Black dots on lavender cotton. Cut into an “athletic fit.” Or so the box claimed. The model on the package was lean, tan and muscular, his near-naked body backlit in a crisscross of shadows. The words, muscular themselves in aggressive all-caps, hovered to the left of his enviable crotch. “ATHLETIC FIT.” Staring, enchanted, I believed them.
“Really…these ones?” my mother asked. Visible through a “peek-a-boo” slice of invisible plastic, the underwear stood out compared to the ultra-white Jockey’s and Hanes stacked all around them. Like the Israelites wandering the desert in search of salvation, we’d wandered Target’s crowded, fluorescent-drenched aisles. Summer was ending. School was approaching. A new year, new clothes. We’d stuffed our cart with discounted blue jeans, T-shirts, and ankle high tube socks. Everything she’d come to expect out of me.
Sweating, I crammed my hands as deep as they’d go in my pockets. “These ones,” my mother repeated, as if waiting for me to deliver the punchline to this obvious joke I was pulling. “You really want these ones?”
Heading home, in the back of the car, I hunched myself into a tight, human ball. Knees up to my chin, a fortress between myself and everyone else in the world. I poked my finger through the lip of the box encasing the briefs, flirting with the silky waistband within. The soft brush of the fabric was magic, spreading from the delicate skin of my fingertip through the rest of my body.
“Let me see those again,” said my mother, snapping me out of my spell. We came to a stoplight and I passed her the box, making sure to keep the near-naked model face down to the floor. She flipped the box up, examining the man, my underwear, and seemingly me by relation. Her eyes bulged, barely hooked in their sockets, and I wondered if the screaming mix of purples and dots were causing her actual pain. I hoped I might simply dissolve in my seat, that I might become as invisible as the atoms floating in and out of my nostrils. The light turned green and she passed the box back, sighing as she did so, as if something inside her had unexpectedly and unpleasantly deflated. “Sssshhhh…”
At home, behind a locked bathroom door, I drank my reflection. Naked, except for the briefs. Skeletal, hairless chest and pale, spindly legs vacuum-sealed into polka-dotted, plum-colored pastel. I flexed and posed and there, that 15-year-old boy in the mirror vanished, transformed into the man he’d seen on the box. White, high-waisted Hanes seemed like a dwindling echo from some other life. I ran my hands over my butt, my crotch, every part cocooned by that athletic cut fabric. I nodded at the person before me, assured I’d answered my mother’s question correctly. “Yes. These ones.”
“Do you ever wear these?” A slight voice behind me in the aisle, sheepish, yet clear, like my mothers, though decades had passed since we’d last shopped together. Same Target, however. Same underwear aisle. Same hope I’d find something unique among the endless sea of bleach white T-shirts and briefs. I thought I was alone in the aisle. Blinking, I turned toward the voice.
A girl, a teenager, considering a pair of men’s boxer shorts. She shifted her weight back and forth on her feet, tracing the leg of the boxers with a single, slight finger. Hardly a workout, shifting her weight, yet her breath came and went in a rush.
“No…I’m more of a briefs man myself.” Her dark hair was buzzed short on the sides, long on the top, swept forward in a pompadour seemingly immune to the influence of gravity. Blue jeans pegged to the top of her converse, she tugged at her white, loose-fitting T-shirt. I jabbed at the scattered assortment of briefs I’d been appraising. “I’ve never been a big fan of the boxers.”
She nodded, dropping her arms to her sides. She backed away from the boxers, held still for a moment, stepped forward, stepped back, held still, stepped forward. I’d witnessed this fragile behavior before, in pigeons that bounced and hopped at your feet if they caught you lunching outside. Hoping for crumbs, watching your gestures, deciphering what might be friendly or deadly, prepared in a moment to make their escape.
“But if I were going to wear them,” I said, “I’d pick a size smaller then my actual waist size.” I tapped on my hipbones. “Too big and they ride up like diapers. I’ve got a 32-inch waist, a medium in boxers, so I’d buy a small. They’re a better fit that way.”
“What about these?” she asked, pointing at a stack of striped boxer-briefs.
“Those are…better. And they’re a much tighter fit on your body. But the legs like to ride up. And if you have hairy legs, and I have hairy legs, the elastic just rips it right out.”
“So, you just like to wear briefs?”
I nodded. “I just like how they fit. And I like how they look.” Steady breaths now, holding still on her feet. Around us, shopping carts filled with groceries, electronics, everything expected, went wheeling by. “Are you shopping for you, or for somebody else?”
A fast, single shake of her head. She tugged again on her oversized T-shirt, pulling it away from her chest. “No. No, these are for me.”
“So, what do you like?” I could feel my breath now, in and out in a rush, hoping this final question was safe, hoping I hadn’t gestured too fast, that she wasn’t inclined to take off in flight.
She reached again for the boxers. White ones, striped ones, some with silly animal prints. Long legged and short. Options upon options for her to choose from. She squeezed a package in her hand. A three pack, light powdered blue. “I think I like these ones. I think I like boxers.”
“Then I say get the boxers.”
Still only her and me in the aisle. Just as it had been my mother and me, years before, driving home in her car. I wanted to watch her, I wanted to see. I wanted to walk her through this process, to suggest different styles and lengths. There were so many more colors than powdered blue, after all, so many more styles she might want to choose.
These ones? The thought flashed through my mind. You really want these ones?
And then, just as fast, I turned, smiling, walking out of the aisle, hoping to seem as invisible as the atoms floating in and out of her nose as she breathed. How many times had somebody watched? How many times had somebody suggested, when all she ever wanted was a moment of privacy, to feel magic spreading from one single finger to the rest of her body?
By herself now in the aisle, maybe just for a moment, but certainly soon enough by herself in front of a bright bathroom mirror, in baby blue cotton, taking in a shifting reflection. Seeing all that had passed, all that was there, and what glorious things were still yet to be.
Bio-Will McMillan was born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon, where he still lives today. A die hard Pacific Northwesterner, his essays have been featured in The Sun, Atticus Review, Redivider, and Hippocampus literary journals, among others. You can find him and his work online at willjmcmillan.com.