In 1992, I was twenty-three and the girl who had sex on the first date, if not before.
Not coincidentally, I was also drinking too much and dating a lot of low-wattage losers. After a few drinks, I found myself far more interested in what my date was like with his clothes off. To get him to shut up, my underpants came down. But this strategy was getting me nowhere. I was beginning to suspect that it might be better to date people who didn’t bore me into having sex. It was around this time I was asked out by someone I actually liked, a person in whom I potentially could invest time and energy. He was a gentle, shy creature, the type who might be scared off by my willingness to — well, by my willingness. How to keep myself from jumping him pre-appetizer?
The beauty of my solution lay in its simplicity: I would wear a pair of panties too embarrassing to reveal to him.
The panties in question were a pair of threadbare, beige-gray Hanes Her Way, with an elastic waistband that appeared to have been shredded by raccoons. They were at least a decade old. I don’t recall ever purchasing a pair of underwear that rose above my navel, which leads me to conclude, reluctantly, that I was wearing my mother’s underpants. I can’t imagine how this scenario came to pass, but there it is. My mom’s panties were serving as a chastity belt. She might appreciate the symbolism, if she weren’t praying so hard right now.
I’ve told this story to friends who can’t understand the notion of owning bad underwear. These friends traipse around with wry smiles on their faces, luxuriating in the knowledge that the garment separating their crotches from the public is a pair of silky hand-sewn pink-and-black lace-lined boyshorts. Well, bully for them. As for me, I have long had a collection of good underwear, with some bad ones loitering around like ugly, demented cousins. I wear the good kind when going to a place where I’d prefer to feel like a civilized being and not a subhumanoid in a skirt. The good underwear is not so much for showing off, but for feeling presentable. It’s for knowing that if you were to fall from a hot-air balloon, the spectators below would appreciate your sexy satin knickers. Good underwear hoists and flatters. You don’t have to worry about your good underwear bagging above the waistline of your jeans or dipping below the hem of your shorts. Good underwear obeys.
Bad underwear is different. No longer comfortable or attractive, bad underwear is worn on laundry days, or when you have the worst period in menstrual history and do not want to destroy a good pair. You only wear the bad underwear when you are staying inside. It doesn’t matter how much clothing you plan to wear over it; the bad underwear stays at home. No one may see the bad underwear, ever.
This rule is what compelled me to wear my ugliest underwear on the night in question. I had traveled from Brooklyn to Boston to have dinner with Bill, a man I met at a wedding in Maine some weeks before. (I had already dated most of the men in New York, so I had to branch out to the Northeast Corridor.) We had spent hours sitting by a lake, our legs dangling off the dock, sharing a bottle of Champagne while the rest of the wedding danced and whooped it up inside. When I try to remember Bill, mostly what I recall is that he was extremely tall, which might explain why I can’t remember his face. What I do remember is that he was nice — nice in a way that most men I had dated were not. He seemed interested in what I had to say. Instead of responding to my jokes with another joke, he laughed. And when he did talk about himself, he did so with charming vulnerability.
“Long-distance relationships,” he explained. “They never work. After this last one I swore I would never get into another relationship with someone who didn’t live in my city.”
I murmured sympathetically, but something told me I was being issued a challenge. I’ll never get into a long-distance relationship, he was saying, UNLESS. Unless it’s with the perfect woman. I felt duty-bound to take this on. I was going to be the out-of-state girlfriend who proved the exception to the rule. I was going to show him that miles mean nothing when love is everything. Distance be damned, I was going to make him love me, this man whose face I can no longer recall.
Thus, the visit. I was staying at a friend’s place so that I wouldn’t be tempted to sleep with him immediately. I had to build this up slowly, because that was how our long-distance love affair would sustain itself — the excruciating longing for each other would help the time between get-togethers fly by. This was my guess, anyway. I had no clue how long-distance relationships worked, having never actually been in one.
“Long-distance relationships are doomed from the outset,” he said during dinner. I coyly responded by batting my eyelashes in Morse code: I. Know. What You’re Really. Trying. To Tell Me. Wink. Wink.
But there was beer, and soon I was forgetting all my rules. All I could remember was no sex, which I reinterpreted to mean, but fooling around is okay. He suggested we watch a movie at his place, which seemed like a completely reasonable idea. Soon we were sandwiched on his lumpy couch, mashing our faces into each other.
“Alice,” he said as he pulled away, “I just . . . I don’t think I’m ready for this.”
In response, I put my tongue in his ear. He shut up about his misgivings. But strangely, I felt some reluctance of my own. Why was I hesitating? Then I felt them drooping around my hips: the ugly panties. What had made me to travel across state lines while wearing these? I wondered. What compelled me to take such risks? Perhaps I’d done it as a joke. I imagined myself at my friend’s house, holding them out to my friend and asking her how much she’d pay me to wear them on my date. Worse than the panties, even, was the velour bodysuit I was wearing over them. In the early ’90s, velour bodysuits were not yet considered hilarious. The snap-crotch made the underwear billow in the back. If he pulled up my skirt, he would see that my ass was about to set sail.
I could feel him fumbling near my thighs. I was wearing a peasant skirt over the bodysuit, so there were many folds and crinkles for his hands to get lost in. Still, he seemed determined to push the skirt up or down, whichever way it took.
“You know?” I said, sitting up. “I think you’re right. Long-distance relationships. They’re a disaster. What movie did you rent?”
“I was just thinking,” he said with total sincerity, “how wrong I was. I think we can make this work.” He smiled and threw me back on the couch. Poor man. I knew he was just enthusiastic about the idea of getting laid, but he needed to pretend this was a relationship.
“Whoops!” I said. “Need to pee.” I hauled myself off him. Once safely locked in the bathroom, I removed the hideous underpants and re-snapped the bodysuit, which I figured could pass for both shirt and undergarment. The sensation of metal snaps nestled against my labial folds was hideous, but I would tough it out. My plan was to hide the panties somewhere in the bathroom. At some point later I would retrieve them, stuff them into my purse, throw them into a trashcan, set the trashcan on fire, then flatten the trashcan with a stolen municipal truck.
But the bathroom was tiny, and there wasn’t a single place I could hide the underwear. I couldn’t believe this tall man’s bathroom could be so compact. If he sat on the toilet, his knees would go through the ceiling. He had a pedestal sink, so there was no cabinet into which I could shove the underpants. I wheeled around, which was not easy to do in the tiny bathroom. He had no wastebasket. His medicine cabinet was too shallow. His shower curtain was a single, transparent liner sheet. I began to think this was a coordinated plot to keep me from hiding my panties. Who uses a liner alone as a shower curtain?
From the other side of the door, Bill asked how I was doing. “Fine!” I called out. “I’m just trying to hide some underwear!” I didn’t say this, but it was implied. Could I stuff the panties into the toilet cistern and just never see him again?
Just as I was lifting the tank lid, a superior alternative came to me: I would toss them out the window.
After a minute or two of desperate lifting, the window still didn’t want to open. Clearly the landlord had commanded that each new tenant apply a fresh new coat of white paint in return for their security deposit. Thirty coats later, the window had been sealed shut. Like a parent lifting a telephone pole off her pinned child, I grabbed the window and harnessed a reserve of strength I never knew I had.
“What’s going on in there?” Bill called as I budged the window open a crack.
“Just need some air!” I cried, trying to shove my panties through the knife-thin gap. The underwear did not budge. Was there a screen blocking it? If there was, the underwear was stuck forever; I was too drunk to figure out how to pull it back inside. I would die of shame. Bill would come upon my corpse hanging by one hand from the window frame. I poked frantically at the underwear. More and more of it disappeared from view, until finally it escaped the window frame’s clutches, floating gracefully downward toward the apartment building’s courtyard.
It was over. My shame was out there and not in here with me. Two old men sitting on a bench in the courtyard watched my underwear gently alight on the concrete next to them. For a few paranoid moments, I imagined them looking up, identifying the apartment the underwear had come from and trotting up to the door with my panties in hand.
“What in hell?” said one. The underwear sat solemnly in the center of a courtyard, illuminated by a lone streetlamp. After a moment the other one said, “Someone threw they panties down.”
I left the bathroom and joined a sobering-up Bill on the couch. He took my hand. Uh-oh, I thought. “I’ve been thinking,” he said.
“That’s never a good idea,” I advised. He smiled.
“You were right,” he said. “We probably — you know. We shouldn’t. I’m just not ready.”
I couldn’t believe it. I gave him a non-aggressive kiss, a window of opportunity for him to change his mind. But he pulled away after a minute or two. “Let’s get you a cab,” he said.
As we walked through the courtyard, there were my underpants, waiting for me. I considered leaning over and picking them up, stuffing them into my purse and giving Bill a broad smile. But instead, I just stepped around them. They had saved my ass, but they’d never touch it again.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.