One brilliantly cold afternoon in March of 1962, three months past my fifteenth birthday, I set out on a course of action that would shake my world from its wobbly orbit and spin it off on an unanticipated new trajectory. I managed to escape the hawk-eyed scrutiny of the three saleswomen in whose care I had been left, and slipped behind the brocaded curtain of a fitting room in the back of my grandparents’ ladies’ clothing store.
The small room was warm and close, the air thick with the cloyingly sweet smell of stale perfume and hairspray. Although only a curtain separated me from the rest of the world, I felt sealed away and safe. Of course, I wouldn’t be safe for long because they would soon realize I was missing and come look for me. The saleswomen didn’t like me in those fitting rooms. The saleswomen didn’t like anything I did. Lily Williams said it wasn’t normal for me to go into a fitting room where women got undressed, although one would think it was the most normal thing in the world for a teenage boy to be curious about a place where women were naked. But I guess maybe not those women, who were mostly overweight and middle-aged, with huge pale breasts like kneaded dough, sometimes with nipples stretched as big around as a saucer.
Those were the kind of women who came from all over the five boroughs of New York City to this Mecca of corsetry, to be fitted from the comprehensive stock of sturdy brassieres, girdles, and long-line undergarments, elaborately constructed of elastic and satin, given shape by metal stays covered by pink plush to prevent chafing. Crucial alterations were attended to while-you-wait with the unparalleled expertise of Katherine, my grandfather’s chatelaine and sergeant at arms, or by my grandmother, at a black 1955 Singer sewing machine.