Once upon a time, I was a 15-almost-16-year-old girl smack dab in the Summer between my Sophomore and Junior years of high school. The two most important things in my life then were to be pretty and be liked by someone popular. I hadn’t given much thought to how I was going to accomplish either, however, other than I’d have to be pretty before I could be liked by someone popular. I knew I had to look completely different from how I looked — I wanted long, straight brown or black hair. I wanted wide green eyes. I wanted to pierce my ears finally and catch up to the rest of the girls in my school. I also wanted to outfit myself with stylish clothing, like JNCO jeans and Tommy Hilfiger shirts because it was the end of the 90’s and that look was still popular. But my parents had very strict rules for me at that age: no dying my hair until I was 18, no piercing my ears until I was 18, and no stylish clothing until I could get a job and afford it all.
As far as my goal to be liked by someone popular…that wasn’t going to happen. I had an invisible sign on my back that said THIS GIRL IS STRANGE AND UNAPPROACHABLE. DO NOT INVITE INTO YOUR SOCIAL CIRCLE. The closest I had ever gotten to being close to someone I considered popular was when I let some badass girl named Jessica have my pen in 8th grade because she had lost hers and I had one identical to it. Jessica was one of the JNCO/Tommy Hilfiger set that I admired. Her hair was dishwater blonde/brown and her ears sported chandeliers of earrings, studs, and cuffs. When I handed her my pen, Jessica smiled, told me I was awesome, and then turned to her equally badass friend and told her I was awesome, too. The friend rolled her eyes and made a disgusted noise, but I rode that high for weeks. Unfortunately, Jessica switched to another high school for 9th grade and I never saw her again. I was back at default shun-status in the Fall.
The Venn diagram of my conundrum looked like this:
About 2 weeks before my birthday, I was determined to spend some of my allowance money on something nice for myself. I didn’t have much saved up because I had spent quite a bit on gel pens and Beanie Babies not long before (again, it was the ‘90’s). But I had enough to buy at least one nice thing from a nice store, and asked my parents to take me to Great Lakes Crossing. This, as you may have guessed, was a shopping mall in Auburn Hills. Before it turned into outlet stores in 2010, GLC was the largest altar to the retail gods in the state of Michigan. My friends had gone and come back with stories about its majesty. “They’ve got the biggest PacSun I’ve ever seen!” they exclaimed. “And their Abercrombie & Fitch had clothing they don’t sell at the one at Westland! It’s soooo great! You’ve gotta go!”
(I don’t know how much more I can emphasize that this was the 90’s without just straight up apologizing for everything.)
Hearing my excitement over what was, to them, just another mall only farther away, my parents reluctantly obliged my request to go. We made it a family day and the four of us piled into my dad’s Bronco on a warm, Saturday morning. My little brother, Scott, had just turned 8 and got excited by the prospect of visiting a GameStop beyond his wildest dreams. “I bet their GameStop is better than the one at Westland — even the one at Briarwood!” I gushed. “I bet they have Pokemon games that are only sold in Japan!” And because my brother was very easy to impress, he sat back in his seat with wide, wonder-filled eyes.
Unfortunately, my parents were right and GLC turned out to be just another shopping mall in the Detroit area. Other than being bigger and newer than the Westland and Briarwood malls we frequented, GLC didn’t really have anything more exciting than a Rainforest Cafe in its food court. Yet, Scott and I were still thrilled when we saw this and begged my parents to take us there to eat for lunch, even though the Rainforest Cafe had boring food at twice the cost due to its gimmick. So we ate, browsed the stores, and wandered around like the slack-jawed consumers we were.
I wound up spending the last of my allowance on a cute purse from Claire’s. The irony had been lost on me at that age, as I had dragged my parents an hour-and-a-half out of their comfort zone to buy a crappy accessory from a crappy pre-teen store found in every mall in Wayne and Washtenaw counties. But Mom and Dad were patient, if not accepting of my teenage rationalization, but asked anyway to call it a day.
On our way out, we walked through the JC Penney anchor store to get to the parking lot. As we did, I passed by the shoes section, where I noticed a something I hadn’t on the way in: a display of Nike tennis shoes. All were beautiful in their gray-and-white simplicity. All had that iconic Nike swoosh on their sides. And a pair of six-and-a-halfs sat front and center.
I stopped and gasped. I knew what I wanted.
“Mama!” I cried, catching my parents attention. “Dad! Wait! One second!” I waved my hands around the display. “Look!”
They scratched their heads.
“Will you get me a pair?” I asked.
They looked at each other. “Honey, didn’t you spend all your money on–”
“I know, I know,” I said. “Will you buy me a pair? Please? Just this once! Please? I promise I won’t ask for anything else!” I was practically on my knees, hands together, begging them.
My mother sighed. I could see the exhaustion lines on her face deepen as she considered my antics. My parents didn’t make a lot of money. My mom was a paralegal for most of my life while my dad worked tangentially for one of the Big 3. We had a modest, unremarkable house, car, and existence. I had never owned any designer-brand clothes in my life as my mother did most of our shopping at thrift stores and consignment shops. We had a couple of luxuries that my parents saved for each Christmas — the Nintendo 64 being Scott’s and my most prized possession. But money and the lack thereof was a constant refrain in our household. One did not just ask for or expect Nikes.
My parents cast one more rueful look at each other before my mom said those magical words: “Ok, sweetie.”
I jumped for joy. If I couldn’t be pretty or be liked by someone popular I could settle for one other thing: I could be cool. It was something I hadn’t considered before, but there were dozens of cool girls at school that weren’t pretty. Most of them were scowling-faced would-be gang-bangers that wore their hair slicked back in tight buns. They took remedial classes and had co-op for half the day. They smoked cigarettes in their bedrooms and watched South Park. They did not give a shit about you, me, or anyone else and that’s what made them cool. But coolest of all — they all wore Nikes. On my feet were K-Mart store brand deck shoes. If I had Nikes, that would be one step closer to cool.
The Venn diagram of my new conundrum was now this:
My mom had 2 stipulations for this purchase: 1. I couldn’t be in the store when she bought it and 2. I couldn’t wear the shoes until the day of my birthday. “That way,” she explained, “it would still be a present.” If this sounds unusual, then you’re not alone. I’ve related this story verbally many times before and each time my audience asks, Why didn’t your Mom just let you have them early? Did she think you would forget by the time your actual birthday came along? The answer to these questions is complicated. First, my mother never made any decision that didn’t involve her own brand of logic. I’ll give you a couple of examples:
- My mother overcooked noodles and undercooked vegetables. If the ramen came out congealed and snotty, that was because it was supposed to come out that way. If the vegetables were still frozen after only 10 minutes of boiling, that was because they were al dente.
- My mother’s only computer skill for much of my life was that she knew how to defrag the hard drive. Family computer running slow? Defrag the hard drive. Not finding the short story you wrote in Notepad ‘93? Defrag the hard drive. Computer refuses to turn on? Defrag the hard drive. Computer is on fire? Use the fire extinguisher and de-frag the hard drive.
- My mother, never one to keep up with the latest trends in movies, television, or music, had a hard time differentiating between the Good Brand and Bobo Brand versions of everything, and I don’t mean groceries. I mean that our crayons were RoseArt instead of Crayola for most of elementary school. She also rented Meet The Feebles instead of Muppets Take Manhattan for me when I was 9. If you think I’m being harsh, try coloring with a RoseArt crayon for 10 minutes and spending the same amount of time watching any point in Meet the Feebles.
The second reason for my mom’s decision to withhold the shoes, which didn’t dawn on me until I was an adult, was that my parents had no other gift to give me for my birthday and didn’t want me to feel disappointed. Knowing this made me feel a bit more sympathetic to her plight. I did drag them out to a stupid mall for my stupid teenaged reasons to satisfy my stupid teenaged whims. On top of that, I was asking for a pair of $50 tennis shoes. The very least I could do for my mother’s dignity was to pretend it was a surprise.
So Scott and I went out to the car with our Dad. My mom joined us about 10 minutes later, a JC Penney bag slung over her arm. She stuck it into the very back of the car and reminded me that I promised to wait until my birthday for my gift.
“What gift?” I joked, playing along.
And then I waited.
Those 2 weeks before my birthday were the most important 2 weeks of my life, and not just because every waking second I thought about that pair of gray-and-white Nikes still tucked away in the back of my dad’s Bronco.
No, these 2 weeks were also another important teenage event: driver’s ed. Don’t get me wrong: I was not going to driver’s ed because I wanted to drive. I had no reason to drive anywhere. I lived across the street from school. On the off-chance I was ever invited to a friend’s house or party, someone could pick me up. The only place I wanted to be was at home in my bedroom so I could read Christopher Pike books or write angsty poetry and prose. I wanted nothing to do with the outside world, let alone drive in metro Detroit. So why would I want to take driver’s ed? Well that was easy — because my parents made me. “What if you have to go somewhere?” they demanded. “What if something happens to us? What if you need to drive one of us to the hospital?” The response to that would be, Why would any of that happen now that I’m 16 and not anytime before then? But I wasn’t as quick at 16 as I am at 32, so I grumbled and signed up for the only acceptable form of summer school.
I had dreams that I would walk in after that first week of driver’s ed with those Nikes on my feet. My classmates would turn and gawk as they noticed me for the first time. They’d ooh and ahh over my ability to fit in. They could ignore my off-brand jeans and poly blend blouses. But they would not ignore my tennis shoes. And one by one the would turn around and whisper, “Hey, I like your shoes.”
And then I would at last be cool.
The Friday before my birthday I let it slip that I was getting a pair of Nikes for my birthday. I don’t remember who I told or why I said it other than I wanted to boast. But I left driver’s ed that afternoon thinking less about hydroplaning and more about opening my gift on Sunday. Monday morning, I’d be leaping across the street to get to class and show them off.
Perhaps that was my undoing.
On Sunday, I waited the entire day. I sat through a stupid dinner my dad prepared and an even stupider cake just so I could sit on the couch, close my eyes, and wait for my mom to drop the shoe box on my lap.
“Ooh, I wonder what it is!” I said, withdrawing the box from the JC Penney bag. “It feels heavy and expensive and…”
I discarded the plastic bag. In my hands sat a shoe box with the obnoxious logo of the FILA company emblazoned on the lid. Cold, familiar dread boiled in my stomach as I remembered the RoseArt/Crayola discussion from first grade. For a split second before I opened the box, I told myself this was a joke. My mom had put my Nikes in a FILA box because she was trying to trick me; in a second I’d open the box to reveal the gray-and-white shoes I begged for.
But no. I lifted off the lid to my FILA box and found a disastrous pair of black-and-white FILA tennis shoes.
The dread turned into cold disappointment as I realized what had happened. My mother, unable to tell the difference among shoe brands must have forgotten what shoes I had asked for and picked up the first pair of size six-and-a-halfs with a four-letter name. In her mind, there was no difference between RoseArt and Crayola as both were crayons. There was also no difference between Meet the Feebles and Muppets Take Manhattan since they both had puppets on the VHS box cover. But worst of all, there was no difference to her between Nikes and FILAs as they were both tennis shoes.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” Mom asked. “These are your shoes.”
What’s wrong?! I thought. Atop of being the wrong brand, the FILAs were ugly. They had thick, marshmallowy soles like Steve Maddens with half the charisma. The tongue stuck out like they had tried to swallow a honey bee. And on the side of each shoe, rather than a swoosh, was the ugly black-and-white-and-red FILA logo. And now I had to wear these monstrosities to school.
But although I was a bit of a brat, I wasn’t totally an asshole, I straightened up, forced myself to smile and said, “Uh, yeah! Thank you!”
Across the room, my Dad was smoking a cigarette and frowning. He, too, was wise to my mother’s idiosyncrasies and had caught on. We shared a deep, cynical connection, Dad and I. At that moment, our brains linked up and I caught his eye with panic.
My mom kissed my head and left the room. When she was out of earshot, I whispered: “These are the wrong shoes!”
“I know,” he said. “What happened?”
“I don’t know!” Tears were falling now. “She must have mistaken these –” I gave the shoes a violent shake, “–with the ones I wanted!”
“It’s ok. Let me talk to her. Can you wear them for a while? Maybe you’ll like ’em if you try them on.”
I shook my head. “They’re horrible. I hate them.”
“Just give ’em a try. I’ll talk to Mom.”
My dad had tried talking to my mom on my behalf before and it never went well. Dad’s at best pragmatic and at worst tactless. Anytime I asked him to relay a message to her — whether I asked to get contact lenses or wanted her to dress appropriately while my friends were over — it never went off as easily as I thought it would be. (For example, he’d tell her, “Look, honey — our daughter wants to look pretty for once and thinks your arbitrary reason of making her wait until she’s 15 for contacts is dumb.” Or worse, he’d say, “Honey, couldn’t you please put on a goddamn bra when the kids have friends over?”) Mom always came out of the bedroom mad and glaring at me. And then I got grounded. Sometimes she apologized but made me feel really, really bad afterward.
Of course this time was no different. My dad went into the bedroom to talk to mom and she came out half-an-hour later to say, “If you don’t like the shoes, we’ll take them back next weekend. I’m sorry I’m such a terrible mother.”
I sighed again. There was no way on God’s green earth we were going back to GLC to return a pair of shoes. Hell, if the mall were right across the street my mother wouldn’t have done that. I had lost this battle. The shoes were staying. I had to figure out how to suck it up.
On Monday morning, I wore a pair of khakis as low over my feet as possible to hide the puffy FILA soles. It took only 5 minutes of me walking over to my desk, sitting down, and retrieving my Introduction to Safe Driving textbook before the girl in the seat to my right noticed and remembered my boasting.
Our eyes met. I froze. Blood drained out of my face. She burst into giggles.
“Nice…shoes,” she snickered. Then added, “FILAs!”
I sank back in my chair, hoping the earth would open up and swallow me whole. The Venn diagram of my life had now drastically shifted for the worse:
That afternoon, I slunk home and approached my mother about taking the shoes back. Her reply was cold and succinct:
“We’re not taking the shoes back,” she said. “So get used to them.”
I wore my sandals to school the next day.
But I kept them.
The reasons for why changed over the years. At first, it was because I didn’t have many shoes to wear and they were the only active shoes I had. Then, when I was able to save up for an actual pair of Nikes, I kept the FILAs out of spite. And when I was old enough to leave home, I brought them to my first place as a reminder of home and the life I left as teenager. Eventually, I bought more shoes and relegated the FILAs, and their origin story, to the recesses of my mind.
When I found them, they were dusty and ragged and shoved into the corner of my closet. I hadn’t worn them in quite sometime and largely forgotten about them. But as I was yanking things off of hangers and tossing them in a bag to donate, I saw them underneath a pair of gauchos (because we’re now in the 2000’s). I paused to pick one of the shoes up, turned them over in my hands, and remembered everything again.
As I reflected, I began to laugh. The resentment and humiliation I felt had faded into fondness. That pain and anguish of being an appearance-obsessed teenager seemed so distant and trivial over time. Though the shoes were still ugly and sub-par, but they had held up. The soles were a bit smooth, the insoles a bit flat, and the eyelets were fraying, but I could still slide them on without force. They still laced up snug. They were still — dare I say it — comfortable. “Get used to them,” my mother demanded. I hadn’t realized that over the years, I did — just as I had gotten used to the slings and arrows of adolescence and then adulthood.
My husband caught me holding these shoes and laughing. He looked over their marshmallow soles and scuffed sides and wrinkled his nose. “Those are…interesting,” he commented. “When did you get them?”
“My parents got them for me,” I mused. “Hey, wanna hear the story?”