On the freighter bound for Italy, I was five years old and playing by myself in the corridor outside our cabin when I heard the siren that meant the boat was sinking. I knew this meaning from the drill wed had the day before, when wed practiced putting on our lifejackets getting quickly up on deck. Just in time, I marveled through my instant terror. For it felt like more than coincidence that had sent the real thing so soon after wed prepared for it, as if the thought itself had opened the door for disaster.
In our cabin I found my father. Instead of pulling out the lifejackets, frowning and worrying and hurrying, he was sitting calmly below the eye of the porthole, typewriter with a long piece of paper curling out of it balanced on his knees, in a blue button-down shirt and boxer shorts. Drink in one hand, he looked up at me. In the short fat glass, ice was melting into a tawny liquid. I stood in the oval doorway, trying to form the words to tell him, but they stuck and burned in my throat.
I didnt see my mother and hoped that wherever she was, someone would give her an extra lifejacket.
My father smiled and held out the hand that wasnt holding the drink toward me. I wanted to cry. He might not have heard the siren. He looked so happy sitting there, though, that I couldnt bear to tell him and make him afraid to die.
I came to him and let him stroke my hair, pressing my head into the space below his arm to make myself brave. Waiting for the water to start trickling in the doorway and then come pouring through the porthole, I almost didnt mind because I already felt myself drowning, resolved that we would go down together in the yawning immensity of the love I bore him.
That such a dramatic sacrifice would not be immediately required I learned some time later, after my father unhooked my head and tousled my hair, and my mother came back to our cabin. Though my curiosity now outweighed my fear, I felt a sudden hot embarrassment, and it took a long time for the words to come out of me. My father laughed and explained, the siren had not been meant for us at all, but had sounded for the crew's drill. We were not going to sink, he reassured me. We were going to be just fine; we were going to have a grand time.
That first trip abroad, we made a tour through Greece and parts of eastern Europe, Switzerland and France, settling for brief periods in Italy, England and Spain. Despite years of my parents promptings, Dont you remember this or that? and the incontrovertible evidence of instamatic photos, where we stand posed in front of the Acropolis, the Coliseum, Hadrians wall, the expected line-up of ruins that document the march of western civilization, what has stayed with me most powerfully from that time are purely personal and individual ephemera, the interiors of hotel rooms and a few other fragments: dust on my sandals, a workman being lowered into a hole in the street in Prague, the steamy smell of lavender soap and a deep claw-footed tub at the end of the hall from our flat in Ealing, eating breadsticks from a glass in a trotteria in Florence, and peeking out from a dark blanket as my father carried me home from a late-night flamenco performance through deserted, moonscape streets of Marbella.
For my parents, this was the wanderjaar neither one had had in their youth. When they were first married, and when I was first born, they were poor. That was the explanation my mother gave, once my persistent questioning wore her down, for why I was an only child. When I was born, my father was 41 and my mother 34 (a fact that marked me as something of an oddity at the time, though hardly even remarkable now); two years before, my father had moved to the university where he would spend the rest of his career; a year later, my mother had waddled pregnant into her dissertation defense.
If theyd waited a long time to have me, they had waited even longer to see with their own eyes the landscapes theyd been imagining from the literature for so many years. My father must have felt fortune herselfbella fortunasmiling down on him. Is it a wonder, then, in the middle of his life, that he fell in love with the graceful and mellifluous languages of the Mediterranean? Like Botticellis prima vera (a reproduction of which detail I stared at on the wall of our living room for years), swooping down with outstretched arms and a vine twisting out of her mouth, their silky syllables breathed a gossamer sheen over even the most prosaic objects that it named, charm against heartbreak and disappointment, the curses of mortal life.
Though we spent some of the next summers in Italy, we didn't return for another year's stay until I turned 12. This time, the kind of freedom we'd had on the first trip was no longer possible, since I had to go to school. My parents decided against American or international schools in the interests of immersing me fully in a language. Despite my father's love for Italy and Italian, they honored the greater reach (and hence practicality) of French, and we settled in a small town in southern France.
What did they expect? What did I? I can now call up, as I couldn't yet then, the template that my father, if only vaguely aware, nonetheless surely must have had assembled at the back of his mind: smooth, coifed hair pulled back, the long slender neck, elegant, proportioned arms skimming the rim of the cafe table, the white sheath dress, perhaps a short strand of pearls or some other simple necklace, the box-like pocketbook, the long tanned legs pressed tightly together and tilted to one side below the knee. Physical beauty in such an image suggesting qualitiesthe tinkling laugh, quick wit, gracious nature, accomplishments notable but not self-aggrandizing, knowledge of culture and art, discriminating taste, the subtle ways of personal diplomacy, the charm that dispatches fools on their errands without giving offense and amplifies the best and finest sentimentsthat my father, like Henry Higgins, through language hoped to coax to life in me.
But seeds sowed in expectation can bear unexpected fruit, as if within the kernel of every desire lives an opposite every bit as fertile. Craving the English words and the solitude, relief from the interminable nastiness of my French school, I would lie on my bed during the noontime break, waiting for my mother to call me to lunch, and read about the war in Vietnam, the murders at the Olympic games in Munich, the emerging Watergate scandal in the International Herald Tribune.
I have never felt so affectionate toward and protective of my native language as when I've been abroad. If you are not born to English, it must be hard to love its shallow gutteralness, unpronounceable consonants, lack of rhymes, torturous and inconsistent spellings. But the beauty is there, too, even in affectless American speechnot an easy beauty decked out to please, but a tough, practical one, familiar companion more than coquettish lover: flexible, direct, eager as an undisciplined puppy.
By the summer I turned 15 we'd been home two years. The war in Vietnam was over, the OPEC oil shock survived, the anti-war movement splintered on the shoals of its success. Gerald Ford had pardoned Richard Nixon, then toasted and buttered his own English muffin to great acclaim. Adrienne Rich had published "Diving Into the Wreck" but Charlie's Angels was a gleam in a producer's eye.
The nightmare of my French school over, I hardly objected to bearing my hard-earned fluency before me as if it were a trophy I myself had coveted. I had other woes to chew on. The bloom was on the rose of the sexual revolution, and I was fast becoming an expert in unrequited attraction. All over the rest of town, and in other cities and countries, all over the world, people my age were having fun, going out, making out. Sometimes even making love. Boys were looking into girls' eyes, captivated. But not in mine, and not with me.
When my father sensed my gloom threatened to spill contagiously outward, he would say to me, "Why don't we take a walk?"
At first, I would resist, shrug my shoulders, wrinkle up my nose, twist away, look down at the floor. In the end, though, wed put on our coats or jackets if we needed them and drive in silence to the church at the end of our road and then walk down the dirt road at the back that led to the reservoir. Eventually, the rhythm of the motion would shake loose my litany of complaints, my voice rising in pitch and frustration against a crescendo of rushing water. Until, by the time we turned off onto the path to the left, I would fall silent again, letting the roar of the deluge passing over the spillway mesh with our breathing, and we would climb up out of the forest and stand looking down on the still expanse of water, deep blue in the middle and brown-red tannin-stained at the shallower edges.
Despite my fathers fascination with Europe, he turned to American literature when the chips were down. "Simplify, simplify, simplify," he would intone, as if this were the only reasonable answer to the complications that bedeviled me. Through the cloud of objections that rose up in my mind, like the gnats that in warmer weather swarmed and dodged around our faces, I struggled to believe that it was.
The fact was, I'd come to count on his sympathy. While I'd always understood that he had expectations for me, like them or not, I was capable of discerning some reason for them, some virtue in which, in the abstract anyway, I was forced to concur.
This changed the summer I turned 15, and our old alliance shattered as cruelly if he had flung me hard against the wall.
One morning when I came downstairs, this very same man looked up from the papers spread out on the dining room table, surveyed me over the tops of the half-moon glasses perched precariously on the slope his nose, and proclaimed that I ought to get myself a pair of high heels.
Another girl might have been flattered, taken this as an acknowledgment of and compliment to her emerging womanhood. Perhaps another might have treated it as a joke. But another girl's father might have gone to sleep nights fearing the consequences of his daughter's desires and in his worst nightmares wouldn't have dreamed of suggesting, much less joking about, such a thing himself.
"You're short. Like me," he offered, by way of explanation, not that it made any difference. He might as well have as asked me to turn into another girl completely, or worse, something impossible that didn't even exist, a dancing chicken, a mermaid, that ridiculous fish with a bicycle that I still didn't quite understand.
"But Dad, I don't want to ruin my feet," I couldn't help protesting.
"Yes, but women have been ruining their feet for centuries," my father said happily, as if this was an amusing and thoroughly delightful fact. Then he turned his attention back to the papers and books strewn around him.
Above all, my father hated fusses. "Try not to fight with your mother," he'd tell me, and go on to muse on the continuum that led from personal conflict to the full-scale evil of war. Even so, before that day, when my mother and I fought over clothes, he consistently took my side. "Let her wear what she wants to wear," he'd say, impatient, and I'd shoot a triumphant look at my mother, and her mouth would hang open for a moment, then shut.
My mother, who coveted new clothes and as a young woman had developed the painstaking, exhausting habit of going from store to store, trying on, and finding bargains, was at a loss to understand. My father, like me, had favorite clothes he wore out, that became all the more favored for the wearing. Clothes rendered soft and familiar with washings and stretchings. Clothes like old friends that made you feel at home in your own skin. Clothes with spots and stains and holes, that against all outside evidence you were convinced made you look good as nothing else could.
I stood there, sputtering for a comeback. It wasn't that I didn't have the words. Chauvinism! Sexism! Oppression! Imperialism! All the man-the-barricades, rousing cries of the time sprang instantly to mind. But I kept them to myself. I knew they'd only serve to make me look ridiculous; I'd be accused of lack of proportion and humor; I would be given to understand that my reaction was childish, simple-minded, unsophisticated.
Though he didn't look up, I thought he must feel me standing there. It was his indifference to my predicament, more than anything, that enraged me.
I walked outside to get a hold of myself. It was early June in New England. Partly sunny, with a light wind. The kind of day that, if it had occurred back in April or May would make you want to throw off your clothes and bask in the sun. Coming now, though, you knew it was cooler than you might think; if you sat in a chair with bare feet and bare armslet alone bare legsit wouldn't take you long to get goosebumps. I stood on the back porch, breathing in and out, in and out.
Though I was still secretly counting on a miraculous transformation to save me from the uninspiring existence that I had been unaccountably stuck with, I wasn't dumb enough to believe that wearing high heels would have anything to do with it. Anymore than I could believe such a thing of my father, I couldn't readily believe that boys of my generation would have anything but scorn for those who hobbled themselves for such obvious and frivolous reasons.
Just whom did I think I was kidding? The simple frustration of trying to fit my oddly-sized, mix-matched physical attributesshort limbs and waist, narrow shoulders, big chest, small buttto mass-produced, mass-sized clothing forced me to accept, in most cases, approximations that ran either too small or too large, and the margin for error kept me hyper-alert to the possibility of ridicule and my choices conservative. I gave up the leotards and close-fitting tees I'd previously favored as my breasts grew obviously large, and adopted a uniform of jeans and button-down shirts decreed safe by my compatriots, using a small gold safety pin on the inside between the fourth and fifth buttons to keep the material from gapping across the front. I clunked along proudly in my hiking boots and the down jackets that my father commented made everyone look like spacemen.
The real trick, I understood, was looking sexy in this uniform. When sex shined out through the clothes, and you looked at once like everyone else, only better, that was the ticket to admiration. If you put on a dress-up dress and wore high heels, your intentions would become as transparent and you as vulnerable as if you'd walked down the street or into a classroom naked. To feel one thing and project another remains, I suppose, a lesson I have imperfectly learned.
That summer we visited my grandmother in northern California. Since I didn't know anyone my age out there, I'd spend most of my time with my grandmother; I adored her and enjoyed nothing more than accompanying her on her daily routine. She'd been a stage actress in her youth and played the occasional part on the radio after my father was born. Her older sister Marguerite had given her her start when she brought my grandmother with her to summer stock and volunteered her as an understudy. This was the story my grandmother told, in any case. "I wasn't clever in school, I couldn't sing or dance or play an instrument," she'd tell me. "I found something I could do."
My father had discovered this town on the coast and had encouraged my grandfather to retire there. When he died before they could make the move, my grandmother had gone ahead and made a new life by herself. She was a regular cast member at a historic theater that put on old melodramas for tourists, and she'd been for a long time a visiting nurse.
When we arrived, my grandmother would give up the room with the double bed to my parents and move next door into what we called "the middle room," which contained an elevated, four poster bed with what looked to me like pineapples carved in the wood at the tops. I slept on a rented cot in the same room, just beyond the doors that led to the living room. These doors had individual panes of glass glued over with light brown, slightly glossy wrapping paper. Over this a fading flowered curtain was stretched between two rods attached above and below the rows of glass. Through these, the afternoon light would seep in, browned and warmed to the quality of an old photograph.
In the morning, I would wake up with my grandmother, and perched first on my cot, and then on the pink fuzzy cover of the toilet seat in the bathroom, talk and try to amuse her as she completed her morning toilette.
My grandmother was not beguiled by mere fashion, and I never had the feeling that she cared very much for clothes in themselves. Nevertheless, her toilette was meticulous and took a long time. Most days, I'd slipped into my clothes before she'd even had the chance to put on the first layer of underwear.
These layers were an endless fascination. Without taking off her nightgown, she'd pull on silky underpants with legs in them, like shorts. On top, underneath the nightgown, I could just make out the outline of her pendulous breasts, swaying with her movements. Next she'd wrestle into a gigantic bra that pressed these into the single protruding shelf that couldn't help but become a pillow when she hugged me. Only then would she shed the nightgown, and in the absence of the outer layers, I could see the deep creases where the straps had gouged deep ruts into her shoulders. (The summer I turned 15, when she held me at arm's length and said, "You've got my figure, gal," I vowed I'd get an operation before I let myself get that big.)
After the bra came further layers: undershirt, stockings, slip. Then the carefully applied makeup: foundation, powder, rouge, lipstick. My grandmother's lipstick and rouge were a deep red, unlike the frosted pinks and oranges my mother inevitably chose.
After breakfast, we walked her dog and did errands at the drugstore, hardware store or supermarket. Before she retired from the Visiting Nurses, I would accompany her on her rounds, amusing myself in strange houses and apartments while she quizzed and counseled her charges on their medications and nutrition, changed dressings and bed clothes, massaged arthritic backs and swollen legs, and generally comforted and soothed.
Afternoons we visited her sister Marguerite, by then in a nursing home and ailing. Marguerite's spirit gave off a fading glamour, discernible despite her decaying body. I watched my grandmother's back go stiff and her replies become clipped when Marguerite became self-pitying and self-indulgent, complaining about the food or the bed or what they wouldn't let her do. The home where Marguerite lived didn't allow patients to keep matches or lighters, so when we visited, my grandmother would light Marguerite's cigarettes and then crush them out for her when she had finished smoking them.
Less a slave to her body and whims, my grandmother was not reduced to wheedling manifold comforts. My grandmother didn't drink or smoke; she never learned to like the taste of liquor; even when prescribed a glass of wine a day to combat glaucoma, she drank it out of duty more than pleasure. My mother smoked, and in my mind that put her more in Marguerite's camp than in my grandmother's. Nevertheless, as a child, I couldn't help but identify sometimes with poor Marguerite, lying back on the bed with her collapsed mouth, false teeth, short, unshapen hair the texture of straw.
"She was a blonde," my grandmother would say, as if this explained things. As young actresses, they'd played Beth and Amy in Little Women. A picture from that run shows them standing together in girls' cotton frocks and pinafores, one blond and one brunette, but styled identically in springs of heavy, old fashioned curls. My mother claimed that Marguerite dyed her hair, that naturally it was the same nut-brown color my father called mine. I suppose this gave Marguerite an advantage when seeking leading parts; she did after all secure the lead in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. My grandmother's forte was supporting and character roles.
Evenings at the theater, I'd watch the play from the wings, just as I suppose my grandmother had watched Marguerite years ago in summer stock. I would get to know the rest of the cast, and I never tired of watching the same production night after night. Backstage, it was always a little different each time.
Though I fantasized about playing a role myself someday, my grandmother didn't seem to encourage this, and it never happened. As I hid in the wings, I was free to let my thoughts wander. If I felt disappointed not to be on stage, I also enjoyed being left to myself. The enforced silence freed me from having to respond to anyone else, from having to perform.
The summer I turned 15, my parents had other ideas. The day after we arrived, my mother came back from a shopping trip brandishing a bundle of dark material.
"What's that?" I asked.
My mother unrolled the bundle in front of me. It fell to her ankles. "It's a long skirt, see?"
"Uh-huh, it's nice," I said, not paying much attention. I was used to her showing off clothes she had discovered.
"Why don't you try it on now?"
"It's for me?" I was instantly suspicious.
"Don't you like the batik?" I squinted at the design, the swirls of brown and blue, the tiny cracks of white. As a matter of fact, I did like it. I was used to my mother bringing things back for me that I would never consider wearing. She usually took this in stride, assuring me that whatever it was could be exchanged or returned if I didn't like it. This time, though, she had picked cannily. Why? What was it for? She let the other shoe drop. "You can wear it tonight."
"We thought you'd come with us. Terry and June would like to see you." I groaned. The nighttime beach parties we had with some of my parents' friends were fun, against the roar and spectacle of the ocean, the rocks on which to climb to collect beach glass and examine tidal pools until it got too dark, when everyone sat around the fire and my voice would join the chorus of others until I grew tired enough to stare and dream into the licks and sparks of flame and let the sounds move around me.
The parties held at houses were bigger, more boring and awful. My parents would disappear into the enfolding arms of strangers, who smiled when introduced to me, then hooked them conspiratorially around the shoulders saying "Tell me what you think of--" and started walking away. It was not so much the walking as the conspiracy that took them away, conversations bristling with judgments that held no meaning for me. I'd be left to study other people's bookshelves or find a chair to sit and sip on ginger ales and munch noisily on celery sticks until summoned to eat or to say something in French or recite some story that would just make me embarrassed when everyone laughed. Inevitably, by the time dinner was served I'd have gone past hunger into the sort of glazed-over trance you discover if you're fasting, and the meat would seem tainted or the casserole full of strangely-colored, lurid vegetables, lone pieces of corn floating in a sea of beans and diarrhea. I'd end up gorging on dessert.
"I'm going to the theater with Grammy."
"You can do that another night," my mother said firmly.
"I don't want it," I said, throwing the skirt back at her. She looked appropriately startled. "You can keep it."
I knew the skirt was a bribe, a seeming present that was supposed to make me acquiesce to all their plans. Around this thought my anger and resistance gathered, and it drew and funneled them upward from a pool deep inside me as liquid is sucked from a straw.
"I'm not going to dress up like some wind-up doll!" I shouted.
"Nobody's asking--" my mother started but she didn't get very far.
"Yes, you are, that's what you want, isn't it, what you and Dad want, you want to parade me around in these clothes, make me speak French--"
"If that's what you think," my mother said, but I didn't wait for her to finish. I pushed past her, making for the middle room, and ran almost full tilt into my grandmother. She held my arm and cocked her head toward me.
"You should say thank you for the present," she said in a low voice. I ripped myself from her grip and threw myself through the doorway, slamming my back against the door to close them out, and, glass rattling, sank to the floor, sobs breaking loose. My grandmother had never seen me like this. While I was not any the less convinced that I was in the right, it hurt that she should think me selfish and ungrateful, that I could neither explain nor defend myself. I leaned against the door, in the late afternoon sepia light, and cried big gulping sobs for the tragedy and necessity of being so grossly and completely misunderstood.
Sometimes, now, as an adult, when I'm dressing up for some occasion I allow myself to enjoy the experiencethe powders, the perfumes, the jewelry, the luxurious fabric against my skin, that will cleave to and make me aware of my flawed but nonetheless woman's body. In such moments, I too have felt the warming breath of bella fortuna, and experience myself as alluring, powerful, beautiful.
But beauty is infinitely more treacherous than any vernacular, its grammar never fixed but always shifting, mysterious beyond all, surpassing understanding by either sex. Anglo-Saxons popularly know French as the language of love, but thats a deception. The literature reveals that it is much more accurately the language of heartbreak, and the inevitable, unrelieved longing that clings to us as we stream from childhood, though possibly these are not such different things.
It was lovecrazy, desperate, awful lovethat led me to break my vow not to wear high heels. I had just turned 20, and was working for the summer in Washington DC.
On a Saturday I was to meet the young man I wanted for my lover, I strapped on a pair of high-heeled sandals. Two elongated triangles came together over the instep, with smaller, thinner straps that came up around the heel and joined by means of a delicate gold-toned buckle. The heel was three inches, wide at the top by the heel and tapering down to a dot. When I put them on, I felt like I was walking on stilts. Not so bad, I thought, as I tried them out by walking in circles around my room. They gave a heady, off-balance feeling, like love itself. I sat down on the bed and approved my lengthened legs.
He came to get me, and we headed out Pennsylvania Avenue toward Georgetown, with its elegantly turned-out brickwalks and housefronts peering out discreetly through shutters like eyelashes glossy with paint. He was tall, with a long stride, and I had to work to keep up with him. My weight thrown and tilted in front of me, I stumbled forward. Every time my foot came down, the motion jammed my instep further into the vise of the straps, and the short-lived relief when the foot lifted only made the next step worse. When the red welts first began to appear around the leather, I didn't worry. I figured we'd stop at a cafe, sit down, have something to drink. But when we reached the boutiques, the piano bars, the sidewalks jammed with patrons lining up for ice cream cones, the mazes of tables, chairs pushed back in disarray, he continued right past and I stumbled along with him, trying not to grimace from the pain.
It had been an unusually hot summer, and this day was no exception. Waves of heat steamed up from the pavement through my thin soles, scorching the balls of my feet. An ache shot across my arches. I'd been talking, and first my tongue and then the entire inside of my mouth grew parched and swollen and dry.
He was looking for a particular place somebody had told him about, but he wasn't sure exactly where it was. I did not complain. Above my hobbled feet, sweaty and swollen, dusty and bloody from blisters rubbed raw, my spirit was soaring. He was spending the day with me; I was walking here with him. Asking him to stop or confessing my pain would bring me down. I didn't want him scolding me for wearing impractical shoes I'd chosen in a fit of vanity.
We headed north off the crowded, noisy street, out of the neighborhood, passing blocks and blocks of silent houses, wrapped up tight from the heat underneath their shade trees. We paused for a moment while crossing a small, stone bridge. After that, I lost track of landmarks.
It seemed like we should have walked clear out the end of the city when he finally stopped outside a glass door and held it open for me. I stepped up into the slightly damp, marble coolness of the café and it was like stepping into a memory of my childhood summers in Italy, the white floors and counters, pyramids of blue and white Perugina boxes, baskets wrapped in orange-rose cellophane, marzipan candies molded into the shapes of miniature fruits lined up in rows behind glass counters, women clerks wrapped in white aprons, their red mouths, white hats pinned against chocolate-dark hair.
We slid into one of the red-upholstered booths against the far wall. I sat across from him. My sweaty butt and legs stuck to the cool vinyl. I looked at him, laughed, talked, flirted, looked up to his face and then down again to the marble table. I picked up the small sweaty glass of water, my fingertips making prints on its sides, and took a long drink that seemed to have evaporated into my bloodstream by the time I put the glass down. With my finger, I traced the ring of moisture where the glass had been, then swerved and followed the veins and the tiny capillaries in the marble until they petered out into nothing.
Already this brief afternoon was leaking away. I'd invited him to join me for dinner and he hadn't given me an answer yet, but I knew he probably wouldn't. I sat across from him in the booth, sticking to the seat, hoping for a coup de foudre, a sudden thunderstorm of love zinging from him across to me. My eyes were shooting desperate arrows, but they were missing the target, falling all around him, as if he were Achilles, invulnerable. Or more like every one I shot was like a boomerang, that turned 180 degrees in midair and came flying back to stick in me.
You can spend a lot of time looking for the perfect image, the perfect language to convey all you ever felt, all you ever wanted. I imagine such a language does exist somewhere, like the woman or man of your dreams. The ancient grammar is fractured, though, its syllables slow and distorted as if you're listening underwater, unintelligible.
We walked back in the same heat, but the thirst had left me now. My feet numbed, I trotted along with him. Perhaps he walked more slowly than he had before. Perhaps he wasn't so eager to leave my company. Still, we parted when we reached the boxes across the street from the White House that held copies of The Atlanta Constitution.
"You can stay if you want to," I tried a last time.
"I'm sure it would be fun . . ." He trailed off. The wording surprised me, and he sounded sincere. "But--no. I'd better not."
"Okay," I said, too brightly. Standing on that corner, his eyes were focused somewhere over my shoulder, where I couldn't see or follow.
We said goodbye. He turned left for the Metro, and I right to cross the street. Halfway across, I wanted to kick off the sandals and run after him, hot asphalt burning my feet, and fall down in front of him, block his path. But I didn't, how could I? Instead, I wobbled back to my building, rode the elevator up to my floor, got off, and walked down the hall to my room. Thank God no one else was in the hallway; I couldn't have borne having to speak to anyone, exchanging pleasantries.
I sat on the bed for a minute, letting myself feel the air conditioning, massaging my ankles. If he'd stayed, I'd have worn the sandals to dinner, to the ends of the earth for that matter. But now I tugged angrily at the narrow, delicate straps until they loosened, and threw the shoes into the corner. The power I needed wasn't here. It didn't matter how many languages I knew or how eloquent I was. It didn't matter that I'd worn the high-heeled sandals, it didn't matter that my feet were swollen and blistering for the privilege of walking with him. Such charms and sacrifices had stood as nothing against this pain. I slipped on my old, comfortable flats, stretched and deformed at the front where my big toe pushed.
As it turned out, I would see him again. I would even get my wish to touch him, spend a night and make love with him.
In the morning, I woke him up, hoping for more. He cut me off. "No," he said. That's all. Like a snail touched with salt I curled around my hurt, tucking my feet in beneath me, as if I could protect them.