The Saga of Sandals
I came to the U.S. with one pair of shoes, the best pair I’d ever owned – thanks to a friend with connections – Hungarian and made of real leather. They had black laces in the front and thick rubber soles perfect for April in Leningrad, when the snow turns into dirty porridge and walking becomes wading. But now it was August, and with the 91 degree sun melting the asphalt behind the window, they looked out of place.
My new American husband’s mother took me to a shoe store. Alarmingly, it was full of shoes. Loafers, espadrilles, ballerina slippers, pumps, clogs, flip-flops, sandals – in colors that brought to mind Matisse paintings hanging in the Hermitage – with heels, skinny and solid, high and low, and with no heels at all – were perched on gleaming plastic stands that radiated from the center of the room as far as my eyes could see.
“What do you like?” my husband’s mother said, and as I realized she wanted me to make a choice, my heart sank. I desperately looked around, and a saleswoman promptly sidled up to us. “How may I help you?” she cooed in a sickening voice that made my stomach contract. They were both looking at me now, waiting for an answer to a simple question, expecting me to choose one perfect drop in the glittering ocean of footwear. They waited patiently as the ocean rose to my nostrils and threatened to drown me. I took a deep breath as if it were my last. What could I possibly say? That Leningrad shoe stores had two models on the floor, both made from rubberized plastic and produced by the “Bolshevik Woman” factory? That I had no idea how much any of these shimmering shoes cost or how they correlated with my husband’s mother’s budget? That I didn’t even know what American shoe size I wore?
After what seemed like minutes of silence, my mother-in-law said something to the saleswoman, who vanished and then reappeared holding a hefty metal gauge with end pieces that looked like teeth. The word “torture” floated to the surface of my mind and froze there. The woman motioned for me to take off my Hungarian contraptions and step onto the cold surface of her metal instrument. I cringed as I unlaced, baring my hot, sweaty foot. The teeth lurched forward, then stopped. Seven and a half, said the woman and grinned. Back behind the Iron Curtain I wore size thirty-six, which made me think of a Russian joke: the Soviet Union proudly announced to the world that it owned the biggest of everything – the largest microchip, the tallest dwarf. I saw my mother-in-law holding a pair of sandals – a half-an-inch sole with an elegant band across the instep – that wrapped perfectly around my feet. The saleswoman curled her lips in a smile and nodded her head in satisfaction, as if she was the one who had cobbled those sandals together and made them fit.
“Why don’t you wear them out?” suggested my husband’s mother, a question I didn’t understand. Wear them out? They were new, American, leather, perfectly-fitting sandals that had to be revered. How could I wear them out? How could I trivialize a pair of shoes that were going to replace my Hungarian wonders? These were shoes that had to be celebrated, relished, tried on in front of a mirror at home, admired, and exalted before I could slip my feet into their perfect straps and announce them to the world.
“No, let’s take them with us,” I said, putting back on my old shoes, which suddenly began to pinch. I couldn’t see the saleswoman’s face, but I was sure she was smirking. As my mother-in-law paid, I glanced in the mirror, conveniently attached to one of the shoe pedestals. What I saw was sorrowful and depressing – my previously glamorous Hungarian shoes had instantly lost their luster; the words “Bolshevik Woman” might as well have been scrolled all over their surface. I hobbled out of the store with the boxed sandals in my hands, my mother-in-law trotting behind me, probably questioning her son’s sanity as I was questioning my own. Why, despite all logical reasons, couldn’t I bring myself to take the new sandals out of the box and wear them, as people obviously did here, as I should have done if I ever wanted to fit in? Why was I so stubborn, so foolish, so unable to conform? Why was I so utterly un-American? My old shoes pulled on my feet like lead weights as I walked out into the foreign heat, doubting my whole future in this glimmering place of abundance.