And pulling on the stockings, it’s hard to avoid getting my fingers caught in the industrial strength fishnets. But it’s the low-slung, shiny, black vinyl shorts with their slightly wonky little silver buckles either side the front zip, that provide the ultimate test. I pull and squeeze and zip myself into them but can’t bear to look. I am ridiculous. I feel like crying.
How do they fit? It’s the young hovering shop assistant. ‘Come on don’t be shy. We’re all women here.’
Pushy. And that ‘we’re all women here’, is not strictly true because there was that man behind the counter who looked like an elderly Eastern European haberdasher busily rearranging his display of trinkets and condoms, scarves and handcuffs.
‘Yeah, come on out honey!’ Damn. There’s another customer in the shop now besides me and she sounds pushy too. I am like an actress waiting nervously behind the curtain about to get on stage. Rosalind Russell said that ‘Acting is standing up naked and turning around very slowly.’ But I am a middle-aged woman in a small, darkish shop on a dusty street in Surry Hills, Sydney, on the brink of not just leaving but completely abandoning her comfort zone to present herself for approval to a young shop assistant, an old haberdasher and some other customer who calls me ‘honey’. Most significantly, I am dressed like an ageing porn star. I part the red velvet curtain.
‘You look gorgeous!’ It’s her again, honey woman. But this time she doesn’t sound pushy, but genuinely encouraging. She is tall. Broad shouldered. A dark bob. Chunky silver rings. Charm bracelet. I used to have one of those; a gold one I got when I was baptised. It had a tiny heart, a bull, an acorn, a bird in a cage and a caravan. A caravan?
I turn around and face the mirror. Slowly, so as not to fall over on the skyscraper heels. I am not me. I am another me. I do not recognise myself. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.
My mind goes into a paranoid overdrive. I know what these women are thinking: poor thing, trying to resuscitate her relationship. She must be over fifty. Women that age don’t really care that much about sex anymore do they? Menopause kills the libido. As if dressing up is going to make him want her more. She’s still the same person underneath all the zips and shiny vinyl. It’s just embarrassing. Sad.
‘So who’s the lucky man? Or woman?’ It’s the picture-perky shop assistant. We all giggle. The old guy behind the counter doesn’t. He just opens a small silver case, puts an unlit cigarette in his mouth and heads out the back of the shop through another red velvet curtain.
I want to believe these women. They seem sincere. What do they really have to gain telling me how good I look dressed like a pole dancer? Well, the shop assistant probably has a mild vested interest, but unless Honey Woman is a shareholder in Erotic Divas, then she’s just saying it like it is surely.
Two hours ago I left my boyfriend at the hotel and went off alone to walk the unfamiliar streets. Our romantic weekend away was not going so romantically. Not in my mind anyway. Maybe he was enjoying himself. Maybe it’s just me and my self-esteem issues and self-sabotaging neuroses. ‘Self-esteem is a myth’, my father had told me recently. Well if it is a myth then it’s an all-pervasive one and the proliferation of self-improvement, be-your-best and wellness blogs, podcasts, and magazines, are constantly giving us advice on how to improve it.
The last couple of days have been awful. I am dizzy with all the second-guessing. I want to know what he is he thinking. What he wants. Does he think I’m boring? Why is he so remote and withholding? Does he really love me or does he just like having sex with me? Is it because I enjoy it? I do. I enjoy it. Most of the time. He is good at it. We are good at it together. But sometimes I do pretend because I think that if I do he won’t leave me for a younger, less crash-damaged model.
But he is not doing anything wrong. He is just being who he is and I have known his tendency to introversion and intimacy avoidance for years. So why am I surprised by it now? He is generous and smart and funny and friendly. This was to be a special time because it is a rare thing to have a free weekend when you are a single mother. We are staying in a hotel with a view of Sydney harbour and he is paying! But I can’t enjoy any of it. Well, maybe just those little bottles of whiskey and Mars Bars in the mini-bar.
So I left the hotel. We didn’t fight. We didn’t have words. I left him on a couch reading. And now here I am six kilometres, three lattes and two hours later standing in front of a long mirror in store popular with strippers, pole dancers, and hookers.
‘Do you like them?’ the shop assistant asks. ‘The shorts?’
‘I think so’, I reply. But do I? I don’t mind the whole dressing up for sex thing. I have done it before and it can be lovely. Playful. Erotic. But today, somehow, it just feels desperate and ill-timed. I feel like crying again.
‘Excuse me. Do you have any butt bling?’ There is another customer in the shop now. Early twenties. Tracksuit pants. Thongs. Tee-shirt. Midriff. Pierced belly button. I don’t get the piercing thing. And what the hell is butt bling? ‘You look hot by the way’, she is looking at me now.
‘I’m on a dirty weekend with my boyfriend’, I say. ‘But it’s not going well and I’m nervous and lonely all the time and I think it’s all over and this will be the third time he’s dumped me in thirty years because we were teenage sweethearts and we have been in out of each other’s hearts and lives ever since.’ Why am I telling these strangers this stuff? Stop blathering. You sound nuts. Like they care about your love life.
The girl in the thongs has a tattoo on her ankle of, what? I can’t quite make it out. A worm? A snake? The Celtic symbol for ‘I love my body and don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks?’
‘But you need a good top to go with it’, says the shop assistant. ‘Not too slutty or try-hard though. I think I’ve got just the thing.’ And off she goes to rummage around in a bin marked BARGAINS. Great. I am a half-priced try-hard.
I look at myself in the mirror again. I don’t have my glasses on so the soft focus is very welcome. But as I turn to the side and strain my neck to look at myself from behind, it begins. Oh god, I want a smaller stomach, higher breasts, tighter bum, thicker hair… I want. I want. I want! Stop already with all the wanting. The big ugly virus of capitalism depends on your wanting so that it can stay alive. Do not feed ‘the merchants of body hatred’, as Suzie Orbach would say.
‘Take away lattes and cake anyone? It’s Honey Woman. Good timing. The orders are thick and fast, ‘yes please!’, ‘two sugars’, ‘my shout!’, ‘no chocolate. I’m allergic’, ‘soy milk in mine’, ‘skinny milk please!’
‘For god’s sake, you don’t want much do you?’, she laughs.
Here now in this shop with these women I have begun to feel lighter, better, less anxious, supported. There is laughter and self-deprecating jokes. Honey Woman tells us how she is in transition and that her operation should be next year, all things going well. The girl with the tattoo is pole dancing her way through a marketing degree. And the shop assistant owns the joint! The old haberdasher is her Polish grandfather who she lets hang around the place so he feels like he has a purpose. Ever since his wife had died he was at a loss with what to do with himself.
Someone’s phone pings. It’s coming from the dressing room. ‘It’s him!’ YOU LOST? he asks. WAS. NOT NOW, I write back. OKEY DOKEY, he replies. Okey dokey?
‘You go, girl,’ says the tall woman with the bob after I relay the messages. ‘You don’t need him anyhow.’ And off she heads for the street. ‘Be back in a tick with our afternoon tea.’
Don’t I? Don’t I need him? I’m no stranger to what David Foster Wallace calls ‘the mundane psychosis familiar to anyone who has ever spent too much time alone’ and I don’t want to go back to that. Not again. But then again I am with him and still feel loneliness anyway.
‘Do you have any Naughty Nurse outfits?’ I ask the shop assistant whose name I have since learned is Cathy. I’m on a roll. She starts to flip through the overstuffed rack of clichéd costumes. ‘Umm. No, sorry. But we do have a Dominatrix outfit that comes with complimentary handcuffs and a whip?’
In the end, I decide to buy the black vinyl shorts and industrial strength fishnets. I like them. I am not sure I will ever wear them but that’s not the point. But the stilettoes have to stay behind because they would wreck my back. The nurse’s uniform reminds me too much of a hospital. The dominatrix ensemble costs too much, even with the free stuff thrown in.
I leave the shop and my new best friends two hours later after coffee and cake and a short black for the Polish grandfather. It had been fun with those women in that shop. My anxiety has now dispersed and those desperate feelings of inadequacy have been shoved down deep into the BARGAIN bin. Back on the street, the heat is less punishing than earlier in the day. I don’t want to walk anymore. Too tired. I am tired of not feeling enough.
But now something has shifted in me. There has been some kind of subtle recalibration. As I raise my arm to hail a cab back to the hotel I know that I have to break up with my boyfriend. The knowledge hurts. The sense of failure smarts. But I know.
Sometimes even people who love each other just aren’t meant to be together, no matter how frightening the prospect of being alone again seems.
I sit in the back seat of the taxi and weep a little for all the broken-hearted and disappointed lovers, and I thank the Goddess of Small Mercies for Erotic Divas.
Elly is an actress, writer, broadcaster, and teacher working across the arts, media and education industries. She is a regular speaker, interviewer and panellist on all-things arts and literary.