Story no. 13.
Except for the laces, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed that I had just put the wrong shoes on my feet. The black tennis shoes I had taken off had pink laces and the black tennis shoes I put back on had yellow ones. When I held the shoe right up against my face, I realized that these also had smooth, pleather-y bits on the heels and toes, whereas mine were made of netting.
I might have shrugged and put it down to fate, but when I wiggled my toes I realized that these were also too narrow.
The reason I had taken mine off in the first place was that Venice was in an advanced state of flooding and I didn’t want to take a water bus to get to the dock for Torcello. Getting lost is part of the charm, or something like that, but I hadn’t really expected water up to my knees everywhere north of the Grand Canal.
I am not very particular about most things – I cut and dye my hair myself, which most people notice – but I don’t like mold in my shoes. I had taken them off and set them in an alcove above eye level, meaning to come back for them when I got done visiting the churches on Torcello.
First off, I got on the wrong boat, so I ended up going to the cemetery island first. This was my fourth or fifth time in Venice, and up until this point I had avoided visiting the Isola San Michele. Gravestones are not very exciting. I tried to work out what percentage of stones had someone who had died of the Black Plague underneath them while I waited for the boat to pick me up again.
Torcello is always my favorite place to visit in Venice, not least because of the cat lady who lives on the path between the dock and the cathedral. Last time I had counted seven cats; this time there were fifteen. My other favorite thing is to walk around the cathedral staring down. A bunch of neurotic Italians had pieced together the floor from hundreds of tiny tiles at some point in the distant past, now smoothed over by hundreds of years of feet pounding across them. They felt gorgeous on the soles of my feet, like they were being carried along on a wave made of garden gnome fists. I traced the fossilized anemone in the stone to the left of the altar with my big toe.
The water bus didn’t deposit me back on the big island until well after dark, probably around ten. My cell phone had disappeared somewhere in Tuscany and I don’t believe in watches, mainly because I had an allergic reaction to a watch I bought in the fourth grade which turned into a whole cascade of pus-filled boils.
I would have been less surprised if my shoes had just disappeared. But I went back to the same alcove I left them in (the trattoria across the street had a carved bear head in the window with a red tongue shaped like a torpedo protruding from its mouth and bulging eyes) and voila, there sat a pair of shoes. Just not my shoes.
The concierge at my hotel drew his very substantial eyebrows very low over his very substantial eyes when I walked in holding the shoes that weren’t mine in my left hand. “Room twenty-one, please.”
“Signora, why aren’t you wearing your shoes?” he said severely, handing me the key he took off the rack behind him.
“These aren’t my shoes,” I told him, and walked up the staircase to my room.
My problem was that I hadn’t brought any other shoes. Moreover, my suitcase had given up the ghost in Athens, and my handbag had bitten it in Istanbul, so I was down to a wallet and the inside of my bra.
The next day I tied the laces of the false pair together and hung them over my shoulder. Black tennis shoes with pink laces are not so memorable, but my partially-shaved head (I had been going for an undercut, but the razor slipped and I ended up with something more like a deconstructed mohawk) and pink hair are, rather. Perhaps the store owners would have noticed me trotting down the street.
A burly man with a wreath of black curls wrapping his shiny skull was wiping off glasses behind the counter in the bear-head trattoria. He looked up when the bell attached to the door chimed.
“Closed, Signora,” he said severely, making an X over his chest with his forearms.
“I don’t want food,” I said. “I wanted to know if you’d seen anyone walk by with black tennis shoes yesterday. Anyone besides me, of course.”
“Che?” he said.
“Black shoes with pink laces? Scarpe nere con i lacci rosa?”
“Signora, please leave,” he said, emerging from behind the counter with a broom in his hands.
I had been picked up by the proprietor of an establishment and deposited on the street before, but I had never been swept out of a restaurant. The trattoria owner stood by the door with his broom raised to make sure that I took the hint.
Nonplussed, I continued to the first wide street that the tiny lane intersected. An African gentleman standing behind a tablecloth spread on the flagstones with an arrangement of a dozen purses was the only individual near this junction. I vaguely recognized the lightning bolt outlined in red piping on the back of his leather jacket.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said. “Were you selling purses on this street yesterday?”
The African gentleman didn’t remember, but he thought I would probably like the neon orange crocodile-skin clutch near his left foot. It would bring out the tangerine highlights in my hair, he explained.
His case for the clutch was compelling, but the two hundred euro he wanted for it was less so. “I think my budget can only handle about seventy at the moment,” I said. “But moreover, I don’t think I’d ever carry a purse at all without having shoes to go with it. Have you seen anyone trotting about with a pair rather like the ones I’ve got here – but with pink laces? And these bits are net, too. I seem to have misplaced them.”
He thought for a minute. “Madam, I don’t think so. But I have a friend selling lovely shoes just on the other side of the Grand Canal.”
“All right. I’ll tell him you sent me. What’s his name? What’s your name?”
The friend I should ask about the lovely shoes was Leonard, and the gentleman who was recommending that I do so was named Adam (though he warned me that I should tell Leonard that it was Adam from Lagos, not Adam from Port Harcout, who had given me his name. Adam from Port Harcourt had once put birdseed in Leonard’s shoes, provoking the pigeons to cover his goods in shit.) Might he persuade me to take the crocodile clutch along with me, if he lowered the price to a mere hundred and thirty euro?
I continued on the search for my shoes with the orange purse under my right arm and the yellow-laced trainers over my left shoulder.
Two hundred meters away I turned a corner into another narrow street. A stooped back covered in black fabric appeared out of a shadowy doorway and started away toward the luminous plaza visible in the slit between two huddled apartment buildings.
“Signora!” I called at the shambling figure. “Perdoname!” Maybe that was Spanish, but the old woman was already spinning on the axis of one orthopedic shoe’s heel. Her left eye, a featureless white marble, remained still, while the other rolled wildly. A black veil covered her hair.
“Lei parla inglese?” I asked timidly.
This provoked a violent outburst of Italian, so I surmised that the answer was no. I tried again. “Hai visto un paio di scarpe nere con i lacci rosa?” I make no claims about the grammaticality of my Italian, but I had had good luck inspiring pity with my attempts.
Her seeing eye rolled more ferociously. “Signorina,” she breathed.
In the next waterfall of Romantic eloquence, I caught the words “fortuna,” which means “fortune;” “misterioso,” which means “mysterious;” “estraneo,” which means “stranger;” and “cetriolo,” which means “cucumber.” She was either offering to tell my fortune or make me a salad, and as I was amenable to either option, I followed her back into the shadowy doorway.
Her apartment was on the ground floor. Everything had been lifted at least six inches above the terracotta tiles on milk crates, wooden palettes, and bricks. “L’acqua,” she muttered. “Sempre l’acqua.” The rugs squished slightly as I walked over them.
She gestured at the little table in the center of the room and barked an order. I assumed she wanted me to take a seat, so I perched on the edge of an unoccupied milk crate. The woman retreated behind a curtain at the far edge of the room, before reemerging holding a pack of tarot cards. She dealt five cards on the table, and I saw that about half of them were actually playing cards, photos, and lottery tickets. The old woman didn’t like those cards, so she muttered, shuffled, and dealt again.
I recognized the Fool (unsurprising,) four of cups (what?), a lotto ticket with a picture of a speedboat on it, and the ace of spades. Most surprising, though, was half an ad for wingtip shoes from an American mail-order catalog.
“Signorina,” the old woman heaved out in a portentous tone. A stranger wearing these shoes, she explained, would change my life.
“Good to know,” I said. “Buono a saper. Ma, le mie scarpe? Con i lacci rosa? Can you see where they are?”
The old woman shrugged expressively and asked if I wanted a coffee.
I had seen a cockroach crawl out of the coffee tin while she was dealing the cards, so I demurred and excused myself.
It occurred to me that Leonard with the lovely shoes might actually have some that would fit me better than the rotten yellow-laced pair, even if he was unlikely to know where my original shoes had gotten to. I started in the direction of the Grand Canal.
I found Leonard in the Campo San Polo. He had knockoff Louboutins, Valentino, Gucci, but no tennis shoes that I could see. I wasn’t the only one looking; a young Indian couple stood in front of his display and argued.
The woman was shorter and rounder than me, with a turquoise bindi and a red paisley scarf wrapped around her pink t-shirt. “But, Ganesh, they’re lovely shoes!” she said.
“I can’t walk in those shoes, Priya,” the man said. He was about an inch taller than her and his hair stuck out in harried tufts around his ears. “How would you like it if I gave you a pair of shoes like that – “ he pointed to a pair of green platforms with five-inch heels “ – to walk around Venice in? It’s absurd!”
“But your sandals are falling apart.”
“I’d rather go barefoot.”
“Italian leather is renowned the world over,” she said. “Besides, don’t you want to fit in?”
“Darling, I don’t think anyone is going to mistake us for Italians,” the man said tiredly.
“I wouldn’t say that,” I said. “My friend Kapil was always having to convince various elderly women in Florence that he couldn’t speak Italian.”
They both looked blankly at me.
“Have you got any tennis shoes? Pumas or something? Adam from Lagos said you might,” I asked Leonard.
“These are knockoffs,” the young Indian man said to me. “Not very good ones, either.”
“I know. But I’ve lost my shoes and I need a new pair.”
“How did you lose your shoes?” Priya asked.
“Flooding. Torcello. Trattoria with a bear head. Crocodile skin. Cucumber.”
The expression she turned on me verged on terror, and she took Ganesh’s hand and pulled him very quickly away.
I had only just returned to perusing Leonard’s wares when an urgent hand shook my shoulder. “Forgive me,” said Ganesh, panting slightly. “I left Priya buying gelatos. I can’t help but notice you have rather large feet, madam.”
I looked down. I supposed I did. “I suppose I do.”
“Do you know what size they are?”
“Tens,” I said. “American.”
Ganesh fished a pair of pointy two-tone wingtip shoes out of his messenger bag. The toes and heels were done in tan leather with lacy cutouts around the seams, while the bodies were a deep red. “So about an eight in men’s, would you say?”
“I would,” I said.
“Why aren’t you wearing those shoes?” he asked me, pointing to the pair over my shoulder.
“They don’t fit. Whoever took mine left these in their place.”
“Give those to me, and try these on.”
The shoe exchange was effected quickly and over the sounds of Leonard complaining bitterly that if we weren’t going to buy anything why did we have to stand in front of his shop and keep other people from buying?
I wiggled my toes. My toe knuckles did not rub. Ganesh put his raggedy sandals inside his messenger bag and jumped up and down a couple times in the black tennis shoes with yellow laces.
“Thanks so much! Arrivederci!” he yelled over his shoulder as he ran back to the gelato counter.
That’s why I’m wearing wingtip shoes to the beach, and I don’t want to hear another word about it, okay?