The year El broke both her big toes, she hardly noticed. She had things to do, she had places to go. She was seventeen, going on eighteen, and all the world stood open to her. Or so they told her.
The crunch of bone — first in her right big toe, then her left — each on a separate occasion — was barely audible. There was little outer repair that could be done, aside from taping her toes together, and neither incident made her walk much differently than usual. There was a dull throb in her right foot, then, and six months later, the pain was in her left. But it didn’t keep her up at night.
It just slowed her down. It made her unsure of her footing when she stepped forward. It threw her off balance when she moved left or right. She started walking on the outsides of her feet, to spare her toes, and she started getting stiff in her hips. It slowed her down, but that was something she needed to do, the last year she spent in high school. A long-distance runner who trained year-round… an anarchistic high school senior who took the minimum class load required to graduate and spent most of her indoor school time in the library devouring books even the librarian didn’t know were there… a heavy drinker on weekends who sometimes smoked pot and popped pills, but preferred her six-packs of beer and cigarettes… she was all of the above — all movement, all frenzy, all anger, all rage. If her big toes hadn’t alternately been taped and forced her to ease up her pace, she might well have spun into orbit. She was crazed. She was jazzed. She was scared to death.
Looking ahead, El’s prospects were grim. Her mother hoped for her to marry a man after attending some college (but not too much schooling — if she got too much, it would go to waste, when she settled down) and have his babies. Her friends hoped that like them, she’d oneday have a house with a white picket fence, dog, kids, membership in Lioness Club, and monthly attendance at PTA… It made her blood curdle and her toes curl — the ones that weren’t taped together. But that was her future, as far as anybody could say or foresee — herself included. Where else could she go? She wasn’t sure what she wanted — she didn’t have the words for it yet. She didn’t know there was a name for people like her, that there were people like her, who chose a different way and lived happily together as woman-and-woman or man-and-man. In the rolling fields and meadows of her childhood home, they didn’t have names for people like that — at least, not names you could say out loud while sober in polite company.
She took her questions to the road, running cross country and winter track and spring track and field, training on narrow, pitted back roads grooved by the metal clip-clop-clip-clop of Amish and Mennonite horse-and-buggies. Running miles each day every day — five and seven and ten mile meandering runs during formal weekday practices, and putting in shorter runs on weekends, between hangovers and renewed search-and-consume alcohol missions with friends. Under wide skies, flanked by cornfields and cow pastures, snaking between sprawling, windmill-powered farms and the odd tract housing development, she asked her silent questions and posed her mute challenges to her present and her future, pounding a steady rhythm into the asphalt that pleased her with its rigor.
Some nights, when there was no church service or book group or school board meeting they had to attend, her parents let her borrow the car and with her best friend and running buddy, “T”, they drove, tipsy, through the dark countryside, each of them cradling a litre bottle of cheap white wine between their legs, smoldering cigarettes in hand. They drove and drove through the night, never going much over the speed limit for fear of cops, and cursing how all the back roads curled around on top of each other; however far they drove, they could never seem to get out of the county, even the township, where they lived. And part of them didn’t dare. For curse as they might, they knew little of what lay beyond the territory of their own stomping ground, and just the thought of all the life of the world seething beyond the tight, constricting confines of that space harbored secret dread for them. At least here, they knew what they were dealing with. At least here, they knew what they were up against.
And in the heavy, tightly wound darkness within the car, they smoked and drank in stoned silence, stopping along the cornfields lining the roads to piss. They got pissed off, finishing off their bottles of cheap wine, tossing them from the car windows into vacant, yawning fields, hollering at the tops of their daredevil lungs into empty cow pastures — not sure what they were yelling at, but certain there was plenty to holler about. Every now and then, they got drunk enough to take chances, pushing the speedometer above 45, taking curves too fast, too tight, one night almost rolling T’s parents’ good car on a sharp turn just off Rte. 394. They threw caution to the wind, stealing onto the sprinkler minefield of the War Memorial at the center of town and between flicks of mechanized water spray, pulling down the flag waving in the spotlight in one of the most heavily traveled intersections in town.
Twice they pulled off their spiteful stunt, and stashed the flag in the dugout of a nearby baseball diamond, satisfied that they’d done it without getting caught. El wanted to take the flag home with them one night, but T said No. They’d belled the cat that stalked them, and that triumph was enough.
The local paper ran a story about “vandals” stealing the flag at the War Memorial Field, and both T and she cut out the blurb and brazenly taped copies to the outsides of their lockers. Just for kicks. Just to see what would happen.
Nothing happened. Nothing ever did. Someone removed the paper clippings after school one day, and they suspected it was a teacher or the principal. But nothing was ever said to them. They always came up short of getting hurt. Or getting arrested. Or getting caught. It was never their intention to cause harm, and people must have known that. All that interested them was getting out. Getting out of that cramped, claustrophobic, phobic place, if only in their minds and habits till graduation rolled around. Getting on with their lives. Leaving that place far behind was their only wish. Or so they thought.
* * *
The first toe El broke by mistake. A few too many beers at midnight at the nearby state park with T, a wrong step while sneaking in at 1:30 a.m., a big piece of immobile furniture in her dark, obscured path, and she heard a crunch. At first she wasn’t sure what had happened. There was just a crunch, followed by a sharp stabbing pain at the tip of her foot, followed by a dull throb. She’d never had broken bones as a little kid. No arms in casts, no plaster-encased ankles, no crutches. She’d made it through her childhood with little more than infections and sinus headaches. Her frame was intact. Until now.
Her mother was mildly concerned, when she got up the next morning and hobbled downstairs to a late Saturday noon breakfast. But her mom seemed more concerned with her bleary eyes and rancid breath than her bluish toe. Her dad barely lowered the paper to glance at her foot.
“I’ll run you down to the doctor,” he told her as her mom picked up the phone to call their family physician who had an expensively landscaped office at the end of the block. “Can you move your toe?”
She shook her head No, and he returned to his sport news.
“Likely broken,” he muttered. “Bulldogs are doing well…”
El lowered herself into a kitchen chair and chose an orange from the fruit bowl. As she began to peel it, her dad put down his paper and trained a close look on her.
“Send in your application yet?”
“I will.” She hadn’t even started filling out her application to college.
“Better sooner than later,” he cautioned, sipping his coffee. “How many are you sending out?”
“I thought just the one,” she shrugged.
“You might want to reconsider that decision. You don’t want to limit yourself.”
El’s mom looked over from the other side of the kitchen, a sharp warning in her eye. She nodded and murmured into the phone, taking down what the doctor’s secretary was telling her. With a final “Thank you,” she hung up and turned to El and her dad.
“I don’t see what’s wrong with state,” she snapped. “She’s got to think about more than school. She’s got her whole life ahead of her, and there are plenty of good opportunities at state.”
“Yeah,” El sighed. “There are plenty of decent young men in attendance at State.” When her parents had gone with her to visit the school, her mother had asked point blank what the male-to-female ratio was, and had smiled with satisfaction, when it turned out there were 3.2 males for each female on campus.
T wasn’t going to State. She and El had at first conspired to get into the same school, but T’s folks could afford a private, out-of-state college, if that’s where she wanted to go. T had said she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but when she applied and was accepted to art school several states away, El’s heart had fallen. It was a done deal for T. After that, El’s interest in life after graduation had waned. Already, it was October, but she hadn’t even looked at the application to State.
“Better sooner than later,” her dad repeated, as her mom busied herself in the kitchen, humming softly.
“The doctor will see you at 2:45,” she said, running water into the sink to wash dishes.
“I’ll drive you down,” her dad said again, sounding peeved.
“Right,” El said, taking a quick sip from his coffee cup and heading for the shower.
“Charles — how are you?” Her dad and the family doctor were on a first name basis.
Dr. Wissler nodded hello. “Been worse. What’s your daughter been up to?”
“Had a little trouble last night.”
The doctor shot him a look. “Oh?” El hopped onto the examination table, removed her shoe and sock and lifted her foot to him. She was glad her foot stank.
To be continued…