Interview with Tami Smithers
This article is for internal use only. Not for release outside the Institute, except as required by law.
My Interview with the Professor by Stephanie Weingarten(continued)
I shouldn't have been surprised by his businesslike manner; after all, Prof. Harald Warmspring was the Dean. But I didn't expect the head of this fashion institute to be built like a linebacker. His biceps seemed to bulge out of his shirtsleeves. None of the swishiness I saw in some of the other faculty teaching their respective classes up and down the hall. When he got done with his New Synthetics class, he whisked me briskly down the hall, turning down the opposite hall from Tami's office, and sat me down with a decaf that seemed to appear out of nowhere.
"Thanks for taking the time," I said. "You must be busy."
"Yes. So many things to attend to in this job," he said, referring apparently to some irritation.
"How long have you been Dean?"
"A year. The job is a hot potato. Tami's next and she knows it."
"I wonder if her -- disability would keep her from handling that hot potato."
He smiled at this little joke. "Of course not. Tami can do anything."
"How does it affect publicity? Recruitment? To have a nude fashion technology professor?"
He got out the latest catalog. Sure enough, Tami's picture was alongside the others on the "Meet Our Faculty" page. Like the others, her picture was cropped at the neck. Still she was notable for her shaved head and the hint of bare shoulders. With the cropping, one could plausibly guess she was wearing a strapless dress. And that playful, crinkly smile, her "eyebrows" making her bald scalp move a little forward.
"The topic of her allergy must come up."
"She's 'Tami Beethoven'," Dean Warmspring said with a shrug. "Her nudity is part of her creative process. It isn't hard to figure that out. Well known in the industry, though she is not one to beat her own drum. She's amazingly modest for someone in this field, which tends to be filled with egomaniacs." Again, reflecting irritation, perhaps hinting at egomaniacs he had to deal with on the faculty.
I paused. "It's so poignant. Her creativity must be an expression of her desire for covering, don't you think?"
He looked up at the clock and then lapsed into silence for a while. Perhaps he realized he had more time to spend with me than he thought. "If it is, it's something she would never admit to. No one ever asks her. It would be too personal."
"Do you think she even remembers what clothes feel like?"
He thought for a second. "Probably not. Not after thirteen years of forced nudity. Practially half her life, she's been the only naked person in a world of clothed people. The memory of clothing is probably gone. By now all she has is a memory of having a memory." He pulled out a loose leaf of laminated designs and gave it to me. "Like Beethoven after years of deafness, her imagination is operating on some different plane. Like an alien from outer space, looking down at us Earthlings and noticing this peculiar device called clothes, recognizing their utility for socialization and warmth, and creating accordingly." From his florid language I could tell that he'd been thinking about it for a long time.
"Warmth . . . She still must know what warmth feels like."
"Oh of course. She sees it all around her, especially now when the weather's getting hot. People dressing less, lying out there in the sun with their eyes closed, enjoying the rays. She can't enjoy ambient warmth herself, and she's restricted to cold food, but she feels warmth when exercising. And during sex."
"It must give her something to look forward too, when she's shivering in that booth."
"Yes. We can't be thankful enough, of course. The name of the School of Design attaches to every achievement of hers, beginning of course with the armed services contract."
"How do people feel about that? Being in bed, so to speak, with the military?"
"In the fashion world I think everyone's resigned to it. This is a more militarized country than it was twenty years ago, and the private contractor sector is huge, at least the part of it that isn't being outsourced to Dubai. See her portfolio?" he said, leaning his considerable bulk over the desk toward me. "It begins with 'Cherish', then goes on to her military work and then some of her interesting commercial designs. One problem with her is labeling. Her designs tend to fall outside the normal categories of 'shirts', 'dresses', and so on."
He watched with me as I slowly leafed through. These were indeed strange designs, half-shirt, half-skirt, or half-gloves, half-sweater, and half-hat, half-I-don't-know-what. There were very few skimpy designs. Almost all seemed to afford full coverage and warmth. Warmth seemed like the main emphasis. Maybe it was due to Tami Smithers's influence that women, especially, had been covering up more in recent years.
As I got to page 37, near the end, he said, "Footwear has always been a problem with her. For some reason she has difficulty conceptualizing it, in that metallic, clothesless, shoeless universe her mind works in. But see how she's solved it?"
I recognized the red boots the squeaky-voiced girl was showing off to the professor -- I mean Tami -- after my classroom visit. But it turned out they weren't just boots, they continued on with a kind of loop that went up around the knees.
"The material used is very soft and pliable, ordinarily not stiff enough to serve as footwear, but Tami solved that problem with the extension around the knees. She uses math, hyperbolic functions, I don't understand it completely, to balance the forces so that support is transferred from the knee."
"As a result the boots are uniquely warm and comforting. They've been described as 'like wearing earmuffs on your feet'. Of course the model is unisex. Most of us intend to be wearing them when next winter comes." He turned from me and said, "Want to try some on? What are you, a size eight?"
Funny how he knew that. Of course, he was an expert in fashion design and very observant. I was going to say no but I have the usual feminine preoccupation with shoes. And I couldn't refuse the floppy red items that draped sensuously across my hands. So I slipped off my Oscar de la Renta heels, not very comfortable but stylish, and pulled on the boots. "Oooohh!" I couldn't control my reaction. It was like my feet were in a warm bubble bath. I'd never felt boots so soft and warm. Better yet, I could wiggle my toes in them freely. I stood up and walked there and back a few steps. "This is magic!" I laughed at my voice, which had an enthusiastic girlish squeak just like that student's.
Dean Warmspring laughed. "That's everyone's reaction. You should see how men react. We were in a circle around Tami's booth telling her how they felt. She always likes to hear that, about her designs. My own words were downright flowery."
Jokingly I pointed the boots to and fro, like a model showing them off on a runway. Then I exhaled, as if afraid I was going to have an exotic kind of foot orgasm, and sat down. Still wiggling my toes in them, I picked up the portfolio again.
"What a tragedy," I said, "that Tami can never enjoy what she creates. And now her allergy's getting worse."
"Yes I heard. It should only help her output. It's a sad fact, that the colder Tami gets, the more violently she shivers, the more brilliantly imaginative her designs."
I shook my head. "That is just downright cruel."
"Look at the last page."
It was a very shaky drawing, of a full-body suit with seams in unusual places. "What is this?"
"A drawing Tami made in her booth a few days ago. It's hard for her to draw when shivering so much, but it looks like a kind of mechanic's overalls shirred so that every movement rubs fabric against those muscles that are being used. Kind of like a self-massager."
"Wow." It seemed like the tenth time I'd said that.
"It will be constructed and tested in front of her, as always. And biometric results reported to her. Of course that will not be her final design. She always fiddles with them about twenty times before submitting them for patent. She lets the models keep the prototypes. In fact she clothes a good part of the faculty and students here. This," he said, touching the jacket he had hung up next to him, "is the penultimate prototype of the blazer on page 25."
"It still seems cruel, everyone wearing these warm clothes she designs, considering how she herself is always naked and freezing."
"It's what she does, Stephanie," he said, calling me by name for the first time. "We thought her urge to design, and to teach design, might be a kind of self-punishment, for example for what happened to that creep Henry Ross. By the way, I'm one of the few left who opposes capital punishment, but with that guy, I would have had very few scruples pulling the switch on him. . . Or we thought that designing might be exacerbating her allergy somehow. So three years ago we made her take a sabbatical. She did math work for the Military Physics Department over at Brown. But she wasn't happy and she came back with a batch of new designs under her arm. 'It's what I do, Harald,' she told me. Then she said the closest thing to self-analysis I've ever heard from her. She said, 'My being naked, cold and naked, has a purpose. Its purpose is to make me design good clothes.'
"So there you have it. If she didn't design clothes, Tami's shivering would have no purpose."
What a ghastly assessment. He was trying to put a positive spin on it but it was like talking about a terminally ill person. Rodney Sykes had been bleak too. Everyone, it seemed, was sad about Tami's predicament except Tami herself. I remembered her bubbling laugh as to my question about faking orgasms, at the same time she was having one.
I shook my head again. "What a bleak, horrible suffering."
He waited for me to finish shaking my head. Then he said, "She has all the love anyone can have. And sexual pleasure past what you or I could imagine. . . I tell you what. You don't have a full picture of her life. Let me invite you to the next Faculty Steering Committee meeting. It's down at her house."
"Wow, you go all the way down there? What about gas?"
"We car pool. We'll pick you up too. Be here tomorrow night at six thirty."
I looked down at my red booted feet, wiggling my toes in them, feeling the sensuous warmth. Then both of us looked up as we heard the whirring sound of Tami's booth approaching.
She was in the doorway now, her beautiful naked hairless body stretched out, her arms pushing up on the overhead support bars. Her breath came out in thick clouds. Evidently she had been in the booth for some time. Frost encrusted the corners of the glass, and I could swear I saw a rime of frost on her "eyebrows". With her arms up, her big firm breasts almost stuck in our faces, the huge dark areolas, and her nipples, big and long and permanently erect in the subfreezing cold. I looked further down, past her concave tummy, the strong lithe legs. Then her purplish bare feet, the toes spread as they gripped the raised holes of the metal ramp. I could see Homer had addressed her concerns as to the metal points. They were sharper and higher now, digging into her tough soles in a way that would be very painful to an ordinary person's feet.
I looked at my booted feet, snug and warm in the soft sensuous boots, then at her freezing bare feet, purplish and impaled on the cold metal points. My toes stopped wiggling.
"S - sorry," she shivered. "I d - didn't know you were m -meeting."
"It's O.K.," Harald Warmspring said. "We were about done anyway." He looked at me and I nodded. "Tami, do you mind if she attends tomorrow's meeting?"
"G - good God." Her blue lips smiled along with her eyebrowless green eyes. "You'd b - b - be b - b - bored to death."
"I'd still like to go," I said. I couldn't help but look down again at my feet and then hers.
"F - fine." There was no reason to keep her hands up on those bars, giving us a full frontal view of her stretched-out nudity, but she kept them up there. "Stay f - for the l - little p -party afterwards. My f - friends will be therrre."
"Thanks. . . I have to go now."
"G - g - good to see you again." Now she let her arms down and, to my surprise, brought her shivering arms down to her pussy lips. Her fingers shook but after two attempts she spread her lower lips wide open. In a little babyish voice she said, "B - b - bye - b - bye!" as her clitoris, wet and erect in the cold of the booth, jumped up at me twice. Apparently a special salutation for friends. Along with Dean Warmspring I couldn't help but smile.
So help me, I couldn't make the rendesvous with Dean Warmspring. I had to call him and apologize. He and his two car pool mates would have to spend a little more for that long ride to Westerly.
Long! It's only 25 miles. But in Rhode Island your sense of distance gets foreshortened. Like my trip to Tami's home neighborhood, to see the house she grew up in. It was like a different part of the planet, on the other side of town, but in fact it was only a mile as the crow flies. I could have walked instead of driven. Here and there an invasion of yuppies, the occasional newly and sometimes garishly painted house, but traditionally a working-class, if not actually depressed, area. I had access to Sarah Wickland's slide show of 2001 and visited those places, Ezek Hopkins Square, the run-down church. But the church seemed to be undergoing an expansion. A young dark-skinned family with kids strolled by, Spanish phrases in the air, merengue on the radio from an open window, and my perspective subtly changed. Tami's old neighborhood was being taken over by Hispanic immigrants. Then I saw that what looked like run-down stores were actually active restaurants and bodegas, people going in and out. No bright lights, no redone storefronts, but the neighborhood wasn't depressed. It was vibrant. As for the old house itself, it seemed to have been (no doubt illegally) subdivided, judging from the three mailboxes next to the door. Two happy little kids ran around the mostly grassless front yard.
This was part of my assignment to get a well-rounded picture of this unique woman, whom fate had saddled with a grotesque and apparently debilitating allergy but who managed to survive and even in a sense thrive. I had also heard that she had written erotic fiction that she would post online, under an alias, of course. The first was a science fiction story was about a shy, nude young man whose semen powered a spaceship. Unfortunately, under the Coulter Act of 2013, all story sites dealing with sex or even nudity came under such strict monitoring that their owners quickly took them down. And the Institute couldn't get Homeland Security clearance to search foreign sites. But Tami had given me a memory stick with some of her work. There's quite a lot of stories in there. I'll have to set aside some time to read them.
Anyway . . . instead of car-pooling I had to make my own way to Westerly in my mini-Hummer. Good thing the Institute pays for my gas. I was on I-95 for only a moment, it seemed, when I saw the "Welcome to Connecticut" sign and realized I'd missed my exit. So I doubled back and followed the side roads and pulled into the beachfront village at 7:45, 45 minutes late.
It was not quite dark yet and I got a good look at the neighborhood. Despite the sandy soil, each of the small yards had a full complement of grass. With a smile I could imagine, in winter, Tami's obscene snow sculptures. I pictured her, cold but happy, putting the finishing touches on a breast or penis, her skin flushed red against the whiteness, heavily clothed passersby glancing at her as she patted snow down with her fingers and reached around to pat it down with her flexible toes.
Her husband's greeting at the door was warmer this time. "Glad you could make it, Miss Stephanie." He took my sweater and showed me around. The house seemed small from the outside but had a lot of room inside. This was because they (or, rather, Rod in his plans) used every available cubic inch, including the basement and the attic. He showed me the home study, the bedroom, the kitchen, all separately glassed-in and climate-controlled. Downstairs was an exercise room, as I could see from the thermostat set to minus fifteen Celsius. A neglected water bottle on a bench bulged outward with its frozen contents.
Luckily the hallways in between were not enclosed and were at normal room temperature. Rod explained that this was for the comfort of guests. Tami switched from room to room in a short mobile booth, a smaller version of the one she had at the School of Design, with a metal chair to sit on. He got into it and showed me how he passed into one of the rooms, the kitchen, via a sliding door like the one in her classroom. He switched into the booth again and emerged from it. I could feel the freezing air wafting onto my face as it escaped. Rod tried not to show it but he clearly felt the cold even in his jacket, shirt, long pants and heavy socks. I looked at the metal seat and imagined what it must feel like against Tami's bare butt cheeks. Knowing that she was used to it didn't make me feel any better.
As we walked along another hall, toward the living room, I heard the low rumble of voices. Rod led me through the arched entrance. This room, the largest in the house, was not enclosed. He introduced me to the twelve or so people there and to Tami. But their names did not register with me because I was too shocked at what I saw.
I tried to control the gaping astonishment of my mouth and the horrified stare of my eyes. The guests, well dressed and distinguished looking, were at a large, half-circle table, curiously painted black, with papers and sodas in front of them. Across from them, the table angled straight up about two feet, a kind of little wall, up to a platform that extended way back to the other side of the room. There, on the platform, set about three feet back, was Tami's head.
Just her bald, eyebrowless head. Poking up from a hole that was only a little wider than her neck. The blackness of the table made it all the more shocking. It looked like a horror movie where a person dies but only her head survives and somehow keeps on living.
There was a lull in the conversation that I uneasily knew was because of my reaction. The people around the table probably expected it, though to them this was just an ordinary scene.
Tami -- or rather, her head, at about my eye level -- looked at me with a pleasant but somehow preoccupied smile. Her "eyebrows" jerked a little bit. Her skin was a little red and blotchy. "H - hi, Stephanie. W - welcome. Want some of this cake? President Ellender made it."
Somehow with a nod and a motion of her eyebrows she motioned to the plate of chocolate cake in the middle of the table. I gracefully declined (I'm on a diet again) and after a few minutes had parked myself with a diet soda on one end of the semi-circle.
"The latest capital improvements haven't gone over well," an older man in a beard and three-piece suit said, directing everyone to a paper they all held. Ms. Ellender, a heavy-set women of about 50 who was apparently the president of the corporation running the School, was across from me and sat on a high bar stool-type chair. She held the sheet up high, close enough to Tami's face that she could read it.
I was intrigued by Tami's face. Of course, it being the only part of her visible -- in a way she was "wearing" the table, a most unusual situation for her -- one was more aware of every nuance. As she knitted her brow to concentrate on the numbers, there was a distracted quality about her gaze. Her eyes opened wide for just a second. "I see what you mean," she said, and as she did there was just the tiniest gasp in between words.
Rod smiled at me as he went back to the kitchen. I looked over at a man who was starting to speak, in a business suit, with slicked-back hair. "It amortizes over fifteen years, but at the present three percent yield, it would double in, what --?"
"Twenty-four y - years," Tami said. "Rule of seventy-two."
"So how much would it have be to double over fifteen?"
Tami looked up at the ceiling momentarily. Again, a little gasp. "F - five percent, roughly."
She licked her lips. This was apparently a sign. President Ellender brought a glass of water to Tami's mouth. She took a little gulp and then nodded. Ms. Ellender leaned back into her high chair.
"Well then something has to be done," the man with the beard said.
"Perhaps another bond?"
"That . . . would be a tough sell, at the moment," the man with the slicked-back hair said.
And so I sat, through what Tami had warned would be a boring (to me, at least) meeting, as the bald, eyebrowless, disembodied head participated in the discussion, occasionally getting a sip of water, and at odd moments smiling at me with a strange crooked smile.
This went on for about twenty minutes, until a pretty African-American girl a little younger than me, in short dreadlocks and a jean jacket with short sleeves, tapped me on the shoulder and motioned with her finger for me to follow her into the hall.
End of part 3