My initiation was humble enough: Last spring I purchased an unassuming pair of black sandals with low, modest heels. I had spent a good bit of money on them and I thought they should earn their keep, so I made a point of wearing those strappy, inefficient shoes to work at least once a week.
The straps were too tight around the widest parts of my feet and cinched my toes. Even keeping them on while I walked was an exercise in near-futility. The minute I reached the sidewalk after leaving work for the day, I'd take my new sandals off, absorb the heat from the pavement through my soles while taking care to avoid bits of broken glass and newly discarded wads of gum.
In the city, where green spaces are limited, I must substitute concrete for grass; I liken a pebble digging into my arch to an errant Lego block thrown carelessly in the yard outside my childhood home. I miss it, sometimes - the topsoil between my toes, the grass scratching my tender skin. I did not think of high-heeled shoes, then. Or toenail polish or the perfect piece of jewelry to complement the perfect outfit. Each time I kicked those sandals off, I thought: What happened to simplicity?
In terms of dress, I prefer to feel at ease. Certainly, I make an effort to look presentable, but I find it difficult and often frustrating to maintain the prescribed notion of femininity as this concept does not often lend itself to comfort.
I was an average, tomboyish adolescent - fashionable at the time. As a teenager I crowded closets with leather and canvas evidence of my shoe fetish. 'Do you really need all these shoes?' My father asked every time he opened the door to the front closet; if he was truly frustrated, he'd pile all my footwear out into the hallway and make me decide between my canvas high-tops with Tweety-bird embroidered on the uppers, or the shiny red oxfords with thick square heels and black laces; infinite pairs of flip-flops stacked upon one another.
I could never choose. Each held a memory of the beach or a languid summer afternoon spent sitting on the stoop. My father waved a pair of battered Chuck Taylor's in my face; these were held together with carefully placed safety pins. How can you wear these? This is shameful! I could not explain that those shoes were more than stylish shields for my flat feet. In their dilapidated condition, those black-and-white Converse were a nametag, in a way. They spoke volumes.
As I aged, Tweety-bird became a juvenile fancy and the red oxfords were impractical and too heavy on my feet. I was still a shoe horse, but all the horses looked the same: black, for the most part. Leather, or something like it. Low-heeled. Well-worn.
JC Penney's was luminous, in contrast to my home-dimly lit and shadowy-as if to reflect the absence my mother had left. Both places were crowded, full of individuals grasping for anything they could to fill holes-in their hearts, or on Christmas lists. On the way to my house, a friend had heard on the radio that JC Penney's would remain open into the early hours of the morning to better serve those last minute shoppers; two days before the holiday my friend and I perused the aisles in that old standard department store. It seemed strange, almost foolish, to exchange one type of madness for another: grief for impulsive consumerism. But it was hard to differentiate. I knew what I truly wanted, but that mother-shaped thing was somewhere else, invisible and unattainable. I settled for shoes.
"I just need something to kick around in," I told my friend as we made the rounds through the shoe department. Life in California had made me complacent with respects to footwear-most of my shoes were sandals or flats that did not require socks-nothing acceptable for the severe Minnesota winter that had stung me in the face as I'd gotten off the plane. I chose a pair of ordinary black oxfords with Velcro straps in lieu of laces. They were well cushioned and a bit clunky (not shoes a twenty-something would normally indulge in.) I started calling them my "old-lady shoes." With the box tucked under my arm I circled the department again, eyeing riding boots constructed of aged leather, the calf-high shafts tall and proud. I moved on to a shelf displaying ballet-style flats, and considered the few pairs of similar shoes on the rack in my apartment, in Oakland. I would've been amenable to adding to the pile, but I felt I needed to make a change. Silently, I listed all my labels: female. Black. On the short end of average height and pudgy end of average weight. Student. Sister. Daughter. I added to the list: with deceased mother. With this addition to my list of definitions, whoever I had been dissolved. This new person, whomever she was, would take her old lady shoes and add something else. I tightened my hold on the shoebox and made for a display of various heels: respectable pumps for businesswomen, impossible stilettos for the flirty extrovert. In-between sat a pair of pumps with seemingly reasonable two-and-a-half-inch heels. I picked one up. It was weighty in my hand, fashioned from black matte leather, toe accented with white stitching, the sharp heel curved against the outer-edge of my palm. I tried them on: first in black, then in brown. Again in black. I made a tour through JC Penney's, gaining confidence I quickened my step, felt my hips slide up and down to compensate for the extra height. I posed in front of a mirror, one foot poised in front of the other, one hand on my hip, the other hanging loosely at my side. I pursed and curled my lips. "Oh yes," I said, "These are the ones."
I am not a graceful walker, especially not when teetering on 2 inches of manmade material. I surprise myself sometimes: while last season's black sandals sit cast off in my closet, I wear my pumps regularly, taking pleasure in the echoing click-snap, click-snap, as I make my rounds in the office. Click-snap. Click-snap. Click-snap. They make me taller. They make me feel important. They make me feel like a woman, which is odd, considering I already have all the necessary parts. When dressing casually I often choose my favorite uniform: t-shirt and jeans. I mull over my footwear options. I first try a pair of sneakers and I feel underdone. I try flip-flops, and then I remember the weather. I put on my pumps, notice how my cuffed hems hang just so over the heels. Denim and cotton become eveningwear. Where have you been all my life? I whisper to my heels. Those shoes do not make existence easier. I cannot wear them for extended periods of time. When driving, I have to take them off before trying to manipulate the pedals. Wearing them has not led to a barrage of offers from potential suitors. This is not why I bought them. Somehow, I'd gotten bored with myself. When I wear those shoes I can hear my mother's voice in my ear: you are growing up, my lady, she says, you look good!
When my feet hurt, I remember that most women wear such shoes every day. I see them all the time, clicking and snapping their way through downtown, confident in stride, placid in expression. I suffer for them, and myself-I know they must be mentally sparring with themselves, as I do: comfort vs. vanity. Vanity almost always emerges triumphant. I know this because it takes me an absurd amount of time to get dressed in the morning. I know this because I can picture my mother, tired and sick but always dressed to the nines for work; I can see her shuffling around the office in her heels, her feet throbbing and protesting the confinement. When I arrived home after she passed her shoes were there- a brown pair of pumps with square toes and short, stacked heels, lost and empty yet neatly lined in their place by the doormat. They had become her favorites. I put them on, for a second. Pretended I was her. She would've wanted me to wear them, or something like those shoes: for a long time she'd prodded and suggested that I update my appearance and I did try, but each time I put my feet in any shoe with a raised heel my feet ached intolerably. You just have to get used to it, she always said. But I couldn't acclimate to torture. I had to want to force my soles to curve in that unnatural way, to pinch my toes together, to walk at half my regular pace. The missing piece was desire.
Under my desk at work, I take my pumps off. I stretch and bend my feet, then put my shoes back on. My boss approaches, asks me for something. She looks at my feet.
"New shoes?" She says.
"Yes," I say. I turn my feet so she can see the detail. "Aren't they cute?"