2012 was the year of The Girl in the Leopard-Skin Brassiere. In 2012, for three whole months, she occupied the drawing room of my imagination.
That year, the heat forced people out on to their balconies in vests and shorts. Nature’s way of nudging us to talk. I didn’t have a problem. How else would I—a bland, thirty-three-year-old loner with neither money nor charm—have gotten to see The Girl in the Leopard-Skin Brassiere?
I was standing on the balcony in a thin cotton vest when I spotted her. She was hanging up clothes to dry. As she raised herself up on her toes to reach the laundry line, her t-shirt rode up her petite torso, revealing a strip of midriff. After a minute, she paused to catch her breath.
Then, in unabashed frustration, she raised her t-shirt with both hands to let the air hit her. She stood that way for about thirty seconds; her tan, sweat-beaded stomach gently heaving in and out. That’s when I noticed that she had on a leopard-skin brassiere. I had never seen one until then. Suddenly her drifting gaze settled on me.
Embarrassed, I proceeded to head back indoors, when she smiled. It was an oddly assured smile. It was the smile of a woman acknowledging an acquaintance at a store. And it prompted me to do something that makes me wonder if the body, sometimes, has a mind all its own. I quickly raised my vest too, ostensibly to let the air cool me.
Of course, I was balancing things out, letting her know that since I had seen hers it was only fair that she see mine. But if she noticed the reciprocity of my gesture, The Girl in the Leopard-Skin Brassiere gave no indication of it. She simply lowered her t-shirt and went back inside.
And that is how I started to look out for The Girl in the Leopard-Skin Brassiere. My first thoughts were not clean. I started to imagine her breasts, their colour and heft. After I was done with my physical appraisal, I commenced my more ‘socio-psychological’ appraisal.
Is ‘appraisal’ too formal a word? Perhaps it’s a hangover from my job. I am a corporate counselor. I observe people. Then I tell management who’s alright and who’s likely to crack. I meet many people every day and I get to know their fears and hopes. Then they get better and I may never see them again. All I have are my notes.
Hypothetical appraisal of The Girl in the Leopard-Skin Brassiere.
a) A leopard-skin brassiere signifies class. This woman is not your impenetrably dull middle-class girl. She is decidedly upper-middle class.
b) Despite having on a leopard-skin brassiere, her demeanour suggests a genteel temperament. Does she have a quiet outer layer and a romantic inner layer?
c) In that case, what does the leopard-skin brassiere really tell us? We know that ‘objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one’. Did she buy the leopard-skin brassiere as a substitute for adventure?
d) But here she is, hanging up her clothes to dry at 9 a.m. on a Saturday.
e) In summary, is The Girl in the Leopard-Skin Brassiere ripe for adventure?
You are a very lonely man, you might say. But something about this girl and her leopard-skin brassiere spoke to me. She seemed to be a woman in need of release.
Each time I spotted her on her balcony, I dreamt about her at night.
In my first dream about The Girl in the Leopard-Skin Brassiere, we are co-workers sharing lunch. I am attracted to her but I am unsure if she feels it too. “It’s going to rain. I was thinking of leaving early. Do you want a ride?” I ask. “Yes,” she smiles. “Ok. Do you want to see my vintage book collection? I have a hardbound first edition of The Great Gatsby.” “No you don’t,” she smiles disbelievingly. “I’d like to see that.” We smile and continue eating. Everything about her is decorous. But does the decorum hide contempt for life’s vapid respectability? Has she, like me and Jay Gatsby and many others, also erected a brilliant social façade with a restless illusion hiding underneath?
In another dream, we are in a high class diner. Her face is framed by curls and her eyes are like the ocean at night. They are, at once, both still and in motion. I find myself thinking: does she want more from life? “What are you eating?” she asks as her eyes scan the menu. Nothing. I can’t afford this place. This place is for rich girls who wear leopard-skin brassieres. Like you. But who are you underneath the good manners and the clothes? Sometime during dinner, I steer the conversation to adultery. Would she make love to someone outside of her marriage?
She pauses to think. “Yes,” she says.
I try to appear indifferent.
“But,” she clarifies, “I must be in love.”
“Oh,” I ask, “what if it was just sex?”
“No,” she says with affected but acute disappointment. “I wouldn’t respect you then.”
A bird spreads its wings inside my chest. Has she just let slip her desire? Here I am, in cautious awe of this woman. But is she after all just another latently adventurous fish in a water culture, capable of slipping through the nets and out into the ocean if offered the right lure?
So many other dreams.
We are making love. It is rapturous. Her body is lean as a willow and supple as a pancake. Seconds before she reaches her climax, a shudder passes through her body—which is positioned above me—and I am reminded of a fish out of water, thrashing iridescently on the deck. When she is done, she whispers in my ear. “Promise me that this, what we have between us, will never settle.” “Of course,” I say. Here we are then: two people who were trapped in cages, now secretly in love and devouring forbidden fruit. What will be the cost? And what will we finally do to each other?
In another dream, The Girl in the Leopard-Skin Brassiere and I are talking in bed. But something is wrong. Her eyes are full of inconsolable shadows.
What’s wrong, I ask. She shakes her head but I know better. Finally she says, “I am not at the center of your world anymore.” “Why do you say that?” I ask. “You seem to get by perfectly well without me,” she says. “I worship you,” I say. “But you have a life without me and sometimes I wonder who the real you is, the one here with me or the one out there,” she says. She pauses. “I need to know you miss me sometimes.” I think to myself: I’ve given this girl my soul. But I’ve also learnt to detach myself from her so I am not emotionally annihilated when this ends. And it will end. But what she’s telling me is this: I want more. And for some reason that is both arbitrary and significant, I think of Elizabeth Taylor.
In another dream, we haven’t messaged each other in two days. I let her be. Then she comes home. We make love. It is intimate but I think of a bomb that is ticking underneath the ocean of blood in her heart. “Why didn’t you message me?” she asks later. “I was giving you space,” I say. “I don’t need space, I need you,” she says. Then she starts to cry. She flings the pillow to the floor. “You need to ask yourself if you really want this,” she says and walks out while I wonder if I mistook her permanent sense of insecurity for a deep soul.
These dreams went on for days. And even though they prophesied a rocky entanglement, I still wanted to date her.
Then for a whole week, she never appeared.
I assumed she was out of town. A month passed. Where was The Girl in the Leopard-Skin Brassiere? Had she found a new house? Did she think I was a voyeur? Had she broken into my dreams and discovered that a relationship with me was going to be fraught with confusion and insecurity? Would I see her again? I couldn’t get her out of my mind.
One Saturday, five weeks after she went missing, I walked into a lingerie store and asked the salesgirl to show me leopard-skin brassieres. She showed me two kinds. And despite my moroseness over the disappearance of The Girl in the Leopard-Skin Brassiere, my mood brightened. I chose a pattern.
What size? the salesgirl asked. I must have looked helpless because she smiled and said, Do you know your wife’s bra size? We’re not married yet, I said. Then I said, I believe that will be a 34B. She nodded and I proceeded to the billing counter.
Back home, I sniffed the brassiere. It smelled wholesome. Like a nutrition bar. But I wanted to smell her skin on it. I wanted it sullied, eroticised. And so I hung around in my balcony. She never came. There was no TO LET sign placed on her window. That meant she was coming back, didn’t it? I imagined that when she reappeared I would ask her out. We would discuss our favourite books. I would be ready with my list. I made a mental note of not saying the names in a rehearsed manner. I must sound original and spontaneous. From my dreams, I knew she had a dislike for practised gestures. Her lover must invent a new language for her.
She never returned.
After a while, I erased her from my mind and went about my business. I avoided the balcony for a few Saturdays. I hung my wet clothes in the living room to dry. But like old and still-potent cigarette smoke, The Girl in the Leopard-Skin Brassiere lingered in my memory.
Then one day I saw her at a shopping mall. She was rummaging through soaps. I sidled next to her. Hi, I said. She looked at me and smiled. Hi, she said.
You don’t know me but I have lived a lifetime with you. You like George Orwell and my slapdash piano playing and after we make love, you always like me to narrate one of my spontaneous stories.
Really? Why aren’t we together then? What happened?
I’m not sure. I think I might have allowed my paranoia to adulterate our idyll. Or you might have wanted to wring my soul out. Maybe both.
Her voice broke my reverie. “Have we met?” she asked. “I was your neighbour,” I said. “Oh, okay. I have moved away from there,” she smiled. We parted. Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves standing side by side at the billing counter.
We passed a giant promotional poster of The Great Gatsby. “And now they’re promoting movies in supermarkets,” I said, more to myself than to her. “I want to watch it, though,” she remarked.
“I have a hardbound first edition at home,” I said. It slipped out automatically. “Really?” she smiled. Her eyes were like the ocean on a summer afternoon.
Yes I do. But maybe this is as good as it gets. Because if you come home, we may fall in love and then sooner or later I will try and protect myself from emotional annihilation whereas you, on the other hand, will want more. You will want to swim further out into the ocean, to that flat line of the horizon where the sunlight starts to burn our eyes out of their sockets and the water heaves restlessly around us. Blinded, we will cut our feet against the rocks, carelessly spilling our blood into the ocean. From then on, it will be just a matter of minutes before the sharks come.