I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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It is summer. I sit on the balcony and paint my toenails magenta. Last year, I painted them cerise, Peter’s favorite color. The year before, my toes bloomed baby pink in honor of Angela, my daughter. Angela now has her own baby pink child, fresh and demanding. She lives as I do, in a small apartment with crowded walls.
This summer I choose my own color. This summer I walk barefoot and let go of shame. This summer I look at men not as if they wait to wrap me in tender smiles, cushion me with loving hands, then leave only their footprints behind. Instead I look into their eyes like they are the friends I have searched for.
It is summer and I sit on the balcony and paint my toenails magenta. Too many people have left my apartment and the scars are everywhere. My ex-husband Ivan’s buffalo carving, given to him by a grateful Indian he taught to read. Angela’s high-school prom dress, hanging like a confused orphan in the back of my closet. Peter’s I’M NOBODY’S BABY apron sweating spaghetti stains in the broom closet.
In the end, everybody is somebody’s baby.
I began painting my toenails as a girl, living in my grandfather’s house. The house was stern, with asthmatic breath and stale rooms. My grandfather didn’t like the color of noise. To pinch myself into life, to splash my heart into beating, I colored my toenails. I spent the money I earned baby-sitting on bright crystalline bottles that I hid under my bed. Evening Primrose, Georgia Frost, Lemon Balm, Lilac Lovelies were my symphonies. Sometimes I painted each toe a different color. I hid my splendid feet under the sensible shoes my grandfather purchased wholesale from his brother-in-law.
Later, my father brought a wife and came to reclaim me. I painted my toes clear and wore sandals. But the wife took everything my father tried to give me — his attention, his apologies, his good-night kiss. I painted my toenails blue and put on woolen socks.
Ivan was the first person to actually notice my feet. I was sitting barefoot in the park, reading The Idiot when he stumbled over me, trying to catch a frisbee. He saw my emerald green toenails, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and introduced himself. He searched my hands for splashes of color, but they were empty, plain. He should have noticed my reticence, my quiet hands. But he was hooked by my toes.
After we married I painted my toes the color of Ivan’s dreams: Papaya Passion, Mango Peach, delicious sucking colors of lovers. When Angela was born, I painted lavender stars and rose blossoms on my toes. Later Ivan turned inward. Ivan, that steel instrument, that curled fruit of passion, went away. He stole everything from me and left all his possessions behind. That summer, my toenails were plain as the empty inside of a brown paper bag.
Angela grew up and looked for a boy as aloof and cruel as her father. He was easy to find. She made him love her, she unfurled like a moldy flag in his eager arms. Then she got pregnant and ran away with yet another boy, this one softer but still incapable of love. She moved away so she could raise her baby without me.
No man can hurt you as badly as your own daughter, although they keep trying.
That is why I didn’t guard myself against Peter. I was too sad about Angela, too raw, too needy to see that Peter would clutch harder and deeper than any of them, even though his eyes melted sad and his mouth was the shape of a teardrop.
When I met Peter, I was ready to slip out of my dark shoes and into the arms of a man who knew how to cry. Tears dotted his cheeks when we made love and I licked them gently off his face. Peter felt everything. With him, I quivered into colors of Bruised Lilac and Melting Magnolia.
That was before he left.
Left is “felt” spelled another way.
It is summer and I stroke the polish like a tender tongue across my toes. On the street below, a basketball hoop on a light pole beckons a crowd of boys.
This summer I choose my own color. Magenta, the color of lost romance. Magenta, a lonely woman walking against a brilliant sunset.
I move from the balcony onto the unmade bed. The extra pillow cries for the sleepy head of another. I lie down and stare at my toes as they dry. The ovals of color delight me. They hint of secrets and desire, they beckon with new dreams. They remind me it is summer.