When I was in my twenties I had all kinds of crazy shoes. Sandals with six-inch cork platforms that wobbled. Rope-soled espadrilles with laces that criss-crossed up my calves. Brown suede heels with pointy toes that pinched. Dr. Scholl’s sandals with wooden soles that clattered when I walked. If I’d known they were giving me bunions, I probably would have chosen to wear my crazy shoes anyway. I loved them all and didn’t think I’d ever get old.
The Little Angel
“The little angel flew and flew. Then she took off her wings and walked away.” That was the first story I ever told. I hadn’t even started kindergarten. There’s a matter-of-factness about the end that appeals to me. She takes off her wings herself. Her choice. I still don’t know what it means. A good story doesn’t have to mean anything, but it can be the beginning of everything.
Wrapped Around Her Little Finger
“She has you wrapped around her little finger.” My best friend told me her mother said that about me and I understood that her mother didn’t like me. We were probably eight or nine, and I was the leader, my friend the follower in our games. Her mother didn’t like my mother either, and said she didn’t get off her fat ass when she and my father had company. Even then I knew it was because my father preferred serving people drinks and snacks to talking to them. He hated talking to people. My mother loved being the life of the party but my father liked to stay home alone and read. I turned out to be more like him than her.
“You read too much.” My mother was always saying that. “Go outside.” I’d take my book outside and sit under the blossoming dogwood tree in the back yard and read. Bees from the honeysuckle vine on the stone wall buzzed lazily, I inhaled the fragrance of dogwood and honeysuckle and the neighbor’s new-mown grass, completely and utterly content. A college friend used to take me to his family’s summer house in the Thousand Islands. It was very beautiful. Freighters passed by, slow and stately, the sun sparkled on the water, the wind blew. He hiked, and sailed on a small boat, and puttered around in the garden or doing small repairs on the house. I sat on the deck all day and read. I was very happy there. “You like to do the same thing on vacation as you do at home,” he said.
My First Sentence
I was kissing the flowers in my grandparents’ garden, one by one, when I said my first sentence. “Go away, bee.” My husband is deathly afraid of bees and I wonder whether he sensed that about me. That I would repel bees for him.
It’s been years since I was a wallflower in junior high, but even though I know better, I still believe that beautiful women must have it easy. There was this girl when I was in rehab. Breathtakingly beautiful, with golden skin and long golden hair, thick and curly, and she talked in group therapy about getting falling-down drunk and sleeping with guys she didn’t know and waking up with cuts and bruises and having an abortion. “I still sing to the baby at night,” she said and I thought no, a girl that beautiful must have it easy.
Bees in Our Yard
One time my husband was doing work in the yard and stepped in a bee’s nest hidden under a bank of juniper bushes. The bees swarmed around him, stinging him. Bad enough, but his fear of bees made it even worse. He was hopping up and down, streaking through the front yard and then the back yard waving his arms and yelling, “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” I was able to calm him down and pull off his shirt and pick the last of the bees out of his hair. Some were alive and some were dead.
I had a bunionectomy when I was in my early fifties, which seemed shameful, even the word. Soon afterward I bought a pair of heavy black lace-up shoes. They were expensive, and I continued to wear them for a couple of years even though the swelling on my foot had gone down and they were too large. It was an embarrassing time and I don’t like to think about it.
We were upset about it at first, the neighbor’s ugly back yard, an eyesore piled with engines and dismantled cars and car parts, but the trees and bushes are overgrown and you can’t see that much. Everyone’s always talking about “resale value” in the San Francisco Bay Area, where real estate prices fluctuate like crazy, and people look at zillow.com calculating what they’re worth this month compared to last month, and the junkyard’s definitely lowering our resale value, but finally I realized: we don’t want to sell the house, so who cares about our resale value? The neighbor’s a nice guy. He was nice when we had to split the cost of a new fence between our properties, though money was tight for him then, because of some recent purchases. “It’s an addiction,” he said to my husband about all the car parts he spends his money on. “I can’t seem to help myself.”
Good Enough for You, Dear
I’ve got problems with my orthopedist. For one thing, I had crippling sciatica for eight months after the bunionectomy he performed, but he counted the operation a rousing success. He wants me to get the bunion on my other foot removed, but I’m not going for it. For another, he calls me “dear.” When I complained about how ugly the shoes were that he sells, he said they were fine for everyday wear. “Just call out the artillery for the special occasions, dear.” One of his female employees followed me outside and whispered that New Balance has some better-looking athletic shoes that are just as good. I bet he calls his staff “dear” too.
Don’t really make good neighbors, that’s not the point of Frost’s poem at all, a send-up of the barbarian neighbor who believes that they do, but everyone quotes that line. Our fence was at least forty years old when it fell over, maybe sixty or seventy. The house was built in the 1930s. The fence repair guy said call your insurance, they might cover it. The agent was very patient on the phone, asking me questions about why the fence fell over, trying to feed me the right lines so our coverage would kick in. “Look,” I said, “it was really old. It just fell over.” “Too bad,” she said. “We can’t cover that.”
My husband and I just went to visit a colleague who quit teaching recently because she felt so ill used by the university where we work. She’s living in a very cool tiny house out in the country. It’s about the size of a small RV, and up on wheels so you can transport it. There’s a cherry table that folds into the wall, and padded benches in an L, and a loft bed and tiny cabinets and a tiny silver wall heater and a tiny closet. Outside there’s a rushing stream and chickens and a goat. How wonderful, I thought, as I fantasized about living in a tiny house. How impossible, I thought. I’m not a hoarder but I could no more fit in a tiny house than I could wear a size 3 shoe.
They were all older than me, writers and artists in their seventies, eighties, nineties. We went around the circle, introducing ourselves. She was fierce looking, a short woman with short gray hair pushed back from her face. “My life has been an embarrassment,” she said, offering no further explanation amidst the chorus of “Oh, I’m sure that’s not true.” She sat back and crossed her arms in front of her chest. Later I saw her ceramics on pedestals in an art show. They shimmered under spotlights, uncompromising in their beauty.
Shopping for Shoes
I hate shopping for shoes, particularly since I’m confined to the kind of store that sells expensive shoes that are good for you. Hippie stores, or worse, old lady orthopedic stores. I’ll pick up the shoes on display and twist them, since the orthopedist said I need support and twistable shoes don’t provide that. I’ll see if the orthotic insoles my orthopedist made fit in the shoe, try the shoes on if they do, walk across the carpeted floor, maybe bouncing up and down a little bit. If they feel all right to me, I’ll buy them, but after a day of walking, depending on the width, my bunion may hurt, depending on the pitch of the sole in the back, my back may hurt, depending on the arch support, my knees or back may hurt. It’s one of the things I hate most about getting old. Ugly shoes.
Mary Most Contrary
I have a beautiful friend, twenty years younger than me, who dislikes her size ten feet and calls them “clodhoppers.” I like my feet, even the right foot with the knobby bunion, it’s just my shoes I dislike. I was born with a deformed toe on my right foot. The toe next to my pinky toe curls inward like a macaroni and takes up too much space. Shortly after I was born, my parents took me to an expensive orthopedist who taped the errant toe to the adjacent toe and said it might have to be amputated down the road. I was also born left-handed, which only gradually emerged, also a source of considerable distress to my parents. It took planning and subterfuge for me to maintain my left-handedness in the face of their efforts to discourage it. I’m proud of that. Despite pressure at home and at school, I insisted on using my left hand. My choice. Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, my parents’ Bible, warned that left-handedness can be an early sign of a contrary child, and maybe I was. I’ve never liked following rules. I’m a contrary, left-handed writer now, living in an old house with a contrary, right-handed writer who hates bees. Our son is grown and we’re getting old. We both read a lot. I have beautiful feet and wear ugly shoes and I still have all my toes.