Updated: Aug 23, 2021
I found my red shoes in Paris. In Paris women walked everywhere. They did it in heels and flats and colorful espadrilles. They did it like strumpets, executives, and quirky pixies. I especially noticed the red shoes, popping with faded jeans and flouncy skirts. And once I had red shoes on my radar, I saw them everywhere: peeking out of bistro tables and parading down the Champs-Élysées. To me, these red shoes designated a certain kind of woman. A woman who knew herself. A woman who could choose to have a man or not. A woman who made decisions.
One day I was sitting at a café in St Germain wearing a pair of white, suede sneakers I’d thought would look chic and Euro but ended up looking hopelessly clunky and American. No matter. They were supportive. When I flopped down at the tiny bistro table, my legs were tired but my feet still felt good.
An older gentleman next to me leaned over and said in a booming American accent: “I don’t know about you, but I can’t make out anything on this menu.” I turned to answer and rocked my bistro table, knocking over a tiny vase of pink flowers and spilling the water. It was the biggest, loudest, most disgustingly American thing I could have done. “Oh, I’m so embarrassed!” I chirped. Even then I knew it was comical and ridiculous. Something a woman would do to get a man to notice her, even though I’d done it by accident. Like a cartoon where the girl animal bows her head and bats her exaggerated eyelashes at the male animal. This male animal responded with an understated laugh and, “Now I have to buy you a drink.”
I ordered a St. Germain cocktail that came in a huge St. Germain-branded goblet. I ate a chicken paillard so thin and tart and lemony it made my mouth pucker. The man had a meat and cheese platter. After I finished my chicken he offered me some of his meat and cheese. It seemed an odd thing to eat off a strange man’s plate, but I’d been walking all day and was hungry. He placed wedges of cheese and meat on my plate and, watching me eat them up, then another. I gobbled them like a starving baby bird.
As I slowed down, I learned the man was retired from Florida. That he comes to Paris often and, like me, was here for the week alone. He had a grandfatherly air about him. A potbelly in a plaid shirt. And so when he invited me to dinner that week, I agreed. I hadn’t yet found my cliched French restaurant experience and thought a kind, elderly gentleman would be just the ticket to having one. When he asked “Where would you like to go?” I answered assuredly, “Someplace French where I can wear my orthotics.”
When it was time for dinner I chose a navy dress with red cherries (cherise!) and short ruffled sleeves. And even though I’d said I’d wear my orthotics, it seemed more appropriate to wear flat, red sandals. Just a bit of Francais. At seven I stood outside my Airbnb apartment. I had given the man only my address--an old-fashioned, trusting way to set up a dinner. A black car with tinted windows arrived. But when the man opened the door and I slid in the backseat, everything was different. The darkness, the way he looked at me. I felt like I was in Midnight in Paris. I was the same, but in the turn of the clock or the choosing of the red shoes, Paris was different. He was different. Confirmed when he leaned over, put his hand on mine, and said: “You know, I was thinking you’re too young for me, but then I thought ‘No, she’s not.’”
Oh, fudge. I was in a real pickle. Think fast, Katie. What would mother say? I looked him dead in the eye and replied, “No, I am too young for you. And I look forward to a lovely conversation.”
We arrived at an art deco restaurant in St. Germain lined with twisted brass trim, tiny mint-colored flowers, and portraits of tall women in long, white gowns. The walls were endless mirrors so when I looked to either side I saw myself reflected over and over. Who was I and what was I doing with this grandfatherly man who didn’t think he was grandfatherly at all? He tried again. “You have beautiful eyes.” To which I quipped, “That’s what my boyfriend says.” Even though I'm not sure my sweet boyfriend had ever said that. But because I’d dropped the magic “boyfriend” word, from then on the man let up.
He told me he had been a CEO or CFO. He had kids who were adults. I must have told him about me, I can’t remember what. Throughout the evening he’d shake his head and exclaim, “Boy, that carpenter!” referring to my boyfriend’s luck (?) in catching me. After the man’s attempt at witty banter with the waiter that only impressed me because I didn’t have to do the ordering, he selected a bottle of red. We had a rack of lamb and, for dessert, rum baba--an extravagant, flaming cake a copywriter dating a carpenter can have only when a strange older man takes her to dinner in Paris.
I noticed his cufflinks. What kind of man wears cufflinks? Was that the kind of man I wanted to be with? In a way it was. In a way, I did want a man who told me I had beautiful eyes and put on cufflinks and a button up shirt for dinner. I wanted this, but only some of the time. I wanted it the way Anne of Green Gables wanted a man who could be wicked, and wouldn’t. I wanted a man who could wear cufflinks, and--most of the time--chose not to.
He called a car to take me home. When he dropped me off he got out to give me a light, brief hug. Just right. Because I, a woman in red shoes, had set limits. The next few days in Paris I read Flaubert in a café, sipped chocolate at Angelina, toured Champagne houses, and had dinner with a friend I’d met on a yoga retreat in Costa Rica. We went to a tiny spot in Montmartre, her favorite neighborhood and the one featured in Amelie. I told her I’d wanted to do some shopping and asked her to show me the cute shops. We walked past one with the most adorable red shoes in the window--calling me in both a beckon to be a certain kind of woman and an answer to the woman I had already become. “J’adore!” she exclaimed. I vowed to go back the next day, my last in Paris, and buy them.
I remembered an old movie I’d seen called The Red Shoes. A film about ballet where the lead dancer is given a pair of red pointe shoes. Once she puts them on, she can’t stop dancing--spinning on bloody toes to her death. Red shoes are a way of losing and gaining power. Think of Dorothy and the troupe of men who followed her once she put on a pair. Or Carrie Fisher’s character in When Harry Met Sally when she distracts Meg Ryan to tell her she’s interested in Bruno Kirby (“Oh! I’ve been looking for a red suede pump!”). They are the pleasure and the torture of the feminine. Click your heels three times and make it so. “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.”
These red shoes became my doing and my undoing. When I returned from France I wore them to a friend’s birthday party with a long green and black dress, the shoes peeking out as if I knew something the others didn’t. Because even though there were prettier girls at the party, girls with better makeup and longer eyelashes, I felt beautiful. I wore them in San Francisco to an Italian restaurant in North Beach in that same cherries dress, perched in a high top chair, crossing my ankles demurely and smiling coyly. I wore them the next day walking up Mason Street as my red polka dot wrap dress billowed in the wind, revealing a flash of black lace slip while I laughed like a modern-day Marilyn. I wore them the night a man loved me to the steady, plucking thrum of “Every Breath You Take,” an unwavering affirmation that I was a woman who made decisions.
The cherries dress has mysteriously gone missing; left in a hotel room I suspect. The red shoes? Tucked in the back of my closet. How do you picture them, reader? They are cherry red, suede, gold-trimmed with a scalloped peep-toe. Espadrilles high enough to be sexy but low enough to be sensible. Every detail offsets another: The supportive wedge elevating a graceful arch, the opulent suede, the royal gold, the strappy back and coquettish toe, bound and beautiful in a satisfying gold buckle.
I become them with every step I take. I am a woman in red shoes.