“Take your shoes off at the door.”
It is 7:30 in the morning. Bubbly Lululemon bodies shuffle in with stringy hair pulled tightly into ponytails. BPA-free plastic water bottles. Check. Mats tucked neatly underneath arms. Check.
We pack into four lines. I take the back line, of course. Sit down on my fresh mat and stretch. Right. Left. Right. Center. Stop. I glance down at the feet of the woman next to me. Perfect. I hate yoga.
Feet. That is the thing I remember the most about my first day of private school: L.L. Bean book bags in the hallways, scrawny kids in Phish t-shirts sprawled across doorways, Birkenstocks and fresh feet.
It is fall. I am 13, and my world has collapsed, inside and out. In English class we talk in circles, seminar style, about Icarus and his wings. Before my final project, I pull my bird-like, bespectacled teacher aside to tell him that I’m having trouble completing my culminating assignment.
“Writer’s block,” I say. I learned the term a week ago in partner work from Bryce, the boy who quotes Khalil Gibran in casual conversations and eats from good Tupperware in the middle of class.
I remember Easter. Time for new shoes. My brother and I, after fighting all day, sit cheek to cheek on the bus watching tired women get on and off. No husbands. But bags and more bags. And kids.
We arrive to the smell of plastic shoes lining the shelves. I skip down the aisles and pick out two pairs. The glossy ones with a small heel and bow for Easter Sunday church service, the other for play. We walk outside clutching our new prizes. We are happy.
I didn’t know that shoes are not supposed to hurt until obscene wealth crashed against my world. The same way that I didn’t know that vegetables did not come from metal cans. That milk was not made from powder. That heat was not meant to come from an open oven door.
I look down at my feet now permanently buckled and gnarled from a childhood of ill-fitting plastic shoes and endless walks. Tired little legs. Running to school. The city bus. The WIC office. The pediatrician. The corner store for bread and butter.
“What do those feel like?” Katie looks up at me and smiles. Her delicate figure spread out on the freshly manicured lawn.
Every Tuesday, we set up shop near the lacrosse field to warm our faces in the sun. She slides her shoe across the grass, and I slip my left foot into it and sigh. Pillows. I have pillows for feet.
I chuck the leather sandal back at her, “Well, they’re still ugly as hell.” I laugh.
Katie is not like the rest of them. Her parents drive a gray Mercedes. She has more bathrooms than bedrooms. But she is kind.
That night, I ask my mom for a pair of Katie’s shoes, and immediately I am sad. Sad that I ask her for something that she cannot give. Sad that I am now at a school away from people who look and feel like me. Sad that my standard for coolness is now kids who wear sandals.
Years later, I learn that every month my mother sets aside to pay for my schooling. These fancy schools, they ask the poor for that. An illusory sign of commitment. Exactly three dozen eggs, four loaves of bread, two gallons of milk, three boxes of generic-brand cereal, one pack of chicken thighs, and two pounds of rice.
I think back to all the times I whined and talked sideways because I didn’t have money for leafy salads from the cafeteria. Rabbit food, mom called it. Or the time I cried all the way home because I couldn’t join the field hockey team. Two hundred dollars for gear. Seventy dollars for a uniform, they said.
I couldn’t understand why she would send me to a place where I would never belong.
I heard this story once of babies in Bali. For the first three months of their lives, they are carried everywhere — their feet never touching the red earth. The baby, it is said, is still intimately tied to the spirit world. After 12 weeks, in a final ceremony, the baby’s feet are put to the earth, and the toil of life begins.
I think back to my time in Bali. I had escaped to the rice paddies shortly after my life had turned against me once again.
Saturn return, she calls it. I’m in hell, I quip.
Radha and I had grown up five minutes apart, only to find each other two states away, on the first day of law school with that same wild look in our eyes.
She tells me that in Saturn return, Saturn goes back to the same place it fell when you were born. Its influence is felt in your late 20s. It is a crossroads. A crisis. Karma. It breaks you open and spreads you out. I know — I barely lived to tell.
In my Saturn return, I stood next to my mother lying in a wooden box. I watched my marriage come apart thread by thread. I graduated from three aching years of law school only to find that I never wanted to become like my classmates. And I realized that the thing I feared the most about myself was true: I was gay, and poor, and woman, and black, in a world where any one of such identifications would leave you unworthy of protection.
I stare at Radha and her purple hair as she goes on to tell me of all the people who’ve killed themselves at this time. The 27 club. She lists them out, one by one. A sacred task.
I can’t help think of Balinese babies.
Maybe some of our feet were never meant to touch the ground.
“Any unsafe areas?” she asks. She reaches up to grab the bottle of massage oil from the shelf. She is tall and thin.
I am forced to see Becka by a body that quakes and aches at ungodly hours.
“My feet,” I respond. This is the answer I give, always. When I can, I keep my socks on for the entire session.
She laughs. I laugh, too. But I am still ashamed.
She begins the session, slowly circling my shoulders, moving down my back and to my thighs.
I stare at the naked floor. I moan, then I melt in and out. I hear the music playing in the background. It is waves. I think of the beach, water washing over me and burying myself in the sand. I feel her moving down my legs inching closer and closer to my feet. I am drifting so softly.
“You can touch them,” I whisper.
She takes my feet into her hands and with her thumbs she squeezes the fleshy part lining my heel, and I let her. Immediately, tears begin to burn down my face onto the towel. Eventually, I am heaving into the face guard.
I begin to think of my mom and her fifty dollars, Katie and her leather Birkenstocks, my brother and his bright-orange prison shoes, Easter and plastic Mary Janes with the bow on top, powdered milk with morning cereal, and our family sitting in the living room with blankets wrapped around us and the oven left on with the door open.
My whole body is convulsing now, Becka’s fingers still wrapped around my toes.
She asks me if I am okay, and I gargle, yes. I let the tears fall.
When she is finished, I sit up and wipe my eyes. We do not speak a word of it.
Walking down the street, I press down on the pavement hard. I can feel the bones beneath me, the bones that ground me, finally.
I think of my precious feet and all the things they have seen. And how well they have carried. I still fucking hate yoga, though.