The less you are, the lower you’ll fly under the radar.
Over my bare butt I stretched two layers of legwear, matte nylons covered in fishnet thigh-highs, which were supposed to snap into the garters dangling from the black bustier. I felt all the karma I’d amassed at Frederick’s tsunami in on me as I yanked at the laces and fumbled with the weak garter buttons. “Don’t worry,” I promised every girl, “putting it on yourself is sooo easy!” After my boobs were taped below the neckline and the corset cinched just enough to keep breathing—the last scene involves a gymnastics act of running, fighting and furniture leaps that gave me a new dimension of respect for Kiera Knightley—I caked on ten metric tons of MAC powder, Barbie pink blush and winged black eyeliner. I stood back, trying to evaluate in the fluorescent lighting and medical-grade tile.
I looked like Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
Which is not to say I looked bad. Just bizarre. Like that time I saw my dad without a beard and it gave me nightmares. This wasn’t the me that I was; it wasn’t the me I thought I’d ever be.
The longer I stared, the harder I had to pick for a flaw, the truth settled. Truth stranger than becoming a dominatrix Clark Kent or patching Scotch tape around my nipples. The truth that I looked fucking good.
I yanked my entrance dress over Clea and rocketed down to the training room, passing the executive offices with my eyes averted, and feeling as illicit as if I’d just stuffed a pound of coke up my ass.
I was up on the bed, waiting for a cue. This happened often; the product manager playing Clea’s ex-boyfriend Brinsley was a line sieve. With days before our opening performance I was learning to ad lib dialogue and patch the plot craters he was creating while staring back at me like an empty urn. So WHY can’t we go downstairs, Brinsley?
In the week of dress rehearsals, slinking down to the training room was getting easier. After lunging center stage my first day, yanking off the band-aid of stepping into the spotlight in my underwear, barely an eyelash fluttered. “Looks great!” the stage manager thumbed up.
“Perfect costuming!” praised Gary.
Each day I came down, my confidence crept forward. I could feel my spine brace up, my shoulders lift back, a strut in the maribou slippers usurping the cower. The question “how fat am I looking?” drifted away, replaced by “are these legs too hot for the matinee?” The pointed lines of seduction I flushed and laughed through before blossomed into a natural curve in conversation.
“Can’t you just go away?” Brinsley asked again with that blank, panicked stare, the third time he’d repeated a line that didn’t exist.
“I suppose I can stay up here, darling,” I made up. “You don’t want me down there?”
“No, Clea, if you ever loved me at all, just stay here and keep quiet,” he jumped back on-script.
I slid back on the bed, propped up on my elbows as Brinsley stood at the foot, telepathically begging me to cut in. “Oh very well. You can explain all of this later…in bed!” I heaved my chest forward and shot one sly maribou slippered gam an inch from Brinsley’s heart. My dead-eyed “please email me your updated spreadsheet” face vanished. He looked absolutely dumbstruck.
* * *
My career at Frederick’s ended around the same time as my last play in 2005. I’d just met the guy I’d end up marrying and got an internship that ended up becoming my career. I was 20 and grown up, a Serious Adult who was way too legit to be peddling underwear anymore. I left my quest to be cheesecake with a self-evaluated C+. I may have been the Queen of Lacing, but I didn’t feel sensual. The tribe of girls leaving the store with red bags and saucy plans seemed foreign, one I stalked and studied and mimicked, but couldn’t truly belong to. I thought it was a state I’d never reach, so why keep trying?
A week or so after Black Comedy’s last curtain call, after my bed was dismantled and the PowerPoint presentations returned to the training room, show photos appeared. A few were snapped by the company Party Planning Committee for corporate newsletter posterity, others by photographer friends itching to try out new lowlight lenses. Each time I saw myself as Clea, I was captivated. That woman sweating under heat lamps and double nylons and tape, her shoes barely clinging to her toes, she stood tall. She smiled with every atom. I was laughing, head back full-tilt, my heart open to the sky.
There is sexy, and there is radiance.
There is content, and there is fulfilled.
There is glitz and there is blinding light.
Last week, a friend of mine met me over a bottle of rosé, and the conversation pivoted from summer to fashion to the play. “You stole the show,” she said. “I couldn’t even watch what was actually happening on stage while you were up in that bedroom! I was hypnotized by your little Betty Page act. You were, like, so into it.”
“I didn’t even know anyone could see me!” I said, laughing. “I couldn’t tell if there was a light on me or what. I was just having fun.”
“I don’t know how you did it,” she said. “I don’t know where your confidence comes from.”
I sat back in my chair, staring at the puddle of pink in the base of my wine glass. For most of my life, confidence wasn’t a word attributed to me. It was on the list of what I needed to work on from therapists, teachers, my mother. “You need to build your self-esteem.” I didn’t wake up fearless or bold. It was an avalanche of days, of impatience, of a decade between buying shoes for the woman I wanted to be and wearing them to death. Unlike the perfect costume, confidence wasn’t something I had. It was something I wrestled from the tightest clutches of my demons.