by Andrea Hansell
I remember the boots I wore when I was six. They were ungainly rubber behemoths, purchased a size too big so I wouldn’t grow out of them during a long upstate New York winter, navy blue so they could be passed down to my little brothers in future winters. Rough-textured and stiff, with no side zipper or buckle, they were difficult to put on and pull off. My mother solved this problem by sliding plastic bags over my socks to help me slip my feet into the boots. The bags were also supposed to keep my feet dry, but as I traversed the dirty mountains left by snowplows in the school parking lot, snow would inevitably fall down my boot tops and creep inside the baggies. Once I entered the warm school foyer to wait for the bell, this old, sad snow would melt into grey puddles around my socks. I was embarrassed by the acrid odor of rubber, plastic, and mildewed sock that emanated from my feet when I pulled my boots off in the hallway outside my classroom.
I wished I had boots like Laurel Brown’s, pink with furry white trim and a shiny silver side zipper that made them easy to pull on and off. They might not keep the snow out any better than my ugly boots, but it wouldn’t matter, because in winter Laurel’s mother always drove her the few blocks to school. My mother, still in her nightgown, her head under a pillow so she wouldn’t hear the cries of the new baby, insisted even on days of bitter wind and deep snow that it was fine for me to walk. On such days I dreamed of pulling on shiny cowgirl boots like Dale Evans and riding my imaginary horse Sparky. Her hooves would clatter on the icy roadway and then lift gracefully into the chill blue air as she cleared one snowdrift after another on our way to school.
I became a serial rebooter well before the origins of the computer-related term, which suggests renewal—a chance to shed unnecessary programs and corrupted files and start again unencumbered. I rebooted in the era of slide rules and typewriters, multi-volume encyclopedias and tiny black and white TVs that showed three fuzzy channels. For me the phrase was literal, a constant wish to wear someone else’s boots. I know there must have been a time when I was comfortable in my own body, in my own life, when I was not dogged by self-consciousness and my wish to be someone else. Occasionally I catch a faint whiff of an isolated memory of pure happiness: My mother, back when I was her only child and she wasn’t depressed and overwhelmed, points out the window at a bright crescent moon in a purple sky. “Look, just like the picture in the book I read you!” Or: I sit cross-legged on my bedroom floor with my kindergarten best friend as we listen to my “Peter Pan” record over and over, singing, “I gotta crow, er er er er er!” as loud as we possibly can. And this one: My cousin and I gallop through a sunlit summer meadow during a family camping trip, pretending to be horses named Sparky and Firefly. We neigh and toss our heads, and we bend down to sip water from a mountain stream.
In these memories there is no self-criticism, no shame, only being. It’s true that in the third memory I am wearing shoes other than my own—horseshoes, in fact. But back then I wasn’t just wishing from afar to be Sparky. The horse and I were one, so her shoes were my own.
By six I already wanted to reboot into Laurel Brown’s fur-trimmed boots, a change which would also grant me Laurel’s cheerful and nurturing mother. At nine, when my mother wouldn’t let me sign up for ballet class because I was chubby and clumsy and anyway she didn’t want to have to drive a carpool, I wished I could leap gracefully in a black leotard like Michelle Cooley, my feet feather-light in Michelle’s pink ballet slippers. At 12, awkwardly bent over a book in my pool chair, ashamed of the childish skirted swimsuit that my mother had chosen to hide my tummy and thighs, I longed to wear fuchsia flip-flops, the ones that matched a slim blonde teenager’s tiny bikini and made seductive squeak-squeak sounds as she paraded back and forth to the snack bar. Throughout adolescence I wished for whatever shoes would make me more popular, more attractive to boys, more lovable to my mother and less of a magnet for her critiques.
Did I ever feel comfortable in my own metaphoric footwear? I did briefly, in my early 20s, when I emerged into the world with a newly minted degree in psychology and creative writing and decided to go pick apples on a kibbutz in Israel. That summer I woke at four every morning, climbed out of my narrow bunk in the dilapidated row of tin barracks where the kibbutz volunteers lived, and laced up my brown work boots, still dusty from the previous day. Grabbing a roll and a cup of bitter Turkish coffee from the dining room, I would climb into the tractor-pulled wagon that transported me to the hillside orchard. I sat still and quiet in the pre-dawn darkness, lulled by the bouncing of the wagon over the rutted road. One by one, each volunteer was dropped off with a basket next to a row of apple trees. As I started picking the first tree in my row, the stars faded and the ascending sun lit the sky as pink as Laurel’s boots or Michelle’s ballet slippers. Wakened by the light, the birds began their crescendo of morning calls. Gradually I smelled the ripe sweetness of night-fallen apples as they began to bake in the heat rising up from the warming valley. I wrote novels in my head, peopling them with characters, working out details of plot and setting. To the rhythm of my moving hands I recited fragments of poems I once knew, voiced old camp songs and Broadway musical numbers and nursery rhymes. “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now, is hung with snow along the bough.” “So rise and shine and give God your glory glory.” “When I am king, dilly dilly, you’ll be my queen.” “At the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky and the sweet silver song of a lark.”
The only thing expected of me that summer was that I pick apples at a reasonable pace without bruising them. Luckily, I had good apple hands, or so I was told. I was a quick but gentle picker. At noon, after my apples were inspected and weighed and my results recorded in a notebook, I ate lunch in the kibbutz dining room, then retreated to my bunk for long, hot naps packed with colorful dreams. When the evening breezes meandered down from the hilltops, I joined my fellow volunteers around the bonfire, drinking Israeli beer and listening to the guitars accompanying folk tunes sung in our many languages. We didn’t talk much about our lives at home, about who we were or who we wanted to be; we were just there, together. I didn’t want to unlace my work boots, to wear anyone else’s shoes but my own.
When the apple season ended in late November, I flew home. I moved into a tiny, dark studio apartment in New York City and worked as a secretary at an advertising agency, typing ad copy for Playtex tampons and Fruit of the Loom underwear. Five o’clock found me crying on the crowded crosstown bus because my work pumps had raised bloody blisters, and because I was lonely and unfulfilled and couldn’t answer the questions people kept asking me about my future.
I quit the ad agency and took a job as a birth control and abortion counselor at a women’s clinic. When I arrived in the morning I had to change into blue scrubs and white nurse’s shoes, but I could wear anything I wanted on the way to work. I started wearing a pair of lizard-skin cowboy boots that had been one of the freebies from a summer stint as a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine. The boots fit my childhood Dale Evans fantasies, even though the shiny pointed toes pinched my feet a little. I wore them like armor as I pushed through the mob of anti-abortion protestors who gathered daily by the clinic door. “There’s blood on every dollar you make,” they screamed. “We know who you are. We know where you live.” Click-click-click went my brave boots on the city pavement. I believed in what I was doing.
On weekends I wore my cowboy boots to Riverside Park, where I sat on a bench scribbling short stories in a spiral notebook. I thought I might become a writer. My parents talked me into applying to psychology graduate school instead—more practical, they said, and anyway, I wasn’t talented enough to be a writer. When I traveled to Boston University for my graduate school interview, my opinionated high school friend Michael and his wife Jen picked me up at the train station. I saw their faces as they took in my outfit: the conservative brown wool suit my mother had helped me choose, accessorized by me with white cabled sweater tights and my shiny cowboy boots. After conferring, Michael and Jen stopped the car at Filene’s Department Store. “Go buy a pair of sheer pantyhose and simple black pumps,” Jen advised me. “Put them on in the ladies’ room.” I did as I was told.
This was the end of my brief period of feeling satisfied in my own boots. Adulthood found me switching rapidly between formal work shoes and suburban mom sneakers, wishing desperately to wear whatever shoes would make me a better wife, a better mother, a better therapist, a better daughter to aging parents, and also more efficient, more organized, with time and energy to devote to both worthwhile causes and enriching hobbies. An entire shoe store would not have helped me become who I thought I should be during those years.
My husband died unexpectedly in his 50s, just after our children had left home and I had closed my private practice for our move to a new city. I was truly alone and unanchored for the first time since my cowboy-booted days in New York City. At first I felt only grief and loneliness. As time went on, the voice in my head, schooled from childhood like a trained circus animal, resumed its tormenting whispers about the various pairs of boots I should step into in an attempt to pull myself together. Whole shelves of them rose up before me, glittering and unobtainable and not even the right size.
Something happens, though, when you spend your days alone and unobserved. You start to find your own natural rhythms, unreacted to, unresponded to. One sunny spring day I left an undone list of tedious tasks on the counter and drove with unbrushed hair to the garden store, where I splurged on new plants for my already overflowing garden beds. Since I had skipped breakfast, I decided to stop at Dairy Queen for an ice cream lunch. I ate my large cone with rainbow sprinkles in the car. In my rear-view mirror the back seat looked as vibrant and flower-filled as a stall at a country farmer’s market. I thought, no one in the world knows I am here. No one is waiting for me, no one expects anything.
The thought was sad, but also freeing. I realized that nothing I did that day had been wrong or right. Or maybe it was right, for me, for that day. I licked my sweet, sticky ice cream fingers, breathed in the spicy fragrance of blooming nicotiana, and drove home. I thought I might sit down and write a short story. Or not. But first I would take off my sneakers and walk barefoot through the garden on my own pink and sturdy feet.
Andrea Hansell studied creative writing at Princeton University and earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Michigan. Her essays and memoir pieces have appeared in publications including Lilith, Intima, Easy Street, and Minerva Rising. A winter 2017 writing fellow at Pacific University, she has been a finalist for the Lascaux Prize and the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition.
Photo by Andrea Dress