EVEN BEFORE he calmly studied the chocolate body paint and sniffed the Kama Sutra Gift Tin without blushing and fingered the Italian chemise while asking "Is this a Cosabella?" I knew we were dealing with a unique individual.
Most men grow pale at the thought of shopping for lingerie for their wives or girlfriends.
Most men enter a lingerie store with fear in their eyes and a thin sheen of perspiration on their foreheads as they traverse this forbidding land of bras and panties, nighties and camisoles, bustiers and garter belts.
Most men spend, oh, six seconds studying all the possibilities before they snatch something - anything - off a rack, pay for it and hustle out the door.
But here was Ken Gillman at Bare Necessities at Greenspring Station on Falls Road, looking about as rattled as a man sitting on a beach as he shopped for a Valentine's Day gift for his wife, Rachel.
"No, I'm not uncomfortable at all," he said. "I don't know why. I'm just not."
Gillman, it turned out, is 45, lives in Lutherville with his wife and two children and owns a packaging and design company.
He had recently returned from a trip to the Super Bowl with some friends. And because Rachel had been so supportive of his need to be in Tampa, screaming his lungs out for that improbable Ravens championship - "the event of a lifetime," he called it - he wanted to get her something especially nice.
He had no idea what that might be. "Something frilly," he said.
And the game was on. Agreeing to be tailed by a columnist and photographer - hey, who doesn't buy lingerie with the media in tow? - he set off on his mission.
Lynn Fram, one of the owners, began by showing Gillman some pink, white and flower-print chemises. Two were of the tasteful but va-va-voom variety - "sheer, but not like you're completely naked," Fram explained. All came with matching thongs, which Gillman was invited to examine.
"Oh, we love matching thongs!" Gillman said.
At this point, the room started to get very warm, at least for me. Which is when Gillman floored me with that "Is this a Cosabella?" question.
His wife, it turned out, had a Cosabella nightgown hanging in her closet back home. Most men, their wives could have a Shetland pony in the closet and they wouldn't notice.
Next, Fram showed Gillman a Verena cotton nightgown with a heart-shaped lace applique, then pink Nick & Nora pajamas with little cherry hearts. Compared to the chemises, this was something the Amish might wear.
It was at this point that Fram betrayed the first hint of solidarity with all the other mopes who try to buy lingerie for the women in their lives.
"Do you know your wife's measurements?" I asked.
"Uh, no," Gillman said. But then he pointed out that Rachel had shopped in the store before, and Lynn Fram knew all her measurements.
"I had an older gentleman in here once," Fram said, laughing, "and he had cut all the tags out of his wife's lingerie. He hands me the tags and [they] have the brands, the sizes, everything!"
To me, this seemed like a perfectly sensible way to shop for a woman's undergarments, but I kept silent.
Next, Fram showed Gillman a red and black Valentine's Day bra from Felina with matching thong. It was a show-stopper, if you like that sort of thing. But it looked like it was made with Velcro or something, and Gillman nixed it immediately by saying: "It doesn't look comfortable."
This seemed as good a time as any to bring up the Miss Valvoline Factor.
"When do you know if lingerie is too ... much?" I asked Gillman and Fram. "You don't want to buy your wife something that looks like it belongs on a Miss Valvoline poster."
"I think you gotta know your wife," Gillman said.
"Once it becomes your wife and the mother of your kids, you kind of think of it differently than if it was your girlfriend," Fram said.
And yet ... there's always room for playfulness in a marriage, is there not? Conveniently, we had just arrived at a display that included chocolate body paint.
My feet began to sweat as I read the directions. (1. Light candles. 2. Open jar. 3. Offer paint brush. 4. Announce softly: "Dessert's on me.") But Gillman was immediately intrigued.
"Look," he said, "it's got this neat little brush. Oh, I love this! It's very -"
"Erotic," Fram said helpfully.
"Oh, yeah, this'll work," said Gillman.
A full hour after he first walked in the store, Ken Gillman was at the checkout counter, handing over his credit card.
He was going with the Cosabella chemise, the pink Nick & Nora PJs, the chocolate body-paint and a neat-looking book called "The Story of the Heart" by a local artist-and-writer team.
The bill came to $247.75. Gillman never blinked. Some guys, when they make up for a Super Bowl trip, they really make up for it.
I worried about this column spoiling the surprise for his wife on Valentine's Day. But he said that wouldn't be a problem, because his wife doesn't read the paper.
Ouch. And we had gotten along so well, too.
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