All I could think about was running.
Looking across the desk at my boss, Jamie, I listened as he asked the question I’d been fearing for more two months.
“WHY DO YOU WANT TO SELL WOMEN’S UNDERWEAR?”
He glared at me, and I shifted my weight, trying to figure out what to say.
I hadn’t expected this to happen when I walked into his office that morning. As a fitness assistant at my university’s student life center, I’d been on my way to drop off some gym visitation statistics in his mailbox. He usually didn’t come in that early, and if he did, it was almost impossible for him to know anything about my applying for a job at Victoria’s Secret. How could he? I had barely told anyone about it. Just my roommate, Josh, and the hiring manager at the store, Janice—neither of whom had direct contact with people who could disown me.
Unless, I thought, Janice had called my references.
Like any good company, Victoria’s Secret had warned me they would do this, multiple times; and like any good idiot, I’d proceeded to ignore them. First, they mentioned it on the application, specifically asking for references from two supervisors and one peer. They then made it painstakingly clear that they would not only contact these people, but possibly a slew of others–including “family members, business associates, financial sources, friends, neighbors, and others with whom I am associated”–in order to get a clear picture of my character. (Unless I lived in the states of Maryland or Connecticut, they could have also required me to take a polygraph test.)
And still, I sat at the dining room table of my townhouse, reading it over and thinking, Nah, they won’t actually call those people.
Even during the job interview, as I listened to the hiring manager say something along the lines of, “So, next step, we’re going to call those people,” I only nodded my head, thinking, Oh come on. This is retail. You don’t get paid enough to do that.
Yet looking at Jamie, who was slowly growing more red in the face by the second, I began wondering if perhaps they do get paid enough to do that. Especially when the applicant is a grown-ish man with the tendency to wear too much cologne.
“WHY DO YOU WANT TO SELL WOMEN’S UNDERWEAR?”
The question played again in my head, and I stared at him, still trying to figure out how to respond. I knew I was going to have to answer this question at some point, but I hadn’t imagined it would come this quickly–or from someone other than my parents. In fact, I’d just resigned to hoping that it would never happen, that I could just coast peacefully along in the world of bras without anyone noticing. On the surface, I’d be the same 23-year-old Chris that everyone knew as the preppy, pre-dental student in his fifth year of undergrad. But in the shadows, in a world that I only knew, I’d be working towards something that felt a lot more like myself. Even if it was as a cashier at Victoria’s Secret.
But that was all out the window now. Jamie, by way of Janice the hiring manager, had forced my hand. And, as much as I wanted to sprint out of the room and never return, I couldn’t. If I didn’t answer Jamie now, I would have to eventually. And likely by that point, he’d have other concerned-going-on-horrified coworkers with him. As best as I could tell, I had one of three options: I could tell the truth—about the heartbreak, the rejection, and the nipple buds poking through my shirt; I could lie and say I’d done it on a dare from a friend; or, I could act completely oblivious to what he was talking about in an effort to see just how much he actually knew. If the latter was successful, there was a chance I could get out of it with him feeling like he was mistaken. And if he felt mistaken, there was a chance I could get out of it with my secret life still in place. So, hoping for the best, I went with option three.
“What do you mean, ‘Why do I want to sell women’s underwear’?”
“What do I mean?” he said. “I mean this woman called me from Victoria’s Secret the other day saying you wanted to work there.”
“Yes,” he said. “Was she serious?”
“She said I wanted to work there?”
“Your name is Chris Pilny, right?”
“Well that’s what she said. She said, ‘Hi, this is so-and-so from Victoria’s Secret in Green Hills, and I’m calling in regards to Chris Pilny.’ “
“Huh, that’s strange,” I said.
“Yeah, it IS strange,” he said, growing more impatient. But I hadn’t given up yet.
“Well,” I said. “How did she spell ‘Pilny’?”
At this, he shook his head, picking up a baseball off his desk and tossing it in the air.
“Come on, man. Why do you want to sell women’s underwear? Tell me this is a joke.”
Desperately, desperately I wanted this to be the case. If anything, I wanted to tell myself that it was a joke. That I was abandoning my future as an oral maxillofacial surgeon to sell thongs at Victoria’s Secret simply for a laugh. “Some college kids backpack Europe for a year following graduation,” I wanted to say. “But I’m headed to the mall! Ha!”
But it wasn’t a joke. It was a very serious mission, and one that I hoped would finally give me the piece of knowledge I’d always sought: How to get girls and keep them interested. You just can’t really say that to your boss when he’s glaring at you from behind his desk. Especially when he’s watched you, over the course of four years, meet all your college girlfriends while working for him, and inform the entire staff that the only transferrable skill you’ve earned from the job is “flirting with undergrads.” He would have called me on bullshit immediately.
So, realizing that option three wasn’t working, and that option one was out of the question, I resorted to option two: lie, saying I was taking the job on a dare.
Again, he shook his head.
“Yeah, but…what if you actually get the job? Would you actually work at Vickie’s?”
“I mean, I might,” I told him. “It is a recession, and it is a job. And I am an English major. I don’t know. Might as well?”
“I guess, man. Whatever. Just, uh, keep me posted about it.”
“Oh, and if you apply for a job at the Hustler store next week, don’t put me down as a reference, ok?”
“Good,” he said. “Thanks.”
“Anything else?” I asked.
“Nope. Just don’t end up in prison, OK? I don’t want to know what they’d do to you in there for sniffing panties.”
“Got it,” I said. “Won’t sniff any panties. Thanks.”
And with that, I turned around and walked out of the room, back to my post in the fitness center, and the life where everyone still knew me as the preppy, pre-dental Chris.
Photo: Getty Images