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Sima’s Undergarments for Women

Sima would say, afterwards, that she didn’t come to the bra business — it came to her.

“You need to keep yourself busy,” Connie told her. They’d run into each other outside the green grocer, where Sima had responded to her suggestion that they get a manicure together with an indifferent shrug. “I’ve been thinking about it,” Connie continued. “You need to get a job. Something to get up for every morning, something that’ll be fun.”

“A barrel of laughs, I’m sure,” Sima said, dropping three tomatoes into a plastic sleeve.

Connie ignored the comment. ”A legal secretary maybe, or a saleslady at A&S or Gimbels — just think of the discounts.”

Sima tied a knot at the top of the baggie, frowned. She didn’t know many working women her age: most of her friends had married straight out of high school, and though a few earned degrees as teachers and nurses or entered the family business — textiles, electronics — they stopped working when the babies were born, staying at home at least until all the kids had entered school.

“Come on, Sima,” Connie said, following her over to the oranges. “You know if you’d been raised anywhere but the Boro Park ghetto we came from, you’d have gone to college, gotten a real job. You’re so smart and so capable — you saved us from poverty, for God’s sake.”

Sima pretended to concentrate on the oranges — the pale ones, she’d recently read, were the sweetest — not wanting to admit how the compliment flattered. “I did not save you from poverty, Connie, I just taught you how to keep a budget.”

“Poverty, Sima. My boys would be in rags if it weren’t for you.”

Sima looked up. “Are you being fresh with me?” she teased, repeating a question she’d heard Connie put to Nate and Howie. Connie laughed. “Think about it, okay? Just do me that favor.”

Sima became the bookkeeper for three neighborhood shops: Faye’s Fashions, Michael’s Film and Processing, and Holy Land Travel. She’d been concerned about Faye’s Fashions before she began. Changing outfits three times before the interview, she was sure she wouldn’t be as elegant as they’d like, but it quickly became her favorite place to work. At the film and travel shops she sat away from the customers: at Michael’s she shared an old metal desk with a barely mustached teenager whose job it was to sort the photographs into the correct envelopes, and whose beet-red blushes gave away every bikini-clad woman — worse, Sima didn’t let herself think — he came across, and though Holy Land gave her a mahogany desk complete with olive desk-set, the leather cylinder always flush with pens, they expected only that she would sit quietly for the time it took to balance their accounts, then leave.

But at Faye’s she sat beside the counter with one of the shop girls, or with Faye herself — her hair dyed blond, her nails long, her voice husky from three decades of smoking, her smile always conspiratorial, always making Sima feel it was her and Faye against the world. Faye paid her for only five hours a week, ten at tax time, but Sima often stayed longer, standing beside Faye as they looked through the samples the salesmen brought or debated what to put on sale, and for how much.

“You,” Faye once said, “are the typical Boro Park woman. I’m here to give that woman flair, but I can only push so far — you’re like my litmus test.”

“If I’d wear it,” Sima laughed, “then anyone would, right?” Faye smiled. “Only thirty-five, and already the most conservative woman in Boro Park.”

“Except for the Hasidim.”

“Except for the Hasidic men, maybe. You wear short sleeves and pants, sure, but have you seen how nice some of those women dress? I’m thinking of designing a line just for them. Every spring we’d do a High Holy Days fashion debut. Can you imagine what I could make on hats alone?”

Faye became a friend. Sima loved sitting beside her, coffee and cookies always within reach, as she gossiped with each woman who entered the shop. “We sell them something better than themselves,” Faye would tell her. And though the clothing was mostly cotton and polyester, Sima felt, as she watched a woman grin at her reflection, turn before the mirror, that Faye really was a fairy godmother, capable of making even the dullest women gleam.

Sima confided in Faye, as all the women did. She told her that she was barren, to which Faye replied that barren was a terrible word, horrible, and she never wanted Sima to say it again. “Barren is a desert where nothing grows. That’s not you, Sima. That’s the opposite of you.”

Sima believed her when they were together, in the shop with the women laughing under cream-colored lights (“No one wants to be naked under fluorescents,” Faye told her), or smoking cigarettes in the backroom while Faye updated her on the gossip (“You didn’t know Hazel has mafia connections?”). But at home she felt barren, just as Faye understood the word: empty, useless. She and Lev had lost each other, and though sometimes the space she felt between them made her angry and sometimes ashamed, more and more she became resigned to what she imagined was not uncommon: two people living together who did not exactly love each other, but who had no reason to leave each other either.

All the women at Faye’s Fashions complained about their husbands, and though Sima suspected that the distraction of children made their marriages happier than hers, she also knew her own parents had not loved as she’d once hoped she and Lev would. How many did, she asked herself, and how much, after all, could one expect from life? The country was at war; the evening news full of images of dead soldiers, burned jungles. Her own sorrows were insignificant beside that reality, the barren desert Faye conjured no larger than a brushing of sand in the weeds that grew against the public bathrooms at Brighton Beach.

Sima had been at the store two years when Faye announced her retirement. It was not just surprising; it was a betrayal. “You’re barely fifty,” Sima argued, concentrating to keep her voice calm, “who retires so young?”

“I want to be a lady of leisure while I still have time to enjoy it.”

“Time? You’ll have fifty years.”

Faye placed her hands on either side of Sima’s face. “My own dear child,” she said, smiling, “I’m off on a new adventure. Can’t you be happy for me?”

Sima thought a moment. The answer punched her in the stomach: “No.”

Faye had a cousin who sold shoes from her basement and was looking to expand; she came by the store before it closed, bought what was left of faye’s handbag and belt stock. “Talk about ideal,” Sima told Faye after the cousin left, “a business in your own basement. You don’t even have to walk two blocks to work.”

“You know how she got it?” Faye asked.

Sima shook her head no, though Faye had told her before.

“Well,” Faye said, sitting down. “So — ” Sima listened again to the cousin’s story: her father had owned a shoe store on 13th Avenue and kept his overstock in their basement a few blocks away. Eventually his regulars realized the basement contained the best bargains and began to go straight there.

“Why pay rent when you’ve got a basement?” Faye asked. “For a small operation like they have, it’s perfect.”

“I have a finished basement,” Sima said, as if she’d never realized it before. “Actually, since we’re just one block off Thirteenth, it’s a great location for a store, right near everything.”

Faye looked at Sima. “Are you thinking of going into business yourself?”

“No, no,” Sima said, shaking her head. “I just meant I have a good basement for that sort of thing is all.”

“Well, but have you thought of it? I haven’t sold off all my stock yet. The lingerie — ”

Sima had thought of it — her own shop, women asking her advice — but didn’t want to admit the fantasy for fear of Faye’s reaction. “What would I do,” Sima said, “just up and open a shop?”

“That’s what I did.”

“I thought your father owned it first.” Faye waved her hand. “He sold junk. I changed everything when I took over.”

“Still,” Sima told her, “it probably wouldn’t work.”

Faye didn’t respond, and Sima took her silence as agreement. She wanted to protest — though she wasn’t much for fashion, it was surprisingly easy to order the basics and follow well-established trends, and as for customers, the truth was she knew some of them preferred her matter-of-fact approach to Faye’s exhausting need to entertain. But instead of arguing, she rejected the possibility herself, before Faye could. “It was just a thought,” Sima said, “nothing serious — ”

“I’ve got it!” Faye spread her hands apart as if unveiling a marquee. “Sima’s Showcase. Sima’s Showcase — is that not perfect?” Sima grinned.

Four months after faye sold her business, sima opened sima’s undergarments for women, financed by the money in the purple tallis bag plus a decade’s banking interest.

It was not, Sima considered as she waited in line at the bank, how her mother would have wanted the money spent. The savings was not a gift to enjoy or money to take a risk with but a lesson in thrift: all this I saved on the few dollars a week your father gave me. It spoke of denial rather than wealth, and as Sima tucked the cashier’s check into her wallet — almost all of which would go to buying Faye’s stock from her, along with the cash register, counter, some chairs and the dressing-room bench — she flushed with pleasure to think how the money would buy her independence, a life fully different from her mother’s.

In the first few months Sima felt like an impostor, just some woman feigning authority and expertise. She worried she’d made a terrible mistake; the customers wouldn’t come, she’d be left alone, buried, she half-joked to Connie, by all the boxes in her basement.

But the customers did come. Every time the doorbell rang, she felt flush with the miracle — they were here for her, and just some flyers she’d paid a neighborhood boy to distribute and word of mouth from Faye to account for it. And although she’d worried, too, that once in the shop she’d disappoint them, she soon found that the authority of shopkeeper gave her a new confidence to make small talk — a joke here, a compliment there — she’d never had before. As Faye’s stock ran out and she began to replace it, getting to know the salesmen and developing her own opinions of brands — what was worth the price and what wasn’t — she began to feel that her authority was earned. One afternoon Sima returned to Bloomingdale’s, this time as a spy, and was shocked to see the shoddiness of the lingerie they sold, the ignorance of the saleswomen, the complete lack of concern for fitting a customer properly.

“I could have walked out of there with a bra completely the wrong size, and no one would have cared,” she told Connie. “Is that not appalling?” Though Connie was not as shocked as she might have been — “You went to Bloomies? Why didn’t you call me?” — Sima knew she no longer needed Connie’s confirmation to make a thing true. Compared to department store clerks, she was an expert, and so an expert she became. She became more confident fitting women, pulling aside the curtain to check size and shape, forgetting, in the moments she evaluated the bra, that it was another woman’s body, as imperfect and insecure as her own, that she observed. Because she forgot, they forgot, and when the women smiled at their reflections Sima was proud to think that like Faye before her, she gave each woman just a little more comfort, a little more happiness, than she’d had before.

One day a customer surprised Sima by touching her on the arm, telling her it’d been a year since the shop opened, hadn’t it, and where had she ever gone before?

It was August, the air outside thick with the sort of still summer heat that made it impossible to believe the ocean bordered the borough, dark blue waves and pebbled sand and the rounded edges of glass shards worn by the sea. Sima thanked the customer, flush with pride — a feeling she had not known since the earliest days with Lev. After the customer left, Sima reached under the cash register for a photograph Faye had sent when she first moved to Florida: Faye on the beach in white slacks and a blue-striped sweater, her hands thrown open as if to say — here it is. “Thank you, Faye,” Sima whispered to the picture, “I owe you.”

The shop grew. From bras and underwear Sima expanded to slips, nightgowns, bridal wear, swimsuits. Sima’s Undergarments for Women became a neighborhood fixture, word of mouth spreading sales through and then beyond Boro Park. Women came from Bensonhurst, Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Crown Heights, and Flatbush; retirees visited from Miami and Boca Raton; children returned from Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles to shop at Sima’s, stock up until the next trip home.

It was from one of the visiting retirees that Sima learned of Faye’s death. She hadn’t even known Faye was sick — they’d lost touch years before — and even as she sighed and clucked through the details — breast cancer, a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, a two-year fight, a hospice at the end with a sliver of ocean visible from her bed — Sima folded the news away, waiting for a free moment to think it through.

She didn’t remember until she washed her face for bed that evening — the cold pull of water unfurling the knowledge of Faye’s death from a gray fold somewhere. Sima saw Faye as she looked in that picture, long since thrown away after being stained with diet soda: her arms spread wide on the beach, an endless expanse of sun and sand and sea cradled within that embrace.

Sima recalled Faye’s faith in her, her insistence that she was not barren. Her shop had given her purpose and pride, as Connie had predicted and as Faye had assured her. But Sima knew purpose and pride were not joy, did not send one spinning on the beach, arms flung open in full view. Remembering Faye, Sima remembered a time when she still mourned the death of that prospect of happiness — a time before resignation, before acceptance, a time when she was raw with the loss of love, aching.

Sima wished she could tell Faye how she’d admired her, wished the words didn’t always come only after those they were meant for could no longer hear. I lost her, she thought, holding her own gaze in the mirror, I lost her, and I will never have her back. Tears gathered, but as she opened the cabinet door, her face sliding away before her, she recalled too the other woman she’d lost — her own young self, the one filled with longing — and pressed them away. Thank God, she thought as she removed Lev’s cholesterol pills, closed the cabinet shut, thank God that’s all over.

Ilana Stanger-Ross, a 1998 Lilith intern, is a student midwife in Victoria, B.C. A version of this piece appears in her novel Sima’s Undergarments for Women (Overlook). (c) 2009 by Ilana Stanger-Ross.  www.ilanastangerross.com