When Bee was about four, she went on a lipstick kick. Out of nowhere, she decided she just had to wear lipstick all the time. I was not happy, so I lay down the law. You are four years old, I told her. You don't get to wear lipstick. Not ever. But she pressed, and I amended the law. You are four years old, I said. You don't get to wear lipstick out of the house. Not ever. So she wore it at home. Every day. My pinks and mauves weren't good enough. She wanted red. Forget it, I told her. You'll look like a hussy. A what? Never mind. You're four. Even I don't wear red lipstick. But Maaaah-maa! No, Bee. I said no. But I wanted to compromise, so I got her blue. I got her purple. I got her hot pink. And she wore them all. She practiced putting it on in the mirror, sometimes looking more like Robert Smith, other times looking more like a drag performer. She pressed more, so I amended the law again. You're four! You don't get to wear lipstick at school. Not ever. So she wore it at the playground. At Nana's house. To Whole Foods. To ride her bike. Sephora became her favorite store in the city. She demanded special Mama-Bee outings to play with the testers. On vacation in Provincetown, she discovered a cute makeup store I'd walked past a hundred times and she pulled me in. It was an adorable little boutique where they doted on her and found her endlessly entertaining. They taught her the difference between matte and glossy, between lip stain and lipstick. They taught her how to put actual glitter on her lips -- blue over blue lipstick, pink over pink. "I look like Hedwig!" she exclaimed in the mirror, much to the shop owner's delight. But that was not enough. Still she wanted red and still I would not let her have it. For a year, maybe more, she begged. And begged. I learned a great trick. Look at my face, I'd say. Look at me. Do I look like I'm going to change my mind? But Maaaaah-maaa! she'd start. Do I? I'd ask. Do I? She gave up and I was proud. I had read somewhere that giving in after they beg and beg and beg just shows them that begging works. Well, not on this mom!
She was quiet after that. For a while, no one talked about lipstick at all. And then on a whim, I bought both girls a new lipstick. A red lipstick. I don't know why I did that. Maybe it's because Bee wore me down. Maybe it's because I wanted to surprise her and make her really happy. Maybe it's because I found them in the local drugstore, vegan and on sale and really cheap. Maybe all three. But I did and she was so excited that she jumped up and down and threw her arms around me and squealed "I love you Mama! Oh, you're the best Mama in the whole world!" She made me get out my label maker and label hers with her name so her sister wouldn't take it by accident. She designated a safe space for it to live where she could reach it by herself. Rae copied her and painted a messy red Joker gash across her own mouth and teeth. For days they both wore it constantly. Then Rae forgot about it and then Bee forgot about it. I forgot about it too. Months later, when we packed to move, I found the one labeled B-E-E hidden in the back corner of a shelf in the bathroom. I tossed it into a box just in case she remembered it and had heart failure that she couldn't find it. So it came with us to our new state, but she never asked for it. In fact, the obsession with lipstick, lip gloss and even lip balm ended with that red lipstick. I eventually threw it out.
Why I didn't remember this last year when she began to obsess similarly about shoes, I don't know. She begged for high heels. When you're twenty, I smirked. She shrieked. No! Not twenty! She paused. Ten, she negotiated. Seventeen, I offered. We settled on fifteen. But Mama, she said thoughtfully. That's ten years away! I want high heels now. No. I said. I tried my old standby. Look at me, I said. Read my face. Do I look like I'm going to change my mind? She had her answer ready. But Maaaah-maaa!
I relented a little. First I offered her my own shoes, high up in the closet, lonely and unworn. She blinked. I can wear your shoes? she repeated in disbelief. Go for it, kiddo, I smiled. And she did. Clomp, clomp, clomp. Clompclompclomp. Enough with the shoes! yelled Johnny, annoyed with all the noise. And the shoes went away for a day, maybe two. But the next time Bee put them on, her sister noticed and wanted them too. Little Rae, unable to walk, thought it would be fun to wear them on her hands as she crawled around the apartment. Two seconds later: Bonk. Followed by howls. She'd tripped -- while crawling -- and hurt her chin. That was the end of that. It's not safe! I screamed.
The shoe fetish went on for a year. Maybe more. And honestly, it just didn't seem worth the fight, but I also didn't feel like I could back down.
Clearly, neither did she. She tried every workaround she could think of. Take the rain boots, for example. They were hand-me-down Wellies, two sizes too big, plain black and worn. She wore them day and night, until they gave her blisters. Why are you wearing those clunky old things? I asked her a million times. It's not even raining! Because I like them, she insisted. I couldn't figure out why. Why do you like them so much? I asked her again. Finally, she filled me in. They have a heel! They do? I asked, incredulously. I picked one up and turned it over. Technically, she was right. The heel was about a third of an inch higher than the toes. But the blister got the better of her and one day she asked me casually if I could help her find her tap shoes and I fell for it. She was taking dance classes, after all. But when I came home from work a day or two later, I opened a drawer to change into a pair of sweats and the tap shoes came tumbling out amidst yoga pants and running tights. Those fucking tap shoes, Johnny explained apologetically. I couldn’t stand it another second. I had to hide them. We watched The Wizard of Oz, and for weeks afterwards she reminded me constantly of how jealous she was of Dorothy and how she really wanted red heels like hers and how other moms are nice and let their daughters wear heels like those whenever they want.
And on and on and on. Until one day I agreed to buy her a pair of flats that had the tiniest heel ever. The tiniest. These shoes were cheap and awful but they had cats on them and they were silver glitter and she loved them. The rule was that she could only wear them at home. Which she did -- night and day -- until the day she brought them over to a friend's house when she packed a dress up bag. She not-so-accidentally wore them home, which suddenly made them outside shoes, which meant she couldn't wear them in the apartment anymore even though I still wouldn't allow her to wear them out, which meant we were now fighting about shoes again.
On playdates, she tried on other girls' party shoes. Their boots. Their dress up slippers, princess shoes, sandals, whatever. Once, a mom took pity on her and sent her home with a pair her daughter no longer wore. I was enraged at the time, feeling somewhat self-righteously that my parenting decisions were being disrespected and overridden by a parent who was raising her own little JonBenet Ramsey. I was so ungrateful that I neither thanked her for her well-intentioned gift nor told her how I really felt, opting for the far less mature, far more passive-aggressive option of taking the shoes away from my kid and complaining incessantly about that mom. All that did was essentially kill that friendship and kick up my kid's shoe obsession into an even higher gear than it already was. Until, amazingly, perplexingly, she stopped begging for heels.
Summer must have had something to do with that because it came with sparkly flip-flops and light-up Croc sandals and even a hand-me-down pair of lacey Tom's slip-ons. It came with new Twinkle Toes and a pair of flats that she was allowed to wear out of the house. They too had cats on them but they were less flimsy than their predecessors and they were totally flat. With all of these to choose from every day, she stopped talking about high heels for a while. I thought she'd forgotten, or that maybe she'd gotten over that phase. Silly me.
A few weeks ago at a new friend's house, she discovered a forgotten pair of Cinderella slippers, plastic and two sizes too small. She stuffed her feet in anyway and made me think both of Chinese foot binding and of Cinderella's stepsisters, whose desperation to wed the prince matched my daughter's desperation for a pair of shoes with a heel. At someone else's house, she slipped off her shoes and slid on a pair of boots she found by the door. They zipped up her calf with a half-inch heel. They were cheaply made, in a color she didn't even like, with gold chain trim. All the same, she whined and begged and implored me to buy the same ones in front of that other kid, in front of that other kid's mother and at every opportunity for days and days after that play date.
Watching her beg me for a pair of beat up old boots reminded me of something I did when I was her age. When I was little, we regularly visited my grandparents in Florida. They lived in a senior complex and it felt like everyone there was ancient except me. There were almost never any kids around and I was bored out of my mind waiting for the grownups to get ready to go to the pool or to decide to do something fun. I was desperate for other kids who might also be visiting, but even when I found them, they often had siblings or cousins with them; they didn't have time for me. When I was six, a baby showed up at the pool one day. Her name was Lexie. Her parents were visiting someone too. I loved babies and I loved Lexie and I loved that her mother -- young and pretty and tired -- didn't mind me playing with her. She seemed to like the company. I attached myself to Lexie and her mom and hoped that my family wouldn't notice. I'm Lexie's mother's helper, I explained to them importantly. It's a job.
One afternoon I helped Lexie's mom carry all the baby stuff from the pool area back up to their apartment. I really liked pushing the stroller; I remember wondering if people who saw me would think I was the baby's mother, or maybe her sister. Up at their apartment, her mother asked me if I would like to stay for dinner. Of course I wanted to. I didn't care what they were having. I wanted to stay for dinner. I wanted to stay forever. I wanted Lexie's mom to tell me how much she needed me to help her, how she wanted to keep me, take me back to New Jersey or wherever she was from and be my mom too and then I would be happy and have a baby sister and a family who loved me and maybe even liked me too. So I crossed my fingers and my toes and my arms and my legs and my tongue and I dialed my grandmother’s number. Pleasepleasepleaseplease I whispered under my breath as I waited for someone to pick up. I heard my Nana's voice and relaxed a little, because Nana always said yes to everything. But this time, she hesitated. Let's see what your mother says. Lor, she called. It’s Aimela. She covered the receiver with a hand and I heard muffled conversation before some fumbling and then my mother. What are they having? she demanded. I wasn't sure. My mother wants to know what you're having. We're having liver, said Lexie's mom sweetly and my heart sank. Liver! I hated liver and I refused to eat it whenever my mother made it. I knew I was sunk. Liver, I whispered into the phone. But Mom! I begged. I don't care. I'll eat it! I want to stay! Aimee, she said. No. Don't be silly. Say goodbye and come downstairs. You'll see them again tomorrow.
I cried. I begged. I whimpered. But I had to leave and underneath it all, I was angry. Part of me had been hoping that this family would adopt me. They had seemed so perfect. Why would they invite me to eat something like that? Now I had to go home to my own lame family where no one loved me or ever bought me anything or thought I was interesting or important.
So when Bee was in tears in someone else's kitchen begging me for high heels, I remembered Lexie. Nearly forty years after volunteering to eat something like liver just to get a little attention from someone else's mother, I felt that same desperation from my own daughter, clad in someone else's too-small shoes, willing to sacrifice her own comfort to feel like she belonged. And I realized that this was just like the red lipstick that she wore twice and forgot about. Maybe I'd been saying no to my daughter because I hate all that femmy stuff on me, because I hate makeup and high heels, because I don't know how to wear red lipstick and look like anything other than a clown, because fancy shoes hurt my 43-year-old feet that have fallen arches and bunions, because I hate the feeling of lipstick on my mouth and how it comes off on my daughters' cheeks and on my coffee mug, because I hate my thick legs and how they look in very girly shoes, because Johnny wishes I'd wear lipstick and heels when I'm really more comfortable wearing lip balm and boots, because it's hard for me to be raising a child so unlike me.
So I decided I would get her a pair of heels for Christmas: a pair of little-girl Dorothy shoes; ruby-red sequined Mary Janes with a one-inch heel. And now that she's walking much better, I got a pair of those for little Rae as well. They can both clomp around in them in the house to their hearts' content on Christmas Day and then with any luck, after a few days, they'll forget about them.
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