Ellie imagines she is a princess when she slips her small feet into her mother’s shoes; sometimes, a dancer. Ellie loves her mother’s black heels, too, but mostly likes the red ones near the back of the closet.
A few scuff marks mar the sides of the red heels. Ellie digs the shoes out of her mother’s closet every Thursday after her mother leaves Ellie with the non-English speaking Nanny (because grandma was unavailable) and goes to work. Ellie with her long red hair fanning around her face as she twirls in the red heels imagines many things at eight years old, even when the too-big shoes causes her to trip.
Ellie imagines that they don’t live on the fourth floor of the stone-faced apartment, and Scruffy, the creepy old man, doesn’t block the door with his body because it’s warmer there in the winter. The massive noises from the street are nonexistent and she only hears the sweet music in her head. This place has walls that are worn and door jambs sporting dark smudges. The windows are single-paned and old, and in the winter the breath of snow sends chills along her skin. When she dances in the red heels nothing else matters except her imagination. She could be a queen or a lady in a great mansion with many rooms both fine and breezy.
At least, until the Nanny screams at her from the doorway in words Ellie can’t understand. Ellie slips the shoes off her feet and puts them in the back of her mother’s closet next to the hat box. Her mother keeps books piled on the hat box. All of it disappears behind a row of long dresses—the summer ones. Ellie likes it when her mother wears those dresses, but her mother has never worn the red heels.
The Nanny grasps Ellie’s right arm and pulls her out of her mother’s room, leading her down the hall to Ellie’s narrow bedroom. Ellie plops onto her bed and the Nanny shakes her head, wags her finger, says more words, then shuts the door. The Nanny makes a lot of noise in the kitchen. Ellie hears the pans clanging against each other and the spoon hitting the sides of a pan. She smells chicken. Ellie goes to the narrow window at the end of her room and rests her chin on top of her knuckles. She could be anything in her mother’s shoes, but she wishes those shoes could take her away from here where the police regularly bang on the apartment door next to theirs, and people frequently get led away wearing silver bracelets and looking like their mothers just sent them to timeout. As the light turns gray in the streets, the street lamps flicker on and night comes, Ellie sees her mother get out of a taxi looking weary.
In her mother’s shoes, Ellie could understand in a small way. School made her tired, too.
A little while later, her mother enters her bedroom. She carries the red shoes in her hands. “Mrs. Gonzales says you were trying these on today.”
Ellie looks down at her feet and twists the hem of her shirt around her finger. “Yes.”
“Do you know why I don’t wear these anymore?” Ellie’s mother whispers as she sits down on the bed.
Ellie shakes her head, but peeks between the strands of her bangs to look at her mother.
“Because I wore these when your father was alive. They remind me of happier times.” Her mother massages Ellie’s neck.
“Can’t you wear them again and imagine that daddy is still here?” Ellie whispers. “Won’t you twirl with me and imagine?”
And in her mother’s shoes, Ellie twirls holding on to her mother’s calloused hands. While her mother smiles, Mrs. Gonzales watches from the doorway and sings a song in Spanish.
©Copyright Nikole Hahn, 2012