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first person

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Illustration by Rachel Wada

Recently, on an unseasonably warm day, I found myself feeling unreasonably positive about postpandemic life. Such was my optimism that I went to the tiny closet in my tiny bedroom, opened the tiny door and began, almost reverently, to remove pair after pair of beautiful shoes.

Ensconced in the darkness for more than a year, they were stowed carefully just out of reach, waiting for happier, luckier days when they would emerge – victorious! – ready to play. I blew the dust off each gilded box, sacred objects – small arks of the covenant. Each coffer contained a silk dust bag. Inside each one, cloaked heel-to-toe, was a perfect pair of fabulous footwear.

My loves, I whispered, and liberated some cheeky black pumps – Fluevog’s Queens Transcendent – their heels artfully fashioned to invoke the ball-and-claw legs of 18th-century Louis XV furniture. The shoes whispered back, secrets known only to the puckish mind from whence they sprang and the era that inspired them. A frisson… I was filled with delight.

Darlings, I breathed and released a capricious pair of kitten heels – red, yellow, black – pure Miss L-Fire. I could hear their impatient tick-TICK on the floor, going about the business of tearing things up. These were get-out-of-my-way, get-it-done shoes. Shoes that moved swiftly from boardroom to barroom. “We are the storm,” they hissed as they passed. I could hardly contain them.

Three new pairs emerged – never worn! – breathlessly purchased at a deep discount from a going-out-of-business sale; a local cobbler’s venture to purvey elevated European footwear undone by online shopping. Impractical! I fretted at the time. But I was swayed by the impeccable Portuguese craftsmanship, the smooth Spanish leather. Together they featured a flourish of ruffle; a glittery bow; a small gold buckle. Who is this lady, they seemed to ask, leaning in to hear the answer? These shoes were the girl I wished I could be – the thrilling fulfillment of lives not lived; roads not taken. They threatened to carry me off, marry me off and I liked it.

Next came the wedges, both corky and rubbery, making me tall, taller, tallest! One false move in Fly London lifts and you were falling, falling as though from a path paved with Purbeck stone. They would turn your ankle as fast as look at you, but their alluring height, the illusory stability of a stacked heel, was not to be resisted. What fair-weather outfit could they not enhance? What modern girl could turn them away, and why would she?

I continued my impromptu project, unfurling stilettos and sling-backs, peep-toes and platforms. Boots in a panoply of patterns, both pointy and blunt. Playful, ropey espadrilles. A rakish pair of over-the-knee stretch-suede numbers that set a much younger, more insouciant me back three rent cheques.

Finally, I lined them up, car dealership-style, and stood back to appraise their reflections in the full-length mirror.

Vain beauties all, I thought. I could not deny it.

But each of them positively crackled with energy, the promise of bold misadventure: of boardwalks unconquered, of cava still corked, of first dates not yet proffered. Magic portals tucked inside a wardrobe. Fairy-garden stepping-stones… to a life beyond a pandemic. I knew then that, one after another, I would take each pair on a private promenade.

For this purpose, I kicked a sweatshirt, a towel and two pairs of leggings under the bed to obscure them from the mirror’s sightline, the better to conjure the life I would have when it was all over – a better life, a glamorous life, perchance a tidy life.

As I slid my foot into pair after pair of those beautiful shoes, I was met with what can only be described as… resistance.

I would have liked to report that this resistance came from my Better Self – the self-reflective, or at least self-critical inner-me who knows that, if we’ve learned anything from a veiled life in lockdown, it is the value of people over possessions. Attachment over acquisition. The immateriality of the material when confronted with the prospect of serious illness, penury, death. In short, the value of substance, even sentiment, over shoes.

This is not, I regret, from whence it came.

My feet, once a coquettish size 9, would no longer slide into shoes they once wore every day. Nor would they deign to be coaxed, squeezed or stuffed. My horror mounted as pair after pair of my elegant beauties – the promise of my former life, my future life, my Best Life – betrayed me. I felt the dream dissolving, the reflection refracting, absorbed with indifference by the hardwood floor.

I glanced down, then, at my warped and discarded house-slippers; those sons-of-a-Birkenstock that had carried me without complaint through a pandemic lifetime thick with dust and fog. My constant companions lo these many months. My mind turned to the many, many shoes that, without fanfare or dress rehearsal, have continued to go about their days, in service to others. And I knew.

I knew in a way previously unknowable. I knew it in my gut, in my bones, in my toes. I knew that although we will move forward, there’s no going back.

We will always live in the afterburn of this pandemic – the first, but not likely the last, in our lifetime. We will probably appreciate the little things a little more. Hug a little longer. Stay a little later. But we’ll never go back to when our most beautiful shoes fit perfectly, with no pinching.

We’ll have just plain outgrown them.

And the shoes were quiet. And I was sad.

Jenna Hall lives in Ottawa.

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