“Well, that’s that,” Miss Dee Pendency said, and Miss Adele, looking back over her shoulder, saw that it was. The strip of hooks had separated entirely from the rest of the corset. Dee held up the two halves, her big red slash mouth pulling in opposite directions.
“Least you can say it died in battle. Doing its duty.”
“Bitch, I’m on in ten minutes.”
“When an irresistible force like your ass . . . ”
“Meets an old immovable corset like this . . . You can bet as sure as you liiiiiive!”
“It’s your fault. You pulled too hard.”
“Something’s gotta give, something’s gotta give, SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE.”
“You pulled too hard.”
“Pulling’s not your problem.” Dee lifted her bony, white Midwestern leg up onto the counter, in preparation to put on a thigh-high. With a heel she indicated Miss Adele’s mountainous box of chicken and rice: “Real talk, baby.”
Miss Adele sat down on a grubby velvet stool before a mirror edged with blown-out bulbs. She was thickening and sagging in all the same ways, in all the same places, as her father. Plus it was midwinter: her skin was ashy. She felt like some once-valuable piece of mahogany furniture lightly dusted with cocaine. This final battle with her corset had set her wig askew. She was forty-six years old.
“Lend me yours.”
“Good idea. You can wear it on your arm.”
And tired to death, as the Italians say—tired to death. Especially sick of these kids, these “millennials,” or whatever they were calling themselves. Always on. No backstage to any of them—only front of house. Wouldn’t know a sincere, sisterly friendship if it kicked down the dressing-room door and sat on their faces.
Miss Adele stood up, untaped, put a furry deerstalker on her head, and switched to her comfortable shoes. She removed her cape. Maybe stop with the cape? Recently she had only to catch herself in the mirror at a bad angle, and there was Daddy, in his robes.
“The thing about undergarments,” Dee said, “is they can only do so much with the cards they’ve been dealt. Sorta like Obama?”
Miss Adele zipped herself into a cumbersome floor-length padded coat, tested—so the label claimed—by climate scientists in the Arctic.
“Looking swell, Miss Adele.”
“Am I trying to impress somebody? Tell Jake I went home.”
“He’s out front—tell him yourself!”
“I’m heading this way.”
“You know what they say about choosing between your ass and your face?”
Miss Adele put her shoulder to the fire door and heaved it open. She caught the punch line in the ice-cold stairwell.
“You should definitely choose one of those at some point.”
Aside from the nights she worked, Miss Adele tried not to mess much with the East Side. She’d had the same sunny rent- controlled studio apartment on Tenth Avenue and Twenty-Third since ’93, and loved the way the West Side communicated with the water and the light, loved the fancy galleries and the big anonymous condos, the High Line funded by bankers and celebrities, the sensation of clarity and wealth. She read the real estate section of the Times with a kind of religious humility: the news of a thirty-four-million-dollar townhouse implied the existence of a mighty being, out there somewhere, yet beyond her imagining. But down here? Depressing. Even worse in the daylight. Crappy old buildings higgledy-piggledy on top of each other, ugly students, shitty pizza joints, delis, tattoo parlors. Nothing bored Miss Adele more than ancient queens waxing lyrical about the good old bad old days. At least the bankers never tried to rape you at knifepoint or sold you bad acid. And then once you got past the Village, everything stopped making sense. Fuck these little streets with their dumbass names! Even the logistics of googling her location— remove gloves, put on glasses, find the phone—were too much to contemplate in a polar vortex. Instead, Miss Adele stalked violently up and down Rivington, cutting her eyes at any soul who dared look up. At the curb she stepped over a frigid pool of yellow fluid, three paper plates frozen within it. What a dump! Let the city pull down everything under East Sixth, rebuild, number it, make it logical, pack in the fancy hotels—not just one or two but a whole bunch of them. Don’t half gentrify—follow through. Stop preserving all this old shit. Miss Adele had a right to her opinions. Thirty years in a city gives you the right. And now that she was, at long last, no longer beautiful, her opinions were all she had. They were all she had left to give to people. Whenever her disappointing twin brother, Devin, deigned to call her from his three-kids-and-a-Labradoodle, goofy-sweater-wearing, golf-playing, liberal-Negro-wet-dream-of-a-Palm-Springs-fantasy existence, Miss Adele made a point of gathering up all her hard-won opinions and giving them to him good. “I wish he could’ve been mayor forever. FOR-EVAH. I wish he was my boyfriend. I wish he was my daddy.” Or: “They should frack the hell out of this whole state. We’ll get rich, secede from the rest of you dope-smoking, debt-ridden assholes. You the ones dragging us all down.” Her brother accused Miss Adele of turning rightward in old age. It would be more accurate to say that she was done with all forms of drama—politics included. That’s what she liked about gentrification, in fact: gets rid of all the drama.
And who was left, anyway, to get dramatic about? The beloved was gone, and so were all the people she had used, over the years, as substitutes for the beloved. Every kid who’d ever called her gorgeous had already moved to Brooklyn, Jersey, Fire Island, Provincetown, San Francisco, or the grave. This simplified matters. Work, paycheck, apartment, the various lifestyle sections of the Times, Turner Classic Movies, Nancy Grace, bed. Boom. Maybe a little Downton. You needn’t put your face on to watch Downton. That was her routine, and disruptions to it—like having to haul ass across town to buy a new corset—were rare. Sweet Jesus, this cold! Unable to feel her toes, she stopped a shivering young couple in the street. British tourists, as it turned out; clueless, nudging each other and beaming up at her Adam’s apple with delight, like she was in their guidebook, right next to the Magnolia Bakery and the Naked Cowboy. They had a map, but without her glasses it was useless. They had no idea where they were. “Sorry! Stay warm!” they cried, and hurried off, giggling into their North Face jackets. Miss Adele tried to remember that her new thing was that she positively liked all the tourists and missed Bloomberg and loved Midtown and the Central Park nags and all the Prada stores and The Lion King and lining up for cupcakes wherever they happened to be located. She gave those British kids her most winning smile. Sashayed round the corner in her fur-cuffed Chelsea boots with the discreet heel. Once out of sight, though, it all fell apart; the smile, the straightness of her spine, everything. Even if you don’t mess with it—even when it’s not seven below—it’s a tough city. New York just expects so much from a girl—acts like it can’t stand even the idea of a wasted talent or opportunity. And Miss Adele had been around. Rome says: enjoy me. London: survive me. New York: gimme all you got. What a thrilling proposition! The chance to be “all that you might be.” Such a thrill—until it becomes a burden. To put a face on—to put a self on—this had once been, for Miss Adele, pure delight. And part of the pleasure had been precisely this: the buying of things. She used to love buying things! Lived for it! Now it felt like effort, now if she never bought another damn thing again she wouldn’t even—Clinton Corset Emporium. No awning, just a piece of cardboard stuck in the window. As Miss Adele entered, a bell tinkled overhead—an actual bell, on a catch wire—and she found herself in a long narrow room—a hallway really—with a counter down the left-hand side and a curtained-off cubicle at the far end, for privacy. Bras and corsets were everywhere, piled on top of each other in anonymous white cardboard boxes, towering up to the ceiling. They seemed to form the very walls of the place.
“Good afternoon,” said Miss Adele, daintily removing her gloves, finger by finger. “I am looking for a corset.”
A radio was on; talk radio—incredibly loud. Some AM channel bringing the latest from a distant land, where the people talk from the back of their throats. One of those Eastern-y, Russian-y places. Miss Adele was no linguist, and no geographer. She unzipped her coat, made a noise in the back of her own throat, and looked pointedly at the presumed owner of the joint. He sat slumped behind the counter, listening to this radio with a tragic twist to his face, like one of those sad-sack cab drivers you see hunched over the wheel, permanently tuned in to the bad news from back home. And what the point of that was, Miss Adele would never understand. Turn that shit down! Keep your eyes on the road! Lord knows, the day Miss Adele stepped out of the state of Florida was pretty much the last day that godforsaken spot ever crossed her mind.
Could he even see her? He was angled away, his head resting in one hand. Looked to be about Miss Adele’s age, but further gone: bloated face, about sixty pounds overweight, bearded, religious type, wholly absorbed by this radio of his. Meanwhile, somewhere back there, behind the curtain, Miss Adele could make out two women talking:
“Because she thinks Lycra is the answer to everything. Why you don’t speak to the nice lady? She’s trying to help you. She just turned fourteen.”
“So she’s still growing. We gotta consider that. Wendy—can you grab me a Brava 32B?”
A slip of an Asian girl appeared from behind the curtain, proceeded straight to the counter and vanished below it. Miss Adele turned back to the owner. He had his fists stacked like one potato, two potato—upon which he rested his chin—and his head tilted in apparent appreciation of what Miss Adele would later describe as “the ranting”—for did it not penetrate every corner of that space? Was it not difficult to ignore? She felt she had not so much entered a shop as some stranger’s spittle-filled mouth. RAGE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS, cried this radio—in whatever words it used—RIGHTEOUSNESS AND RAGE. Miss Adele crossed her arms in front of her chest, like a shield. Not this voice—not today. Not any day—not for Miss Adele. And though she had learned, over two decades, that there was nowhere on earth entirely safe from the voices of rage and righteousness—not even the new New York—still Miss Adele had taken great care to organize her life in such a way that her encounters with them were as few as possible. (On Sundays, she did her groceries in a cutoff T-shirt that read thou shalt.) As a child, of course, she had been fully immersed—dunked in the local water—with her daddy’s hand on the back of her head, with his blessing in her ear. But she’d leaped out of that shallow channel the first moment she was able.
“A corset,” she repeated, and raised her spectacular eyebrows. “Could somebody help me?”
“WENDY,” yelled the voice behind the curtain, “could you see to our customer?”
The shopgirl sprung up, like a jack-in-the-box, clutching a stepladder to her chest.
“Looking for Brava!” shouted the girl over the radio, turned her back on Miss Adele, opened the stepladder, and began to climb it. Meanwhile, the owner shouted something at the woman behind the curtain, and the woman, adopting his tongue, shouted something back.
“It is customary, in retail—” Miss Adele began.
“Sorry—one minute,” said the girl, came down with a box underarm, dashed right past Miss Adele, and disappeared once more behind the curtain.
Miss Adele took a deep breath. She stepped back from the counter, pulled her deerstalker off her head, and tucked a purple bang behind her ear. Sweat prickled her face for the first time in weeks. She was considering turning on her heel and making that little bell shake till it fell off its goddamn string when the curtain opened and a mousy girl emerged, with her mother’s arm around her. They were neither of them great beauties. The girl had a pissy look on her face and moved with an angry slouch, like a prisoner, whereas you could see the mother was at least trying to keep things civilized. The mother looked beat—and too young to have a teenager. Or maybe she was the exact right age. Devin’s kids were teenagers. Miss Adele was almost as old as the president. None of this made any sense, and yet you were still expected to accept it, and carry on, as if it were the most natural process in the world.
“Because they’re not like hands and feet,” a warm and lively voice explained, from behind the curtain. “They grow independently.”
“Thank you so much for your advice, Mrs. Alexander,” said the mother, the way you talk to a priest through a screen. “The trouble is this thickness here. All the women in our family got it, unfortunately. Curved rib cage.”
“But actually, you know—it’s inneresting—it’s a totally different curve from you to her. Did you realize that?”
The curtain opened. The man looked up sharply. He was otherwise engaged, struggling with the antennae of his radio to banish the static, but he paused a moment to launch a little invective in the direction of a lanky, wasp-waisted woman in her early fifties, with a long, humane face—dimpled, self-amused—and an impressive mass of thick chestnut hair.
“Two birds, two stones,” said Mrs. Alexander, ignoring her husband, “that’s the way we do it here. Everybody needs something different. That’s what the big stores won’t do for you. Individual attention. Mrs. Berman, can I give you a tip?” The young mother looked up at the long-necked Mrs. Alexander, a duck admiring a swan. “Keep it on all the time. Listen to me, I know of what I speak. I’m wearing mine right now, I wear it every day. In my day they gave it to you when you walked out of the hospital!”
“Well, you look amazing.”
“Smoke and mirrors. Now, all you need is to make sure the straps are fixed right like I showed you.” She turned to the sulky daughter and put a fingertip on each of the child’s misaligned shoulders. “You’re a lady now, a beautiful young lady, you—” Here again she was interrupted from behind the counter, a sharp exchange of mysterious phrases, in which—to Miss Adele’s satisfaction—the wife appeared to get the final word. Mrs. Alexander took a cleansing breath and continued: “So you gotta hold yourself like a lady. Right?” She lifted the child’s chin and placed her hand for a moment on her cheek. “Right?” The child straightened up despite herself. See, some people are trying to ease your passage through this world—so ran Miss Adele’s opinion—while others want to block you at every turn. Think of poor Mama, taking folk round those god-awful foreclosures, helping a family to see the good life that might yet be lived there—that had just as much chance of sprouting from a swamp in the middle of nowhere as anyplace else. That kind of instinctive, unthinking care. If only Miss Adele had been a simple little fixer-upper, her mother might have loved her unconditionally! Now that Miss Adele had grown into the clothes of middle-aged women, she noticed a new feeling of affinity toward them, far deeper than she had ever felt for young women, back when she could still fit into the hot pants of a showgirl. She walked through the city struck by middle-aged women and the men they had freely chosen, strange unions of the soft and the hard. In shops, in restaurants, in line at the CVS. She always had the same question. Why in God’s name are you still married to this asshole? Lady, your children are grown. You have your own credit cards. You’re the one with life force. Can’t you see he’s just wallpaper? It’s not 1850. This is New York. Run, baby, run!
“Who’s waiting? How can I help you?”
Mother and daughter duck followed the shopgirl to the counter to settle up. The radio, after a brief pause, made its way afresh up the scale of outrage. And Miss Adele? Miss Adele turned like a flower to the sun.
“Well, I need a new corset. A strong one.”
Mrs. Alexander beamed: “Come right this way.”
Together, they stepped into the changing area. But as Miss Adele reached to pull the curtain closed behind them both—separating the ladies from the assholes—a look passed between wife and husband and Mrs. Alexander caught the shabby red velvet swathe in her hand, a little higher up than Miss Adele had, and held it open.
“Wait—let me get Wendy in here.” An invisible lasso, thought Miss Adele. He throws it and you go wherever you’re yanked. “You’ll be all right? The curtain’s for modesty. You modest?”
Oh, she had a way about her. Her face expressed emotion in layers: elevated, ironic eyebrows, mournful violet eyes, and sly, elastic mouth. Miss Adele could have learned a lot from a face like that. A face straight out of an old movie. But which one, in particular?
“You’re a funny lady.”
“A life like mine, you have to laugh—Marcus, please, one minute—” He was barking at her, still—practically insisting, perhaps, that she stop talking to that schwarze, which prompted Mrs. Alexander to lean out of the changing room to say something very like: What is wrong with you? Can’t you see I’m busy here? On the radio, strange atonal music replaced the ranting; Mrs. Alexander stopped to listen to it, and frowned. She turned back to her new friend and confidante, Miss Adele. “Is it okay if I don’t measure you personally? Wendy can do it in a moment. I’ve just got to deal with—but listen, if you’re in a hurry, don’t panic, our eyes, they’re like hands.”
“Can I just show you what I had?”
Miss Adele unzipped her handbag and pulled out the ruin.
“Oh! You’re breaking my heart! From here?”
“I don’t remember. Maybe ten years ago?”
“Makes sense, we don’t sell these any more. Ten years is ten years. Time for a change. What’s it to go under? Strapless? Short? Long?”
“Everything. I’m trying to hide some of this.”
“You and the rest of the world. Well, that’s my job.” She leaned over and put her lips just a little shy of Miss Adele’s ear: “What you got up there? You can tell me. Flesh or feathers?”
“Not the former.”
“Got it. WENDY! I need a Futura and a Queen Bee, corsets, front fastening, forty-six. Bring a forty-eight, too. Marcus—please. One minute. And bring the Paramount in, too! The crossover! Some people,” she said, turning to Miss Adele, “you ask them these questions, they get offended. Everything offends them. Personally, I don’t believe in ‘political correctness.’ ” She articulated the phrase carefully, with great sincerity, as if she had recently coined it. “My mouth’s too big. I gotta say what’s on my mind! Now, when Wendy comes, take off everything to here and try each corset on at its tightest setting. If you want a defined middle, frankly it’s going to hurt. But I’m guessing you know that already.”
“Loretta Young,” called Miss Adele to Mrs. Alexander’s back. “You look like Loretta Young. Know who that is?”
“Do I know who Loretta Young is? Excuse me one minute, will you?”
Mrs. Alexander lifted her arms comically, to announce something to her husband, the only parts of which Miss Adele could fully comprehend were the triple repetition of the phrase “Loretta Young.” In response, the husband made a noise somewhere between a sigh and a grunt.
“Do me a favor,” said Mrs. Alexander, letting her arms drop and turning back to Miss Adele, “put it in writing, put it in the mail. He’s a reader.”
The curtain closed. But not entirely. An inch hung open and through it Miss Adele watched a silent movie—silent only in the sense that the gestures were everything. It was a marital drama, conducted in another language, but otherwise identical to all those she and Devin had watched as children, through a crack in the door of their parents’ bedroom. God save Miss Adele from marriage! Appalled, fascinated, she watched the husband, making the eternal, noxious point in a tone Miss Adele could conjure in her sleep (You bring shame upon this family), and Mrs. Alexander, apparently objecting (I’ve given my life to this family); she watched as he became belligerent (You should be ashamed) and she grew sarcastic (Ashamed of having a real job? You think I don’t know what “pastoral care” means? Is that God’s love you’re giving to every woman in this town?), their voices weaving in and out of the hellish noise on the radio, which had returned to ranting (THOU SHALT NOT!).
Miss Adele strained to separate the sounds into words she might google later. If only there was an app that translated the arguments of strangers! A lot of people would buy that app. Hadn’t she just been reading in the Times about some woman who had earned eight hundred grand off such an app—just for having the idea for the app. You want to know what Miss Adele would do with eight hundred grand? Buy a studio down in Battery Park, and do nothing all day but watch the helicopters fly over the water. Stand at the floor-to-ceiling window, bathed in expensive light, wearing the kind of silk kimono that hides a multitude of sins.
Sweating with effort and anxiety, in her windowless Lower East Side cubicle, Miss Adele got stuck again at her midsection, which had become, somehow, Devin’s midsection. Her fingers fumbled with the heavy-duty eyes and hooks. She found she was breathing heavily. ABOMINATION, yelled the radio. Get it out of my store! cried the man, in all likelihood. Have mercy! pleaded the woman, basically. No matter how she pulled, she simply could not contain herself. So much effort! She was making odd noises, grunts almost.
“Hey, you okay in there?”
“First doesn’t work. About to try the second.”
“No, don’t do that. Wait. Wendy, get in there.”
In a second, the girl was in front of her, and as close as anybody had been to Miss Adele’s bare body in a long time. Without a word, a little hand reached out for the corset, took hold of one side of it and, with surprising strength, pulled it toward the other end until both sides met. The girl nodded, and this was Miss Adele’s cue to hook the thing together while the girl squatted like a weight lifter and took a series of short, fierce breaths. Outside of the curtain, the argument had resumed.
“Breathe,” said the girl.
“They always talk to each other like that?” asked Miss Adele.
The girl looked up, uncomprehending.