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February 11, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Photo by Jonathan Stephanoff
My feet have forgotten the feeling. Today they slip into dull shoes, boots and sandals. They take baths and endure grooming but to impress nothing — not any more.
Their Old Mistresses
My rollerblades and feet were lovers of separate species, plastic and flesh, as close to procreation as they could get without forming mutant, rubber-wheeled progeny.
They clanged everywhere with the rest of my body following along only to distract eyes from their head-turning intimacy.
They clanged along a busy road often, and one day with a friend, Katja, they rolled with me in front of a big sliding glass door at a grocery store. Then without leaving my feet, they clanged inside.
We clanged past mothers monitoring carted children, little ones cradling jealousy in their eyes; past food aisles and cosmetics; past a liquor section that didn’t even make sense to us then and, eventually, past an employee.
I do not remember his actual words, but their message was this:
Katja and I sulked back to the glass door. We muttered 10-year-olds’ curses and rolled the rollerblades outside. Had I known the poem “Invictus” then, I might have quoted it to describe Katja’s next move, which was reentering the store while wearing her tight cotton socks. Her rollerblades burdened, but did not break, her shoulders. (Her head was “bloody, but unbowed.”)
I followed her in and — oh — should have known better.
This time, we protested. At age 10 we could justify, if prodded, kicking out 10-year-olds in rollerblades. We could not, however, look past the tyranny of kicking out children in socks. The employee was fishing wildly into a barrel of arbitrary rules and pulling out the worst with which to beat us.
Katja liked to retell anyone that story anywhere, like on the bus: “You hear me and Sarah got kicked out of the grocery store? Twice? In one day? No, Henry told it wrong. Listen.”
She retold what had happened the way I think a young soldier would retell dangerous missions: blind to the enormity of the incident. In her story, we became undaunted warriors inhibited by only the arbitrary rules of someone else temporarily wielding more power. Katja wore that martyr’s medal proudly, her chest protruding and daring anyone to touch it. I, on the other hand, I rolled my eyes. If I had really fought a war — if I had really earned a medal — I would have swallowed it whole. I would have been the only soldier whose eyes screamed, “I HAVE KILLED PEOPLE.”
My rollerblades began their death in a Dumpster a few years later.
One year after the fall of the Twin Towers, my father had lost his business, had sold our house and now stood at the edge of a dumpster. He was flinging my spent black rollerblades over its rusted edge. He had no clue my feet were trucking through school in dull white gym shoes craving their black mistresses. (“Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’”)
Stories about U.S. trash finding new life in Asia years after we pitch it make me wonder sometimes where those rollerblades ended up and whether they rotted in a landfill at all.
Most likely, they stopped rotting in a landfill, entered the great Pacific gyre and washed up as indistinguishable pieces of black plastic mush on top of a heap of Americans’ other invaluable expendables.
I get a kick out of thinking a rare bird such as a beautiful albatross ate them, now the size of black dice, and its whole body became full of the gamble. I get a sick kick out of wondering if even in their afterlife those rollerblades are soaring high across the world — whether they are spreading their looming condemnation over everything.
That is, of course, until the albatross falls to the ground and becomes one of those birds with decayed stomachs from which we ought to learn a lesson. Once that happens, perhaps some relief comes, as in the poem.
My feet now only remember a time before desire.
Okay. Truthfully, my feet did slip inside that pair of rollerblades and enjoy pleasure before the disapproving eyes of others separated them.
I bought a pair made by the same manufacturer in the same design soon after losing the originals. The new blades gashed my feet; they poked my calves with plastic bits I couldn’t remove with my fingers. I trashed them, too. I, myself, could never build a pair as perfect as the others.
I wouldn’t want to. Nobody spends today rebuilding yesterday. But the memories, thankfully unlike black dice, sit ponderously in this body.