It's a hot August night in 2010. My girlfriend and I are celebrating our second anniversary in Provincetown, a gay enclave in Cape Cod. I'm in an idyllic place with a girl I'm crazy about, yet anxiety gnaws at me. If I want to take our relationship to the next level of intimacy, I must show Sabrina my feet.
It may seem laughable, but I've managed to keep my feet in shoes or socks the entire time we've been together. I wear Crocs when we shower together and socks every time we have sex, and avoid open-toed shoes — even in the midst of sweltering heat waves. Sabrina's feet — adorably dainty size 7s — heighten my anxiety. The thought of intertwining them with mine makes me feel like a well-cast brute in some lesbian version of Beauty and the Beast. Luckily, she possesses saintly levels of empathy — whenever we're alone, she actually dons Crocs and socks with me. But before our trip, she confessed how hurt she was that I still didn't feel safe enough to share my imperfections. And for the first time in my fraught history with my feet, I was considering voluntary exposure.
Until about age 3, my feet were actually pretty cute. But soon after, they started to grow (and grow). My long thin toes bear a striking resemblance to E.T.'s knobby fingers. The big ones look like a thick man's thumbs and crash into the others at a contorted angle, thanks to bunions.
In sunny Southern California, flip-flops were the sartorial status quo I adhered to until family members began insulting my feet. My mom, a mouthy Greek, lamented, "You didn't get those from me!" Even my late grandfather, an elegant man from Buenos Aires, who always seemed several notches above the rest of us in gentility, couldn't resist a foot jab. He advised me to take up aquatic sports, referencing my ever-burgeoning flippers.
By the time puberty hit, I had put my heinous hoofs into hiding. As hard as I tried to avoid all shoe- and sock-less social situations (e.g., swimming), sometimes it was impossible. Like when my high school friend Ashley, who harbored a perverse curiosity about my feet, tackled me to the ground on my front lawn and pulled off my shoes and socks, screaming: "Alien feet! Alien feet!" (It was hard to argue with this cruel assessment; miraculously, we're still good friends 20 years later.) Or when my mom insisted I get a pedicure for a family friend's wedding. It improved things, but not enough to make up for the extreme vulnerability that came with putting my ugliest feature in the hands of a girl far more feminine than me.
It wasn't until the hairy-armpitted spell of college freshman-year feminism that I freed them. As an undergrad, I went through an everything-about-me-is-beautiful phase and lived in neon-pink flip-flops. I showcased my freaky feet with subversive pride for a year and a half, until Amy, the grad student I was crushing on at the time, noticed them (rather than me), with a face of panic and revulsion. To avoid future romantic roadblocks, I sequestered my feet in shoes or socks 24/7 once again.
So why haven't I gotten a foot-job already? Aside from the fact that I'm terrified of the surgery — they'd have to saw off my bunions and lop off some bones in my toes — I can't bear the thought of months on crutches. Plus, I depend on my regular workouts to exhaust my naturally high-octane energy. I'll lose it if I'm sedentary for too long.
Back at the Cape cottage, these thoughts cripple me as I attempt to relax when Sabrina nips out to buy a bottle of wine. In a last-ditch improvement effort, I douse my feet in lotion, just as the front door swings open.
"Let's sit on the porch," chirps Sabrina. "The sunset's amazing." I pour wine generously in hopes of impairing her vision. When she steps inside for a refill, I kick off my Crocs and clench my teeth.
"Wow," she says. "Your feet."
"Is the 'wow' a compliment?" I joke.
"I love them!" she squeals. "I love them because they're your feet. If you had a third ear, I'd love it because it'd be yours."
Did she really just compare my feet to a third ear? I know that she means she loves me, despite my flaws. For the first time ever, we have sex without socks.
I've made (small) strides since then: I've committed to DIY pedicures. I no longer sport Crocs in the shower or socks in the sack — nor does Sabrina. And while I haven't mustered up the confidence to traipse through the streets in sandals just yet, I am thinking about buying a pair. Baby steps.