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first person

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Illustration by Joy Kim

In the late 1960s, San Francisco teemed with flower-wearing hippies – and Kingston, Ont., resonated with mouldering music from 1907. The comic opera Tom Jones, presented by the Rotary Club, was about to open for a three-night run at the Grand Theatre, and somehow I had finagled a bit part in the chorus, along with my two 14-year-old friends.

During rehearsals, we hefted our imaginary serving trays and, together with the adult vocalists, bellowed out the opening number, which sprinted along like this: “Hurry, bustle, hurry, bustle, sarving men and wenches.” “Sarving” was a silly, archaic word that made us giggle, and in our schoolgirl skirts and turtlenecks, we didn’t look very wench-like.

We felt much more grown-up when we were eventually assigned our costumes. As support cast members, we wore the plainest outfits, but to Sheryl, Leigh and me they were pretty darn glam. Mine consisted of a baby-blue, off-the-shoulder blouse and a bright pink cotton skirt, cinched at the waist with a black corset. I also wore a white mobcap bonnet festooned with lace, which I tugged over my mousy hair, to which I attached a long synthetic extension. The fake locks dangled provocatively over my collarbone. I was such a picaresque babe.

But the best was still to come. Our director insisted no “sarving wench” could pass muster without a strapless bra. Our bras had straps, and exposing those would be deplorable.

At home, I negotiated an advance on my next four allowances in order to get one. Before we went shopping, I looped my mom’s sewing tape around myself to count the inches. No way – that couldn’t be accurate.

I met Sheryl and Leigh downtown. The lingerie store was close to the bowling alley where I used to celebrate my birthdays. Bowling, I scoffed at my younger self. As if that would ever happen again, now that I was so womanly.

The formidable matron who ran the shop was buttressed like a castle – her hips were curtain walls, her breasts horizontal turrets. She creaked as she approached.

Tongue-tied, we peered up at her. Finally, Sheryl, who was the boldest of us wenches, piped up: “We need strapless bras.” After a tick or two of silence, she added, “Please.”

The woman stared down her nose at Sheryl. She turned to Leigh, who was our cutest member, used to getting the attention of adults and, more recently, the 10th-grade boys.

“We’re in a play.” Leigh’s freckles were darkening under stress, like usual.

I had to save her. “We’re in an opera.” To me, it was imperative to cite one’s credentials correctly. Having done so, I continued to babble. “And our costumes show our shoulders. We need proper underwear. I mean, we need …ˮ

“Strapless bras.” Sheryl nudged us aside, as if Leigh and I weren’t mature enough to execute this mission without her help.

The proprietor yanked a measuring tape off the counter. “Remove your coat. Raise your arms.”

I followed her orders. Then I inhaled my deepest breath.

“Stop that.” She thrust a dangerously manicured index finger under my rib cage. Immediately, I wheezed out air and lost two inches in circumference.

“32,” she said. Her eyes narrowed. “Double A.”

My cheeks flamed. I grabbed my coat and held it like armour over my chest.

Leigh’s turn. Same result. I lowered my coat.

Things went even worse for Sheryl. The measuring tape snaked around her torso. I stole a peek. Where the tape pinched between the woman’s finger and thumb, the number was a shade above 30.

“Can’t help you,” she told Sheryl. “Get your mother to adjust one of your training bras.”

Poor Sheryl, for once speechless, shuffled backward through the store, her eyes downcast. Leigh and I glanced at each other. Suddenly, 32AA seemed acceptable.

Our new bras were white and lacked lacy come-hitherness. They looked like something a Betsy McCall Doll might wear under a party dress – wholesome, virginal and almost entirely flat.

Still, Leigh and I had strapless bras! On the bus home, we snuck glimpses at the boxed illustration of the well-endowed model clad in our lingerie. Sheryl stared out the window.

Nothing had ever exceeded opening night’s excitement of putting on our costumes and cosmetics and taking our spots on stage. We sarved and sang our hearts out. People actually clapped.

After the first intermission, our big moment arrived. I jammed my thumbs under the elastic of my bra and wriggled it higher. Even though I’d hooked it to its tightest notch, it felt precarious. I studied Leigh, whose freckles glowed under her pancake makeup, and Sheryl, who seemed more self-possessed. Her mom must have saved the day because no ghastly white straps poked out from under her blouse.

Our cue sounded and we began to stamp and click our heels. During rehearsals, we’d been so carefree. Now, in front of an audience, I was aware of my fake hair trying to detach itself and my bra threatening to become a waistband. My 32AA assets bobbled a fraction behind the beat, fighting gravity.

Somehow we completed our routine without incident. The crowd applauded with gratifying enthusiasm. We curtsied, exhilarated and relieved – fake hair and clothing intact.

The next day in The Kingston Whig-Standard, a staff reporter wrote, “One of the most enjoyable moments came with a spontaneous, high-spirited jig by the dancing members of the chorus in the second act.”

My big sister tried to give me a reality check by telling me we weren’t so hot – as if she were a staff reporter! Besides, even though she was a whole year older, she didn’t even own a strapless bra, so who was she to judge?

As for Sheryl and Leigh, they remained my steadfast friends. Our measurements may have been paltry, but there was nothing lacking with our brains and we excelled in school. Later, although we never became Broadway stars, we succeeded more often than we failed, supporting each other like practical, sturdy cotton straps through good times and bad.

At 14, it was all about bra size. Who knew that, eventually, there’d be so much more?

Sally Basmajian lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.