I borrowed a pair of Mom’s dressy church shoes until we found the four-inch iridescent silver heels on a mall clearance rack with matching hand-written $18 tags on each sole. A strap ran horizontally across the creases of my toes, and a thinner strap wrapped around my leg, just above the bone of my ankle. A buckle, as delicate as the clasp of a necklace, held the adjustable strap in place.
“They’re pretty expensive for a pair of shoes you’re probably only going to wear once,” Mom said. I slid my hands through the straps and put the soles together, lining up the thin heels. Then I begged, promising to wear them more than once. I promise, I promise, I promise.
Mom worried I’d break my ankle, so I carefully buckled them and practiced walking the long hallways of our house in them when we got home— from my parents’ room to the kitchen, from the living room to my room, across the driveway to Dad’s racecar shop.
Liberty Middle School’s principal nicknamed herself “Mama Givens” and established “The Italian Dinner” as a reward for kids without discipline strikes. My eighth-grade group of friends made a reservation for one of the tables that lined the school’s hallways. Mama Givens wore makeup like Mimi from The Drew Carrey Show, dimmed the lights, and served us donated lasagna. There was no dance, but it was the dressiest event our middle school had to offer. My friends and I pretended we were getting ready for prom.
After track practice, we convened in Kim’s basement, and her mom brought down every curling iron she owned. We plugged them in to walls, countertops, and their family computer desk. My mom, a Mary Kay representative, brought her tackle-box of makeup and brushes, and we lined up for makeovers. We pinned curls and soaked each other in firm hold hairspray. One by one, we shimmied into the prom dresses we’d borrowed from cousins and siblings and zipped each other up.
The black dress I borrowed from my cousin Sherri fit tight across my thirteen-year-old chest and ribcage but flowed into a wide taffeta skirt with cascading rhinestones and silver threading. Mom helped me buckle the strappy silver heels and asked me one more time, “Are you sure you can walk in these?”
I let go of the taffeta folds and they brushed the tops of my feet where the rhinestone buckles were still visible, and I swished the skirt.
“Uh huh,” I said.
Rumor had it that Brody planned to ask me to the fall homecoming dance. He lived a mile and a half from me—even farther out in the country— and the summer before we started high school, he started referring to me as neighbor girl. As a childhood wrestling club star, he’d developed athletically before the other boys in our class, and there was talk of him playing on the junior varsity football team instead of being on the team with the rest of our class.
In first hour freshman band, he crossed the room from the percussion section to where I sat as last chair flutist. When he was a few steps away from me, I realized my hair was tangled in my sunglasses. I pulled the hair a few inches from my head then buried the nosepiece just above my bangs. He stood on the band riser above me with his hands in his pockets, and I couldn’t get him to meet my eye contact.
If he hadn’t been asking me to the dance, I would have nodded excitedly at whatever else came out of his mouth. All I could think about were the rubber nosepieces digging in to my scalp.
He and I were the same height without shoes. In the waist-up pictures, we look perfectly matched with the purple sparkles in my dress and his button-down shirt. In the full-length pictures, you can see that I’ve rocked my feet off the silver heels and slightly bent my knees. We stood nearly a foot apart and our hands sagged like a knot tied on a string between us.
We were still holding hands when we gave our tickets to the teacher at the entrance, but when I sat on the bleachers to take off my heels, he disappeared into the dark group of people at the center gymnasium. Before the first slow song played, I saw him between the bodies on the dance floor, grinding with an upperclassman. In the flash of the strobe light during a rap song he lifted one hand from her hip in a wave and gave me a weak smile.
When the dance ended, I stood on the bleachers with my best friend, Amber, looking for him. Only a few people remained on the dance floor. I sat on the bottom row in my short dress and kept my knees together, trying not to cry. Amber helped me buckle the smallest buckle of my silver heels. We climbed into my mom’s Suburban.
“Where’s Brody?” Mom asked Amber. “He got his own ride home,” I said.
The Christmas lights were still up in Lemon’s Park when Bruce asked me to my first prom. We’d just walked a lap around the lighted display and sat down to drink our hot chocolate in the gazebo when he asked.
“But it’s your senior prom,” I answered.
He laughed. “That’s why I’m inviting you. I saved the best date for my last prom.”
I tried to tell him that taking a freshman date would waste his senior prom. He needed to spend time with his friends before he graduated and everyone moved away.
“I want to take you as my girlfriend.”
The lights on a nearby reindeer flickered. A car’s headlights scanned us, and I nodded.
His mom served our table at the restaurant on Main Street where we went to dinner before the dance. I kept asking when the dance started because I didn’t know people didn’t go to dances early or on time. I didn’t want to miss anything.
He drove his mom’s Cadillac that night, and I almost cried when he parked on a pier at the county lake after dinner. I worried about the things people said about senior boys dating freshman girls and held up my hands in a stop motion. They were wrong, wrong, wrong.
“It’s not what you think,” he said.
He opened his door and came around to open mine. We held hands and walked toward the water at the end of the breakwater. I wondered how dirty my feet would be and hoped the rocks weren’t scratching the silver from my shoes as we walked. Where the rocky pier ended, a mattress-sized concrete slab leaned toward the water. He stepped on to it and pulled me against him.
After kissing me my first long kiss, he sang the classic version of King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” into my hair while we moved together in a swaying slow dance. When he stopped singing, I didn’t want to get back in the car and go to the actual dance. I wanted him to myself for the rest of the night, even if we didn’t have real music.
His friends met us outside the gymnasium doors and walked through the cardboard tunnel made to look like a castle. We only danced to the slow songs, and just before the lights came on at the end of the night, I remember committing “You’ll Be in My Heart” to memory as our last dance. The finality of the thought made me stop breathing for a second.
I piled the blue and purple dresses on top of the one Mom had handed over the curtain to me. It hurt her feelings that I laughed at her choice, a dress that mimicked the fire I chalked on the motorcycle picture for my dad in art class. With an orange beaded bodice and a red and yellow fold at the waistline, I hoped she was joking when she gave it to me.
Finally, I stepped in to it. The dressing room attendant zipped me in to it. At the store’s tri-fold mirror, I slipped my silver heels on. The dress gapped in the front just enough to see the rhinestone buckles.
The seamstress asked if these were my prom shoes. Mom said I needed new ones because I’d worn the same ones for six homecomings and two proms so far.
I pulled my long, highlighted hair on top of my head and said, “I’m wearing these.”
I gathered the folds of the dress at my knees and dropped my rear into the passenger seat of the black Shelby Mustang. Justin’s dad thought it was my first ride in that car, but we’d stolen it once that previous summer while he was out of town. With me still in my cheerleading practice clothes and him in the neon orange Department of Transportation hat from his summer sign- holding job, he had accelerated down the hills of Lake Road. He’d dusted it with the California Duster from his dad’s toolbox when he parked it back in the garage.
The only time we separated during the dance, he reappeared during the opening riffs of “You Shook Me All Night Long.” He air-guitared his way through people on the dance floor, mouthing to me as if I were the “Yeah, You” of the chorus.
The last song didn’t feel final, and when the lights came on they made me blink hard. I tried to miss the cracks in the red brick road on the way to his car, and we flew down those same hills from the summer before to loop around the lake. He rested his hand on my knee and smiled at me. The light from the dash put a kind of shadow on his face and I imagined us as adults and wondered what it would be like to marry him. I smiled.
Something darted under the car and clunked twice against the undercarriage. It was the size of a baby bear, and even after we decided it was a badger, he kept mumbling, “I hit a bear. I hit a bear. I hit a bear.” We were afraid to stop and check the damage.
In August, I stopped smiling at what it would be like to marry him and broke up with him. He knocked his graduation picture from his family’s fridge when he fell against it crying.
One of the bases of our cheerleading squad dragged me to her college boyfriend’s cross country meet after our practice. When he crossed the finish line, we joined him and a friend near the train station part of the park play area. After a conversation with Danny, I was angry at myself for finding such a Florida cliché attractive. Blonde hair and blue eyes had never made me swoon before, but I invited him to the homecoming dance with me before I could stop myself.
“I have to go because I’m on the homecoming court, but the principal changed the rules for dancing,” I told him, “so it might be lame. It’ll be really conservative.”
In the pictures before the dance, I bent my knees so I wouldn’t tower over him. We look like siblings with our blonde hair and identical height.
Three non-rap songs in to the dance, we left. Amber’s brother helped me stand in the bleachers after buckling my own shoes in a short black dress. Danny stood with his hands on his hips and watched the few people still dancing.
We went to someone’s garage and a hatchback car played music from someone’s CD collection. The dirt floor and the grit between my toes made the whole place feel dirty: the bass vibrating from the car, the streetlight beside the garage, and the guy with his arms around my waist wasn’t the same one I’d taken to every school dance the year before.
I loosened his grip enough to turn and face him, but he couldn’t hear me. I motioned with my thumb, let’s go.
He lived in the dorms at the community college on the edge of town and didn’t have a car, so I drove him home. We parked in front of his hall, and he invited me up. “I don’t go to guys’ dorm rooms,” I said. We made out in my car instead.
When he disappeared through the building’s front doors, I pulled off my silver shoes and spread my toes to wipe the dirt on my floorboard mats. On the eight-mile stretch of highway, I accelerated until the car’s speed governor kicked in and slowed the car down to a hundred and five. With my bare toes, I accelerated until it shut my power down again and again.
While bartending through college, I dated a line cook named Adam with sleeves of tattoos. A purple and green graveyard stretched from his bony shoulder to his even bonier wrist. I traced the swirls from the moon to the headstones to the blades of grass down his forearm. Once, I asked if the graveyard represented the death of his mother at a young age. He seemed surprised I’d made that connection and shook his head. No, it didn’t.
I flew home for my cousin’s wedding over Memorial Day weekend and ended up dancing all night at a club with friends from high school. A boy I’d almost dated in middle school was there and he pretended to be my boyfriend all night, keeping the hands of strangers from my hips. I nearly kissed him good night when I got out of his car, but I handed him my phone instead.
“Take my picture,” I said. My parents’ porch light turned me into a doorway shadow. I pulled my leg up in dancer pose, and my fingers hooked on the thin heel of the silver shoes.
The middle school almost-boyfriend handed me my phone and said good night. My heels clacked on the entryway tile, syncopated as I touched through my phone.
I sent the picture to Adam and then called him. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might ask who snapped the picture for me at three AM until it started ringing on his end.
“Nice shoes,” he said, instead of hello.
“You should wear those for me when you get back,” he said.
The bars in his time zone hadn’t yet closed, and I knew how he meant it.
He picked me up at the airport in my car, and when we got to my apartment, he told me we had nothing in common.
I crawled around my living room and filled a garbage bag with his things while he finished breaking up with me.
“I can’t carry that on my bike,” he said. “Get out of my house,” I said.
The apartment’s open doorway and the Phoenix sun behind made him a silhouetted collage or road bike tires and lanky limbs. Arms, legs, spokes, and handlebar brakes. He sniffed, but I couldn’t see any tears.
He watched me from there. “Out,” I said.
The next day after his shift ended, I dropped the garbage bag on the sidewalk. He loaded it into the car of a girl with sleeves of chrysanthemum tattoos. She stared straight ahead and pretended not to see me.
As they pulled from the parking lot he lifted his fingers in a wave, and even from that distance, I knew the what lettering tattooed on that hand said. His bike bounced along on the rack behind her car.
“I don’t see why you’d look any longer,” Dad said. “Nothing could be better than this.”
I traced the sweetheart neckline with my fingernails and ran my hands the rest of the way down the bodice. My engagement ring caught the dressing area light and sparkled like the rhinestones and pearls of the ivory wedding dress. I breathed in and held my hands at my waist where the boning hugged the curve of my hips. From there, it draped into ivory folds and fabric roses.
With my family in the tri-fold mirror, I stood on the fitting area podium. I stretched to my toes and rested flat-footed again. The hem of the dress moved with me.
Mom’s lips were pursed in her cry-face, and she held my shoes out in front of her.
We decided that since I only had one appointment with the dress shop consultant, I should only try my shoes with dresses I really loved. I tried shoes with the first dress, a drop- waist white gown with spiraled material flowing from the horizontal seam. I hadn’t needed shoes for the second, third, and fourth dresses. No shoes, not yet.
For that dress though, I nodded. Yes. Shoes. Please.
My sister lifted the hem of the front of the fifth dress. Mom clunked the shoes down in front of me on the hollow podium and slid them toward me, one at a time.
I pointed my toes into the blue satin peep-toes and settled into them. The material on them gathered, leaving the royal blue looking more saturated in some places and glossy in others. Oversized rhinestone bows draped across the outside edge of each foot and covered the creases of my toes.
Early in the wedding planning process, Mom talked me out of wearing the silver heels I’d worn to the eighth grade Italian dinner, eight homecoming dances, four proms, two homecoming assemblies, two cousins’ weddings, and two dance clubs in college.
I thought it would be perfect to wear the heels I’d worn in every misstep toward marrying the right guy, but Mom thought I needed a fresh start.
Something new and something blue, all at once. Those silver shoes could stay in my closet—just this time.
On our wedding day, the organ music played and Dad pushed the door that opened onto the grass of Curtis’s family’s backyard. I looped my arm through his, and Curtis waited at the end of the aisle. The bouquet was heavy in my shaking hand.
My legs brushed against the thick under-material of my dress with each step, and I thought about Curtis and me at ages eleven and twelve. Our families always shared a cabin on summer lake trips to a bordering state. We rode in the family Suburban together looking for letters on license plates; he always found the Z. He made up jokes, and we laughed until he fell asleep on my shoulder just past the state line.
We sat at the top of the cabin’s playground slide and talked about what we would be like as grownups. Would our marriages be like our parents’? Or would our future relationships be completely different because we knew so much from watching them do some things right and other things not-so-right?
Sophomore year, we sat in my neighbor’s hammock for hours. Curtis rocked us with his leg that hung over the edge. Neither of us had cell phones, and he had to run to his car to be home for curfew once we finally looked at what time it was. For hours, our hips and shoulders rested against each other, but we kept our hands in our laps.
On vacation the summer I turned sixteen, we took the piña colada mix our parents hadn’t added rum to yet and snuck down to the dock and listened to the radio on his step-dad’s boat. We played cards and it made me jealous that he could do the bridge when he shuffled. A Kenny Chesney song came on and we two-stepped on each other’s toes down the dock’s walkway and back. Someone was already sleeping in my bed when we got back to the cabin, and Curtis gave me his instead. He lay on the floor, and we whispered over the edge. He held up his hand while we talked, but I was too afraid to hold it.
When I reached the end of the aisle, I could see Curtis’s lip quivering. He put his hand to his face to try to stop it, and we laughed together. In a moment, we were eleven and twelve, fifteen and sixteen, and twenty-three and twenty-four—kids, friends, and husband and wife.