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Personal Essays

Photograph by Teresa McFayden

Pink Suede Shoes

Sometimes it takes the right pair of shoes to kick you over the edge into adulthood. For one writer, it’s other people’s shoes that do the kicking.

It was the perfect ad for me, and when I checked the address I found it was just around the corner from my apartment: “Free Women’s Shoes, Size 10.” I felt my pulse quicken. My aimless, 4 a.m.-trolling of the ads on Craigslist, that cesspool-cum-treasure-trove, had finally turned up something useful amidst the ridiculous (“YOU HAVE A DATE WITH DESTINY! Too bad Destiny’s such a lousy kisser”), the futile (“Free Sawdust—On the Curb”), and the unfortunately spelled (“dinning table set and ottoman—$150”).

Had someone already snapped them up? Was the ad just a front to lure me into someone’s clutches? I shot an email into the dark and fell into a deep sleep.

When it comes to footwear, I always hear my mother’s plaints about the dearth of large shoes and her admonishment to pounce on any pair of size 10’s I see, regardless of style, color, or utility. A lesson hard-won from a woman with size 11-wide feet and I have not ignored it.

In addition to large sizes, my mother always pushed comfort over style. Even into my twenties I owned only clunky, durable shoes, with flat bottoms and traction, always traction. I justified this fashion-backward policy more strongly when I became a journalist, telling myself I couldn’t run around the city in much short of sneakers. I could never imagine buying girly gold sandals to match a dress, or the frivolous heels I saw women teeter on around Manhattan. When I saw those girls with their impossibly tall shoes I felt contempt. Contempt, but always with an underlying tinge of envy, of covetousness.

In the world of bicycles, braces, and lemonade stands I have long outgrown, I was just a boring woman. I could be 30, 40, 50—we all look alike.My Craigslist find was not my first foray into the world of free, used footwear. Years ago in graduate school, poor and not particularly caring what my feet looked like, I’d scoured the DSW store in Union Square searching for black snow boots. I turned up one pair in the elusive size 10, but when I brought them up to the register, the cashier informed me that the store did not sell this shoe.

“Well, I got them over there,” I said, pointing to the haphazard stacks.

“It’s not in the computer,” she said, moving to throw them in the trash behind the counter. Someone, I realized, had switched their old shoes for whatever new pair was supposed to reside in that box.

I hesitated, but only for a second.

“Can I have them?” I asked. They were scuffed, but not that scuffed.

She looked at the shoes like they were radioactive.

My family and friends mocked me for weeks, but they kept my feet dry, and that was enough to make them perfect to me.

The morning after my serendipitous Internet find, I went to claim my bounty. As I walked through my Brooklyn neighborhood toward the address the woman had e-mailed me, a little girl with dark eyes and dark hair, all mouth and no teeth, ran up to me.

“Wanna buy some lemonade?” she asked.

I bought some too-sweet juice and sipped from a Styrofoam cup. The shoes’ owner was late coming home from work so I stood on the sidewalk, the children chattering around me. They talked about school, the approaching summer, and what they would do with their lemonade money. A little boy in an electric wheelchair made his way down the patchy street to join them. It could have been the street I grew up on in Philadelphia in the 80s, or even my mother’s childhood street in the 50s, all innocence and play and sweetness, odd in an urban New York neighborhood populated mostly by a medley of immigrants and their kids.

Even though I’d soon be wearing this stranger’s shoes, it seemed crass to review my loot on her doorstep.By that point, I’d shifted jobs, apartments, and countries almost too many times to count, I still called my mom to ask what medicine to take for a runny nose, and when my friends started having children I shook my head in disbelief that they were now parents, vividly remembering staying with the babysitter myself while my own parents went out to dinner. But on the street waiting to strike footwear gold, I felt an unfamiliar longing. I no longer knew how to relate to children, not just these kids but any: Do I play with them? Babysit them? Or cradle them close and call them my own? In the world of bicycles, braces, and lemonade stands I have long outgrown, I was just a boring woman. I could be 30, 40, 50—we all look alike. The grown-up shoes I’d never bought were just one way I’d refused to grow up myself—as long as I wore lumpish Mary Janes, I’d never have to be an adult.

My cell phone rang. The shoe maven was home. A woman a few years older than me came to the door when I knocked. Raquel was tall, attractive, put together in that professional-woman way that always felt intangible to me. I looked at her feet—how could I not?—and noticed she was wearing worn black flats. The same as mine.

Her children paraded down the stairs carrying shoebox after shoebox, Tommy Hilfiger, Enzo Angiolini, brands I’d heard of but never owned.

“Wow,” I said, eyeing the dozen boxes of shoes.

“You’re welcome to ‘em,” said Raquel. “I was thinking of selling them or something, but now I just want to get rid of them.”

As her kids looked on, Raquel told me that, since having children, she no longer went out anywhere that required nice shoes. Plus, a big-footed friend had given her a bunch of heels once she’d started dating a shorter man, bulking up Raquel’s collection. She’d held onto them hoping for the right occasion, but had finally accepted that they were collecting dust in her closet.

I wanted to peek in the boxes but held myself back; even though I’d soon be wearing this stranger’s shoes, it seemed crass to review my loot on her doorstep. Raquel and the children packed the trappings of her adulthood into Whole Foods bags. We waved goodbye and I carted them home. Spread out on my living room floor, I suddenly owned every pair of grown-up shoes I could imagine: kitten heel leopard print, red suede ankle boots, light and hot pink flats, a pair of beige peep-toes with a long, spiky heel.

That night, I met my friend Sarah for dinner and excitedly told her the story of my newfound shoes, sticking my foot out and twirling it around to model my favorite pair, pale pink kitten heels with a pointy toe.

We headed back to my apartment so she could check out the rest of the stash. Sarah admired them appropriately, and it dawned on me that if I wanted, I could wear a different pair of feminine shoes every day of the week and not run out; I could go on multiple dates with a man and wear multiple different heels; I was knocked over the edge into adulthood, if there was any doubt left. I could wear real shoes, women’s shoes and, despite myself, they fit.