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sharleen jonasson

feet

"I can't see that you're gaining weight," Parker says. But my Parker isn't stupid; he wouldn't admit to this even if I sat on his lap and drove the two of us right through the ground and halfway to China with my gravity.

I know, however, that I'm getting heavier. I can feel weight pulling me, slowing me down. And of course there is the evidence of my feet.

They hurt. There are the bunions, malformations that distort the uniform shape of a size nine-and-a-half (okay; a size ten in some styles) and ache and throb more and more often, warning of changes in the atmosphere. And my feet have begun to broaden, causing painful friction between them and my shoes.

"Every time you take a step," the orthopedic surgeon explains, "your feet are hitting the ground like this." He demonstrates the way--the wrong way--that I get around. Mimicks, is more like it. "And the impact isn't being absorbed properly by the bones of the foot. It's a kind of trauma, each time you move forward. Day after day, year after year."

"I'm not aware of it," I say.

"Of course you're not. For you, it's natural. But you can't expect to continue on in the same way without adding to the damage."

He warns me about the evils of high heels. I explain that flats or low-heeled pumps, in conservative colours and styles that don't attract attention to my abnormality, are all I ever venture out in. He is pleased with my pragmatism.

"We could do something with those bunions," he says, settling his bulk into an armchair, tapping his silver pen as if it were a pipe. "But what you have to consider is that you'll be hospitalized for 48 hours, wrapped in thick bandages for weeks, unable to regain complete use of your feet for up to four months. And even then there are no guarantees. Though the probability of noticeable improvement is high, maybe 80 per cent. What you have to decide--and only you can make the decision--is: is it worth it? Does your condition keep you from doing all the things you want, all the things you need to do in your life? Are things that bad?"

 

Sometimes I forget what role to play. Mother, daughter, wife, lover, friend, employee, citizen, etc.. Some days I do one or two pretty well, well enough not to be booed off the stage, but then I can't manage the other ones. It's not that I forget the lines of, say, wife, but I just can't get inside that particular character, not even when I recognize an obvious cue.

People observing closely as I, the only one wearing a jogging suit on concert night (was there a secret message in the school newsletter, revealing a dress code?) carry my plate of home- made cupcakes into the school gym (everyone else showed up with bakery-bought squares), might say, tsk, tsk: That one has been miscast.

Other women braid the changing fashions of femininity with politically correct feminism; I lack some essential coordination, I suppose. Other women know how to knot scarves, exactly where to place the parsley garnish, the right thing to say to a troubled child all this, and still have time to work out, practice law and run for office, to make the world a healthier, safer, cleaner place for us all. I'm not in step and it's not for lack of trying but in my mind there still plays a faint residue of The Donna Reed Show that I watched as a child, warm cookies and a clean oven accomplished in full 1950s dress: white apron over full skirt, hose, high heels. Oh, my arches.

I rehearse lines for one role when I should be playing another. While I'm packing the kids' lunches and listening to some economist on CBC radio talk about the deficit and thinking what I'd say to the Premier if I (eloquent, informed citizen) had him in a room alone, Heather says, "Mom, do you know I need a white skirt for the concert tonight," (I didn't) and while that sinks in, while I'm thinking, so when will I accomplish this, on my lunch hour? (I work at the university, 10 minutes away from a mall, another 15 minutes to find a parking spot), Parker calls to say his boss has invited us to dinner on Friday so get a sitter.

What I say then is not nice, so to paraphrase: I do not have time to chase after teenage girls. I call him during my coffee break but the receptionist says he's out. So hours later we sit at the concert staring stonily ahead, Steven between us, and I don't have a chance to apologize until we're getting into bed. It's okay, Parker sighs. No it isn't, I am thinking at two in the morning, feeling all the guiltier for his graciousness. I get up to drift around the house, hoping to tire myself enough to sleep. I bang my shin against Steven's monster dump truck that he's parked beside the couch and drop to the floor, whispering fiercely all those words I hope I never hear my children say, violent, sexist, abusive slurs I don't believe in, that, coming out of my own mouth, shock me, as I rub my shin, over and over till the sharp pain subsides and my bunion starts to ache, inevitably, and I think: rain.

 

I am not insensitive to the fact that big feet are unfeminine. And that to care about this is unfeminism.

"Why do you worry?" Parker says. "Worry doesn't change anything."

"There's so much to worry about," is my answer. Pollution, crime, war, disease, poverty, old age. Not to mention the fact that I can no longer force my misshapen foot into an even moderately stylish slipper. But I concede his point: actions speak louder than worry.

I attend a forum on violence against women and children. We are to hear a speaker, the author of a self-help book for battering men. As we file into the theatre, a young man comes out from behind the curtain, wearing jeans, a purple shirt and an earring that twinkles under the stagelights. He sits on the floor, takes off his shoes and socks and slides over to sit on the rim of the stage. He tells us he's there to help provide a non-threatening, non-judgmental environment in which we can discuss, question, and hopefully understand sexual roles and stereotypes and how these affect attitudes and behaviours. He swings his bare feet side to side as he talks: I am unconventional, I am vulnerable, I want to be your friend. He is, he says, merely a facilitator. Periodically he flexes his ankles, flaunting his tender, white insteps.

While the professionals and other concerned citizens get up one after the other and offer their insightful comments, I fight an urge to get up and scream at him: I can't deal with the big issues when you're forcing your yellow callouses and reddish heels in my face.

Where does this hostility come from?

My son wants to be a backhoe driver, a rock star, and a goalie for the Vancouver Canucks. My daughter wants to be a veterinarian. Also a movie star with a mansion in Beverly Hills, and perhaps an artist. They see no reason why they can't fit all this in.

I'm afraid for them. It's bizarre out there and they don't have the sense to be scared shitless. Wait till they're teenagers, my friend says; it gets much worse.

Heather is ten, an age when she has begun to spend more time at friends' houses, for suppers and sleepovers. Other mothers never get mad, she tells me. Not only that, they make pancakes with chocolate chips in them. And serve them with sausages. Saturated fat, I say; you'll thank me one day.

I can't remember complaining about my own mother's breakfasts. But did I? What kind of a daughter was I, am I? The next day at work, caught by the roving eye of the disapproving floor manager, I call her just to say hello but get her answering machine. Of course, she's gone to Reno with two of her friends. She's seems so much more modern and active at 63 than I am at 43. If you have your children while you're young you still have lots of energy left to enjoy everything life has to offer after they're grown, she has said to me, knowing it's too late in my case.

Don't expect me to be one of those Superwoman types, I tell the machine; I'm not even trying.

I have long since finished procreating. So why do I find myself eating for two? Or more.

I say I can't get inside all my characters but really they are all inside me. Get lost, I silently scream. I rant, I rave. Meanwhile, they want to be fed. One wants chocolate, another hot salsa, another porridge with cream and brown sugar. Together they have this irresistible, driving hunger that propells me over to the fridge to root through its contents, to grope into dark cupboards and the bottom of the cracker boxes, to strain for the top shelves where I keep the chips and cookies I buy for the kids. One craves something but I don't know what. Hours later I sit at the kitchen table, stuffed, trying to decide, systematically raising and discarding possibilities--Meat? No. Sweets? No. Something salty? A pretzel perhaps? I give up and make something fast for supper. That I can't eat with the rest of the family because I'm too full. Instead, I go for a run to wear it off. Calories in, calories out. Balance.

 

"There are non-surgical treatments," the podiatrist says. "There are devices." He shows me some pink, synthetic pieces, a thin wedge for under each heel and two long bumpy things, like bloated worms, that go under your toes. These won't correct my condition but they might prevent it from getting worse. At a cost of four full weeks of groceries, not including tax. "You wear them inside your shoes like this," he says, demonstrating with a plastic model foot he takes down from a shelf. He hands the pieces to me for inspection; they smell strongly of man-made materials.

"Every day?" I ask.

"For the rest of your life," he says. "When you're standing, walking, hiking, biking, or whatever. Whatever you normally do in a day. But no more running."

There is only one person with whom I will discuss my dilemma over whether or not to have my feet fixed--it's not something one brings up in social situations, foot problems being slightly less interesting than afflictions of the bowel--and that person of course is Parker.

He follows me into the bathroom, watches me get on the scale. "Why do you keep doing that?" he asks. He tries to see over my shoulder. I want to take my terry towel robe off (it must weigh two pounds) but lately find myself reluctant to be completely naked in front of him.

Parker himself is tall and thin. I first noticed him, at a school dance when I was fifteen, he seventeen, because he stood above all the other boys there by at least half a head. He had, and still does have, excellent posture. You really could draw a straight line from his ears to his ankles, just the way books say you should be able to. With my own body, even with practice in front of a full-length mirror, I've never quite gotten it. I might be able to stand still that way, but I couldn't maintain it in motion.

"Isn't that what you've always weighed?" he asks.

"It isn't showing up in actual numbers yet," I reply, undaunted. "I know what I feel."

Pretty soon, my feet will spread so wide it will be difficult to read the numbers. How then, will I ever be able to verify what I know to be true?

"Does it bother you more than it used to?" Parker asks. I am sitting on the floor, massaging my feet.

"Only when I think about it," I answer, though what I really mean is that I think about it almost all the time.

What with eliminating running from my life, I have a bit more time each day. Time to relax with coffee on Saturday mornings. Stretch out and read the newspaper.

Last week two juveniles, fifteen years old, broke into a house not four blocks from here and beat the elderly homeowners in their bed with their own golf clubs, then they left them there, two bloody heads on white pillows, while they drove off in the couple's car for a holiday. They were apprehended by police at the ferry terminal. They showed no remorse. Now a social worker has come forward to say the youths each have had difficult childhoods, and we (that is, society) are really to blame. This is what she says, from pages spread out before me right in my very own kitchen, and she ought to know; she has a PhD, not to mention tenure.

I make a triple batch of spaghetti with meatball sauce and sit down with a plateful. It looks like bloodied heads on a pillow of parasitic worms. Comfort food.

"What you need," my friend says, "is to become vegetarian. Don't eat any meat. Animals are killed in violence and cruelty: they die in fear. If you eat fear, you become fearful."

Yes. Not only that, there are toxins in much of the food we eat. So I change my ways. I rarely spend time in the kitchen anymore, except to make potfuls of soup from organic vegetables. I buy certified organic fruit at the health food store. It has blemishes. "That's the way real fruit looks," the clerk says; "in fact, some people won't even buy fruit that looks perfect any more." I sift through the bin, looking especially for misshapen apples and motley oranges; I want my money's worth. I also try out numerous low-fat recipes that will enable my family to live longer in this increasingly violent world. "What is this stuff?" my son says, flicking the little bits of white around on his plate of carrot-broccoli stir fry on steamed brown rice. "What do you mean, tofu? TO-FU? Toe food?"

Also, I bake whole grain bread. But mostly I am too busy with a new exercise regime. Biking, walking briskly, low impact aerobics at the rec centre. Gentle exercises for the temple of the body.

A month of this and I am ready to buy a Little Black Dress. At home, to surprise Parker, I try it on. I even go to the trouble of putting on "Sheer Midnight" hose, then I rummage through the back of my closet, find and blow the dust off a pair of classic, black pumps, and squeeze into these. It's necessary; I am making a fashion statement.

"Do you still think I'm attractive?"

Parker is watching the news, eating his vegetarian casserole from a plate on his lap. The kids are in the kitchen, sulking over theirs. Not allowed to leave the table till it's all finished, he says; he can't stand to watch them whine over perfectly good food. "There's nothing wrong with those peas," he insists. "That's the colour they turn when they're cooked." In our marriage, I make all the dinners. We started out sharing the cooking, practising equality as if it were an acquired skill, as opposed to an attitude which is how we see it now. But I began to balk at Shake-and-Bake every time it was his turn so now he makes the kids toast in the morning and peels potatoes on occasion, but I'm the one who decides the menus. He hasn't said anything specific about the vegetarian dishes. Just like he never commented when I decided to serve fish twice a week, or when I went through a period of adding oat bran to the meatloaf.

"I like everything you make," is all he ever says.

"Do you think I'm attractive?" I repeat. (I've forgotten that it's the dress I was going to ask about.) Parker squashes a pallid pea onto a tine of his fork, using his fingers. "I do, I always have, I always will," he says. It's what he always says.

I slump, I slouch. I realize: "You're not even looking."

 

It's not just the pain or even the lengthy recovery time of surgery. I'm afraid of the cutting, the separation of things that were connected, even if abnormally. There might be complications, the surgeon said. Even a successful operation could be, if you consider it in a certain light, a complication--one more impact to absorb. Cinderella wannabe, one more, tired role.

And I refuse to depend on synthetic, pink devices.

It's not so bad to be able to predict the rain, if it's intent on coming anyway. Think of all those poor women in China who had their feet bound; now they had a real problem.

I let my friend talk me into a pair of new shoes, not joggers or cross-trainers but those walking shoes that are so popular now.

"I think I'd better bring out a '10'," the salesclerk says.

"Good idea," I agree. "When I buy a pair of shoes, I like to get my money's worth."

Later, after the kids are in bed, Parker strums his guitar and sings "Oh my darlin', oh my darlin'..." but when he gets to the part where Clementine has shoes that number nine, he changes it to Maureen with shoes size thirteen. That isn't true, I tell him; I can still get into a nine-and-a- half. With those enormous feet, he goes on, with a big, wide base like that, no one could tip you over. You're solid. Anyway, I think your feet are funny, but your inner thighs, the skin of your inner thighs, my god the skin of your inner thighs...

Those creatures inside me, the ones with the voracious appetite, they've banded together into one and right now I feel like Superwoman: I am them all. And, I tell you, this is one powerful character. If I let her go she could saunter through any doorway, stamp out all kinds of criminals, stride across continents. But for now she is thinking of wrapping her legs around her lover's back and linking her giant toes to hold him right where he is.


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