Cassie shook her head back and forth real slow, her chin drawn up and pressing her lips into a line, like I’d told her my dog died instead of just pulling down my pants so she could judge my underwear. They were black cotton, and they were faded, and they were baggy, and they covered me from the bottom of my butt past my bellybutton. At eighteen, supposedly going to college in ten months, it was time I got to more than second base with a boy—but I needed decent underwear.
“No,” Cassie pronounced. “Laura, no boy will ever touch you with those. Especially not Neil. Now, if you dumped him and went for, say, Henry…”
I yanked up my jeans, zipped the fly, and flopped backward onto Cassie’s bed, sprawling beside where she sat cross-legged. I stared at the pale green glow-in-the-dark stars she and I tacked up, years ago, in real constellations. Cassie—named for Cassiopeia—loved the mysteries of the universe, and planned to study physics and astronomy in college next year. At least one of us knew what we wanted to do. Her bedroom lamp glowed a warm yellow that reminded me of Christmas. Everything in her room seemed designed to calm and welcome—like Cassie herself.
“You know my mom will die before she’ll let me get sexy underwear,” I said.
“Yeah,” Cassie nodded, pulling a strand of hair between her fingers.
“And I’ve been saving all my baby-sitting money for my brother’s dumb D.C. trip.” I called it dumb, to make it seem like I wasn’t flying-out-of-my-shoes proud, but I was soaring-above-Piedmont-Park ecstatic. My brother was a math wiz, and his high school team was on track to earn enough points to go to nationals, which were in D.C. at the end of the school year. But he’d need plane fare, and spending money for food, not to mention things like a suitcase and nice-looking slacks that covered his ankles. He was a freshman, and it seemed like he grew an inch every week. Mom was doing her best, but anything I could do to offload some of the pressure seemed worth it.
“What if I just didn’t wear any underwear?” I asked.
I propped myself up on my elbows to see Cassie’s look. Her head cocked sideways and her eyes went wide. Everything about her went still except her hair, which swayed away from her neck, then back, as though it, too, was appalled by my suggestion.
I checked my watch. I needed to be getting home and starting my homework—if I didn’t finish before Mom came home, she’d scream at me. Mom meant well, but she could be an asshole sometimes.
On the way out, Cassie’s mom bent and pulled a batch of cookies out of the oven. Cassie’s mom ran a bakery in Midtown—she’d won the James Beard award a couple of years ago—and she was always trying something new. Just then, as Cassie’s mom leaned forward to take the pan in her mitted hands, her tight black jeans slid down an inch, and her loose—but short—gray sweatshirt lifted. A strip of honey-brown skin emerged, highlighted by a pale pink thong. Cassie’s mother was about my size. She was probably a four or six. Petite. Cassie saw me looking and slapped my butt.
Then Cassie’s mom straightened and slid the tray onto the stovetop and noticed us standing in the kitchen doorway. “Want to take some for the road, sweetie?” she asked me. “They’re mocha cinnamon raisin. Sounds weird, I know, but I think the flavors go well together.”
I grinned. “Yes please, I’d love to try them.”
“They’ll mush a bit—still too hot to set—but they’ll taste the same.” She took out a Tupperware and a spatula, and lifted four still-steaming cookies from the tray. “For you and your brother and your mom.” Her amber eyes squinted in a smile. You can have my cookies, she seemed to say, but not my amazing underwear.
“Thank you so much, Mrs. Kline.”
Even through the Tupperware, the cookies were hot in my hand as I walked the two miles home against the dry, mid-fall breeze. I passed the elementary school that looked like a bomb shelter and the park that was redone last year. Moms and dads watched their kids swing and slide on the jungle gym. A man on a bike, satchel slung across his shoulders, whizzed by me. He wore a blue jacket, billowing from his back, just like Neil’s.
Neil was a senior, too, and he was the resident English expert. He’d proofread my papers since freshman year, and told the truth—that my ideas about Romeo being a moron would get me a D, or that I had a pitch perfect impression of Mr. Stevenson’s freight-train sneeze. Neil played basketball for the varsity team, and he always seemed ready to dart or leap, sinewy with energy. His mind worked that way too. Give him a problem and he’d make you laugh about it first, but then he’d find a way around it. Like not having the right underwear for sex. He’d know exactly what to do, but that was one thing I couldn’t ask. The pink thong was really too much. But if Cassie’s mom had a pink thong, she probably had something a little more subdued, and I could search tomorrow.
I visited Cassie’s house after school almost every day. It wasn’t because her house was much closer to school, but because it had Cassie, along with so many other things mine didn’t. It had a big, wrap-around Southern porch, lovingly painted yellow, and inside, the rooms were filled with glass cabinets and fancy woven carpets and lace curtains. Cassie’s family even had a small dog, a Chihuahua mix, adopted from the Atlanta Humane Society, who spent most of his days lounging on a silk pillow in a sunny nook off the dining room.
My mom, my brother, and I shared the third story of a multi-family house on a cracking road with no sidewalk. Ours was pale blue-painted brick with a red door that shed paint splinters like dandruff in your hair each time you came or went. The stairwell was carpeted—the carpet long-since stained gray—and creaked like the floorboards would plummet you to death. But, as Mom always said, we were in a safe area, and we always had plenty to eat and for extras, like bikes and tuition for the soccer team. I’d long since stopped complaining, because Mom would just arch her eyebrows and point to the door—would you rather live on the street? And then she’d get sad. She wanted better for us, but at least she stuck around instead of thinking she’d make a zillion bucks writing movie scripts in Los Angeles, like my dad.
Mom was an office assistant at a dentist’s office, and she wouldn’t be home for another hour at least. My brother was at a math meet until later. I checked the fridge and the cupboard to find bowtie noodles, pasta sauce, and cheese, which would be perfect for dinner. Plus I could microwave some broccoli. My health teacher would be so proud.
I got out my trigonometry homework and the textbook, but I was still thinking about that hot-pink thong. Cassie would kill me. But Cassie didn’t have to know.
The next day, taking it was too easy. It was just Cassie and me at her house. I went to the “bathroom” and snuck into her parents’ room instead.
Her mother’s underwear drawer was like standing on the beach as a storm rolled in. In its majesty, I felt small and insignificant. Everything was laid out in neat piles, organized by color. Lacy pale pink shorts would cling to curves. A black thong with a broad band to hug hips. Elegant blue underwear made of two tiny triangles for the front and back, with a thin strand looping them together. One lavender pair looked very conservative until I picked it up and saw it was made of see-through mesh, with gold tassels hanging from each side of the hip. I wanted sexy and self-assured, not on-display slut.
I sifted through thirty or forty pairs, trying to be quick, and I finally found it. Black, simple, stunning. A thin swath of fabric would encircle my hips, cradling an hourglass-shaped strip. It felt soft and light, like something that could only come from Cassie’s house. I slipped it into my pocket.
Two afternoons later, I was in Neil’s bed with the door open. His parents were at an antique auction in Charleston, and wouldn’t be home until late. I straddled him, and kissed his forehead, his cheeks, his lips. Sunlight filtered through gauzy white curtains and splashed itself onto his faded red t-shirt. It was the softest shirt in the world, thin with years of washing, and my fingertips traced the lines of his muscles. I felt amazing. He was hard inside his jeans, I wore the perfect underwear, and I had brand-new condoms waiting in the smallest pouch of my backpack.
“Do you want to?” I whispered.
His wide brown eyes looked dizzy. His curly hair was damp, flopping across his forehead. I took a strand and twisted it between my fingers. Baby soft.
“If you’re sure,” he said, “then I am.” He grinned like a daredevil motorcyclist before a death-defying jump.
“I’m wearing spectacular underwear to honor the occasion,” I said.
His eyes narrowed, and then he laughed so hard he couldn’t draw breath. I moved my hips against him. Finally he managed, “I’m an eighteen-year-old boy. You’re my blisteringly hot, genius girlfriend. You could wear burlap underwear, or nothing!”
Burlap. Of course. He pushed me off and reached for his bedside table. He showed me a glistening silver square with the telltale raised circle inside.
“That better not be four years old,” I said, as I stripped off my t-shirt to reveal my boring—but not embarrassing—black bra.
“I bought them yesterday,” he said. He kissed me.
After, returning the underwear—washed, dried, and flawless—was even easier than getting them had been. On Monday after school, I just put them back, underneath all the other black ones, beneath a black-and-purple pair that looked entirely made of ribbon.
But Cassie cornered me the next day. I was trying to get my copy of Frankenstein out of my locker for AP English, and everything else decided it wanted to come, too. So my AP psych book, AP physics monstrosity, and my copy of the Aeneid (plus all my notebooks and binders) were trying to fall out, rescued only by my half-crushed left arm. What was the point of all this stuff anyway? My gym clothes were tumbling onto my neck when Cassie stomped up to me, a cloud of fury around her. Her hair was pinned in a bun, looking severe and powerful.
“You took my mom’s underwear.”
I was blindsided. A beehive of questions swarmed. How could anyone possibly know? Hadn’t I returned them in the proper place? Washed, dried, spread beneath the ribboned pair? Had someone seen me? Did Cassie’s family have cameras in their house? Cassie took pity on my inability to respond and kept going.
“You washed them,” she said. “They’re my mom’s favorites.” She hissed the word. Spittle pricked my cheek—hot, then cold. I deserved it. “She doesn’t wash that pair. She said they smelled clean.”
They smelled clean. She didn’t wash that pair. Her favorite underwear. I had worn my best friend’s mother’s unwashed underwear. They hadn’t looked unwashed, when I’d taken them. I wanted to scrub myself. I had scrubbed myself. A shiver started in the small of my back and trembled my entire body. I focused on keeping my arms up. I couldn’t let everything fall out of my locker. Other kids passed between classes, but no one bothered to look at us.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I really, really was. Was I suddenly itchy?
“Now she thinks I’m having sex, and she wants to take you and me shopping for our own underwear. She sat me down last night and showed me this vulva pillow. It has a clit, and vaginal lips, and a urethra, and an anus. And did you know there are a billion forms of contraception? Condoms are just one, and Mom got me five different boxes. She said ribbed for her pleasure is her favorite. Ribbed for her pleasure!” Cassie’s mouth opened and closed. She looked like a fish. A strand of hair fritzed from its tie and lay on her cheek.
My arms burned, but now was not the time to deal with my things. I bounced on my toes to keep myself from laughing at all of it. Cassie didn’t seem to realize that any other mom would have grounded her daughter into eternity. Cassie would have lost her phone, lost any time she had to spend with friends, lost movie theater visits and mall trips. But instead, Cassie got a session of sex ed, and her mom wanted to take us underwear shopping.
“Cassie,” I sighed, “I’m really, really sorry.” And I was. “But we’ll figure it all out.” Right now, I just needed to figure out how to put everything back in my locker.
The bell, loud and obnoxious, rang. I’d be late for English. Cassie had math.
“Hey, Laura.” Neil came from behind me and kissed my cheek. “Need a hand?” He lifted Frankenstein free and pressed the psych book and the Aeneid back inside. Everything else magically followed. That was Neil. I lowered my arm, and it burned something awful.
“See you tomorrow?” Neil said, grinning. He hurried down the hall, not waiting for an answer.
I wrapped my relieved arms around Cassie’s unmoving, tiny body. “Go to class,” I said. “I’ll walk home with you, if that’s still okay.”
Cassie shrugged, then nodded.
“The undies worked great, by the way.” I blew Cassie a kiss and beelined to English.