In the golden spill of lamplight, sitting cross-legged on the plump, white comforter of the queen bed in my Airbnb, I open up my traveling satchel and pull out my dressy shoes.
The satchel is shiny red, bought at TJ Maxx after I returned home from the second flight I took for work. I had waited, again, by the luggage terminal, waited with dozens of other people, for my black and gray wheelie to come around. I touched, and those other people touched, dozens of wheelie clones, before we each claimed our own dully identical baggage.
I’m getting a new bag, I thought then. Maybe in neon purple. Maybe in chartreuse.
I settled on the shiny red. Distinctive and sassy, the color serves me well, even though my travel now is mostly done rubber to road.
The color of the shoes I pull out of that bag–well, that’s not so accommodating. One is black, the other brown. The matched pair I had set out the night before, reached for in the early morning, plumped inside the bag quietly so I wouldn’t wake my sleeping spouse–half that pair remained at home. In its place, a stowaway.
All by myself, in the quiet luxury of an apartment to myself for one lovely, tub-soaking, blissful night, I start to laugh.
I am on what I’m calling a ‘Recon’ mission–stealthy, focused, I am reconnecting with special people from whom, for one reason or another, I have been separated for much too long. Before I unpacked my mismatched shoes, I had a long, gossipy, wonderful dinner with Sandee. We have known each other forever, Sandee and me, since we were seven or eight-year olds at a mutual friend’s house and Sandee came barreling around a corner, in a scarlet pea coat on a crisp fall day. She was yelling, of course, “The red coats are coming! The red coats are coming!”
And so we all began to run in October exuberance. “That girl is fun,” I thought, and then a span of two years and my move to a nearby city put us in the same class, on the second floor of a grim, boxy, three-story Catholic school.
Our teacher was Sister Fabian, and she was tiny and wiry and (even now I feel a twinge of frightened guilt–I look back over my shoulder apologetically as I write this truth) MEAN. One day she grabbed Sandee by the collar of her blue serge uniform and shook her out of her bolted-down desk. I, a recent refugee from public school,–with all the laxness of discipline that involved,–turned and gasped, and the little nun finished shaking Sandee and glared at me, bearing down to check my work–which, thank a benevolent god, was neatly, completely done. Pacified, the nun swished to the front of the classroom, wooden rosary beads clicking, and Sandee and I exchanged a glance that contained horror and conspiracy and sympathy.
We have been friends ever since, even though my Catholic school stay that year was shortened by my older brother’s expulsion for unknown crimes against the sisterhood. Sandee stayed; I returned three years later to do my eighth grade year and be confirmed. In between, my family moved to a house two blocks from Sandee’s, and we were well-positioned then to nudge and shove and shield each other through the harrowing events of our high school years. We kept that friendship habit through marriages and moves and kids and jobs, but when Sandee entered the chemo tunnel for thyroid cancer, my support had to be long distance. She was isolated from any kind of germs or contagion. Hugs had to be put on hold.
We spent a lazy day together the weekend before the chemo started; we had coffee and mooched through shops and had lunch and laughed and remembered; we talked about the disease and the treatment and the optimistic prognosis and we shopped some more. And then we hugged hard before parting, knowing it would be a year, anyway, before we met up again, and during that time, Sandee would be irradiated and medically poisoned, and she would lose hair and weight and her buoyant energy.
But the optimism was justified, and so we celebrated that night, the night of my Airbnb stay, with soup at Panera and a long-delayed chance to catch up.
I wore my sneakers to dinner with Sandee. And I can wear them to breakfast with Terri and Jo, and to lunch with Marsha and Kath. But after that, I am heading to see my friend Wendy. Wendy has a gift card to a fancy restaurant. I am going to need real shoes.
I call Mark and tell him about my shoes. He laughs and laughs, and then he says, “Hey: you left a pair just like that at home!”
Just go buy some shoes, he tells me. Buy yourself a pair of shoes.
And just like that, I regress to the autumnal excitement, back to what it felt like when Sandee and I first became fast friends. It is Fall, and I am going school shoe shopping.
Shoe shopping with my mother was fraught with both excitement and dread. Whatever new shoes we got would last me the whole school year. That could be glorious, or that could be disastrous.
My mother, whose poor feet were twisted by outrageous bunions earned by years of hard work in ill-fitting shoes on cement floors, was of the opinion that Oxfords were the only shoes that gave the proper support. And saddle shoes, she thought, were the best kind of Oxford.
Saddle shoes! Remnants of the Elvis Presley era! I wanted nothing to do with them in the swinging sixties. I wanted slingbacks or slip-ons or even earth shoes. I wanted–I really, REALLY wanted–penny loafers.
Your feet aren’t the right shape to wear loafers, my mother would tell me, and we would return from our shopping trip with another pair of dismal Oxfords, quite often of the saddle shoe variety.
I will be the weirdest kid at school, I thought glumly, and I tried to think of ways to carry those shoes off with panache. (Maybe I could…paint them???)
Those shoes, though, built in me a work ethic. As soon as I could, I took babysitting jobs, and then I graduated to part-time work in a supermarket deli. I would save my money and buy my own clothes. I would wear shoes that I picked out.
Naturally, it wasn’t simple. I was tall and my feet were correspondingly big. I was a size nine-and-a-half, and in those days, ladies’ shoes went up to size nine, then jumped to size ten. I had to shop and try on, and hope that one style ran a little large so I could comfortably wear the nine, or that a ten would not flop off my feet. I pinched my toes a lot during those days, a martyr on the altar of fashion.
Serious work tempered that–walking up and down a classroom floor (at first, in that same boxy Catholic school, a place transformed in spirit from my fifth grade sojourn) was murder in ill-fitting shoes. I shopped for cute styles with foam soles, cushiony inserts, a little bit of a wedge, maybe, but something that would comfort and support all day, until, students gone, I could change into my sneakers.
And years went by. Marriage happened. Children happened. Moves happened.
And one year, I found myself signed up to walk a half marathon in Columbus with Wendy, briskly walking Wendy, who had walked that route before while I cheered her on at the finish line,–who had walked that route and made it look like fun. So early one spring morning we parked a car near Nationwide Center, lined up with thousands of other marathoners–some full and some half, some runners and some walkers–and we bounced to the pulsing music and we waited for the gun to roar, for the announcer to urge us on, to walk our 13.1 mile route.
And walk it we did, at a brisk, companionable, 15 minute-mile rate. But at the end, oh my feet were a mess. I had worn my nicely broken-in but not too old Nikes, and I hated them by the time I crossed the finish line. My feet HURT. And my poor big toes! The nails floated on top of punishing bruises, and within days, the nails had fallen off. Oh, oh, oh, my aching feet.
As soon as my feet could bear it, I went to a legendary shoe shop in the wild hills of Ohio, the kind of place where they carefully measure your feet and squish the toe of the shoes you try on and do not let you leave the store in any shoe that does not fit. And there the perky little clerk informed me that I was no longer a nine and a half. No, my feet had broadened and flattened into robust size elevens.
“It happens as we age,” said the clerk, who might have been all of 21, sympathetically. “No wonder your poor toes were so sore!”
Out I walked that day in size eleven sneakers, sneakers that felt like clown shoes. Fwap. Fwap. Fwap.
But my toes felt so much better.
I was once again in that place where the store might not carry the size that I needed–many shops only carry women’s shoes up to size ten. But, ha: the Internet was here, and I could order online–order up a pair of respectable shoes, type in the 16 digits of a number on a piece of plastic, and within days a pair of lovely size elevens would present themselves on my brick front step. I would never, I thought, have to march my big feet into a shoe store again.
Until my Recon Mission, when I pulled a pair of mismatched shoes from my shiny satchel.
I awake in the cool and quiet of the Airbnb, make myself a cup of detox tea, check my email, read the news. I spend a lovely half hour on the little private porch with my book. And then it is time to go.
I drag my bags out to the car, stow them in the trunk, and do a last once-through, making sure all is in place and the keys are back on their hook in the kitchen. And then I set off to buy shoes before breakfast.
The big box store is the only place open, and I go in with trepidation. It is not a place I shop if I don’t absolutely have to. I do not like what I have read of their employment policies; I do not like that their goods may come from sweatshops overseas. And I am wondering what the biggest size they carry might be.
I am pleasantly surprised to find my size elevens well-represented. I pick out two pairs, one black and one blue, and I check out and drive off, just in time to meet my two old friends for a long and hearty, talk-filled breakfast. And then I am off to meet Marsha and Kath, for lunch and a visit to Kathy’s apartment and a wonderful pocket of time in which to re-establish old ties. And then I hit the road to Wendy’s, where, after arriving and unpacking and taking a brisk, muscle-stretching walk, I freshen up and change so I’ll be presentable for dinner at a nice restaurant.
I wear a flowy, patterned shirt and my good black pants and my new shoes: black, size eleven. Finally. By accident, maybe. But here I am: proud owner of those long-sought penny loafers.
In this small way–and in so many bigger ones–life is so darned good.