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I am vain. I’ll admit it. My sister used to sing that Carly Simon song to me. You’re so vain. You probably think this song is about you. I felt bad about it in high school, my vanity. Now I wear it proudly. Why not lean into it? My physical attributes are the one thing everyone compliments me on, asks me advice about, even though I work in educational policy and they should be asking me about early childhood education or something similarly meaningful.
“Your hair – it’s beautiful. What products do you use?”
“I’ve been looking for a dress like that. Where did you find it?”
“I never thought to wear that combination, but it works!”
Of course, the next event, I see them wearing pink and orange together, or the dress from Style House, or styling their hair wild and curly – a new perm imitating my corkscrew style. I don’t mind, I’m not the jealous type. Besides, I’m always looking for the next look, and really, it’s at least fifty percent in how you wear it. Throwing money into products or fashion isn’t going to do as much as putting together the whole look.
When I met Jake, it was a relief to have a friend that didn’t obsess on my style. He was more interested in societal change. We met up for craft beer and talked about city policy and the environment. We biked the county trails on the weekends. I didn’t think it could possibly lead to anything beyond friendship because I’m vain, and Jake, well, Jake is hairy in all the wrong places. He’s good about personal grooming, so it’s clean hair, but it’s everywhere. Also, he’s a bit gnomish in the face, which doesn’t quite work with his broad shoulders and unwieldy body. Yet there was an unselfconscious sexiness inside of him that over time, I couldn’t resist, and it had everything to do with him not making how I looked the basis of our relationship. He cared an awful lot about my perspective on issues, he listened to hours of my latest ideas on national curriculum initiative, and when he talked, he paid attention to my every reaction, which in my opinion, is what led to what happened in the bedroom. Sizzle. Bang. Pop. We got married.
Fast-forward seven years, and there I was my style undiminished and unaffected by marriage just as Jake’s lack of social convention in the physical sector remained the same. But somehow, there I stood, at Aric and Lou’s garage sale, staring at the framed Chippendales poster propped against the legs of a dining room chair. Each and every Chippendale – there were six of them – looking right at me, as if they knew something about me that I didn’t.
Aric walked over and stood beside me, his chin in his hand, relishing his thinker pose for a good moment before he said what he came over to say. “Well, here’s something we have in common.”
I blushed, still looking at the hard bodies with tuxedo bow ties and cuffs, waxed chests glowing. “Oh, I don’t know if I’d call this an interest,” I said. Jake and I were philosophically anti-objectification, which was not a mainstream view. Porn is touted as a relationship enhancer though there’s research that also shows the opposite; Jake and I felt quite sex positive without it and had agreed we’d each stay away. Chippendales weren’t porn, but they did objectify the male body. I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
“You know, they don’t dress that way anymore,” Aric said. “At least not everyone in a line, wearing the same bowtie and black pants. Now they all have different looks, though one might have a bowtie, another might have cuffs, as a nod to their individual brand. Lou and I were in Vegas in March, and wow, they’ve got an act.” He tapped the edge of the frame. “This here is vintage.”
“Love Vegas,” I said. I did, but not for the casinos or shows. It was the easiest place to use as home base for hiking the desert, climbing around Red Rock Canyon, and then going back to the hotel to have a phenomenal spa experience before an indulgent celebrity chef dinner. Jake and I made an annual trip of it.
“They cater to the ladies, though,” Aric said. He folded his arms and looked down at the poster. “Eighties Chippendales – you just can’t find that kind of glamour today.”
I pulled a lock of hair down and twisted, the thing I do when I’m not quite sure how to proceed. It was uncanny, their eyes. “Do you ever feel like they’re watching you?” I asked.
“Yes,” Aric said sidestepping first one way, then the other, his own eyes trained on the poster. “Oh yes! Mesmerizing, aren’t they?”
“You just made a sale.” I handed him a ten-dollar bill and he peeled off the blue price tag.
“Hang it in the bedroom,” Aric called after me, and I stopped halfway down the driveway. There was no way Jake could see this. Or know about it.
I went back up the sloping driveway toward Aric. I considered placing the poster in its spot against the chair, but that felt rude and somehow condemning of the conversation Aric and I had just had. As if I was above staring at a hard body. “Please don’t tell Jake,” I said to Aric. There must’ve been something vulnerable in my eyes because Aric’s eyes softened.
“Oh honey,” he said, his hand on my shoulder, “it’s like it never happened.”
“Thank you,” I said. As I walked back down the driveway to my car, I wondered if that had been pity in Aric’s eyes – oh I couldn’t stand to be pitied. My life with Jake was nothing to be pitied. Jake was not to be pitied.
I hefted the Chippendales inside and down the stairs into the basement furnace room, where I stared at them a long time. The Chippendales had stared back at me, their poster eyes following me the way that painting of Jesus did in the Vatican. I fluffed my hair and read approval in their eyes. I lowered my neckline. Yes, their eyes said. Yes, yes, yes.
No, I answered myself much later, after dinner with Jake, after wine, after soul-searing sex, where not only our bodies melded, but every single nebulous emotional brain cell forged into that mystical place. The Chippendales had nothing to do with this. I rubbed my palm across the dark hairs on Jake’s shoulders and he mumbled a line from a book we’d both read that was completely wrong for the moment – so completely and purposefully wrong that my laughter shook the bed.
If Jake found the Chippendales, I’d say it was a joke, a gag gift for my sister. I snuck downstairs while Jake snored. The Chippendales stared. Their eyes admired my flushed skin. I shook my head. No. I stuffed them behind the hot water heater, facing the cinder block wall, already forgetting them.
Back upstairs, I closed my eyes, at peace with myself and with Jake. I wanted exactly what I already had. I dreamed of six shirtless and soft-stomached Jakes in a line, dancing at me with bowties and tight pants, chest hair glossy with sweat, cuffs scratching up and down my body. I pulled off the six pairs of cuffs, the six bowties, the six pairs of pants, and naked, the Jakes melded into one giant Jake that lavished on me the shadowed intensity of morphing dreams.
Over the next weeks and months, Jake changed incrementally. He needed a belt for his jeans when previously his pouchy stomach held up his pants. His shoulders felt harder when I hugged him. He came home from work late, carrying a gym bag, and headed straight to the shower instead of the cutting board where we always chopped the salad veggies together. When we brushed our teeth at night, he didn’t notice the foamy faces I made in the mirror. He didn’t catch my eye in the mirror at all.
Then one Saturday I walked in on him in the bathroom. He was pulling wax strips off his chest, his surprisingly muscular chest, and barely flinching as the hair ripped out at the root. Three boxes of wax strips sat open on the counter. A bottle of self-tanner. Body oil. “It’s February,” I said. “February in Michigan.”
“Yeah, but we might want to go to the Caribbean last minute.” He leaned in and gave me a kiss. I saw his gaze flicker to the mirror as he kissed me a second time, getting the side of my face instead of the full-on lip press I was expecting. “How about it?” he said, flexing his biceps, his image rippling in the mirror. “Want to get my back?”
I pressed and pulled off long strips from his back. I rubbed in the self-tanner. He stood face forward toward the mirror. “You know you don’t have to do all this for me,” I said. “I love you the way you were. Exactly the way you were.”
He shrugged, and studied himself. He popped his pectorals up and down. “I like me this way,” he said.
I tried to catch his gaze, to laugh together over my raised eyebrows and pouty lips, but after a minute or two of him not noticing me, I gave up. I balled up the waxy hair strips and tossed them in the trash.
I went down to the basement. The Chippendales were still there, behind the water heater, facing the brick wall. I pulled them out. There was dust on the frame, but their faces and chests were polished clean, a round shadow of dusty haze around each one as if they’d each been rubbed like a genie lamp. I stared at their hard chests, their shiny white teeth, and finally, I stared into their eyes. One by one, down the line of Chippendales, I watched their eyes shift away. They no longer saw me. Their gazes stared beyond my shoulder, the way a bored partygoer looks around for the next conversation, looking for someone else who could do this all so much better.
Wendy BooydeGraaff is the author of Salad Pie, a children's picture book published by Ripple Grove Press. Her short fiction has been published in Across The Margin, Bending Genres, Oxford Magazine, and Jellyfish Review. She lives in Michigan, USA.