I shoved my socked feet into Adidas All Stars, white with black stripes. I loved their width around my high arches, loved their dense rubber soles and their rounded, reinforced toe boxes. I always wanted as much distance as possible between my feet and the rest of the world, with all its scorching cement and knobby pebbles and bristling grass.
On the way out the door, I presented my dangling laces to my mother. She didn’t know I’d stayed up late teaching myself how to tie them. “Tell me when,” she instructed, crouching over my right foot and taking a lace in each hand. I nodded, and she pulled. Her eyes darted from my feet to my face and I stared back at her, unflinching. She looked down, kept pulling.
“It’s really tight, sweetie. That’s enough.” She made quick, cheerful loops that looked like butterfly wings and stood up. I blew out my breath in frustration, my bangs fluttering. Even the sensation of my feet sliding along the slippery fault line of my insoles would give me vertigo, my stomach turning as my body prepared to fall. I wanted to be held so tightly not even a pinky toe might sneak out of place.
Lee’s dad took me and my sister to school in his dark green minivan, which had automatic doors we were not supposed to touch and gray fabric seats that smelled like warm wax. No one ever said a word on the way to school. Lee’s dad didn’t play music, and he drove with both hands on the wheel. Lee sat in the front and we sat in the captain’s chairs in the back. It was like we all pretended not to know each other, even me and my sister. If I had to cough I held it in, letting the pressure build in my ribcage and shove its way up my throat. Then I would wrap my arms around my chest and squeeze the sensation back down.
The night before, I sat up in bed after my mother closed the door behind her. I pulled the book from its hiding place under my pillow. The streetlamps sent stripes of white light through the blinds, enough for me to see the illustrations: a cartoon crow teaching his rabbit friend how to tie his shoes. The book came with practice shoelaces that I used to form haphazard bunny ears, squinting and looping and knotting until I made something that held. It didn’t look like the diagrams or my mother’s bows, but it held.
I leaned forward in the car, the seatbelt pinching my stomach as I folded over my legs. I unraveled my mother’s tidy bows and pulled the laces tighter— tighter, tighter until they were pressing the white leather hard against bone. I made ugly loops and knotted them into lumpy masses. I flexed my toes and felt immediate, satisfying resistance. Pleased, I sat back in my chair and watched all the other strangers going places that morning, abstract busts framed by car windows.
In computer class, we had one minute to type as many words as possible. The winner would get to play whatever computer game they wanted. My legs dangled from the swivel chair and I let my fingers go free, make whatever words they could, skipping in verbs— runs, flies, sings. My feet throbbed, but pride kept me focused. I could type this many words, so fast, even with the constraint, even with the pain. I was working so much harder than everyone else.
Lee’s dad was in the pickup line at three sharp. I followed my sister into the car and the keychains on my backpack rang like alarms, the “Don’t Mess with Texas” star and the beaded alligator from the California Science Center banging against each other. Lee’s dad glanced over his shoulder. I quieted my keychains and smoothed my khaki skort and pulled out my copy of Tonight on the Titanic. He turned back to the road.
I didn’t read. I still hadn’t loosened my shoelaces. I’d been challenging myself to keep them tight for another hour, just a little longer, the day was almost over. My feet pulsed with each car we passed on the Pacific Coast Highway, beat along with the rhythm of the minivan’s tires against the asphalt. I stared at the back of Lee’s dad’s head, at the pink of his scalp visible through fine, short hair, at the tiny beads of sweat between follicles. I contemplated the dots of people far out on Santa Monica Beach, all those bare feet in hot sand. I couldn’t take my shoes off in that car, no matter how bad I might’ve wanted to. I was so close.
At home, I closed my bedroom door and sat on the floor. I picked at the twisted knots I’d made, somehow wound tighter during the day and coated in a new layer of blacktop grime. Untangling one, I pulled the laces’ plastic-coated tips in opposite directions. The dirty bunny ears disappeared as if into a magician’s hat. I repeated the trick on the other shoe and yanked the tongues up, freed my feet heels-first. My socks clung to my skin like stubborn scabs as I peeled them off. Underneath were deep indentations, purple-red marks where the laces had bit in.
I ran my fingernails over the tender skin and rubbed those little bones on the tops of my feet. Every touch burned like an ecstatic fire, as though this was not my skin but some other molten viscera that wasn’t meant to be exposed. I rubbed and winced and scratched and groaned, reverberating with the pain and pleasure of restraint and release, the reward of waiting all day to unlace my shoes, of withstanding something— a tiny but perfect act of self-control.
Aleina Grace Edwards is a writer from Los Angeles. She’s currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Nevada Reno-Tahoe, and lives in Reno alongside a herd of wild horses. Her work is forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, The McNeese Review, Farside Review, and other publications. Find her online @aleina__grace.