by Patty Somlo
Those thin suede shoes my sister, Carol, and I desperately wanted were called Gumdrops. My mother didn’t want to buy the shoes for us because she claimed they wouldn’t last. Her objection might also have been influenced by the fact that the Gumdrops were worthless when it came to support. The soft footwear felt more like slippers than shoes, the rubber sole barely there.
We wanted the shoes that tied like our sneakers, simple and black with rounded toes, because other girls our age were wearing them. We wanted the shoes because having them on our feet was a way to fit in.
My sister once told me a story, the theme of which I realize was shame. She was walking to school one day in those skimpy shoes, and noticed that the material had split apart on the side, where it was impossible not to be noticed. I’m thinking she started to cry then and decided to find her way home, skipping school for the day. As might be apparent, I have forgotten the details. What I distinctly recall is the heartbreaking image of those special shoes giving way.
But now I remember a different aspect of the story. There was a name-brand version of the shoes that cost more, which my mother refused to buy. Instead, my sister and I got the cheap imitations, possibly the reason the shoes came apart.
We were a military family. As such, we moved across the country, or the world, every year or every other year. Most kids struggle to fit in, to be liked, and definitely not to call attention to themselves in some negative way. Being the new kid year after year, is an endless show, in which life becomes a catwalk. The kid keeps donning different outfits, hoping to please an everchanging crowd.
As I got older and my classmates fell into distinctive crowds, distinguished by economic class and grades, looks and athletic ability, and even time spent in juvenile hall, I floated amongst the groups, never fitting comfortably in any one. Because I was smart, loved to read and got good grades, I sometimes hung around with the sons and daughters of the town’s well-off. But since money was often tight and my Air Force dad lived away from us much of the time, I befriended kids whose parents worked with their hands and their offspring were not destined for college.
In order to hang with kids whose style, musical tastes and what they did for fun differed, I needed to be a chameleon, turning into a mirror that reflected back what I saw. I was like the bare mannequin in a display window, waiting to be adorned with the next season’s fashion. Underneath the person I pretended to be, I didn’t know who I was.
Except, I had an idea that the girl I happened to be, beneath the various characters I’d layered on top, was an embarrassment I needed to hide. If asked at the time, I probably wouldn’t have managed to explain what about that girl I found lacking. I might have been able to acknowledge what fueled my desperate need to hide her -- the belief that if I ever let her out, not one single kid in my school or neighborhood would like me.
I went on like this for a long time, in part because I placed myself in situations where that hidden girl didn’t fit. For college, I opted to attend a private university in Washington, D.C., that my parents couldn’t really afford. So, there I was in a dorm surrounded by young women, wealthier than anyone I’d ever known. Down the hall was Andrea, whose father was the head of Columbia Pictures. Next door was Alice, who would become my best friend and roommate the following year. Her father was President of the Bank of Israel, and he and his wife had a house on Long Island, large enough to hold within its walls the last four places my family had lived.
The girls on my dorm floor, including Alice, had so many clothes, they needed to take each season’s outfits home to leave enough room in the closet to hang the current season. Every blouse, skirt and pair of pants I owned barely filled the space I was allotted. So, I cheated. My mother gave me a credit card, which for a brief time let me feel like one of the crowd. Years later, I can still remember one outfit I bought from a small, expensive boutique in Philadelphia. The pants were white, with cuffs. I paired them with a red, slim-fitting belted top that ended just below my thighs. I was thin as a noodle, thanks to lots of skipped meals and sweat-soaked exercise, and believed the outfit made me look like a model.
It never occurred to me that I felt the need to hide myself in order to be liked. I also didn’t realize that aiming my gaze at other people, in order to see myself, wasn’t a good way to be. Since I never questioned the practice I started in childhood, I continued with it, even as an adult.
Then I crashed, and feared I might never climb out of the deep crevasse in which I’d fallen. I knew I needed help. Thankfully, several friends were there to suggest where I might find it.
Nearly a year and a half into once-a-week sessions with a therapist, sitting across from her in a comfortable, pale gray leather chair, something shifted. Or rather, during the previous eighteen months, I had been learning how to dwell within my body. This new and unusual practice began with a ritual at the start of each session. Placing my feet firmly on the floor, back straight, hands resting loosely on my thighs, palms facing up, I would close my eyes and focus attention on my breath. Then I would imagine the breath traveling through my body, first coming into the nostrils, dribbling down the throat into my lungs, falling into my belly, sliding down to my legs, and eventually caressing my feet. During a session, if my therapist asked how I was feeling, a question that for the longest time I struggled to answer, I would close my eyes and start that same practice of breathing mindfully all over again, until I located an emotion, usually stuck in my belly.
About this time, I had a stunning revelation. I was in a relationship with a man who had trouble making time for me in his life. For some reason, I didn’t call the whole thing off. Instead, I kept thinking I could change him.
Alex had no trouble making plans with his sister to ride bikes early on a Saturday morning up Mt. Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco, where we lived. He easily arranged dates with male acquaintances for squash games at his athletic club. He also set aside times, well in advance, to join his mother for dinner.
When it came to me, Alex couldn’t commit to a movie, a few days away. He preferred to call me at the last minute, just before six on a Friday, to see if I might be available that night.
One Saturday morning after I’d stayed overnight at his flat, he woke me up early. I remembered that he had plans for a post-dawn bike ride with his sister that day. Even though I wasn’t included, I needed to get up, so he could drive me home. I wanted to stay in bed, as I felt tired, but I knew time was short.
My throat felt scratchy and raw when I swallowed, and my body ached.
“I don’t feel very well,” I said, when I emerged from the bathroom.
He didn’t respond. Instead, he raised his right wrist and checked his watch.
“It’s late,” he said. “We’ve gotta get going.”
It didn’t happen then, though I suppose that would have been the right moment. About twenty minutes later, Alex double-parked in front of my apartment building, and I stepped out of the car. For some reason, I waited, before closing the car door, crossing the street, and walking over to my building. Only after I’d punched in the code to the black metal front gate, listened for the buzzer, then pulled the gate open, stepped inside and climbed the six short sets of stairs to the third floor, slid the key into the lock, turned it, walked down the long narrow hall to my bedroom and sat down on the bed, did I realize what I’d been waiting for. I’d been waiting for Alex to express his concern and that he hoped I would feel better. I’d been waiting to hear him say he’d call later, to find out how I was doing or if I needed anything. As it turned out, I waited more than long enough. He didn’t say anything remotely like what I’d been waiting for. All he ended up saying was, “Goodbye.”
In the process of waiting, something changed. I saw him. For the first time, I turned the camera in my mind’s eye towards him, screwed on a close-up lens and focused. That’s when I realized that for the entire six months or so of our relationship, I had let Alex hold the camera. All that time, I kept trying to see the pictures he was taking of me. Now, I’d snatched the camera away from him, and I became the photographer.
With the viewfinder at my eye, I didn’t like the picture I was seeing. Instead of wondering whether Alex liked me, I could see that it didn’t matter. Whatever he might have thought of me, I now realized the man I’d been spending time with was a cold and uncaring guy. Suddenly, I understood that I wanted and needed the opposite sort of man in my life.
The following week, I called Alex and told him I didn’t want to see him anymore. After hanging up the phone, I felt certain I would never be in another relationship with a man like that again.
I’m not sure how it happens that girls are taught to pay more attention to how others see them than the way they see themselves. Or rather, we females gaze at our reflections in the mirror, trying to figure out what others will think of us. There are several good jokes that start out with a wife asking her husband, “Does this make me look fat?” For most women and girls, looking fat, or appearing unattractive, is no laughing matter.
On some level, women, especially those in my generation who came of age in the sixties, were raised to base views of themselves on how other people saw them. We tried to figure out how we were seen and then assumed that’s who we were.
Live long enough and you reach a point when you realize that at least about one or two things, your mother was right. After years of wearing inexpensive but stylish shoes, as well as high heels that pinched my toes together into a point and forced my foot into an unnaturally tall arch, I ended up with terrible feet. All I need do is look at the sorts of shoes I used to love and my toes ache.
For quite a few years now, I have been forced to wear comfortable shoes, no matter how they look. Thankfully, I’m part of a large generation of women who abused their feet, so many soothing shoes are designed to not look as supportive as they feel.
I’ve become an older woman who looks good at a distance. When I go on walks in my neighborhood, I sometimes notice much younger men staring at me as they drive by in their cars. Even though I’m long past the days when what I wear ought to matter, I still love to shop for clothes, and sometimes spend a long time getting ready before going out. After over twenty-five years of being with my husband, Richard, he is accustomed to being consulted about which shoe looks best with my outfit, as I stand with one knee bent, hiding the second choice, while he considers the first.
The habit I adopted as a military child, to turn on my radar in a group and try to figure out what people like and then act as if I like that too, has never gone away. Part of me still feels the need to hide, waiting to see if and when it feels safe to come out. I never had children, so I’ve been able to stay in my cocoon a lot longer than most. I keep waiting to grow up and mature, to get past the need to look right or be right.
I now opt for footwear my mother might have chosen, except she would have balked at the price. The happier my feet feel in a pair of shoes, the more they cost me now.
Not long ago, I went to one of the two stores in my small city that carries comfortable shoes, to search for a pair of sandals. I wanted what seemed to be an oxymoron, summer shoes I could wear with dresses, that had enough support for long walks. Instead of considering shoes on the racks, I explained to the friendly clerk what I wanted. Moments later, she returned from the back, balancing boxes in a precarious stack that reached all the way up to her nose.
One after another, I tried on various choices, striding back and forth across the hard floor to assess comfort, and then checking out how the shoe looked, with yoga pants rolled to my knees. By the fourth pair, I’d fallen in love.
“I think it’s these,” I said to the clerk.
That’s when I realized I hadn’t asked the price of a single one.
Part of me didn’t want to ask, but instead to return to my college days, charging an outfit my mother wouldn’t have let me to buy, if she’d been there. The price wasn’t a concern. I was going to buy the sandals, no matter what they cost.
Still, I needed to take an extra deep breath, once the clerk revealed the damage. In the moment after, I wondered what I would tell my husband about why I’d spent enough to buy four pairs of sandals on only one.
“I’ll take them,” I said.
I smiled, thinking of the sizable rewards I would earn on my credit card from the purchase. And I kept grinning, as I fantasized using the rewards to travel to a city, where I could don a summer dress and those perfect sandals, comfortably walking around and sightseeing, not looking like a frumpy old lady in the process.
Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), have been Finalists in the International Book, Best Book, National Indie Excellence, American Fiction and Reader Views Literary Awards. Her next book, From Here to There, is forthcoming from Adelaide Books in 2019. www.pattysomlo.com.