“So you want to go to college?”
Father Simon leered at me from across the desk, his gray t-shirt stretched around the frayed seams. “But you’re a girl. None of the other girls in your class want to go to college.”
“Wouldn’t you rather get married? Take care of your husband, have a few babies.”
“I don’t want to be married.” I grinned, still happily oblivious to the peril of my situation. “I want to be a surgeon, and cut into people’s tummies to take their insides out!” From my inside blazer pocket, I produced my prized red-and-white-striped Number Two pencil and began to mimic the television scene I’d memorised years ago.
“I need O positive glitter in here, stat! Aye, aye, Doctor Barbie, right away!” The pencil danced in the air, miming in scene. “Nurse! Do we have IV access? IV access confirmed! Starting the transfusion now! Transfusion started, Doctor Barbie!”
Father Simon regarded me in a strange way, a way I’d never been looked at before. At least, not while in a room alone with him. I interpreted his gaze as solemnity, though, and stuffed my pencil back in its pocket.
“Cassie,” he said, finally, in a voice so gentle I could barely believe it came from the same man who’d once given me lines for ‘looking too hard at a leaf’. “You know that college is expensive, right?”
“I’ll work!” I said, firmly. “I can get job in a bank! Or in a clothing store! Or in an Arby’s!” A lightbulb turned on. “Ooh, maybe I could do all three!”
Father Simon shook his head.” Those jobs won’t make nearly enough money. Here, I’ll do you a favour. Would you believe that there is one job which could not only pay your way through college, but also medical school?”
I shook my head. Even my naïve, ten-year-old brain could grasp the exorbitant costs of my plan. “Mama said that I would need loans for that.”
“In other circumstances, she would be right. But I can think of one job perfect for a clever little girl like you, a job that would make even more money than you could ever imagine.” Father Simon pushed his chair back, and stood up. “Do you wear a bra?”
“A bra? Oh, yes. It’s got polka dots on it.” Mama had bought me my first training bra just the week before, saying it was time I ‘got used to wearing one’, especially before I ‘needed the padding and wire’. The straps were uncomfortable, but they were elasticated, and, since ‘big girls’ wore them, I bore the burden without complaint. “Do you mean that I should work in a bra shop, Father Simon?”
Father Simon smiled, deep crow’s feet wrinkling by his eyes. “No, not a bra shop, not any sort of shop, actually. This is a special kind of job, and only the smartest of girls can do it.”
“What about boys?” My younger brother, James, was quite fond of playing pretend, and I was hopeful that this was a game I could teach him too, if it paid as good money as Father Simon said.
“Sadly not. This is a very special job just for girls. Girls maybe a few years older than you, perhaps, but a very, very good way to get through college.” Father Simon began to unbutton his shirt. “It’s called stripping.”
I eyed him warily. Something in his voice had made me think that, perhaps, this wasn’t the sort of job Mama had been thinking of when she said I could get one when I turned sixteen. “What do I have to do?”
“You have to take your clothes off, in a very special sort of way.” Father Simon slipped his grey t-shirt off slowly, exposing knobbly, arthritic shoulders which creaked every time they moved. He then moved onto his yellow-stained muscle shirt, taking it off so slowly I began to wonder if he were all right.
“Are you hurt, Father Simon? You seem to be moving very slowly.”
“That’s the key, Cassie. You have to do it very slowly. The more slowly you do it, the better paid you’ll get. And you have to look at the people just like this, good eye contact, roll your shoulders, swing your hips…”
I thought that Father Simon looked like a fool, with his pasty stomach, grey chest hairs, and wasted biceps, dancing like one of the bad girls’ on TV, but all jokes flew out the window when he turned to me.
“All right, Cassie. Your turn. Just like I did.”
My hand flew to my blazer pocket, clutching my trusty pencil. “You mean, roll my shoulders?”
“No. Take off your shirt. Blazer first, shirt second, but leave your bra on for now.”
Father Simon towered over me by at least two feet, and I had to crane my neck until it hurt to see his face. “Can’t I just skip to the dancing part? I like dancing.”
“It doesn’t work as well if you don’t take your clothes off first.” Realising he must have been frightening me, Father Simon resumed his seat. “Come on, I’ll help you. Blazer first. There, good girl. Now your shirt. I’ll unclasp your bra afterwards.”
Halfway through my shirt buttons, I stepped back. “I don’t like this. It feels wrong.”
“Nonsense, Cassie. Don’t you want to make money?”
“Yes, but Mama said I shouldn’t take my clothes off in front of anyone without her.”
Father Simon leant back in his chair, considering this. “But wouldn’t your mother be happy if you made a lot of money? You could buy her something nice.”
I looked down at my half-buttoned shirt. “I guess you’re right.”
“Now, why don’t you show me that lovely bra your mother bought for you? No, no, come a bit closer. What lovely polka dots! Do you mind if I feel them?”
Before he could reach out to me, though, Father Simon’s classroom telephone rang. Cursing, he stood up to answer it, motioning to me to stay still.
“Father Simon here. Yes. Yes. Oh, really? No, I haven’t seen Cassandra. Nope, no idea where she is. Oh, the mother wants to talk to me? Ooh, no, it’s not a good time. No, really not a…no, no! I’m not…oh…oh…” Father Simon dropped the phone as the classroom door swung open. In walked Principal Walkers, Mama, Papa, and James.
“Father Simon,” said Principal Walkers, “Mrs Henderson is here to discuss Cassandra’s…oh, Jesus Christ, Cassandra. Jesus Christ. JESUS CHRIST!”
I gave Mama a small wave, mistaking everyone’s shock for confusion. “Mama! Look! Father Simon is showing me a new way to make money! It’s called stripping!”
Even now, I can’t determine whose face was whiter: Father Simon, who was relieved of both his teaching and clerical duties by the end of the day; Principal Walkers, who eventually asked for a transfer to an all-boys school in Maine; or Mama, who’d walked in the classroom to speak with Father Simon about my math scores only to find her only daughter topless, and laughing. It took James and me many years to decipher the situation, and even more before we understood the gravity, but one peculiar remnant remains, even to this day.
I’ve always had quite a fondness for polka-dot bras.