Bustles Went Out of Fashion by 1905

Contributor: Tony Conaway

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Water. Food. Shelter. Sex.
They say these represent our most instinctual drives. However, for some of us, there is another, stronger drive: the need to prove that we know.
I am a scientist, but it’s more than that. It’s not enough for me to know all sorts of obscure and irrelevant facts. I have to let you know that I know.
This intense need to prove that you know something is stronger than the need for food, stronger than the survival instinct, even stronger than the sex drive.
Let me give an example. Recently, I took a young lovely to a production of La bohème. She loved it. She wept during “Musetta’s Waltz.” (And I managed to avoid telling her that Bobby Worth adapted “Musetta’s Waltz” into a pop song called “Don’t You Know?” which became a hit for Della Reese in 1959. I was planning to save that for later.)
However, in Act 2, the background characters onstage included a peddler selling helium balloons. I took one look at the balloons and muttered “Ramsay!”
“What?” she hissed.
“Those helium balloons. La bohème is set in the 1830s. But helium was discovered by Sir William Ramsay, a Scottish chemist, in the 1890s. There’s no way anyone could have helium balloons in the 1830s.”
I got out my smartphone-notepad and started scribbling notes to myself.
“Of course, helium was observed in the sun decades earlier. It’s the second-most abundant element in the universe. But Ramsay was the first to isolate it on the Earth, by breaking down a mineral containing uranium called –“
“What? What’s WRONG with you?’ she hissed.
Someone in back of us shushed us, which effectively postponed our fight until the intermission between Acts Two and Three.
She broke up with me by phone the next day. And she sent me a book on Zen, suggesting that I learn to be “in the moment.”
As if anything could be more “in the moment” than the blissful firing of neurons that yields some obscure factoid!
I can’t explain why such trivia sticks in my head, when other facts slip though without disturbing a single neuron. I’m more likely to remember the chemical symbol for Yttrium than, say, a girlfriend’s birthday, or eye color, or the six-month anniversary of our first date. Actually, the latter rarely comes up, since we don’t usually last six months.
This pattern continued with my next girlfriend. One night, we went to an old movie house that showed, appropriately enough, old movies. The feature was a well-reviewed 1958 Western called “The Big Country.” Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons. Burl Ives won an Oscar as the villain.
This particular girlfriend was of an amorous bent. This old theatre had a few double seats, like loveseats. She picked one of them for us. Ten minutes into the feature we were entwined in each other’s arms.
Despite our activities, I made occasional glances at the screen. In one scene, a party is underway, and I noticed something odd.
“Bustles.” I muttered. Actually, it came out like “us-uls,’ since her lips were on mine at the time.
I pulled away so I could speak. “Look at the women in this party! In every Western I’ve ever seen, when women dress up, they wear bustles. But none of these women are wearing them. Why?”
“Bustles. You into big butts or something?”
“No. I’m just confused. Why are these women dressed so…MADAME X!”
“What the –“ I stood up, accidentally dumping her onto the floor. She let loose with a creative litany of curses.
The wealthy daughter of the ranch owner had just made her entrance in a remarkable dress.
“That dress is patterned after an iconic painting by John Singer Sargent. It was called ‘Madame X,” but it was actually a portrait of a French socialite called Madame Pierre Gautreau. It was painted in Paris in the 1880s, so I suppose the style could have made its way to the West –“
But she was already standing and rearranging her clothes. She cursed me and said she was leaving. After I rearranged my own clothes, I followed her out of the theater – I had driven us there, after all – but I got outside just as she was getting into a cab.
I stood the sidewalk for a moment. I had lost interest in the movie. Looking at my watch, I noticed that it was almost a full hour until closing at the local science museum. I got in my car and drove there.
And in the museum, I stood at one of my favorite places in the world: in front of a giant, wall-sized version of the periodic table of elements! One by one, each glorious element was illuminated, until the entire grid was lit. Then the lights went out and the process began again.
I was still there at closing time, when a guard ushered me out.

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Tony Conaway has written hundreds of nonfiction articles for magazines, trade publications and newspapers. He has cowritten books published by Macmillan, McGraw-Hill and Prentice Hall. His fiction has appeared in two anthologies and the publications Clever; Killers, Thrillers and Chillers; qarrtsaluni; and The Rusty Nail.
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