April 27, 2008
By Nora Tjossem, Grinnell, IA

As she walked down the road she looked at her feet. She watched the cracked pavement move by in its array of gray, taupe, and white speckled patterns beneath her shoes and it made her tired. She was so tired of it all: her shoes, the pavement, her thoughts. She needed to get away.

It wasn’t realistic to think that there would be an alternative if she kept on walking. What if she became unable to stop; what if it all wore away: her soles, her socks, her feet, herself; what if no one offered her a place to rest, and she instead had to leave herself in places along the way: the roots of the dandelion that struggled through the cement, the handprint of “Christina, age 6” in the driveway of a trim suburban house, crack after crack in the sidewalk taking little bits of her that fell behind.

Or what if it was the other way, and she had to stop. Stopping meant giving up. Stopping meant starting again. Or maybe it didn’t; maybe it meant a new beginning. Letting her feet meet each other in a parallel position, and reconnecting in their bond of alternating steps to start again, fresh, and with purpose.

They were hand-me-downs, the shoes, as was the rest of her life. Kyle had called them his Chucks, and had worn them, grinning lopsidedly, when forced to wear a suit and tie, to “complete the irony,” as he liked to say. He would look straight ahead, into peoples’ eyes when he talked to them, and they would look down, down at his shoes.

They were red. That was all she could see lately, the color burning through her eyes, through her retina, her brain perforated by lines of red, spiraling and twirling in the contours and coursing through her body, her veins, her muscles.
After Kyle, the shoes had gone to Jared, and he had worn them almost every day, shuffling his feet as he went to school, with his headphones on and his hair in his face. Jared never looked, he just saw. Their father had often asked if he could see anything through the fringe that brushed at his nose and cheekbones, but they all knew that that wasn’t really a concern. Jared didn’t need to show his emotion, because he felt it, and that was understood. The shoes went unnoticed on his feet.

One day he stopped wearing the shoes, and it wasn’t acknowledged. It didn’t need to be. She found them in his closet after he moved out, along with the unused sports equipment that he had received decreasingly until the age of twelve. She had moved aside the untouched football helmet, the basketball shoes, and the baseball bat to find them, quiet and unassuming, sitting side by side, their laces inexplicably twined only through the bottom eyelets, strewn around, reaching out. She picked them up by the ankles and set them on her lap, treating them as a legend, as a relic. Silently she slid off her tennis shoes and slipped her feet underneath the tongues, wriggling her toes in the newfound space. She pulled the laces through each metal ring, opposite, and back, alternating hands. She tied them at the second-to-last pair of circles and looked at them as she stood up. She didn’t remember ever looking up.

Kyle was everything. He had filled the house with his noise and his friends, and even after he would leave to go outside, the lingering presence of him would stay. He ate, he breathed, he slept, he lived. There was no shame to him. There was no embarrassment, no unhappiness, no defeat. He was.

Jared wasn’t supposed to be Kyle. He didn’t need to be. They thought at first that he might be similar, but he wasn’t. And that was accepted. Jared filled only his own ears; he didn’t take up space or ask for attention, but instead took care of himself and moved in straight lines. He didn’t intrude.

The shoes kept making their way along the ground, each step an infinity of blue sky and the endless expanse of gray concrete. She thought about stopping, but the risk was too great. She needed to keep going. She needed a green to contradict the red she saw and add more color to that gray background that penetrated the edges of her vision.
She never knew really what she was supposed to be. She never knew what she was supposed to do or how she was supposed to act or who she was. She never knew why she was there. It seemed a little odd to say, but there was never room for her. Jared didn’t occupy space and Kyle was space, and polar opposites didn’t need an in-between.

When she came along she was the girl. It seemed different enough to define who she was, but all she was faced with was the symmetrical figure of a bathroom sign wearing a skirt.
She sometimes wondered what that figure would do if it could run away. She wondered where it would go and what it would be like; whether it would find features and three-dimensional qualities and dreams, or if it would find a blank sheet of paper or a wall or a cloud and just hide in camouflage.
It was difficult to know what she was supposed to do. No matter how hard she tried or how far she down she looked, she couldn’t find herself, and she was afraid that she wasn’t there. It was difficult to find attachment to her self. It was difficult to find attachment to others. It was difficult to keep going. It was difficult to stop.

It was difficult
to fill those shoes.

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