The other day, Dan brought a shoebox down from a high shelf in his closet and took out a leather leg brace. It’s meant to support his ankle which has a tendency to swell because of his flat feet. He’s talked about the brace periodically, but in the three years I’ve know him he’s never worn it.
“Now’s as good a time as any,” he said, strapping it on.
I sat next to him on the bed and touched the stiff brown leather. My throat tightened. “This feels familiar,” I told Dan, surprising us both with the tremor in my voice.
It wasn’t the first time I’d grown emotional at the thought of orthotics. Years ago, my mother surprised me with a pair of ankle-high boots. They were very chic and close in style to a pair she knew I’d been coveting, but as soon as I put them on I burst into tears. They had a small strap that buckled over the laces, just like the shoe that attached to the brace I wore when I was little.
“I can’t keep these,” I wept to my mother who stared at me in dismay.
My relationship with footwear has always been strained. Throughout my childhood, my parents drove past the fashionable boutiques with their tempting displays, and headed straight to the Stride Rite store. It seemed, by comparison, like a doctor’s office with its bland wood paneling and harsh fluorescent lights.
“Ask the salesman if they’ve got good enough support,” my mother would say when I showed her the pair I wanted. In grade school, it was Mary Janes; in middle school, clogs; in high school, marshmallow wedged heels. I’d carry the sample shoe over to the man in the ill-fitting suit and stare up at him hopefully.
“Maybe next time you can get these,” he’d tell me.
No one ever said no, always next time as though my thin, palsied foot might straighten in a year to accommodate my taste in shoes. Meanwhile, the salesman brought boxes of unstylish oxfords from the storeroom with — he assured my mother — great support. He straddled the slant-board stool and tied the laces for me while my father watched, brow furrowed. Next, I had to pace in front of my grim entourage, catching sight of my awkward movements and the shoes I didn’t want in the low mirrors along the wall. Finally, my father leaned down to press his thumb in the space above my big toe and nodded his approval.
At seventeen, I finally rebelled against Stride Rite, coming home with bad-for-my-feet high-top basketball sneakers. They were bright red, and I wore them not just with jeans but with my growing collection of Indian print skirts. I meant to rebuff my classmates’ designer jeans and dainty high-heeled shoes. Clearly, my rejection of these girls was an attempt to ward off their rejection of me. Still, I can see something brave in how I went about it, drawing attention to my uneven legs and clumsy gait with those quirky anti-fashion statements. My glaring red self-conscious no to self-consciousness.
I made another bold wardrobe move the year I met Hope, my first friend with cerebral palsy. In the honeymoon months of our friendship, we talked for hours every day about what living in our bodies felt like, interrupting one another and finishing each other’s sentences. These early conversations weren’t ideological at all; we didn’t yet know what we thought about disability in social or political terms. We focused on the nitty-gritty of daily life, the awkwardness of asking strangers to move so we could use a banister, the embarrassment of tripping in public, the frustrating fact that we so quickly wore out our shoes.
One day I passed a shop in the East Village that had t-shirts in the window with Lichtenstein-like pop art cartoons. One featured a woman with Marilyn Monroe hair and lips, along with the caption “I may be beautiful but I’m awfully hard on shoes.” I bought two, and Hope and I walked through the city with linked arms the first time we wore them.
For a while, I dated a man who had a passion for women in high heels. To please him, I bought a pair to wear at his son’s wedding. While I sat in a front pew, Paul stayed behind to walk with his family down the aisle. Suddenly, he came up beside me.
“You’re supposed to walk with me,” he said.
“What? No one told me.”
The wedding was about to start. Everyone stared as we rushed up the aisle only to walk down it moments later as part of the ceremony. I felt miserable. When Richard and I got married, we didn’t have a wedding. I hated the idea of a room full of people watching me. But once the music started there was nothing I could do. I teetered on my stupid shoes that wouldn’t stay on my feet properly. Wearing a sexy beaded dress and walking next to my adoring lover, I felt like the same crippled little girl who was forced to pick from the homely sensible shoes at Stride Rite.
You can dress me in rebellious hippie-wear, a sassy t-shirt, or a come-hither dress, but part of me will always be that girl.
Beside me on the bed, Dan tied the laces of a dress shoe, the only pair that fit over the ankle brace.
“Is it very noticeable?” he asked.
I turned to him, and for a moment, saw the self-conscious little blind boy who didn’t want to be stigmatized by yet another disability.
“You can’t see it under your pants,” I answered truthfully.
I thought of lines from a poem called “Dreams” by Linda Pastan: “the children/we were/rock in the arms of the children/we have become.” It was that same boy, I realized, who had stopped Dan from wearing the brace to begin with. Now his ankle was painful and swollen. And of course it was Stride Rite girl who had picked the impractical shoes for the wedding.
Dan fussed with the brace, looking fretful.
I stroked his hair the way I often do with Ethan. “I’m glad you’re taking care of yourself,” I told him, hoping that the little boy was listening.