Sandra Clough spent her gotta-make-a-living years in the corporate world. Upon retiring, she fell into fiction writing and what fun it’s been! Her work has appeared in Talking Stick (a literary journal published in MN); Whisperings – A Literary and Visual Culture Magazine (published in CA); Bards and Sages (print and digital); several online journals, including Scarlet Leaf Review; and Cricket Magazine (for children ages 9 to 14) published one of her earliest children’s stories. Sandra lives in Minnesota with her husband of 55 years.
The Power of the Shoes
I started a Wedding Dreams box when I was thirteen. The idea came from an episode of my favorite sitcom. Raymond had asked Debra to marry him and before she’d even gotten the Yes! out, she was digging through bags of fabric swatches and copies of Modern Bride magazine full of scraps of paper marking ideas she liked. When Raymond stammered about “something simple,” Debra patted his arm and assured him she’d take care of everything. “You’re just the last piece of the puzzle, sweetie,” she added. The night John asked me to be his plus-one for a work party, I pulled my box out and dusted it off. The earliest clippings were of whipped-cream gowns and multi-tiered cakes with figurines on top. Styles may have changed, but my fantasies hadn’t. It was true that I hadn’t known John very long, and I could see that he was a bit of an odd duck – but who doesn’t have their quirks? I closed my eyes, brushed my cheek with a satin sample, and smiled. He just might be the last piece of my puzzle. ~~~ I must have tried on a hundred dresses before I found the perfect one for the party. A little, black slip of a thing that was understated and sophisticated, all at the same time – like the one Audrey Hepburn wore in that movie I can never think of. The sexy, crazy-beautiful shoes, however, found me. Silver, strappy sandals with stiletto heels that practically leaped into my arms. Unfortunately, they cost nearly as much as I paid for my car every month. I dithered for twenty minutes before I remembered what a friend once told me: Never underestimate the power of the shoes. John was an accountant, and he might not understand such an extravagance, but those shoes were an investment in my future. When the doorbell rang the night of the party, I yelled come in, then stayed out of sight for a few minutes to heighten John’s anticipation. As I made my entrance, I looked down at my sexy, crazy-beautiful shoes and willed them to do their magic. To my disappointment, though, he barely said hello before rushing me out the door, mumbling something about wanting to find street parking so he wouldn’t have to use the valet. Obviously, I was right about John being tight with his pennies. If he was so concerned about paying for parking, he didn’t notice how stunning I looked, he’d better never find out what my shoes cost, or our relationship would likely be over faster than I could say Jimmy Choo. We drove around the fancy downtown hotel twice before John conceded that he would have to let the valet park his car. I said a silent thank god as he grudgingly handed over his keys. Hoofing it in those heels would not have been pleasant. Another valet opened my door. John’s several-years-old Mazda sat low and the young man gallantly held out his hand. I took it and swung my legs around, daintily planting one stilettoed foot, then the other, alighting smoothly. He grinned self-consciously and made a clumsy bow. I curtsied and smiled back. The magic had begun. I glanced around to see if John had seen, but he was busy getting his parking stub tucked safely into his wallet. Inside, we took the escalator with several older couples. The women looked uniformly aloof – and dowdy, in long sleeves and high necklines. A couple of them stealthily cast sober glances in my direction. The men, though, smiled broadly and nodded – giving John, it seemed to me, their seal of approval. A warm glow of self-confidence enveloped me. I didn’t care what stuffy old women thought. I always practiced good posture, and now I stood even straighter. As we approached the second floor, we could hear typical happy-hour laughter and the underlying buzz of conversation. John had said the party was an annual affair, to celebrate the end of tax season, and the accountants were feeling festive. At least, most of them. John was immediately snagged by a pudgy, balding man who peered at me through thick glasses and mumbled an apology, assuring me he would only talk shop for a few minutes. Thrilled to see how important my boyfriend was, I said not to worry, I'd be fine. I secured a glass of Merlot and found a place to stand where I could check out the crowd. Before long I noticed three young men looking in my direction. Wanting to appear approachable, I smiled and assumed my most flattering stance. (It’s the way Academy Award nominees have their photos taken when they pause on the red carpet. One very high-heeled foot is planted ahead of, and slightly across, the other. That causes the opposite hip to jut out just a bit, which – besides being very sexy – makes the thighs look significantly thinner.) The boys (they looked quite young) came over and introduced themselves as junior associates. When I said I was there with John, there might have been the briefest instant of surprised silence before they told me they worked on John’s team. Another thrill shot through me, hearing that my boyfriend had a team. They arranged themselves in front of me and gave me their undivided attention. They wanted to know where I’d met John and if I’d known him long. I explained about us meeting at my cousin’s wedding a couple weeks earlier and turned the part about my having a little too much champagne into a funny anecdote. “It was so embarrassing,” I said, blushing. “I couldn’t believe it when he called two days later and asked me to be his plus-one!” The junior associate nearest me glanced at the others and I thought I caught a knowing ah, before he said (with a slight smirk?), “Yeah, the boss likes guys on the partner track to bring plus-ones to company functions.” Before I had time to consider the knowing ah (and the possible smirk), the rest of what he said hit me: John was on the partner track – and he chose me to be his plus-one! “Where is our leader, by the way?” the middle one asked. I explained that John had to talk shop with a colleague for a few minutes. Another quick glance passed between my companions. “That’s John,” number three said, shaking his head. “Brings a beautiful girl to a party, then keeps on working.” Flattered, I smiled demurely, but a moment of awkward silence ensued – till somebody noticed my wine glass was empty. “Let’s get you another one. It’ll probably be a while before you see John again.” He snagged a glass from a passing waiter. It would have been rude not to accept. I did hesitate a second, though, because while I normally hold my alcohol fairly well, I did not want a repeat of the champagne incident. I had purposefully decided to stick to red wine that evening. Since I don't actually like red wine all that much, I reckoned that would make it self-limiting. But from then on, every time I sipped my way to the bottom of my glass, someone handed me a full one. I don't know how much time passed, but during John’s few minutes of shop-talking, the boys had gotten me another one several times, and I was feeling rather giddy. (The occasional hors d'oeuvre – in this case, cucumber slices with dollops of cream cheese, topped with sprigs of dill – while ever so tasty, soaks up very little alcohol.) Finally, I saw John heading our way. I unwound my legs, preparing to draw him into our circle so he could see how well I was getting on with his team. Just then, though, dinner was announced. That was probably fortunate because I was having a little trouble getting my words in the right order. John didn’t actually offer me his arm, but I took it anyway – partly because I was proud to be his plus-one, and partly because I needed something to hang onto. We joined the crowd inching toward the ballroom next door. Inside, John steered us to a table near the front of the room – where, like at a wedding, the important people would sit, looking out at the crowd. When we sat down, I realized I was ravenous. (Booze always makes me hungry.) Small, scrolled menus lay across each place-setting, promising, as best my blurry vision could make out, a feast: Asparagus spears drizzled with citrus-infused hollandaise Cream of shiitake mushroom soup with shaved shallots Hearts of romaine with blue-cheese crumbles and cherry balsamic vinaigrette Chilean sea bass atop sun-dried tomato risotto and, finally Vanilla bean flan with burnt sugar John was still conversing with his colleague who had taken the seat on the other side of him (the poor guy was alone – apparently, not on the partner-track), so since I didn’t have to make conversation, I relished every scrumptious morsel of our meal. The three delightful wine pairings, however, left me a bit sleepy and I nearly dozed off before the senior partner, Alfred Turner, started his remarks. Luckily, John accidently bumped me, since we were directly in his boss’s line of sight. I sat up straighter, determined to concentrate. First, Mr. Turner welcomed everyone, especially, he said, spouses and friends. I smiled and tried to catch John’s eye, but he was staring straight ahead. At the part about it having been a good year, and promotions and bonuses being in the offing, though, John did turn his head an inch or so in my direction and give me a tight smile. (After all, he was on the partner track and I was his plus-one.) When the speechifying was over, I took a deep breath and willed myself to be alert for the after-dinner socializing. No doubt John would want to introduce me to Mr. Turner. Then I noticed a commotion on the other side of the room. The waitstaff were moving tables off a dance floor, and a small ensemble was setting up. I couldn’t believe it. John hadn’t mentioned there would be dancing. (I love dancing more than just about anything, and I’m good at it.) While we waited for dishes to be cleared and the band to start, I looked around at the beautiful ballroom. Flattering lightening from elegant chandeliers illuminated the space that would easily accommodate 250 guests. And of course, I knew the hotel’s food was wonderful. It was a perfect reception venue. Interrupting my thoughts, the music started. John looked like he’d taken root in his chair, but I wasn’t going to be denied – and I’d make him happy about that. I pulled him to his feet and shooed him onto the dance floor. As bands always do at events like that, they lured couples in with a slow tune (one everybody loves and that’s easy to dance to). My high heels made John and me fit perfectly and I snuggled into his arms. We swayed side to side to a dreamy rendition of Unforgettable, which segued into My Funny Valentine. When Alfred Turner and his wife danced past, I realized (now that a bit of the wine-fog had burned off) that they were on the escalator with us when we arrived. She pretended she didn’t see us again, but he gave us another smile and a nod, and I swear John held me a little tighter after that. I could have stayed that way for hours; but, catching most people unawares (although I was anticipating the change-up), the quartet swung into Puttin' on the Ritz. I shook my head vehemently when John gestured toward our table. This was one of my favorite songs and my pulse quickened along with the musical tempo. While John did fine with the slow dancing (which really is just swaying), his up-tempo moves were more than a little stodgy. I, however, had enough style for both of us, and this was my chance to shine for him and our chance to shine for his boss and his friends. I thought I could bring him along with me; but, as other couples, intimidated by the change in pace, began drifting toward the sidelines, John’s movements became even smaller and slower. He quickly lost all momentum, until he became more of a prop than a partner. I stepped away and began sashaying around the dance floor on my own. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe...it was the power of the shoes. (Those stilettos made it easy to exaggerate every movement.) I knew I looked fabulous. (The heels made my legs look and feel like they went on forever.) And, of course, my dancing was spectacular. (People were always telling me I could have gone professional.) John’s eyes had to be popping. Suddenly, I remembered a comic routine I'd done in a high school dance recital. The guy I was paired with (supposedly) couldn't keep up, so I ditched him and grabbed another. John was, unwittingly, playing his part perfectly. I threw him a goodbye kiss and danced my way over to a knot of on-lookers. There, I snagged the hand of one of John’s team members I’d been talking to earlier and pulled him in before he knew what happened. I vaguely noticed the stunned look on his face as I twirled an arm's length away, then spun myself back toward him. My back side was supposed to end up nestled against his front side, but the kid knew nothing about real dancing. Our bodies didn't meld the way they were supposed to. They collided, like a ball of soft mozzarella hurled at a brick wall. There was no flexibility in his stance and his knees buckled. My feet tangled with his and in an instant, there we were, in a heap on the floor. It’s too bad I didn't break my ankle. If I had, I wouldn't have tried to get up. And, if I hadn't tried to get up…well, maybe I wouldn't have barfed on my shoes. ~~~ The next thing I remember is sitting in John's car in front of my apartment building. He reached into the back seat and thrust a paper bag into my arms. I sat for a second, clutching my expensive, sexy, crazy-beautiful, fouled shoes, thinking he would get out and open my door, but John stared straight ahead. I opened my own door and swung my legs around, planting one bare foot, then the other. I braced one hand on the dash to hoist myself up and out of the bucket seat. Before shutting the door, though, I leaned in. “I think your friends liked me,” I said – extra pleasantly, hopefully – but the car had already started to creep forward. As it sped up, I cupped a hand to my mouth so my voice would carry. “No worries about my shoes,” I called to the dimming taillights. “I got them on sale.”