Although I knew that no one was home, I took great care to open my parents’ closet door as silently as I could, as if they could hear me—sense my trespass—miles away. My mother’s clothes took up the majority of the closet. Daddy’s clothes were pushed off to the far right, boring in their ordinariness, dull in comparison to the bright colors and profusion of fabrics and patterns and styles of Mama’s clothes.
Do the clothes fit the man, or does the man fit the clothes? Like his work pants and shirts and his one suit for church, all in shades of brown, gray, and black, Daddy seemed solid. Earthy. He worked with his hands as a contractor, and he smelled like sawdust and sweat. Earthy smells, earthy clothes.
But Mama. She was exotic; bright and colorful. Quick to laugh, but she could be short-tempered, too. If either of them found me in here, there would be trouble.
I ran my hands over Mama’s dresses, feeling the satins run through my fingers like water, noticing the abundance of colors, especially shades of green, her favorite, setting off the dullness of Daddy’s earth tones. The beads on her one long gown—emerald green—that she had bought to accompany Mrs. Lemmon, her boss’s mother, to Venezuela, pulsed with a life of their own under my fingertips, speaking to me in a language I didn’t yet understand.
What would it be like to wear such a gown? To sweep down the stairs of a grand hotel and see all eyes turn in awe and adoration? To feel—to be—exotic? It’s not so much that I wanted to be a girl; I just didn’t want to be me. I already feared—I already knew—that I was different, that I didn’t seem to belong in rural North Carolina. My brothers made sure that I was aware of that. The kids at Startown Elementary—and some of the teachers, too—made sure of it. I wanted to escape and be someone—anyone—else.
The dress was too much of a commitment. It was too complicated to figure out. It would take too long to get it out of the closet, off the hanger, onto my ten-year-old body, and back into the closet looking just as it did now. I didn’t know when my parents would be home, or worse, when my brothers would come crashing in. No, the dress would have to wait.
My eyes drifted to the floor of the closet. Boxes and boxes of shoes—Mama loved shoes—lined the floor, three or four boxes high and two deep.
The red ones. The blood red high heels. Where were they? In which Pandora’s Box did they rest, waiting to come out and change my world?
I found them on the third try. They were Mama’s favorites, so they were close at hand.
I turned them over in my hands. There was no time for a dress, but shoes . . . shoes were easy.
I slipped out of my own grass-stained tennis shoes. I left my socks on, as if fearing that if the red high heels touched my skin they might become a part of me and, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, never come off. I slipped the heels onto my feet. Mama had big feet for a woman, and my ten-year-old socked feet fit perfectly.
I was transformed. My curiosity had overcome my fear. I felt different, special and brave, even as I trembled with fear—and excitement.
Like Dorothy’s slippers, the red shoes took me home to a place where I had always belonged. I knew that the dress would follow soon, when there was time.