Being detained by Security was only one small part of a day that was not going well.
The guard (strong build, square jaw, sharp gaze, raised voice, military air of authority) kept me for 20 minutes of rapid-fire inquiry before letting me go. And, no wonder: security personnel are trained to pick up on erratic and evasive behavior, even in a crowd.
The whole fracas came from Dean’s photo shoot idea. Dean (not his real name) was a new graduate teaching assistant in the doctoral program of a neighboring department. He had good prospects, affluent background, showy good looks, and a sunny disposition. All day every day, at the hourly rush from lecture to lecture, he and his friends jostled past me and my friends in the halls, calling hellos and good-natured jokes. Dean’s teasing was erudite, witty, cheerful, and deeply observant of me and my appearance. Now according to the culture where I grew up, any demonstration of attention whatsoever from a man toward a woman must be appreciated as flattery and answered with a smile. So I smiled through Dean’s hazing during department receptions and parties, and when Dean and his buddies invited me and my roommates out for pizza. One night he gave us a ride home in his car. Next, he decided that I ought to be in pictures.
Dean’s creative Muse stipulated a photo session alone at his apartment, without his friends or mine, and a glass or two of wine to enhance the mood. He offered to pick me up at my house, and to drive me right back to my door. And, he instructed me to first go out and buy a flattering feminine blouse, and apply some makeup. “Let’s find out who you are when you’re not running away with your girlfriends or hiding under those turtlenecks and head scarves and glasses and hair.”
Any English ballad would say that all you fair maids should beware of guys who hold out a promise of greater glory, cut us out of the herd, take us off our familiar turf, lay down rules, and pay lots of attention that we didn’t think to ask for. The ballad would add that with facial recognition technology, you don’t know where that picture will go or why. What’s the rush?
But my roommates were thrilled. My parents were thankful that I was meeting nice college men. My graduate advisor, who hailed from Dean’s same Alma Mater, pointed out my admirer’s advantageous connections. At our university, people were expected to network all the time, positioning ourselves with strategic key figures in government, law, the economy, international relations, and the media. My social circle recognized right away that an hour with Dean was a good piece of luck for me.
I listened to everybody’s pep talk about taking on some glamor and coming out of my shell. Still, I wondered: When shelled animals unshell themselves, doesn’t that generally indicate a state of death? And “glamor” was originally an accusation that a woman was casting fairy stardust into men’s eyes, inciting them to lose their sense of reason. To call a woman glamorous, charming, fascinating, enchanting, intriguing, beguiling, alluring, tempting, bewitching — those used to be fighting words, shouted by villagers gathering with torches or stones in hand. Why a new picture of me, when other pictures of me looked bewildered and constrained? Why not meet on campus, for a scenic backdrop? Why bring in alcohol? Why not invite the girlfriends, who were all beautiful, dressed the part, and were eager to be seen. For that matter, why not photograph them?
My roommates objected to all this existential hand-wringing. Would you rather sit alone at home for the rest of your life? Go out for an hour to a man’s apartment! Drink a glass of wine! He’s FACULTY, for pete’s sake; what can go wrong? Dean himself cut off my questions, spelling it out in basic English: Show up for the portrait this Saturday night, or he and his social set would never speak to me again.
Wait, Saturday night? That meant no sacrament of confession, no evening Mass, no weekend stroll to the Cathedral to sit in the winter garden at sunset and watch the red-tailed hawks sail in figure eights around the bell tower. It meant missing weekend dinner with the roommates and our piling up on the couch with quilts in our jammies and robes, with pasta and ice cream sundaes for girltalk and TV.
Instead, on Saturday I had to set out on Dean’s homework assignment to go buy a new blouse with some style to it. That ruled out my cherished one-stop wardrobe solution, Zed’s Army Navy. Zed’s industrial loft had nice dim lights and a ripply wood floor and laconic retired veterans on staff who took a shine to me, and would point me toward surplus bargains that they could tell would make me feel comfortable and protected.
But no, this mission called for a trip to the department store. There in Women’s Fashions I stood gaping amid fluorescent lights, ceiling announcements and bells and boings, disco muzak, echoing toddlers, aromas of cinnamon buns and popcorn butter and fabric dye, and the touch of static-cling textiles in counter-intuitive indigestible colors. The store security guard tracked me at a distance while I rummaged along with rising anxiety, speed-reading through the racks. Then, in Last Chance clearance, there was a burlappish corduroy the color of tan M&Ms with a high wrap-around collar. The $14.99 made me wince (for that money you can go to Zed’s and get two rugged turtlenecks.) But it was hands down the ugliest ragmop imaginable, which was exactly my hidden agenda.
Now to beeline for the cash register and pay up. Or… was I supposed to go in the dressing room and take off half my clothes and try this contraption on? I gripped the shirt, looking for the exit. Pay and run? Try it on? Try then pay? Drop it and flee? Unable to act or think, I zoned out for a moment and fixated on a mirror display of silk flowers and felted wool songbirds. The stuffed birds made me smile. They looked like the tiny felted partridges in Grandma’s Christmas decorations from childhood. I wished that I could take a bird home for my room.
Another shy customer materialized at a side mirror panel, looking as miserable as I felt, drawn close by the same felted fauna. He was a tall cowering young man with long hair and abjectly blanched complexion. Reaching out to pet a bird, I threw him a sympathetic glance. He glanced right back. It took a moment to figure out that the shrinking youth was my reflection. By then the security guard had seen enough, and marched me to the back room.
After the security guard had checked on my story and let me go, I bought the blouse and trudged home from the department store in the cold, worn out and shivering and increasingly apprehensive. It felt as if Dean’s camera shutter was going to take away a piece of my soul, and forever after I would have even more trouble recognizing myself in the mirror. To avoid being alone with him in his car, I called Dean and told him I’d get there myself on the bus. (“I’ll drive you home,” he quipped. “Tonight or tomorrow — your choice.”) I hung up the phone feeling desperate for some hot cocoa and a long nap and early bedtime with a good book. But, to keep from making everybody angry at me and then sitting alone the rest of my life, I laundered and ironed the tan M&M burlap shirt, showered up, and washed my hair. I packed a turtleneck and head scarf in my knapsack. I added a hot loaf of my fresh baked Anadama molasses bread as a gift. I dressed up and sat, feeling like a sheep at a 4-H judging show, while my roommates applied my makeup. They brushed back the curly thatch of bangs that sheltered my eyes from the world and the world from me, and pinned my hair up tight with a mist of hair mousse. They clipped on earrings, sprayed on perfume, and hollered advice as I headed out for two buses and a long walk.
At Dean’s, the adventure fizzled out in about seven minutes. My host was seriously miffed that over his strenuous objections I sweetly held my knapsack and coat on my lap, instead of letting him take them away to the bedroom. He was appalled by the shirt. He was offended that I took only one sip of wine and no more, and that I clearly wouldn’t appreciate an excellent vintage if I fell in the oaken vat. He insisted that I pose with a lighted cigarette, which was not part of our original agreement; so I resorted to Fool of Gotham mode and clasped it like sidewalk chalk, breaking the filter. Then under the tan burlap collar he spotted a gold cross, Mom’s gift for high school graduation. That was the last straw. Urgent as he’d been to get me into his apartment, he was practically frantic to get me out of it again.
And that was fine, because we found out that the photo shoot was a practical joke. Dean figured that the image of me trying to look sophisticated would make for a hilarious pinup girl at the honors fraternity house. But the guys there were indignant at his choice of a sporting target. Word through the grapevine reached my graduate advisor, who took a very dim view of such shenanigans from a fellow Bearcat or Trojan or however the men at the old school fancy themselves. My girlfriends were furious, and rallied to my defense and support. Later one roommate reported that my name came up at a beer keg bash, and Dean ventured cautiously that I seemed like a nice girl. He remained a successful man about town, but somehow his presence didn’t really cross my radar; I just didn’t seem to notice him any more.
That night outside his apartment I shook my hair down and took off the earrings. I pulled the turtleneck and head scarf out of my knapsack, and bundled up. Instead of waiting around alone on a corner downtown for the hourly transfer bus home, I decided to catch the student shuttle by heading down to the waterfront and over the interstate bridge and up to campus. Halfway across the river I stood munching my Anadama and admiring the city skyline, and the lights of our Cathedral miles away, up on our hilltop.
Still, there must be some shared ancestral vision that delights in discovering unexpected glory in unlikely places. We thrill to fashion makeover magazines, or antiques on appraisal in TV shows, or ancient gold coins plowed up in a cornfield. Maybe that’s what Dean was looking for. That’s certainly what I dreamed of, on that stone bench in the winter garden, and that’s what my girlfriends wanted for me: to be seen in the eye of the right beholder — by someone perceiving genuine beauty without, because that someone carries genuine beauty within themselves.
Happily, genuine beauty in the right beholder is how this English ballad ends. Because that’s what she had and that’s what she was, with her strong build and square jaw and sharp gaze and raised voice and military air of authority, when she muscled in to my reverie of flowers and birds.
“Come with me,” the security guard ordered. “In that door. Sit down. Whatta you got?”
“Shirt, Officer. Ma’am.” I held up the price tags. “Just going to pay for it.”
“I did not ask what that is, Miss. I asked what you GOT,” she demanded. “I was talking to you out there, and you didn’t even notice. You got diabetes? Pregnant, faint, or what? You are white as a sheet. Need a doctor? Husband or boyfriend here? Parents? Somebody I can call?”
“Why… no, Ma’am. I must be coming down with something. It’s okay. I can walk home. It isn’t far. I’ve got four roommates right there.”
“Hold on.” She stepped out to a vending machine and bought orange soda and cheese crackers. “You are not leaving this room for twenty minutes. You sit here, and eat those.”
If only I had acted with more presence of mind than any other scrap of wildlife fished from an oil slick and thrown free. If only I’d been able to think straight, get her name, tell store management what she did for me, go back with that hot loaf and give it to her instead. But with that dissociated mind and dislocated conscience I have no memory of eating those crackers or thanking her or leaving that back room.
Over the years other Deans, bigger smarter ones, came and went; they are all around, common as rocks. And every time one showed up, with every decision correct or incorrect, I thought about that guard and wondered what she’d say. If only I could let her know that. “Security” was the right name for her calling, because security is what she gave to me. God willing, maybe I can give some to someone else one day.
Next morning, Sunday at sunrise, I threw the M&M shirt in the garbage can and headed out for early Mass and on to the Cathedral and the winter garden.
Up over the bell tower the red-tailed hawks still soared in circles, free as ever.