Modesty doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Which isn’t to say I don’t value it.
Ten years ago my at-the-time boyfriend and I got together with one of my sister’s friends. We were all home on a college break and she invited us over to her parents’ place on the pretense of wanting to get to know my ‘current crush’. She, my sister’s friend, greeted us at the door wearing a sheer A-shirt and jeans. No bra, just her purple nipples rubbing against her ribbed top. Her nipples were intermittently and asymmetrically erect throughout our hour-long visit. I remember casting my eyes around her parents’ house, looking for a sweater to throw at her. Afterwards in the car my boyfriend complained, “Give a good guy a break.”
But my other points of reference for modesty are more muddled than that. Around the house, throughout my childhood, my mother also favored A-shirts with no bra. Having breast-fed three babies, her nipples were the color of dark cherries and permanently erect. And because she was a dancer—often dancing herself breathless in the living room, the furniture pushed against the wall, practicing grande jetés in nothing but a leotard, sometimes the thong leotard with the sunburst logo my father had given her as an anniversary gift, Dave Matthews blaring on the surround sound—her breasts were small pert globes on a small taut frame. She often cited the smallness and tautness of her frame as the reason I couldn’t wear whatever I was wearing around the house—pajamas usually, baggy sweatpants and an oversized T-shirt with nothing underneath. “Your father!” she would whisper catching me in the kitchen or on the couch. I inevitably cried protest pointing at her get-up. To which she would respond with anger-bitten syllables: “Cat-lin, I am your moth-er, and his wife, and I am small-er than you.”
Once she came upon me and my dad talking in the living room. It was late evening. He had changed out of his work clothes and into sweatpants and a T-shirt. I was wearing sweatpants too, and instead of an oversized T-shirt I had on a men’s plaid dress shirt. I would have picked the dress shirt up at a thrift store. I was responsible for buying my own clothes. My dad’s clothes were off-limits. It was the late 90’s, the apex of grunge. My dad leaned back on the couch at an angle, one knee raised, his arm draped over it. I was bunched up in an armchair, facing him. We were talking philosophy—the seeming incompatibility of human freedom and divine determination, and the need for an ontological distinction to reconcile the difference. My dad and I were in agreement that the most illuminating metaphor likened God to the author of a complete and perfect book, while we mortals were the incomplete and imperfect characters of that book. It felt good to agree with him. I was enjoying myself. My mom entered the room. My dad trailed off. He got up to leave and was barely through to the adjacent kitchen when she turned to me and, full volume for once, bit out the words, “You unbuttoned your shirt in front of your father didn’t you?” I searched her face before tugging my shirt flat in front of me. The buttons were all done up save the two topmost buttons which I never buttoned and the third button down which had sprung open of its own accord revealing, I gathered, some measure of soft, freckled skin. I looked back at her. She was quivering.
This would have been during high school, early high school if my dad was still talking philosophy with me. By late high school my life had been mostly exported away from the house. I was dating a boy who went to college five hours north on the I-5. (Not the ‘good guy’ boyfriend who craved a break. He came next.) When my college boyfriend was home on breaks, I hung out with him. The rest of the time I hung out with boys from my high school. We met at coffee shops or house parties or the reservoir in the west hills where the star-watching was good.
The boys from my high school were handsome and sweet. What’s more they were readers, toting Whitman to the reservoir so we could check our recitations of “I Sing the Body Electric.” I could have gone to the senior prom with any of them. But I wanted to go with my boyfriend.
My boyfriend was a junior in college that year and didn’t particularly want to go to my senior prom. Well: if he didn’t want to go to high school events then maybe he shouldn’t be dating a high schooler; I had gone to his senior prom with him when I was just a freshman and I hadn’t felt particularly comfortable tagging along with him and his giant friends; if I could swing that discomfort then he could swing this; and anyways I had already asked the Vice Principal to make an exception to the ‘no guests over twenty’ rule. The vice principal had said he’d be happy to on account of my all around excellent academic performance. (In retrospect it occurs to me that my boyfriend’s mother’s fierce political and financial support of the public school district might also have had something to do with it.) . . . Fine. My boyfriend agreed to drive down.
I had been someone’s date to the senior prom every year of high school: the first year with my boyfriend, the second two years with other boys. My boyfriend and I held each other loose like that. For the first three proms, I had borrowed someone’s big sister’s floor-length gown. This year I asked my mom if I could borrow her brushed-silk mini dress, the pale sea-green one dad had bought her on a recent date at the mall. She said yes, so long as I didn’t stretch it out. “I won’t stretch it out,” I promised.
My mom was in fact small-er than me, but barely. I was an inch and a half taller, and maybe five pounds heavier. What seemed to matter to her was that I was softer, squishier. Her edges were sharper. And she was more toned. For all that, we wore the same dress size: size zero.
My mom’s size-zero pale-sea-green brushed-silk mini dress had boning through the ribs and waist. Above the boning, a shallow shelf-bra held my soft, squishy breasts high and tight. The shelf-bra was supported by adjustable brushed-silk spaghetti straps with dainty silver buckles. Below the buckles, bra, and boning, a paneled skirt gripped my soft, squishy abdomen, hips, and ass. The dress ended abruptly two inches below my butt cheeks and the abstract region my mom referred to as my “sex.”
It was a beautiful dress. I spent a month of Saturdays building an outfit around it: Cream leather cowboy boots, a cream faux-fur shrug for in and out of the car, a beaded cream clutch, and huge rhinestone clip-ons. All from the thrift store save the clutch which my mom had given me as a birthday gift.
“Do you want me to curl your hair again, honey?” My mom had curled my long, thin brown hair for all my proms to date, partitioning sections with her strong pinky fingers before winding them up in the iron, counting to ten, and letting them go bouncing. She and I were set up in front of the mirror in me and my sisters’ bathroom. I sat on a stool. She stood behind me, inclining her head to watch the iron as she worked. She wore her own thin brown hair in a short pixie. It had been long like mine. She cut it right around when thin brown hairs started to form around my privates and in my underarms. I waited until she was immersed in her task—partitioning, winding, counting, and dropping the curls like one of her barre routines—before fretting aloud to her inclined reflection about what kind of underwear I should wear under the dress.
As far as my mom knew I owned only saggy jersey briefs. In fact I owned two other pairs of panties she had no idea about: one, a white lace thong with little bows sewn all over it which I had worn to great effect for my boyfriend during his last college break. The other pair was part of a matching set, lowrider bikini bottoms with stitched ruffled hems that went with a matching cap sleeve crop top—both made of sheer stretchy cotton and candy-pink. I intended to wear the candy-pink set that night following the prom as one half of a ‘thank you’ to my boyfriend for being such a good sport. The other half of my ‘thank you’ was that I had booked a hotel room for us at the Best Western down by the river.
The prom tickets had been twenty-five dollars each, the hotel room eighty-five with tax. Together with the candy-pink set, my babysitting savings were toast. So this was the problem: the saggy jersey briefs my mom knew about would make for terrible panty lines under the brushed silk of the dress. And the two pairs of panties my mom didn’t know about would be even worse with their lace and bows, stitched hems and ruffles. There wasn’t enough time for me to run out to Ross for a pair of seamless somethings. And even if there had been time, I didn’t have any cash.
Panty lines were a big deal to my mom, even at home with just the family around. I don’t know that I ever saw the rounded planes of her tight bottom interrupted by fabric underneath. She looked up from the iron to meet my eyes in the mirror. “Oh honey, I just assumed you’d borrow one of my thongs. I have a high-cut seamless pair that will match your skin.”
Ten minutes later I stood curly-haired in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom wearing my complete ensemble and pinching the clutch. I turned just shy of 180′ and bent over slightly, goosing my neck to see in the mirror. “See what I’m worried about, Mom?” She answered dismissively, “Honey, nobody’s going to be looking at you from that angle.” I goosed even farther. She threw up her hands, “Catlin, I don’t know what to tell you. I think you look nice. A bombshell as usual. Very sexy. Very Marilyn Monroe.” This was her way of reminding me that I was still big-ger than her. It was also her way of announcing that she was done helping me get ready.
But I didn’t want to be done yet. It had been nice in the bathroom. With her curling my hair and offering to lend me her underwear. I stood up straight and turned around to face the full-length mirror again. Meeting her eyes in the mirror I said, “I won’t stretch it out.” My mom leaned forward to tug the hem of the dress down. “Well, if you do, whatever.” I crossed my toes in my boots. “You want to see something, Mom? Something I bought. For Jim. For after. At the party—” I hadn’t told my parents about the Best Western. Instead I had told them that there would be a party after the prom and that I would be spending the night at a girlfriend’s parents’ house. “—It’s just a top. To wear with jeans. I’ll wear a bra under it. There’s also a pair of panties. They came free with the top. They’re super cute. Not that anyone will see them—” a lie—”But you’ll like them.” My mom brightened. “Show me! Where did you get them? How much were they?” “Be right back,” I said and trotted down the hall to my bedroom. I kept a shoebox in the back upper shelf of my closet for certain photos, certain letters, the white lace thong, and the candy-pink set, still in its Victoria Secret bag with its tags and receipt. I trotted back to my parents’ bedroom, pulled the top out of the bag, and pinned it to my front. “Oh, it’s adorable, Catlin. And with jeans. Jim will love it. Did you go to the Victoria Secret at the mall? Were there many left do you remember?” We were having fun.
I would have liked to stay there, trying on clothes for her, being affirmed in my choices. But it was getting late. My boyfriend didn’t like coming to my parents’ house—no doubt because my dad, who didn’t have much to say to me, always had something to say to him: “Catlin, could you give us some privacy please?” I was meeting my boyfriend at a restaurant for dinner before the prom. “I should go, Mom.” She had pulled the panties out of the bag too, held them up and coo-ed. Now she folded them carefully and slipped them back in the bag, took the top from me and folded it too. “Here you go, sweetheart.” She took a step back from me, looked me up and down. “Do you want to show your father before you go?” I met her eyes. “Nah, that’s okay.” She blinked and smiled.
Seated at dinner I could feel the metal patio chair press a woven-basket pattern on the exposed lower half of my ass. Later at the prom—deep into the fast tracks—my boyfriend thought to lift me onto a bank of speakers so I could dance above the crowd. I was a good dancer. I still am. Bold and expressive, with strong lines, like my mom. “How was I supposed to know you were wearing a thong?” Jim pleaded later. But whatever. If reports of my exposed ass went around I never heard them.