Issue 5

Fantasy for Sale

 · Nonfiction

Sweet dreams are made of this
everybody’s lookin’ for something.

— The Eurythmics

My eyes were bloodshot roadmaps the night I slouched into the campus drugstore and found Lou there. He slumped behind the cash register, a short, weasely guy with a stringy goatee, already balding at twenty-four. A couple weeks earlier I’d typed his master’s thesis, an exhaustive study of insects with chitinous exoskeletons producing, or not producing mucus. I still see Lou’s fingernails with their brownish-green half moons, probably residue from bugs he’d squashed on glass slides.

Dizzy with exhaustion, I’d met Lou’s typing deadline and smacked the paper down in front of him. He’d leered at me, slid a roll of cash from his jeans and peeled greasy twenty-dollar bills into my outstretched palm. I’d counted and recounted the cash.

At the drugstore, Lou hunched forward over the counter and checked out my bell-bottoms and tie-dyed tee shirt. I’m certain he glimpsed the opportunism beneath my fatigue. “You look beat. Still need money?”

“Of course.”

“Got a deal. Bathing suit modeling, real money.”

I didn’t think. I didn’t breathe.

“How does it pay?”

“About quadruple what you’re making typing.”

*  *  *

In 1967, as campuses across the nation exploded in flamboyant protest against the Vietnam War and the oppression of women, I was an eighteen-year-old, unmarried college student with a baby. I dragged myself around campus, occasionally gazing at students burning Draft cards, and bras, sometimes in the same trash can fires. My baby girl’s father had skipped the state when she was several months old and would not be seen or heard from for over thirty years.

My baby’s birth elated me but the responsibility was terrifying. More terrifying however, was thinking I’d have to accept my father’s well-intended checks in the mail. I was, after all, stalwart and intelligent. I could take care of my child by myself, thank you. I believed that recklessness and lurid behavior were behind me. I was a mature adult.

Money was a serious problem. My one-woman typing business for students had thrived, but sadly, I was the one woman. NoDoz and coffee-fueled all-nighters were killing my grade point. I was desperate for a new revenue stream.

*  *  *

Lou’s so-called modeling deal involved big boats. On eight consecutive, early spring Saturdays, I slathered on the baby oil and lolled around the decks of expensive cruisers in a lace bikini and a captain’s hat with gold braid trim. Arnie, the owner of the boat dealership, explained that when dirty snow crusts into mounds along Michigan’s freeways, men spend outrageous money on adult toys. He said fantasy was an easy sell, and that he was the best salesman he’d ever met. He told me to act jaunty in the hat.

Arnie was a red-faced, former defensive lineman from the Big Ten Conference and strutted around the showroom in a double-breasted blazer and a captain’s hat exactly like the one he provided for me. His baritone boomed as he pumped the hand of any man crossing the threshold, “‘Lo there big fella. I’m Arnold Buxnagel, owner and operator of this little place. Call me Arnie.”

The little place was the largest of its kind in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, but Arnie thought self-deprecation led to sales. Before a dazed shopper caught his breath, Arnie swept a beefy arm through the air, “Full bar here. What’s your pleasure? Don’t want me drinking alone, do you?”

The worst part of the job was listening to Arnie. Whenever the place emptied, he’d lumber over, cocktail swishing, pull up a deck chair and make oh-so-subtle remarks. “How you doing, cutie?” He’d smirk through brown eye slits and flash a nicotine grin, “That bikini’s okay, but got anything skimpier? It’d help business. Might be something extra in it for you.”

I gritted my teeth, focused on the money I was making.

To put the price of fantasy in perspective: In 1967, the rent on my two-bedroom apartment was $110.00 a month, including utilities. Each Saturday I worked the boat decks, Arnie gave me a crisp one hundred-dollar bill for four hours of hair-flipping and asinine smiling. I cut way back on my typing business.

*  *  *

When I wasn’t on display with expensive man-toys, I slogged around campus in bell-bottoms with strips of suede tying off my long braids. As an aspiring business major, I devoured Economics and the thought of being anybody’s sex object made my skin crawl. It felt fine for guys to be my objects, and they sometimes were, but never the other way around. At least not the way I rationalized it.

The conflict of my manifesto was mind-boggling and felt ludicrous, even then. I’d stopped shaving my legs in solidarity with radical female intellectuals, but within the construct of my reality, I couldn’t keep it up. Hairy legs, hideous enough in a bikini, would be unacceptable in the spike heels and evening gowns required for the big money modeling gig I’d set my sights on.

Despite my indoor bikini-wearing job, I was a feminist, like my idol, Gloria Steinem. I hung on every word of her TV appearances, even shelled out my hard earned cash for New York Magazine because she was a contributing editor. I clipped articles she wrote, filed them in a shoebox and kept her photo on my fridge with a banana magnet. I believed her when she insisted women could do everything men could and should be paid equally for doing it, and that they could wear their hair long and pretty like hers. And mine. Wow. It all made perfect sense to a now nineteen-year-old, single-mother-college-student-feminist-boat-model.

I quoted Gloria a lot. One drizzly afternoon, while tromping across campus, a friend announced that a guy she liked was taking her to an expensive restaurant for her birthday. She asked what she should wear and I let loose, “Who gives a shit what you wear? Just split the tab. Gloria says, ‘A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.’”

Another friend confided that she planned to stay home with her children, be a full-time mother someday, and I spouted off, as usual. “Gloria says, ‘A liberated woman is one who has sex before marriage and a job after.’” I was snide, told her that at least she had the sex part right.

*  *  *

When I showed up downtown for my modeling interview for the Detroit Auto Show, I parked underground at Cobo Hall. I was frightened, couldn’t decide which was more dangerous, the stairwells or the elevators. In 1968, a year after race riots decimated the city, petty criminals hung out and drug deals went down in Detroit parking garages. In this one, most of the lights were shot out and a guy in a fur coat, who looked like a pimp to me, was twisting the arm of a whimpering girl in fishnet stockings. Four or five hollow-eyed men clustered in a corner, shivering without coats, and my eyes darted around for the best escape. Figuring I could run from an assailant on the stairs, I raced up four flights to the office level and found the right room number.

A fifty-something redhead flung the door open on my first knock and a cloud of cigarette smoke escaped the windowless space. She was frazzled, had kicked off four-inch heels and her big toe protruded through a hole in her hose. A lime green miniskirt displayed lean legs and she seemed to pose between stacks of tottering file boxes on the stained carpeting. She thrust one hip hard right, planted her bony hand on it and spoke in the husky whisper of a lifelong smoker.

“I’m Lana. You must be Linda. Got five minutes. Headshots?” She stuck out her hand. “Which agency?”

“I’m Leslie, not Linda. What are headshots?”

Lana stared at me, assessing body parts, halting chest high, “Padded bra?”

She stretched her long arm out and poked my breast with three fingers.

I was startled, couldn’t speak, so she over-enunciated as if I didn’t understand English. “Are. You. Wearing. A. Padded. Bra?”

“No padded bra, I…”

Lana scanned the chaos, spotted her Zippo and Salems and lit up. Her upper lip crumpled like crepe paper and she squinted. “Jeans off. Turn around. Need to see your ass and thighs. Haven’t got all day here.”

I squirmed out of my jeans, stood up ladder-straight.

“Not bad, new face. Fresh is good.” She lunged forward and stubbed her toe. “Shit!” Three fingers grabbed my chin and shoved it to one side. “Let’s see the profile. Okay, no bumps in the nose. And long hair, you can twist it up to start, let it fall. Pin one side back after you shake it down. Perfect for the Lincoln people, I can hear it on the PA System… “Ladies and Gentlemen, Linda’s letting her hair down at the Lincoln Continental display.”

Lana’s meat market approach repulsed me, that jab at my breast, but I flashed my orthodontic masterpiece. I’d been told how much the job paid.

Fifty dollars an hour.

Lana was thinking out loud. “We’ll go for classy but slinky. How tall are you, five-eight or nine? That’ll work with heels. Portfolio?”

“No, Mr. Rossie…”

“Who’s he? Boyfriend?”

“No, he’s a Ford Dealer, number one in the nation, and my dad’s his lawyer and they got me this interview and…”

“Oh yeah. The college girl.” She tossed her mop-head back, rolled her eyes like an old time movie star. “Now I remember. Linda, the little smarty with a baby, needs money for tuition.”

Lana’s hawk wing shoulder blades jutted through her filmy blouse as she turned and tossed a pile of glittery garments from one chair to another. She limped over to a portable clothes rack and grabbed three gowns without dropping the cigarette clamped between her knuckles. “Here, take these.” I stumbled forward, caught the pile of sequins and winter-weight satin.

“Get into the black sparkles and walk out in the arena…pair of heels in the corner, use those. She grabbed the doorknob, “Got to make a call. Goddamn phone doesn’t work. Place is a piece of shit.”

The gray metal door slammed shut behind her.

*  *  *

I was hired as a poser-pointer, no lines to speak, and was assigned the worst hours with the fewest number of visitors. My job description changed fast, however, when I conjured up a Bette Davis growl and started chatting up the gawkers. By the end of my second day, I’d been promoted to the coveted, high-paying role of spokesmodel.

Spokesmodel performances were staged on revolving, shag-carpeted platforms. Technical descriptions of horsepower and axle ratios were required, as well as precise recitations of deluxe options, like speed-actuated door locks and stereo sonic tape systems. But the make it or break it part of the job was the creative use of glamorous body moves to emphasize car parts.

I was a high-energy multitasker, one who sprawled across engine hoods, smiled seductively and batted her eyelashes at old guys in pinstripe suits. I rested my breasts against the sparkling paint job, caressed the hood of a Champagne Metallic Continental and slid my fingertips along the front quarter panel. “What’s under your hood? Do you have the horsepower to manage this?”

During one of my early sprawls, a tuxedoed drunk grabbed my ankle and held fast, fingers crunching my sequined shoe strap. The Rent-a-Cop on floor duty swaggered over, was amused by my vulnerability and winked at the crowd. “Sure you want him to let go, honey?” I cringed as a bystander winked back, adjusting her pearls as her husband stared at the Mercury Marauder on the next platform. “Please, officer, he’s hurting me.”

My second year at the show, I worked the swanky Opening Gala and chose my own prime time hours. By then I was a seasoned veteran of standard spokesmodel moves: the ever-popular Cleavage-to-Paint Hood Sprawl, The Long-Legged-Full-Thigh-Exposure While Seated, as well as the tantalizing While Standing and/or Turning versions of the same move. But Lana had been right; the Long-Hair-Release-from-a-Twist-on-the-Head was the crowd favorite. Once, when I combined a Long-Hair-Release with an extended Hood Sprawl, a group of champagne guzzlers broke into spontaneous applause. Men gaped and women giggled, hypnotized by my Vaseline-smeared smile.

I didn’t understand the power of physical beauty then, and can’t help but wonder now, if I had, might I not have felt so vulnerable and degraded? Might it even have been possible to enjoy the strutting, sprawling and hair tossing? I’m still not sure.

What I am sure of is that I grinned and glittered for pay, and that I was knock-down, kick-ass good at it. I lubricated that smile and worked those crowds. My velvet voice described four-ply rayon tires and automatic headlamp dimmers as I posed in four-inch heels, for six hours at a time. Shoulders glistening with baby oil, I patted the seat next to mine, raised one eyebrow and spoke with calculated intimacy. “Get in and feel the luxury of the supple leather interior.”

But I smiled most when I collected my check at the end of the show. In the gloom of the underground garage, I locked the doors on my rusted Ford Fairlane, clicked on the overhead light and got down to business. I scanned my paycheck stub, first calculating the hours I’d been paid for, and then double-checking them against the total I’d recorded for the week. With swollen feet and throbbing calves, my mind lurched into reality: paying the bills, caring for my toddler, and maintaining a high grade point. The only fantasy I ever had was getting a full night’s sleep.

I pulled out the choke, coaxed the engine to start and focused like a fiend to stay awake on the long ride home in the dark.

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