I emerged from the parking structure into the dove gray morning of campus. Gold leaves and black branches of the beech tree behind the white sycamore pulled my eyes toward the bell tower. All within sight was earthy, even the old red brick buildings and gray sidewalks, winding like streams among oaks and maples. But there, within a few feet of me, rumpled on the sidewalk near the stairs of my building, was something arresting in the muted November landscape. When I got to it, I could see that it was a pair of woman’s panties -- cotton, white, and huddled, like a bunny shivering in the wind.
Those underpants lay there unattached, like the ones I didn’t need in the hospital, tucked into my bag in the birthing room when I was in labor for my first child. You don’t need anything between your bare perspiring skin and that thread-bare cotton gown, which is only a pretense of modesty, helping you feel less exposed, but open in the back and tied at the neck. With my feet in stirrups, legs V’ed for the doctor to check my dilation, which was taking forever to get from 2 to 4, let alone the pushing goal of 10, in walked a cohort of interns and their instructing doctor, with me and my birth canal a specimen for instruction on their teaching couch. I felt my spirit climb the wall to the ceiling as if to an observation balcony behind glass, looking down at a woman’s body being examined by my doctor and five strangers whose faces I blocked out in my dissipating fog of modesty. And I was afraid, not knowing what it was going to feel like to push a baby out of me, but wanting desperately to get it out.
The panties lay there on the sidewalk as if they had mischievously tumbled from a laundry basket, clean and white, flirting and wanting to get back in the dirt. Or maybe they had fallen from my Marks & Spencer shopping bag onto the sidewalk on King’s Road in London where I bought underwear a week after a bomb blew up a double-decker bus at Tavistock Square, a block from the dorm where my students lived. A two-foot-wide ribbon of red metal was peeled, and stuck out from the bus’s side like an artery from a neck, while feet, legs, arms, shoes, and other items of clothing were blown from people’s bodies into the air along with the top of the bus.
The woman’s panties lay there on the sidewalk in a soft fleshy pile, like the ones clutched by Lois, our friends’ daughter who was abducted from our Pasadena shopping mall, on the escalator down to the parking garage under Lord & Taylor. At gunpoint the young men made her take them to her car and drive to the abandoned dry aqueduct where they entered her, again and again, in the same V place where her infant daughter had entered the world from the opposite direction a couple of years before. When they were done they shot her in the head and left her to lie with her remaining hours gazing at the yellow-orange Royal Ann cherry of a sun as it slipped from the sky behind hazy Los Angeles, her panties twisted in her fist.
I crouched down and touched the white cotton panties, ready to pick them up, then turned my head to find a trash bin close. I was embarrassed that they were there, out in the open. Students were walking toward me from every direction on their way to class. I panicked, not wanting them to think the fallen panties were mine, though I felt utterly as if they were mine, as if they were every woman’s. I abandoned them there suddenly and dashed up the stairs of my building, as if some unknown, unholy terror was at my heels, and I was afraid, or unable, to defend what belonged to me.