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The Secret Stories of Shoes

Lizzie Bellinger

Take a moment; think about your shoes. They tell me something about your life. You chose them—or maybe you didn’t. Maybe they were handed down to you, two sizes too big, and you stuffed newspaper into the toes to wear them to school. Maybe you crossed your ankles to hide them under your desk, wondering if other kids could tell. Or maybe you were too young, yet, to know shame. 


As a child, I lived on a residential street in Minneapolis, not far from the noisy bustle of Chicago Avenue. The busy streets frightened me with their graffiti and grime. I associated them with the community center where my mother was a social worker and people too poor to buy things with money came to get diapers and dish soap from the center’s pantry. When my mother picked me up from school, we drove back to the community center in her boxy Nissan Sentra. Sitting on the orange carpet, I ate peanut butter Ritz Bitz and folded flyers into equal thirds. I stuffed twenty envelopes to my mother’s 200. 


Nothing I had was new. We went to the big shopping center to get stiff jeans and hot pink T-shirts from the thrift store. I hated that Savers. I even hated the big red Savers sign. For my mother, thrifting was a treasure hunt. She held up flowered leggings with triumph, but I hid under the racks, breathing in the smells of dust and detergent, and sulked. 


One day, she brought home a shoe box and told me there was something special inside. I lifted the lid, and, wrapped in pristine white tissue paper, was a pair of shoes, size one. They were orange sneakers with a velcro closure designed to look like a lion. The brand was called Zoo Kids. I looked up at my mother. “Good shoes are a great value,” she said. “It’s cheaper to have good shoes than to have foot problems.” 


Those shoes carried me up and down 11th Avenue, past the apartment complexes where I peered through the blinds, wondering if the inhabitants’ lives were different from ours. They splashed through the puddles where I sailed paper boats in the spring snowmelt, my fingers red and stiff with cold. I was taller, faster, and more confident in my Zoo Kids, imbued with a lion’s courage. On the sidewalk, I looked down at my shoes, wiggling my toes against the fabric and dreading the moment when we would take them to the thrift store for another kid to wear.  


After college, when I flew home for Christmas, I stayed at my father’s house in Saint Paul. My mother had a new house in an expensive neighborhood and a puppy who jumped its big-nailed feet onto my chest as I came in the back door through the snow. The boots I wore were Ugg knockoffs from the thrift store in Baltimore; they were tan faux-leather with synthetic shearling lining. I didn’t like them that much, but I counted every dollar in those lean Americorps years, and they kept my feet pretty warm for $6.95. I kicked off the snow and left them on the mat, shuffling through the unfamiliar sunroom in my wool socks. 


My mother hates Christmas. She says it’s because of all the years she had to fight over the holiday schedule with my father. She prefers a minimalist approach to gift giving, in accordance with her Buddhist training. “Impermanence, Lizzie,” she says. “Everything in life is transient.” 


My stocking held chapstick and Lindt chocolate truffles. I gave my mother a gift certificate to an expensive restaurant. She gave me a necklace she made out of ribbon and beads. 


In the dark-dark of a land in which the sun has fully set by 4:30 pm, I bundled into my coat and cast about for my thrift store boots. One was missing. My mother found it under the couch, half destroyed, the upper part shredded and the soft lining dangling. The puppy cowered next to the couch, guilty. 


In my chewed boot and my unchewed boot, I crunched to the borrowed car. The icy steering wheel sapped the heat from my hands. 


My mother wrote me a check for $100 to replace the boots. I said nothing. 


We tried and tried to get pregnant. When the usual strategies didn’t work, we scheduled passionless sex morning and night for one week out of each month. After a couple of years, we gave up. We did childless things instead; we bought a house, sold our second car, and took a trip to Scotland. When we got home, I peed on the little stick before I got in the shower, more out of habit than hope. When I stepped out, there were two lines, one bold and one faint. I fell to my knees, naked and dripping, and wept. 


At 39 weeks, with a hugely pendulous belly drawn tight across the fetus, I serenely waved goodbye to my workplace. The baby would arrive any day now.  


As week 40 turned to week 41, I languished on the couch like a beached whale. I patronized a pizza shop legendary for pie so spicy it would induce labor. No luck. I played in a pingpong tournament. Still pregnant. On Monday, while everyone else was at work, I shrugged into my coat and drove to the mall. 


The Nordstrom Rack is a discount outlet for an upscale department store. I couldn’t afford the $120 marked on the white price tags, but I placed a hand on a middle shelf and squatted down onto my heels to inspect a pair of boots with an orange tag marked $59. I picked one up. It had a stylish cutout in the arch that I was sure would make them useless in the rain. 


“Da-amn,” I heard from over my shoulder. Two women stood at the end of the aisle, one pointing at me with an elongated fingernail. “Look at that squat!” 


I smiled to myself. Holding one boot in each hand, I arose without assistance just to prove I could. 


“Get it, girl,” the other said. “I’d squat that low for those boots too.” 


They laughed and moved on down the row. 


Everyone advised against buying shoes while pregnant; your feet will change, they said, and nothing will fit you anymore. I took a hard look at the leather booties and the orange price tag, and swiped my credit card at the register. When I walked back into the fluorescent daylight of the mall, I stopped in my tracks. Faint pain radiated from deep inside. 


Now I sit in the glider rocker with the matching glider footrest, cradling my baby girl. I’m barefoot more often than not, these days, and naked from the waist up half the time. The baby is latched onto my nipple, sucking rhythmically. Although she is as close to me as a person can get, I am completely alone. 


When I was pregnant, I called my mom and asked her about those difficult years in middle and high school when I asked my dad to pick me up and take me away from her, and he did. She came to my school and found me in the hallway, placing a hand on either side of my head against the cinderblock wall. “Come home with me,” she said. “I don’t want to,” I said back, feeling the gaze of every blond head as a hundred kids with trapper-keepers funneled around us. “But I’m your mother,” she said. “If you don’t come with me, I’ll have to go to court.” I stared at the linoleum. I didn’t go with her. 


During that phone call to unearth the past, my mother grew tearful. “We were in the middle of a divorce,” she said, “and I was a single parent trying to get through grad school. I was desperate.” I wanted to ask her how a divorce could make a person threaten their teenage daughter in a middle school hallway, but I couldn’t find the words. She needed me to fix the things that were broken for her. I was a child, and could fix nothing. 


I look down at the baby. The seal that holds her mouth to my nipple has broken and she sleeps with her cheek against my breast, mouth open and milky. One day, this floppy child will learn to walk. She will walk towards me at first, then turn and take steps into the unknown. When she finally walks away, will it consume me like fire? Or will my chest ache where the emptiness is? Will I be able to resist the urge to claw her back, kicking and screaming, to my breast? 


Perhaps I will take her shoes to stop her from walking into the sharp and filthy world; but I am too wise to hobble her. Perhaps I will destroy them by mistake, like my own mother. How will I pay her back? Will I pour money on the hurt to hide it? Or will I find the currency to pay her in kind? 

Lizzie Bellinger owns a physical therapy practice in Baltimore and teaches anatomy and orthopedics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She wrote a fantasy novel at age 13, then abandoned it.  She is currently working on a memoir about loss and the madness of grief. This is her debut publication. 

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