It’s the late ’70s and 7:30 in the morning in the parking lot of Holy Trinity Catholic School in Dallas. I try to lose myself in the crowd, a tough trick for a pale-skinned, sandy-haired, gringo second grader surrounded by Mexican Americans. Stubbornly quiet, I smile when talked to but generally keep my head in whatever book is nearby. I wear a long-sleeved blue sweater to hide my increasingly hairy arms, even though 45-minutes of kick ball leaves me sopping with sauna-level sweat. What I want most of all is to blend in, to be forgotten. But the soles of my favorite shoes wore out yesterday, and I am wearing my big brother Paul’s old loafers. I will be noticed.
We had exactly 20 minutes in the morning to run wildly around the sloping asphalt parking lot before Sr. Mary Anne rang her bell once (which made us freeze), twice (which made us line up in order of grades), and a final time (which made us file into the school). I run three steps before Paul’s slim, unforgiving shoes squeeze my thick toes like a vice, even though my Mom had spent half her morning working in oil to soften the leather. The oil made the leather more orange than soft, though, and as the sun rose and crept across the parking lot, my shoes take on the glow of traffic safety cones. I back into a corner fence and pull out my geometry book, pretending to study and covering one blinding foot with the other. I recite Hail Mary’s for those three sweet clangs of the bell. But separation is the best way to be noticed, and a small cluster forms around me. I keep my head in my book and consider triangles.
“What’s with the shoes, Molanphy?”
Emilio, no surprise, throws the first stone. Most of my fear, like all really effective fear, is self-imposed. The majority of Mexican-American kids invite me to their birthday parties where I get to thrash piñatas, or ask me to play soccer where I discovered my large feet had a gift for clobbering the ball. My fear was based on looking different and that someone, somewhere, might not like that. And Emilio, hunchbacked and glowering, the taint of a dark moustache already creeping across the top of his second-grade lip, became that someone.
“Hey Daniel, come check out Molanphy’s shoes!”
Emilio opens with a big move. If he can get Daniel against me—tall, generous, affable Daniel Esteves—I might not just lose today’s battle but the whole war. I peek over my book. My shoes have grown three sizes and suck up so much Texas sun my only reasonable hope is their explosion. Settling around my planetary loafers is a growing ring of normal shoes, sucked into the terrible orbit of my odd feet.
“What’s with the shoes, Molanphy?”
Like any mortal, I have to look up at the sound of Daniel’s voice. Other than Paul’s, there is no charm for me like Daniel’s. Daniel is a fourth grader who the seventh-grade girls adore, and the eighth-grade boys don’t even mind him for it. He isn’t embarrassed to have lunch with second graders, even gringo second graders. He’s good with teachers, but that doesn’t stop him from starting trouble, which even the teachers enjoy when it comes from Daniel. Maybe his kindness and confidence came from his lean but strong body, a body you could tell he would fill out just right for the rest of his life.
I savor the end of Daniel’s approach, the gliding way he walks, just slightly up on the balls of his feet, something between masculine and feminine but all grace. Dozens of us try to mimic this effortless walk on the school playground and end up looking like newborn storks on stilts. Daniel smiles at me, his dark, stringy hair coolly flopped over his right eye, as always. His gray eyes are neutral with a slight sparkle of generosity, but I hear in his voice that he needs a response. Quite a crowd had gathered, and even the coolest of the cool can lose face.
I close my book and regard Paul’s shoes nonchalantly, like someone else tied them to me. They are clownish in color and size, but my feet feel pinched and sweat so badly they itch. I spot Paul at the far end of the parking lot, telling a story excitedly with his arms to a small group of rapt students. He’s the ace-up-my-sleeve; I could panic and bolt across the schoolyard, screaming and sobbing, and Paul would find and protect me, no matter what. Paul had fought longer and harder at Holy Trinity to sculpt out a place for himself, but he’d throw it all away for family without thinking twice. That was Paul.
But I love Paul back, and I won’t bother him. I decide to take whatever abuse is necessary, secretly hoping that if it comes to a “swirly” in the boy’s toilet that it’s not the fearful, legendary “chocolate swirly” that’s whispered about (but never actually witnessed).
I look up to face the inevitable and find Gina Sanchez’s braces, glinting like the Holy Grail. The braces come fitted with a monstrous headset that pins her side ponytails back, highlighting her long angular nose and popping her sleepy brown eyes into wide-eyed bulbs. She’s so equine she might whinny. But no one makes fun of her because Sr. Mary Angela, the head nun who limps with a cane, has one cardinal rule: never bully the sick or impaired.
Gina, gawking at me with the rest of the crowd and about to paw a hoof impatiently, inspires me.
“They’re medicinal,” I offer. I use a big word half-correctly, a dumb habit that would enable me to skip third grade and land in fourth, where I flounder because I barely know my multiplication tables and haven’t even heard of “cursive” writing.
“What?” Daniel asks, for the crowd.
I continue in some detail about how my feet are slowly turning in on one another, mainly because of their “grotesque” size. The shoes would “streamline my bones” and keep them pointed forward instead of inward. I demonstrate how my feet might end up without my special shoes by slipping them off and walking in my socks, my feet wrenched awkwardly towards each other. A few kids laugh, but most are silent, because we all see that Daniel is buying it. I get more and more enthused about the disease (“footacitis,” from the root, “foot”), and about how my brothers are also afflicted (but didn’t like talking about it), as well as my deepest fear of footacitis’s effect on my soccer game (everyone knew I could play defense, so there’s an audible gasp from the crowd).
Sister has to ring the bell twice our way to shut me up and freeze us before lineup. Paul’s shoes become my first chance at storytelling, and I love it. Even though my Mom offers me a new pair of shoes at the end of the month, I wear Paul’s shoes, pinching and painful but with pleasure, for the rest of the year.