As Valentine’s Day approached this year, I was at a loss regarding how to surprise my eternally patient and positive wife of twenty-six years with a gift that would truly show my love and appreciation to her for not smothering me in my sleep or encouraging me to overdose on chips and salsa long ago. My daughters had presented their Valentine’s wish lists (yes, wish lists) shortly after Christmas, so I had already financed their gifts. But my wife (who never asks for anything other than that I avoid playing with that app on my phone that makes 500 different bodily noises-in church) was a harder nut to crack-an ironic metaphor coming from me, I know.
Then the clouds parted when I checked the mail recently to find, addressed to me, a special offer from Victoria’s Secret. Aha! I had done a little online shopping with this establishment before, and now my creepiness was being rewarded with a coupon for free underwear. When I first heard about Victoria’s Secret, I assumed the business was named after the legendary 19th-century English monarch, but once I realized what they sold, I knew I was wrong. Based on the historic images of Queen Victoria I’ve seen, she would have more likely done her shopping for the royal unmentionables at Sears-in the hardware section. Whoever this Victoria was, I owed her one for keeping her secret between us as I did my online shopping in the semi-privacy my own bathroom (semi-privacy because I rarely manage to get the door shut and locked without interference from at least one child or pet.)
My internal rejoicing over my coupon was suddenly interrupted, however, when I read the horrifying phrase in fine print, “In-store only.” I didn’t even think men were allowed in that place. In fact, whenever I go the mall, I risk contact with the mall kiosk salespeople selling bespangled phone cases, Turkish beauty cream, and Dippin’ Dots as I veer away and avert my eyes from the Victoria’s Secret entrance, festooned with mannequins who forgot to put on their pants. This time, though, I was determined I wouldn’t let my self-respect keep me from making a romantic gesture at a discount.
As I entered the store, my mind was racing with “what if’s.” What if one of my college students sees me? What will they think, and how will it affect my instructor evaluations? “Well, Mr. Graves teaches a great lesson on Cavalier poetry, even if he is a creepy weirdo who snoops around in the clearance bras.” Worse yet, what if someone from church sees me? Would it endanger my third-grade Sunday School teaching position? Would I be relegated to boy’s bathroom monitor or parking lot duty in the senior adult area?
Pushing these thoughts aside, I pressed on to find the items pictured on my coupon. Apparently, underwear at Victoria’s Secret is categorized according to how much of it is missing. At any moment, I expected to see a table display with nothing but spools of thread. When I finally found something I could identify as human garments, I then had to find the correct size, which involved rifling though storage bins below the display table and constantly looking over my shoulder like some kind of maniac to see if anyone was watching. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for a sales associate (wearing all black-presumably for my funeral) to show up and ask, “May I help you, sir?” just loudly enough for mall security to hear. I had no choice but to be completely honest, so I told her I was looking for house slippers and socks, to which she replied at full volume, “You’re in the wrong drawer. Those are the cheekies.”
Once I had finally made my selections with the help of the panty police and was making my way to check out, I did notice a few other men in the store with their wives. One appeared to be examining a hairline seam in the wallpaper while his wife browsed through the hiphuggers, and another was counting ceiling tiles while his wife demanded that he smell the glittered body sprays with her. One man who was there with his teenage daughters glanced at me with a defeated look of solidarity in his eyes, and I could have sworn he mouthed the words, “Please, help me!”
Unfortunately, I could offer no help to these fellow sufferers as my main goal at that point was to escape without further humiliation. Those hopes were dashed, though, when I saw the enormous checkout line. Of course, I was the only male in line, and I was determined to salvage what little masculinity I had left, which isn’t easy when you’ve got a handful of lingerie. I tried to be nonchalant and held them in my fist like a baseball, and not very convincingly since my little league baseball career mainly involved chewing on my glove in the outfield. While I stood there in disgrace, a woman behind me in line actually leaned forward to say, “Your wife certainly is lucky you shop for her here. My husband would never do that.” Of course he wouldn’t, I thought, it’s called dignity. She was probably just trying to convince herself that I wasn’t preparing for elective surgery so I could use my choice of bathrooms at Target.
The experience didn’t improve when I reached the cashier. I tried to conceal my embarrassment by making jokes. “Do you have a dressing room? Do these match my eyes?” The cashier just raised her eyebrows and avoided making eye contact. She was probably reaching for a panic button under the counter. Her response to my humor was to hand me my merchandise in a ridiculously scorching-pink bag that was specifically designed to humiliate me as I walked through the mall and out to my car. This bag of shame, which was billowing with fuchsia tissue, made me look like I was on my way to a baby shower for Lady Gaga.
As I sat in my car to recover with “We are the Champions” playing on the radio, I felt a wave of satisfaction come over me. I had swallowed my pride (and a heavily-iced slice of Great American Cookie Company cookie cake), saved some money, and purchased something special for my wife for Valentine’s Day. In fact, I’m already planning next year’s Valentine’s gift. I wonder what she would think of some Turkish beauty cream and a Dippin’ Dots gift card?