Guys, if your heart's set on lace, Valentine's will cost you dearly

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If you're a man, your mind is humming like an IBM mainframe trying to figure out the perfect Valentine's Day gift for the woman in your life.

Let me give you just one piece of advice.

If you ever find yourself alone one night, knocking back a few beers and thinking: "I know! I'll get her a fire-engine red lace bra, garter belt and thong bikini!" don't do it.

Because this will not go over the way you want it to. Trust me on this.

I don't care how suave and sophisticated you think you are, when it comes to buying lingerie, men have a history of complete ineptitude.

Which means that whatever racy little number you buy, she'll probably hate it and you'll end up spending the night out in the tool shed with a small space heater, wondering where it all went wrong.

Now maybe some of you men are thinking: What's the big deal about buying lingerie? All you do is go into a place like Victoria's Secret, pick out something sheer and low-cut, preferably with a Zorro mask. What could be easier?

Well, see . . . right away you're getting off on the wrong foot.

The main problem is that men's and women's tastes in lingerie vary a great deal, to say the least.

At the risk of generalizing here, men tend to favor the sort of look found on a Miss Champion Spark Plugs poster.

Take that fire-engine red lace bra, garter belt and thong bikini get-up mentioned earlier.

If anything, a lot of men would find that outfit understated, because it doesn't come with a socket wrench for the woman to wave.

Many women, on the other hand, would feel cheap and tawdry in a get-up like that.

I know, I know . . . go figure, right? But the fact is, women tend to like their lingerie a bit more subdued. They're all for exuding sensuality, but a sensuality that doesn't call to mind a burly guy barking: "Hey, sailor, check out our dancing girls!"

The other problem with buying lingerie is that most men don't do well in stores such as Victoria's Secret.

No matter how confident and prepared they seem, these men turn into sweating, stuttering fools at the sight of all those shimmering bustiers and padded bras and silk chemises, billowing like sails in a fishing village.

Even if he's earnest about buying refined lingerie, a man invariably brain-locks and comes home with the sort of thing an inmate buys for his girlfriend after finishing a 20-year stretch in San Quentin.

The intimidation at a lingerie store starts the moment a man walks in the door and the saleswoman flashes a tight smile, as if thinking: "And what's your story? Out on parole? Wanted by the sex crimes unit? What?"

The saleswomen who wait on me always seem to be trying a little too hard to act as if it's perfectly normal for a man to be pawing through women's underwear.

Their voices are always clinical, detached, as if the two of us were touring a museum together: "Over here is a strapless bodysuit in stretch satin, with padded push-up underwire cups and a plunge V-center.

"If you'll follow me -- watch your step -- over here is our princess seamed silk charmeuse teddy with the lace bodice. People, if we could please stay together now, this is a paisley sandwashed silk demi bra . . ."

What unnerves me more than anything is when the saleswoman suddenly whirls and demands: "What size does your wife wear?"

Men aren't good at sizes. I've been married 17 years and have no idea what size my wife wears in anything.

So as the panic seizes me and the blood drains from my face, I always answer: "Uh, she's about your size."

Which is never true. But that's what I say. Whether the woman is built along the lines of a middle linebacker or Demi Moore, I say: "She's about your size."

Because at this point, size is not important. At this point, the only thing that's important is that I buy something and get out quickly, before my daughter's Sunday school teacher walks by and peers in the window and sees me leering at something from the "Evenings with Heidi Fleiss" collection.

Anyway, if I were you, men, I'd forget about buying lingerie.

Y'know, there was a time in this country when all a man did for Valentine's Day was saunter into a Rite Aid and bark at the startled clerk behind the register: "Those heart-shaped things -- the samplers with the chocolate and the macaroons? Ya gotta any of those left?"

I'm not saying we want to return to the old days.

I'm just saying lingerie is a bigger step than we might want to take.

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