I hid the coiled spool of sepia film in the back of a desk drawer for years, years after I left the job, years after I moved from Michigan, years after I moved from the next state and the next. The desk was a family heirloom with Queen Anne’s legs that had grown increasingly wobbly over the years. The wide central drawer—where I kept the film—was deep. I came across the reel occasionally when digging for a pen or a paper clip. I usually uncurled and stretched out the strip, then held it to the light. The captured images were stored in a distant corner of my memory, but I kept the film to remind myself that I had tangible proof.
In my mid-twenties, following a difficult divorce and a few years of struggling—a dangerous ex-husband with a substance abuse problem and trying to raise a child on my own—I moved from Ohio to the town of St. Joseph in Michigan, to be closer to my parents. I needed a new start. I didn’t plan to stay long so I took a job as a waitress at a place called the Cove, a restaurant that had a popular bar with live music at night, usually folk singers stationed near a circular central fireplace. I was quickly promoted from food server to cocktails, where the tips were bigger and the loads lighter. My co-workers were similar in age and fun to be around. We often went to Silver Beach on Lake Michigan in the late hours after work. We sat in the dunes where we shared a bottle of wine or a jug of sweet kahlua and cream that the bartender concocted for us (free of charge) after closing while we watched the tail of the moon shimmer across the metallic waters until sunrise, my young son asleep at my parents’ house. Summer turned to fall, then winter: fewer tourists, smaller tips. I decided to extend my stay in Michigan and needed a more serious job.
Because I became a single mom in my early twenties, I was not yet a college graduate the summer I arrived in Michigan. After my divorce in Ohio, I worked as a reporter for a weekly newspaper while attending classes at Kent State. I wanted a similar job in Michigan so I could attend school at night. However, the daily newspaper in St. Joseph only hired college graduates full-time. I did some freelance writing and worked for about six weeks as a switchboard operator, providing answering services for local businesses and connecting ship to shore calls. So I was excited to interview for a full-time writing position at a family owned local radio station. I had a long interview with a man in his late forties (one of the family scions); he smiled and joked and asked questions that I knew verged on inappropriate though the exact nature of them has slipped from my memory. I squirmed in my chair, clasping my briefcase to my chest. The case contained a resume and tear sheets that he never asked to see. At the end of our meeting, he told me that the station didn’t hire divorced single mothers. Since he had learned my status early in the interview, I was angry. I knew that the policy was unlawful. But what could I do? He was probably in the same social circle as my parents. Besides, who knew what had happened except for the man and me. His word against mine. I had no proof. St. Joseph was not a large town and I would not benefit from accusing one of the prominent citizens of unprofessional behavior.
I thanked him and left.
Considering my options, I felt fortunate to land a position as an account executive/copy writer for a small advertising agency. I enrolled in night classes at Western Michigan University, a long drive from St. Joseph across flat, often icy, roads to Kalamazoo. In school, I felt I stood out among the younger students. In the daytime, I felt like a professional: composing copy, writing reports and making cold calls. Most of our clients were small. Our largest client—the one who paid the bills—was a frozen pizza company that had recently transitioned from local to regional, and is now a well-known national company.
The agency employed only six full-time people, including the secretary. Given our agency’s size, we were often required to assist in projects outside our regular purviews. I was particularly excited the day I was to be photographed for a brochure for the pizza company. I was young and attractive (maybe part of the reason I was hired at the agency without a degree) and had on occasion filled in as a model at the newspaper back in Ohio. Still I was flattered to be the star of the shoot. I also liked becoming a more involved member of the agency. Usually my position was solitary, sitting at my desk writing or talking on the phone.
I took extra care that day with my hair (thick and curly, swinging well below my shoulders) and with my make-up. I weighed thirty pounds less than I do today, but would have been called full-figured because of my large breasts. Although the catcalls and whistles I often received during that decade made me nervous, I remember walking with confidence during the shoot. I wore high heels (something I seldom did then and never do now). I even remember the texture of my button-down blouse, silky, and cream-colored beneath a pale gray hounds-tooth pattern, a little clingy, but appropriate for my position.
The shoot took place at a grocery store with the head of the art department, whom I’ll call Ned, and another man, who—along with an occasional freelancer—constituted the entire department. I had never clicked with Ned. A thin dark mustache rode his upper lip, the kind worn by villains who tied women to train tracks in old black and white films. In his mid-thirties, he wore pointy boots and tight jeans and constantly groused about his ex-wife and child support. His smirks and snide remarks made me uncomfortable. There seemed to be a meanness right below his surface, a coiled snake ready to spring at any wrong move. Though I did not receive child support, I think my status as a young divorced mom touched a nerve. The other person on the shoot, Ned’s sidekick, whom I’ll call Harold, was a pudgy guy about my age with a blonde bowl cut and a talent for drawing almost anything, particularly cartoons
Harold wielded the camera while Ned barked directions. Yet Ned seemed unusually cordial to me that day. I felt like an equal, a member of the team—not that any workplaces in those days promoted the idea of teams. They were hierarchies and Ned considered me well beneath him. He viewed Harold as a trusted valet, a guy who was elevated or demoted according to Ned’s mood. Either the butt of a joke or ready to laugh at one. But that day, we three were a team with me at the center:
Me walking down an aisle.
Me leaning into the frozen pizza case to make a selection.
Me, smiling, proudly holding our client’s round cellophane-wrapped frozen
pizza next to my face so that the label was prominent.
Me repeating all of the above, over and over.
The shoot took longer than expected but I felt good about it, good about a day away from my desk, especially good about my new camaraderie with the guys.
During that time, Ned and my immediate boss, Tera, were dating. Taller than me by a few inches, Tera had short reddish hair and wore outfits that always seemed in movement, long flowing scarves, silky blouses and trailing jackets and vests. She smiled in such a way that her mouth seemed to open more in the corners than the center, like a flat figure-eight on its side. Tera was in her forties and in my estimation, superior to Ned, more sophisticated, more intelligent. Though I thought it must be difficult for older single women (back then, forty seemed ancient to me) to find partners, I believed she could and should do better. Her relationship with Ned was volatile with frequent break-ups. Ned was from north central Michigan. Tera had grown-up and worked in Chicago, done public relations at large agencies and for Playboy in its hay day. She and I had a few personal conversations over lunches but given her ranking in our tiny hierarchy, those moments were infrequent.
Months after the shoot, Tera came into my office and closed the door behind her.
“I have something for you,” she said. “Use it any way you want, just don’t say where you got it.”
She handed me the reel of film and left.
For the first time of what would be countless times over the years, I unwound the spool and held it to the light. The film contained a few frames of me that had been used in the pizza advertisement. The rest of the pictures were close-ups of my breasts.
My headless chest coming down the store aisle.
My breasts straining at the buttons of the blouse as I dipped into the freezer.
My blouse opening a bit, revealing a hint of cleavage, as I made my pizza
My breasts proudly displayed center-frame as I held up the pizza—only the tip of my chin and the bottom curve of the circular cellophane-wrapped pizza visible in the frame.
I had been decapitated, only my breasts remained.
I can’t remember all of the emotions that swirled inside me as I looked at the film. Who had seen it? The three men at the agency? Others? Why would anyone want pictures of breasts that were covered by a blouse? Why did they do this? How much of the shoot was spent on my breasts? How much of my day had been given over to that? Did they hate me? Were they making fun of me? What could I possibly do with the film? Could one sue for such a thing? Would I have to face Ned in court? Was it “just boys being boys.” I wasn’t actually hurt, was I? If not for Tera, I wouldn’t even have known they had done it. In fact, if not for the vast number of panels containing only the expanse of my breasts—particularly in comparison to the few photos that contained my face and the pizzas—I would have thought the breast shots mere mistakes, moments when the camera slipped.
In the end, I did nothing.
After I left the agency, Tera and I became lifelong friends. She told me of the time in Chicago when she and another account executive took a client to lunch at a club that turned out to be for men only; instead of suggesting an alternative, the men went inside and left Tera in a lounge area that allowed women to wait. She was the primary executive on the account. She also told me that if I wanted to succeed in my career, I needed to put my job before my son, before family, before everything else. I listened to this advice but did not take it fully—I wish I had taken it even less than I did, though it was undoubtedly accurate at the time.
The day Tera gave me the film, I slid it into the back of the desk drawer at home. With the possible exception of later discussing it with her, I do not recall mentioning the film to anyone until now. I had a boyfriend then, whom I later married and later divorced. I did not tell him. My parents lived nearby. I did not tell them. I do not think I told any friends. I was ashamed and embarrassed that Ned and his sidekick had thought so little of me. What had I done to deserve this treatment? I was even embarrassed that my breasts were so large. How could I show the film to anyone? The agency later moved and disbanded. I don’t know what happened to Ned. I heard, though I can’t verify it since I don’t recall his last name, that Harold hung himself. Regardless, they both vanished from my life many years ago.
Yet I kept the film for at least thirty years. I kept the film as it faded to a light amber color, dried and stiffened—would probably crack if folded in the right place.
During my most recent move, two years ago, I gave the ancient desk to Goodwill. I don’t remember if I poured the contents of the center drawer into a box or into the trash. I still have a dozen or so unpacked boxes. I might come across it; I might not. For a long time, I didn’t know why I kept it. Far worse things have happened to me, and the bad things that have happened to me are minor compared to indignities others have suffered. But I needed it. As proof, yes, but proof for what? It’s not like I’m about to bring a suit against them—even if I wanted to, the agency was defunct years ago and the statute of limitations has surely run out—but I needed it for myself. Proof that even though I didn’t know what was happening at the time, it did happen, it happened to me and no one could say it didn’t.
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