Underwear Man stood in the front yard of my friend Dean’s house everyday at 1:45 in the morning for six weeks.
Last spring, Dean lived with a group of his friends in a bungalow near campus, in a neighborhood that is fairly picturesque like a stretch of houses, shrubs, and white picket fences yanked out of a scene from Pleasantville.
It is a clean, safe, and calm emblem of suburban bliss — despite its proximity to a college. On Sunday mornings, small children run up and down the sidewalks — blowing bubbles, chasing chipmunks, and indulging in the carefree whimsy of youth (before adolescence takes its hold, causing pimples and sexual frustration to strike).
Underwear Man, as Dean and his roommates called him, began to appear in the front yard late last January. Each morning that he held vigil in their yard, he stood in the same spot — approximately two steps in front of the miniature bird fountain (leftover from a former resident and certainly nothing a group of 22-year-old boys would ever choose).
No one was sure who Underwear Man was — whether he actually lived in the neighborhood or came from elsewhere. He earned his nickname because he wore a pair of bright, white briefs on his head — a mess of mousy, brown curls spilling out from underneath the waistband, which cut across his forehead.
It was clear that Underwear Man was harmless. Each time he came, he simply stood motionless, as though in a trance.
One night before a particularly brutal week of exams, Dean, his friends, and I stayed up until a ridiculously late (or early) hour. We alternated studying with watching Underwear Man through the dining room window, where we’d set up camp.
The moon cast a dim, gauzy glow over his face, lighting his sharp features from the chin up. Though Atlanta sits at the seat of the South, its winters are colder than one might expect, but Underwear Man only wore a pair of jeans and a white tee shirt that looked flimsier than it did warm.
“Dude, we need to call the cops on him or something,” one of Dean’s roommates remarked around 2:30, approximately fifteen minutes past the time that Underwear Man usually left.
As someone who regularly criticized Glenn Beck but still kept the Fox News website bookmarked on his computer, he’d unsurprisingly offered the more conservative suggestion — which, like always, I took with a grain of salt.
“It’s not like he does anything,” I said. “He just stands there. We can let him be, right?”
Dean murmured in agreement; his roommate shrugged, slipping his headphones back on; and I glanced at Underwear Man once more before turning back to my homework assignment. He had moved slightly, crossing his arms in front of his chest — to, perhaps, stave off the cold.
The next time I looked out the window, he was gone.
A couple days later, I hurried to the office where my college newspaper ran business — late because an earnest but misguided student asked a question two minutes before my last class ended, and the professor insisted on keeping us all there as he explained the answer.
At the time, I was news editor, and these biweekly production nights — during which my team helped prepare the paper for print — were already stressful, even when we started on time.
“Steph, can you do me a giant favor?” one of the other editors asked as soon as I walked in the office, before I’d even had the chance to set my bag down or catch my breath. He added, not waiting for me to respond, “I’m putting together the feature for this week. I need you to look something up for me.”
“Can’t you ask someone else?” I looked around the office. “I have way too much to do right now.”
My assistant editors were missing amongst the crowd of coffee-powered students jabbing away at their laptop keyboards. This meant I would have to start the news section by myself.
As though he hadn’t heard my response, the editor lifted a green, leather-bound book from the desk next to his — a collection of issues that the paper ran in 1999. It was so heavy that I buckled slightly at the knees when he thrust it into my hands.
“I’m putting together a timeline of the most significant events from the last twenty years in University history,” he explained, taking a bite of his burrito.
I stared down at the book in my hand and said a silent prayer to the Rice-and-Bean Gods that that burrito would give him indigestion. Hopefully, this wouldn’t take too long. “What do you need me to do?”
“Fact-check one of the events for me: Michelle Browning’s kidnapping in 1999.” He glanced at a sheet of paper in front of his computer. “I think the paper broke that story in the September 17th issue.”
I sat down in the chair next to him, opening the book in my lap. As I thumbed through the pages to find the right issue, I asked, “What happened, exactly? Michelle Browning was a student, right?”
“Yep. She was a junior, I think — can you double-check that? Really well liked, led a couple of campus charities, in a sorority, etc. The police never found her after she went missing at an off-campus party. Apparently, they identified her kidnapper, though — some guy who lived in the neighborhood.”
“Did they arrest him?”
“Nah, he also went missing before they could — weird, right? Can you check the spelling of his name?”
I flipped to the September 17th issue. A photo of Michelle Browning, grinning as she posed with our college mascot, took up almost half of the front page along with a headline that read “Police Identify Suspect in Student Kidnapping.”
As the other editor resumed typing the rest of the feature, I skimmed the beginning of the article before turning the page.
Suspect Bailey Cott, 41, is a former high school English teacher who lives two houses from the party where Browning went missing, I read before noticing his picture, on the side.
His hair was parted in the middle and hung down, past his chin, in loose curls. The picture was black-and-white, a contrast that made his face seem especially gaunt.
According to the Atlanta police department, Cott is currently on the run. When officers arrived at his house this past Sunday, they found a message he had left on his dining room table — a pair of white, men’s underwear and a note in unknown symbols, which police are currently working with linguistic experts to decipher.
“A pair of white, men’s underwear…” I murmured, suddenly processing what I’d just read.
I glanced at Bailey Cott’s picture again.
Yes, you feel immediately terrible .003 seconds after thinking these things, but sometimes you just can’t help it. And sometimes you just wish that you could say it out loud.
1. “Sometimes I just wax/shave because I like the way it feels, and it happens to dovetail nicely with the patriarchy.”
2. “Quitting your job and just marrying a rich dude kind of seems like a life hack.”
3. “I am just not offended by this misogynist commercial/song/comedian, and do not have the energy to force myself to be so.”
4. “This Robin Thicke song is actually kind of catchy.”
5. “Damn, dude, sometimes I do dress for guys’ approval — I’M SORRY, OKAY?!?!”
6. “I wish I could be just one notch prettier so life could be one notch easier, and I will invest time and money attempting to make that a reality.”
7. “Cooking and re-organizing knick knacks all day seems like it actually might be pretty sweet.”
8. “I cannot hear that girl over her chipped-to-hell nails.”
9. “Sometimes I just want to forget it all and open up a mommy blog about naming my children Hudson and making cake pops with my initials written on them in frosting.”
11. “Damn, I actually do wish I looked like the women in the magazines.”
12. “[Sings along aggressively to lyrics about throwing money at hoes.]“
13. “This dude grinding on me does not respect me in the least, but whatever, I’m too twisted to care.” *Continues to grind whilst spilling vodka cranberry on self*
14. “Christoph Waltz looks like he knows his way around a good spanking, and I am 100 percent on board.”
15. “I identify with Betty Draper in some ways.”
16. “[Reblogs unattainable fitspo]“
17. “I make fun of girls who spend their lives on DIY Pinterest, but only because I am bleeding internally with jealousy at their feminine, effortless lifestyle.”
18. “There is a realness to the Sugar Daddy life that honestly seems much more appealing than slogging it out for this Master’s/corporate grind.”
19. “Sometimes living with guys is just easier, and has nothing to do with girls being catty, and everything to do with the fact that they steal your shirts/conditioner/tampons AND NEVER REPLACE THEM. DAMN.”
1. Make enough coffee in the morning for you to share it.
2. Get excited when there’s a special awards show on TV.
3. Refill the ice trays.
4. If they have a pet, feed Fluffy on nights when they’re stuck late at the office.
5. Do your dishes in a timely manner.
6. Wash the one cup they left in the sink when you’re doing your own dishes rather than leaving it to teach them a lesson.
7. Splurge on the high quality toilet paper when it’s your turn to buy supplies.
8. Go with them to confront the upstairs neighbor who is training tap-dancing elephants so at the very least, they’re not alone when the door is slammed in their face.
9. Help them move that piece of furniture they got on Craigslist up three flights of stairs and through a teeny pre-war door.
10. Help them craft articulately firm e-mails to your landlord when the hot water disappears.
11. Discovers new recipes that they’d enjoy, and make enough for the both of you to share.
12. Never leave the water pitcher in the fridge empty.
13. Reserve all judgment on those mornings when you encounter a stranger leaving the bathroom and heading back to their bedroom.
14. Help clean the apartment on an ongoing basis, and not just to save it from being condemned as a toxic waste zone.
15. Consult them on furniture or artwork purchases for common living areas.
16. Surprise them with little treats in the fridge you’ll know they’ll love for no other reason than just because.
17. Don’t just pay rent on time, but turn in the check before they even have to ask.
18. Stay up a little later to give them a pep talk or to listen to them talk out their problems.
19. Respecting that certain, sacred times of the day and night are reserved for their shows and never shall you ever interrupt them during that time.
20. If you borrow an article of clothing, return it washed and in a timely fashion.
21. Ask if it’s okay to have a friend sleep on the couch, even for a night.
22. Remember your key so that they don’t have to to return home and let you in.
23. Respect that there will always be a few things in the fridge that are absolutely and completely off-limits, but share a bottle of wine or a couple beers every now and again in the spirit of friendship.
24. Be there for them when they are heartbroken.
25. Leave notes and inside jokes around the apartment to make them smile.
26. If you’re ordering from Seamless, ask if they’d like something to eat, too.
27. Asking how their day was when they come home, and actually meaning it.
Because pedophiles are people too, and they deserve at least a sliver of the attention we afford to 20-somethings. Also, there’s like a 60% chance they’ll end up on TV (re: Dateline NBC)!
1. To achieve that dry-looking, scabrous skin so common to pedophiles, you’ll want to lay a pepperoni pizza flat on your face for 10 minutes RIGHT before going to bed. Don’t touch it, just let it soak. Then remove the pepperoni slices and rub them on your t-zones.
2. Find a pair of spectacles that look CVS-manufactured. Then bump up your prescription three notches so that your eyes give off a threateningly magnified and bulging effect when you lay eyes on your prey.
3. Wash your hair no more than twice a week, optimizing its stringy appearance and oil intake.
4. Wherever you go, travel in a windowless van.
5. You’re in the car a lot, driving across state lines to see the untouched body of a virgin boy—use it to your advantage! Open the sun roof and let your scalp burn. It will create this awesome itchy, flaky effect.
6. Pants-wise, either wear a pair of grey, stained sweatpants that highlight your boner or tight dungarees that hike up at your crotch.
7. But regardless of the type of pants you’re wearing, they MUST be four inches too long on you. This ensures that you trip and fall after Chris Hansen has let you go and the cops start to run after you.
8. Throw on your best pair of dirty, white tube socks and white, hospital-looking sneakers.
9. I can’t believe I even have to dictate this one, but always, always, ALWAYS keep candy on your person.
10. Make sure your lips are always chapped by constantly licking them and never applying chap stick. Eventually you will (hopefully) cause a deep crimson rash to form around your mouth as if you drank too much orange soda.
11. Your facial hair should have the coarseness of pubic hairs and should be sporadically strewn across your face, even bleeding down onto your neck and Adam’s apple. Ingrown hairs should adorn your cheekbones.
12. Try to keep your nails as uncouth as possible. Avoid cutting them with a nail clipper; instead, let them break off and become jagged, uneven edges. And of course, there should always be dirt lodged deep under your nail plates.
13. Pairs Hilton had her dog. Tupac had his bandana. You have Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Embrace it.
14. When attempting to ensnare your prey, use uncomfortable- and ominous-sounding words like “dear,” “child,” and “pussycat.”
You always wonder how you might react: calmly, a stony demeanor; screaming, rivulets of tears streaming down your face; praying, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…” There I sat, seat 21D—the aisle seat which is clutch for airplane travel—as smoke poured into the cabin through every vent onboard. I pushed the home button of my iPhone and saw that it was just before 2 p.m. CST. My hands were numb but I pushed the shortcut to my mom’s cell phone. No service at 30,000 feet. “Call me ASAP,” I wrote, and pushed send. Delivery Failure.
Minutes early a thud had reverberated through the fuselage. Turbulence makes me queasy but not uneasy and I didn’t look up from the game of Solitaire I was intently, though fruitlessly, playing. The BANG and flash of light two minutes later gave me pause, however, and as I looked over the cabin to the wing at row 18 another flash lit up the plane. The engine was on fire. Smoke filled our cabin and women and men alike gasped and began pawing at the ceiling waiting for the oxygen masks they had been cheerfully told were located above their heads.
Boarding only half an hour earlier I had watched a man stand in the aisle and watch a mother struggle with her bags and her infant son without offering his assistance. Air travel is a drag: the name of the game is sitting in semi-conscious apathy until landing. The stewardess skipping you during beverage service is the ultimate insult. Life happens in a stupor as a metal tube hurtles passengers at 750mph through the sky and they wait to be able to click Airplane Mode off upon landing.
The smoke in the cabin dissipated slowly but that didn’t stop the middle-aged African-American women two rows behind me from ripping their life preservers out of plastic and huffing as they filled the yellow tubes with air. A baby cried as his mother clutched him to her chest, rocking back and forth, prayers slipping through her lips. A man in the last row began praying out loud, calling on his Lord, telling God that today could not be the day he met his maker. All air travel etiquette abandoned: phones buzzed and rang as my fellow passengers reached out to those they love. Paralyzed, I studied my phone, not a tear in my eye, willing Verizon to send a text message, trying to reach my mom and my best friend from my aircraft as it sunk.
As stewardesses ran up and down the aisle my phone buzzed. “What?! Okay, it’s fine. They’ll get y’all taken care of. I love you.” The plane lurched: limping on one engine, smoke still lingering above our heads, we sunk to 25,000, 20,000, 18,000 feet. One hand on the shoulder of the elderly man across the aisle and one hand grasping the leg of the Ethiopian women to my right, I closed my eyes. Calmly positioned in 21F my seat companion began to explain aerodynamics. Middle-aged and bearded, wearing a picnic-plaid button down, he reminded me of someone I know and trust. He began to detail, precisely, why we were going to land at Dallas-Fort Worth unharmed. Shudders shook the Ethiopian woman’s body but we both listened quietly as he explained that planes could fly on one engine; that Texas had a plethora of straight highway to land on; that the situation was simply out of our control.
It was as sudden as the explosion of our No. 1 engine: the passengers aboard Spirit Flight 165 became a collective, vulnerable entity. Race, gender, economics, religion, age: none of it mattered anymore. A mother of two gently handed her infant son to her seat companion as he slept. No one screamed or cried. Relationships formed instantaneously as the waiting game began. Could the plane survive? Would the compression system blow? Was the pilot capable of landing our damaged plane safely? Hands of different colors and ages interlocked across the aisles until the call came to assume the emergency landing position. With a wink the man in 21F turned his face into his folded arms. I gulped one breath and did the same.
The wheels bounced once, again, and finally stuck as we skidded onto the tarmac at Dallas-Fort Worth International. An hour after departure we were once again safely on the ground. Clapping, cheering, whooping, hollering! Relief laced with incredulity filled the cabin, prayers began in earnest, and I felt the first tears trace a switchback down my cheek.
Through a haze of adrenaline, tears, and phone calls to my worried and protective mother I re-booked myself onto the replacement flight though the very thought of flying was enough to heartily replenish the tears on my damp cheek. A fellow passenger offered me tissues and I silently stared at my phone, willing the time to pass, willing the plane to arrive, willing myself the courage to board it. Suddenly sock-clad feet appeared in my line of sight. My best friend’s mom had talked her way through security and was standing in front of me, still holding her shoes, arms extended. Sobs came blubbering up through my body as I collapsed into her embrace, but for the first time since the engine had blown out of the wing it seemed as though the terror might finally be over.
Sitting on the tarmac at DFW, the fire trucks, the tow in to the gate, and disembarking the plane are all a blur. But the man who had previously ignored the young mother carried her bags into the terminal and hugged her as we all made way to our new gate. The man in 21F escorted my seatmate onto the gangway. A service man in uniform assisted a handicapped woman from the plane. It’s an odd part of the human existence, but tragedy in joint experience incites a comradely spirit: as the initial terror settled into deep-seated fear human kindness, goodness, and humanity prevailed.