After the theme music and the applause died down, Pennie Layne announced, “The women on today’s show are gorgeous, but they say men shy away from asking them out because of their physiques. Let’s meet them.”
The things you do for relatives.
I’d made my pile in the tech stock market of the ‘90s, parleying my initial investment into multiple millions over the course of six years. The parallels to the Great South Seas Bubble of the 1600s started to bother me in 1998; and recalling what Castenada had said, I quietly cashed out and shifted to a diversified portfolio that produced revenue from sources so varied that it would require a total collapse of the global economy to bankrupt me. The dotcom boom’s going bust didn’t affect my position at all. Taking another lesson from history, I turned some of my assets into cash and bought low, taking a position in New York City real estate. As a result, I was now sitting pretty and would never need to work again.
After taking the time to establish myself as a legal resident of a state with no income tax, I settled in Manhattan in a townhouse that had once been the permanent mission to the U.N. of an African nation that had gone broke fighting a war and been forced to move to more modest quarters. Five floors plus a rooftop conservatory and a full basement (and prize of prizes, its own off-street parking) gave me all the room I needed. A quiet restaurant two blocks away that hasn’t been ‘discovered’ by the gastronomic press and ruined for its regulars kept me fed well and a reasonably happy camper. I had time to watch the market for the odd opportunity, surf the Web, and read a variety of newspapers, books and magazines. A simple life, maybe; but apart from the absence of a permanent female companion who wasn’t after my money, I was content.
My peaceful existence was interrupted one early summer evening by a phone call from my Uncle John and Aunt Dorothy in Kansas. Cutting to the chase, they were finally going to take the Great Vacation in the Big City that they had always talked about, now that Cousin Jack was married and able to take care of their spread as well as his own next door; and where should they stay in the Big Apple, and what should they see, and could I possibly get tickets to The Pennie Layne Show?
Gah. The Pennie Layne Show was a smudged carbon copy of Maury, Montel, and the other voyeuristic crap that had replaced game shows on daytime TV. With the Beatles’ song as her theme music, Pennie Layne specialized in find-the-babydaddy DNA testing, makeovers of various kinds, Can You Spot The Transsexual games, sending out of control teens off to military high school, the giving of ultimatums to a lover/wife/husband, and the-ugly-ducklings-that-now-are-swans-and-smell-ME sort of TV that has the same morbid fascination for some that a really spectacular highway accident has for motorists. She was immensely popular among the kind of people who thought ‘culture’ was Masterpiece Theater.
I’d sooner have spent an afternoon listening to a politician running for office than attending a Pennie Layne taping; but they were my relatives and they weren’t hinting that relatives ought to stay with family in the big city, so I made the call and got the tickets. I made sure theirs were down front where the cameras could easily find them for their friends back home. I also made sure mine was on the crossing aisle about halfway towards the back so I could stretch out. (I might have to endure this function for the sake of family, but I refused to be uncomfortable in the process.)
When show day arrived, I rendezvoused with Aunt Dot and Uncle John in Times Square. When they said they liked Mexican, I took them to lunch in a little place nearby where the food is good and the beer is better. We got caught up on who’s doing what in the family and the whatever-became-ofs of folks I’d met when I’d spent summers on the farm with them. Soon enough it was time to get to the studio for the taping.
In the studio, Pennie Layne was introducing the women that were the subject of today’s show. By ‘physique,’ she meant they were bodybuilders. They came strutting out onto the stage, mostly dressed in bikinis and high heels, with catsuits or skintight trousers with form-fitting blouses varying the fashions. Taken as a group, they were intimidating.
Two or three looked as if they could bench-press Arnold Schwartzenegger 100 times before breakfast. One black woman put me in mind of Grace Jones in her prime, had Grace gone for bulk instead of speed and snap in her bodybuilding. The forbidding looks on a couple of them would give a Marine DI pause, considering they looked as if they could tie a rifle into a knot and use it as a scarf. Their muscle definition would do for anatomy textbook illustrations.
What got me was the hostility they radiated. Not the chip on the shoulder kind men sometimes get from aggressively lesbian females, though sexual orientation wasn’t relevant here. This was more the ‘Are you looking at ME?’ challenge I’d have expected Escort bayan from morose laborers in a blue collar bar after one too many. It was an ‘I dare you to prove you’re more of a man than I am a woman’ look. I settled back to watch the show, letting the flashcard we’d each been given on walking in with “Hot to Trot” printed on one side and “Too Buff to Boff” on the other, lie unused on my lap.
As it unfolded, the hook Pennie Layne wanted to hang the show on was obvious: that ordinary guys were so intimidated by the physical strength and the size of these women, they were afraid to come near them. She went from gal to gal, collecting stories that ran the gamut from ‘Oh, pity me,’ to ‘Prove you’re good enough to go out with me or stop wasting my time.’ I listened to them talk when the cameras were off during breaks in the taping. There was only one that to me seemed worth a guy’s romantic attentions.
She was about 5’7” or 8” with pale blonde hair moussed into a high flattop crew cut. Her pale skin and invisible eyebrows marked her as a genuine blonde, likely of Scandinavian extraction. Her fine-boned figure suited the B/C cup size of her breasts. They appeared larger than that because of her pectoral development, enough to pop them forward without making them look like they were on a platter beneath the paper-thin smooth leather halter that showed the outline of her nipples. She had clearly worked to bring her waist down; six-pack abs looked good on her above a skimpy barbarian-leather bikini bottom that showed off her small, tight buttocks. The skintight, thigh-high boots concealed exquisitely shaped legs. She looked like a tigress at rest, not the female Charles Atlases some of the other women resembled. I wondered what her story was.
The lights came back up to taping intensity. Pennie began interviewing the blonde I’d been eyeing.
“This is Birgitte,” Pennie said, walking over to her. (I idly wondered if Pennie Layne realized that this woman made Pennie’s figure, which normally contrasted favorably with the overweight guests she typically had on the show, look like a heifer in a cornfield.) “She works as a dominatrix, but says she wants a real man that will treat her like a real woman and not a bitch-goddess. Isn’t that right, dear?”
“That’s right, Pennie,” said Birgitte, arching her back and lacing her fingers behind her head for a minute before standing up straight again. “I see all kinds of men in my work,” she went on, a trace of foreign accent in her speech, “but all they want is to lick my boots, have me tie them up, abuse them with speech and beat them. They don’t see me as a woman.”
“And how long has it been since you’ve been out on a date?”
Birgitte paused. “More than a year, I think. Yes, Christmas a year ago. My friend Angela – “
“You mean to tell me that you haven’t had a real date in a year?” interrupted Pennie. I don’t believe it!” Turning to the audience, she demanded, “What do you think? Is Birgitte hot to trot or too buff to boff?”
The audience reacted like trained seals, with green and yellow “Too Buff to Boff” signs waving for the cameras as a rumble of boos and dislike rolled toward the stage. I noticed the men and women booing and waving their signs with the most enthusiasm were all overweight and unattractive, their plainness accentuated by the glee on their faces as they gave back some of the mockery they’d received over the years to someone they saw as a Pretty Person. The few favorable red and gold “Hot to Trot” signs were lost in the shuffle. Pennie smiled, secure in her ability to manipulate the sheeple. I loathed her for it. She moved on to the next step in the dance.
“Do you mean to say that there isn’t a single man in the audience that has the nerve to ask Birgitte here for a date? Not one of you?”
A fresh wave of derision washed out from the audience. Birgitte flushed, whether from shame or embarrassment I couldn’t tell.
“I can’t believe it!” called Pennie over the crowd. “There isn’t a SINGLE GUY with enough guts in this audience to date a dominatrix?”
More catcalls. Suddenly I’d had enough, more than enough and a long way past enough.
“I DO!” I shouted, getting to my feet, striding along the cross-aisle and down the wide steps that defined the rows of seats. Cameras swung to follow me. I reached the bottom and stepped onto the stage. I could see Pennie Layne motion out of frame to the security people starting toward me to stay where they were. I addressed the hostess.
“You asked if any male in the audience has the guts to ask this woman for a date, dressed as she is and knowing what she does for a living. Well, I do.” Turning to Birgitte, whose eyes were wide with surprise and who had one hand in front of her mouth, I extended my hand.
“Come with me if you want to have some fun,” I said, belatedly realizing that I sounded like Arnold in T-2: Judgment Day. Probably NOT the image I should be projecting here. As hostile as some of these women were, I might wind up as the guest Bayan Escort of honor at body-slam practice!
Birgitte looked at me for a minute, sizing me up. Obviously the show staff had briefed her on what to expect, but someone from the audience calling Pennie’s bluff and departing from the script hadn’t been covered. She was on her own.
She reached out and took my hand.
“Let’s go,” she said softly. Without further ado, I began to lead her back up the steps to the exit doors as the audience applauded.
“WAIT A MINUTE!” shouted Pennie. The crown quieted and we looked back at the stage. “You can’t just run off with my guest!”
“Well, DUH!” I replied. The audience laughed and Pennie flushed, on the verge of moving the guards in. I waved for quiet and went on, “Look, this is obviously a makeover-and-listen-to-the-pshrink show, and maybe a blind date as the capper. You can’t make eight women over in thirty seconds. It’s two o’clock now. What time will you start unveiling the makeovers?”
“Five o’clock,” came the director’s voice from the control booth through the speakers.
“We’ll be here,” I promised. “You, with the portacam on your shoulder, grab a fresh power pack and get moving. We’ll be at Bloomingdale’s.”
“Stay with him, Charlie, we’ll catch you up” said the disembodied voice. “Go with it, Pennie.”
Pennie shot me a dirty look for spoiling her ‘surprise,’ but total pro that she was, resumed taping. We could hear her talking as we left the studio, “Well, it looks as if there is at least one man in New York who has the courage of his convictions. We’ll bring you reports on Birgitte as they happen. And now…”
Charlie the cameraman, out of breath, caught up with us at the elevators. “We have limos on call; I just called for one. Easier if we’re together.”
We introduced ourselves as we rode down to the parking garage under the building. While we waited for the limo to turn up, I helped Birgitte into my trench coat to conceal her ‘working clothes.’ Enroute to Bloomie’s, I got hold of the manager and explained the problem and what I needed. He had me give my phone to the driver and gave him instructions. Shortly afterwards, we pulled into a loading dock on East 60th Street and took the freight elevator up. Charlie had obviously shopped at Bloomingdale’s before and was surprised when the elevator stopped at the seventh floor.
“I thought Bloomie’s only had six floors.” I showed him my Bloomie’s charge card. Unlike the typical Bloomingdale’s card, mine has 3 gold stars in one corner.
“This card gets you onto the seventh floor. There are private showrooms and shops for celebrities and people that can afford the prices up here. Believe me, you pay for this privilege. Come along, Birgitte, we have to be back by five and there is much to be done.”
My first stop was at a famous clothing designer’s shop. Colette was the saleswoman on duty. I had dealt with her before. Her eyes widened when Birgitte took off my coat, but said nothing. At my request, she provided a long robe and measured Birgitte from head to foot in the dressing lounge. Telling Colette where we were going, asking her to please box up Birgitte’s costume and that I would be right back, I took Birgitte on to the hair salon in the robe.
There I instructed the stylist to redo Birgitte’s hair in a style that was softer yet complemented her face, to redo her nails in French tips, “plus whatever else she wants that can be done in an hour, and send for a selection of perfumes, makeup and lipsticks that go with her skin.” Charlie stayed in the salon to document this part of the makeover.
Going back to the designer’s, we walked through the showroom. I selected half a dozen outfits that Colette and I agreed would show Birgitte off in the best possible light. Calling in a favor, Colette persuaded the salesman at the shoe salon to look over our selection of clothes and bring shoes to suit. He did so, pausing to peruse our live Barbie doll and measure her feet first. While he was thus engaged and Colette was laying out the wardrobe, I made another call to a little lingerie shop I know, requesting part of my order be delivered to Colette here immediately and the rest to be sent to my townhouse. I then visited the shoe salon and selected one pair of pumps and a pair of strap sandals to be added to my order and delivered to the townhouse. Calling home, I warned my housekeeper of the impending deliveries and told her to make sure the bar in the library was properly stocked, including canapés. One can but hope, and it would not hurt to be prepared.
It was closing on three-thirty when the hair salon delivered Birgitte back to me. The timing was perfect; Colette had taken delivery of the lingerie barely five minutes before, just time to unwrap it and lay it out. Still in the robe, I could see that the cosmetologists had manicured her top and bottom, and applied a subdued makeup that brought her eyebrows into visibility. Her hair had been cleansed of the stiffening gel and restyled Escort into soft curls that hugged her skull, suggesting a close-fitting cap of feathers. The effect was marvelous. What else might have been done, the robe concealed.
“Colette has a selection of outfits for you, I said, ignoring Charlie. A master of his craft, he was like a stagehand in a Chinese play: as unobtrusive as the camera light allowed him to be, never underfoot or in the way but never missing a shot either. I made a mental note to get his particulars and have him checked out; he was too good a cameraman to be wasting his time on a hack TV show. “Take a few minutes and try them all on before you decide which one to wear and we ship the others. But don’t be too long, because we promised we’d be back at five.” Smiling, and with an echoing smile and a raised eyebrow from Colette, Birgitte went into the lounge to play fashion model.
“Pennie wants to talk to you,” Charlie said, taking the camera off his shoulder, flipping the viewscreen on and turning it outwards so I could see what he was having relayed to him and plugging in a headphone so I could hear. “Tape’s rolling.”
“Will you be back on time?” Pennie asked. It felt strange to be taking to her this way, very Edison Carter of Network 23.
“Barring a traffic jam,” I promised.
“And what do you have in mind for after the show? The other girls will be going out on computer-matched dates over the next couple of days. Charlie can accompany you if you are going somewhere tonight.”
“You know, it would be easier if we didn’t have to go back,” I said. “Could you work around that?”
Pennie thought for a minute. “Yes, if you take her somewhere interesting. Can you shoot the ‘after’ footage where you are for relay, Charlie?”
“No prob,” assured the cameraman. “It’s presentable, and I can get all the details as to whom to thank for the credits. Let me get set up. You’ll repeat it for the studio audience?”
An hour later, Charlie was ready to go, listening to the audio track of the show over his headphones, with the mike shut off so the sound wouldn’t repeat. At his cue, Birgitte came out of the lounge with a runway model’s strut, her hips swaying seductively in a fawn colored skirt with brown piping that struck four inches above the knee, tight enough to show her ass to good advantage without being hooker-tight, plus a matching short jacket over an opaque, flowing ivory silk blouse with a plunging neckline. Pumps that matched the skirt, with three-inch heels that made those lovely legs even shapelier, enhanced the sway of her hips. A simple, heavy gold rope necklace and matching earrings that I had bought at the jeweler’s across the way after Birgitte and Charlie decided on the outfit completed the ensemble. She did a slow turn to show the line of the suit and her perfect legs, and then walked to where I waited against a neutrally colored wall. Charlie flipped one earphone around and pointed to me. I could hear Pennie Layne as if from a distance, but my attention was occupied by the gorgeous creature that had taken my arm and was looking at me with admiration.
“Well! Quite a difference from ‘before.’ And what, pray tell, do you have in mind for the rest of the evening?” she asked, a wink-wink-nudge-nudge tone in her voice.
“I thought that we’d walk over to the Park Plaza for drinks and dinner, and then perhaps a carriage ride in the park after; that is, if Birgitte wants to,” I said.
“That sounds delightful,” said Birgitte. “In all the time I have been in New York, I have never taken a carriage ride. It will be a touch of home for me.”
“And after the carriage, will you indulge in another kind of ride?” asked Pennie lewdly. I flushed as I heard the audience hooting at her ‘wit.’
Birgitte drew herself up. I was aware of her breasts jutting an inch away from my arm. Haughtily as any queen, she replied, “That is no concern of yours. Shall we go?” she asked me.
“We shall,” I agreed, and we swept from the shop as regally as royalty could have done.
“And, CUT!” shouted Charlie, just barely not laughing. “Stewart Granger and Katharine Hepburn couldn’t have done it better. Listen!” He extended the headphones. The applause and laughter coming from the studio explained the irritation on Pennie Layne’s face in the tiny monitor screen. In baiting Birgitte, she had forgotten that she was herself on of the Pretty People, and that the sheeple aren’t fussy as to which Pretty Person ends up with the egg on her face as long as they get to watch. I looked at Birgitte.
“Somehow I don’t think Pennie Layne will be asking you back for a return engagement,” I said. Birgitte’s shy smile lit up her face and she blushed.
“Somehow I don’t think I’m going to be needing one,” she said softly. We walked to the elevator, Charlie momentarily forgotten. He knew where we would be and would catch up at the Plaza.
The walk to the hotel and the dinner that followed passed in a haze. I could have been eating floor tiles and drinking water from the East River for all the impression that the excellent food and wine made on me. All my attention was focused on the Danish beauty seated next to me on the banquette. She seemed just as caught up in me as we talked about ourselves.