Saturday, May 30, 2020

An Old Story: "Shoes"

Author's Forward:

This story was written in approximately 1995 as a submission for a website focused on what was then commonly referred to as crossdressing. The site was one of the first online spaces where what is now loosely known as the trans-community could gather. 

Contrary to current opinion, we were still coming out of the closet as a community then. You could find us on daytime talk TV - usually as a quick, easy ratings boost during sweeps week - telling the world our stories. Beyond that, we by and large hid who and what we were from everyone and everything with only a brave few daring to live openly as who and what they were. The idea of doing something other than "passing" as a woman to leave the label of transsexual behind like a butterfly leaves the cocoon was still a somewhat new idea. The only books about us then were either clinical texts or autobiographies. 

But that was changing.

In that environment, I wrote "Shoes." It was published online and remained up for a year or two until the site reorganized and my story somehow didn't make the cut for inclusion as part of the new site's archives. I suspect it was my use of the "R" word. My use of that word was a deliberate choice of what was even back then a cringe-worthy, unkind word to clue the reader in to the kind of family the story's main character was being raised in. Since that time in the late 1990's this story has been hidden away by me out of shame. 

I will hide it no longer. I post it here complete and unedited for the purpose of historical context. This was my second story ever as an author of Transgender Fiction. The first was written in the 9th grade and is lost to the mists of time. 


In the long, hot days of a summer’s afternoon, it’s easy to forget that you’re five. From the vantage point of maturity you will look back and call those days the last true time of freedom that you will ever know. Everything you have or need will be given to you. You are old enough to live as a person in the world around you, but it is all new, and nothing is beyond your reach. Only in time will you think back on cookies and sunshine as the last oasis of joy in your life.

On that day, the day the rain has ended but you can still smell it through the rusted screen of your front door, the day that you run screaming into the kitchen and smell hot dough and melted chocolate accompanied by the ticking of a hot stove, the day when your brother and your sisters are all off somewhere that you don’t care about with your father, on that day you become eternal. Your mother chides you for making so much noise, but you see the smile she tries to hide. You breathe in the symphony that is your world and exhale all doubt that anything bad will ever happen to you.

Your mother hums, a plush giant that hugs you every day, kissing you to sleep with a brush of fingers across your forehead. Her eyes are on the dishes she is washing, her awareness of you reaching out, a cozy blanket that surrounds you whenever she is near, drifting through the air as subtle as an unworn perfume.

Warm cookies melting on the tongue, chased by the liquid white perfection of cool milk. Satisfying, but you ask for more. The answer is “no,” but then it always is. You ask again, knowing that your chances are good if you can ask just right. The answer is still “no,” but that’s alright. The cookies will still be there for before you go to bed, and there is always tomorrow.

You wait for your mother to see if she will do anything interesting, but she is still washing dishes and humming. And so you leave her, sad with the knowledge that she will only be close by.

The screen of the front door feels odd against your skin. Not bad, but rough as sandpaper. You know not to do more that rest your cheek against it. The sandpaper taught you that. Pain is not a goodness. Curious, you roll your face across it. You smile. It doesn’t hurt, but it feels strange. Opening your mouth wide, you make an O of your mouth and breathe through it, only to be surprised by the dry tang of the metal against your lips.

Careful now, you reach out with your tongue, touching the screen lightly. The taste of it is like it being on your lips, only wet and brilliant. You can only stand it for a second or so and a time, running your tongue over the roof of your mouth and swallowing between each try.

“WHAT are you doing?” You mother says to you, hands on hips and smiling from the doorway to the kitchen.

“Licking the screen door.” 

Her laugh is a benediction, accompanied by the pressing of her palm against her forehead. “Well, don’t. People will think you’re retarded.”

You giggle, amused. “I’m a retard. Duh! I’m so stupid.” You clump about the room in circles, staggering and waggling your head from side to side. “Duh, duh, duh!”

Your pleasure is infectious. She scoops you up with a kiss on the cheek and laughter, an increasingly rare treat. “Yes, but you’re MY retard.” She stares into your eyes, and you stare back at her. There is nothing else in the world but the rich brown depths that you find there. She hugs you, drinking you inside of her arms. You feel the warm, moist softness of her lips against your ear, but it doesn’t tickle. “I love you so much,” she whispers so softly that only the two of you will ever know that she said it.

“I love you too, mommy.” You hug her harder, and she pets your hair.

She sets you down and you follow her into her bedroom. It’s your special privilege because you’re the baby. Your brother and your sisters are too old to be allowed in there except on special days like Christmas and Easter. She’s making the bed, just like she does every day, humming a tune that she only hums when daddy’s gone.

It’s boring you to tears, but you don’t want to leave. The closet door is open. You look inside. 

The floor of the closet is covered with shoes. Mommy’s shoes are on one side, and daddy’s shoes are on the other. You can tell the difference because even though they are all big, daddy’s are much bigger. They look different too. Some of mommy’s shoes have the high heels she only wears for special dress up times, like for church or going out with daddy nights.

There’s another pair of shoes there too that don’t belong. They are too small to be mommy’s shoes, but they have high heels like her dress up shoes. You take them out of their box and pull them out to show her. “Are these your shoes mommy?”

She glances over her shoulder for a moment while tucking a sheet in. “No, those are your sister’s shoes. She needs them for her choir concert for school.”

School is boring, and so is the older of your two sisters, but the shoes look fun. Setting them carefully on the floor, you slip your sock clad feet into them, almost falling from having to stand on tip toe to wear them. They are too big for you, but that’s OK. Everyone’s shoes are too big for you. Daddy’s shoes are even harder to walk in. These are almost easy.

“Look mom, I’m a girl!” You play with your hair like your oldest sister does, and try to look like you could be in the school choir too. You think it’s funny, like pretending to be stupid when you licked the screen door.

Mommy isn’t smiling. She looks at you walking in the shoes. Her face is worried, but she turns away. “That’s nice, dear.” 

You walk a little more, but now you are nervous. Mommy doesn’t always pay attention to you, but it’s usually because she is busy. Now she is only pretending to not pay attention. It’s the way she doesn’t look at you right before she gets mad, like when you fight with your brother or your sisters over a toy or the TV and mommy pretends to not hear you yelling. She’s watching you without looking, trying to decide if she should be angry yet.

“I’m sorry, mommy.”

She turns to you and smiles. “What for, honey?” Her smile is all wrong, and her eyes are hard and deep inside her skull.

You shrug and look away. Wearing the shoes isn’t fun anymore. “Never mind.”

You take off the shoes and put them back in the box in the closet. Mommy isn’t humming now, and the only sound in the room is the rumpling sounds as she makes the bed. You leave before she is finished and go into the living room to play with the stuffed animals that belong to the younger of your two older sisters. You don’t have any of your own, and you can only play with hers when she isn’t there.

For a brief moment, you have a best friend. You can hug him just like mommy hugs you, and he loves you back just as much as you love him. It doesn’t matter that you made mommy stop humming. It doesn’t matter that you’re playing by yourself. You take your favorite friend, the rabbit with the super soft body and the long, funny ears to the screen door. You tell him how funny the screen door tastes and he licks it too. He says it tastes like carrots and you laugh at him. The two of you begin to debate what the screen door tastes like, lemonade without the sugar or carrots.

And then it’s over. The back door opens and your brother and your sisters are back. Daddy is back too, but he always pays special attention to your brother. It makes you feel like a baby. 

Your sister takes your favorite friend away from you, even though she isn’t going to play with him. Yelling at you, she stands over you to try and make you feel bad because she is bigger than you. After a while she puts him back with her other stuffed animals. None of them like her, because she doesn’t play with them enough. They like you because you pay attention to them and talk to them, even when you can’t play with them.

Mommy is talking with daddy in the quiet way they do when they talk about secret adult stuff. Daddy stares at you while mommy talks, and it is almost as bad as the way mommy doesn’t look at you at all. It feels like the worst trouble you have ever been in, but neither of them say anything angry to you. They just look tired. Mommy goes to start making dinner. Daddy goes outside to work in the yard. Your oldest sister goes to her room and your brother goes outside with your dad.

Sitting by the window, your sister comes over to you and begins to poke your arm while she talks to you. “You were bad. I can tell. What did you do wrong?”

“Nothing,” you lie, ignoring the poking.

“Liar. Tell me what you did.”

You don’t want to answer her, but she will only get mad if you don’t say anything. “I don’t know.”

She pauses, thoughtful. “Liar. Tell me what you did.” 

Too sad to wipe them away, your tears find comfort on your lips, leaking into your mouth. They are not bitter, like the screen door, but they should be. Their taste should match the feelings that make them. “I don’t know what I did wrong.”

Your pain is enough to satisfy her. She skips away, singing the alphabet song, knowing that you can’t keep the letters straight when you try and sing it. Outside the window, the sun is slowly drying away the remnants of the rainstorm. There is a bird at the feeder. It pecks at the contents, its motions too sudden for the eye to follow. You tap at the window hoping to make friends, but it only startles the bird into flying away.

“How,” you wondered then, “could a day that began so well end so badly?” In later years you will know, but on that day, the taste of the cookies is just a memory. All you know for certain is the taste of your tears.

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