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FLOSS

 

I

“I want to cross stich my toes together,” my girlfriend announces over breakfast. Here I am thinking it’s just another bagel with light cream cheese kind of morning and she’s ready to revive an ancient form of Chinese torture.

 

“No, not foot binding. I’m talking about sewing a pattern across the span of my toes.”

 

“But why?” seems the logical question.

 

“I don’t know, something different, something new. And besides, I’ve always hated my feet.”

 

“I think you have beautiful feet,” I insist, half concerned she might actually be considering this.

 

“They’re ugly. I’ve never liked the looks of them.”

 

We argue then about the attractiveness of her feet, of feet in general. And wouldn’t the world be a more interesting place if all toes were webbed together courtesy of colorfully stitched designs.

 

“But then people would be so preoccupied looking down trying to check out one another’s feet that they’d bump into each other. All hell would break loose,” I joke.

 

And we both laugh at this. And we also both agree that the word “feet” when repeatedly used in conversation just starts to sound funny.

 

II

 

“What are you doing?”

She is surrounded by what look like glossy catalogs, but on closer inspection turn out to be cross stitch patterns. Our dining room table is covered in samplers and old timey images of flowers and potted ivy and little ducklings waddling in a row.

 

“Is this about the foot thing?” I ask, though I suspect that it is. I scan the sprawl of pictures her fingers are tracing. I never pegged her for the religious type—we don’t go to church. And yet here she even has books with crucifixes and other christian things.

“I think I have it narrowed down to these.”

She holds out an aquatic themed booklet and another with some sunflower patterns. Thank god it’s not the Jesus book. She points to a sea turtle swimming and also a solitary sunflower not unlike the Georgia O’Keeffe painting, the one that hangs in our bedroom—and living room. The one we both had coming into the relationship.

 

But we can’t hang up two of these.

 

Why not?

 

It’s redundant.

 

It just shows we have the same taste in art.

 

And so one is above the bed and the other over the fireplace that never houses any flames beyond those of the many battery-powered candles inset. That’s so…Pinteresty, my sister once said.

 

I like that she chose that particular sunflower. But I’m just not sure how it will look stitched across her toes. The sea turtle I don’t understand at all. She’s never expressed any interest in turtles, land or sea.

“Why not musical notes?” I suggest, because if she is going to go through with this, which judging by the scene in our dining room, it appears that she will, then may as well make it meaningful. Not unlike a tattoo. I spent weeks debating between a dolphin for my dead father who’d taken me to swim with the dolphins when I was a little girl and a burning torch symbolic of the general bad ass-ness I like to think inflames my heart. Ultimately, I got both—torch first, dolphin a few months later.

She is a musician, was a musician. She dabbled in music while getting her degree in psych. She neither plays now nor psychologizes, but instead works at the Gap which is less chic than it used to be. I know though that she still phantom strums the guitar she sold to help her afford this place with me—not quite the O. Henry love story you might imagine. More like ramen-noodle desperation meets early onset carpal tunnel. 

“Notes would be cool,” I reiterate. She however is provocatively fingering the image of the thready flippered turtle like it’s braille porn.

 

“Definitely a sea turtle and a sunflower.”

She doesn’t appear to be talking to me, as much as she is falling in love with the imagined floss embedded into her feet. Floss, not thread. That’s what you call it in cross stitching. I discover a lot about this art form looking over her shoulder as she studies YouTube videos. Whatever did we do before YouTube—never mind, that’s something my mother would say.

 

 “Why don’t you just go and have this done somewhere, by like a professional?” I ask one night lying in bed, watching her rehearse the movements of the cross stitcher’s craft as she grows increasingly frustrated with her lack of mastery.

 

“Because duh, no one does this.” I hate how she talks to me when she feels helpless.  

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

 

She however isn’t listening and is back to miming the mechanics of the “x” stitch.

 

III

 

Today is the day. It’s a Sunday. Why a Sunday?

“Because Sundays are like one giant yawn,” she explains. “The most stultifying day in existence and so wouldn’t it be something if from now on I could say Sunday was the day I transformed my toes.”

She has been practicing, diligently. On bananas, on doll parts purchased at a craft store. I suggested she try it on a pig’s foot because that would better mimic actual skin. But she’s a vegan and wants the experience of cross stitching her toes to be pure and not tainted by animal blood spilled for practice purposes.

“The blood’s already been spilled though,” I reason. “You’re not responsible for that pig’s death.”

“I refuse to be a part of the problem. Buying those feet would just make me an enabler.”

And I guess she has a point. From what I have seen, she’s become pretty adept at the sunflower. The turtle isn’t quite right though. I don’t tell her this; I don’t want to crush her spirit.

 

“Wait, it’s going to bleed.” I stay her needle-wielding hand.

“And?”

“Won’t that ruin the thread? Won’t it just be all one red blob instead of whatever colors are supposed to make up a sunflower and turtle?”

The colors are quite beautiful; it’d be a shame if their brilliance was buried beneath her blood. She’d purchased a plastic case, a special compartmentalized holder for the floss? flosses? flossi? I sneak a peek whenever she isn’t looking. I can’t help myself. I like how she’s organized them according to shade, I like how they line up perfectly in the slots. It’s my childhood fascination with opening a brand new box of Crayolas all over again.

“You don’t think I’ve thought of that?” She gestures with her head toward a bottle of OxiClean on the counter.

“Didn’t the guy who invented that die?”

“I have no idea…Anyway, I read online that it can get out literally any type of stain. And people have even used it to clean cross stitch samplers with great results.” Now she is sounding like some TV spokesperson. “I’m going to soak my feet in it as soon as I’m done.”

Sitting on the recliner in our living room (she’d tried a few different seating possibilities, dismissing the sofa as way too soft and comfortable for the task at hand), she props her feet up on the leg rest and moves in for the first stitch—yellow the inaugural color.

“Wait!” I screech.

“Now what?”

“You don’t have to do this. Don’t you think this is taking body art to an extreme?”

“Extreme? Have you seen some of the places people get tattooed? Not to mention piercings. People pierce tongues, nipples, even their labia for god’s sake.”

And for some reason I want her to say labia again. She always gets this nervous hitch in her voice whenever discussing anything remotely sexual. I adore her for her blushing cheeks and prudish hesitations.

It is painful to watch. I leave soon after she starts, feeling as though they’re about to pull the plug on someone I love, and I can’t bear to sit by and listen to them flatline.

 

IV

 

Once finished, she comes into the bedroom. I just showered and am still towel-wrapped and dripping. Those first few stitches I witnessed made me itch and burn—my own feet vicariously ambushed by millions of tiny scathing fire ants and so I blasted them with the handheld sprayer. She’s waddling, teetering on her heels.

“Ta-da!” She reverts to a flat-footed pose, not without some difficulty.

There they are: sunflower and armadillo? That looks nothing like a sea turtle. Not even close. The OxiClean foot bath worked, sort of. The telltale hint of scarlet bleaches the floss, giving everything a uniform pink undertone. I smile my best I am here to support you smile.

 

“So what do you think?”  

They look like partial ballet slippers swallowing the top halves of her feet. The skin and knuckle ridges and even slim little u’s in between the toes appear fully covered, I’ll give her that. Just that poor hacked up turtle. I am trying to figure out what it resembles...porcupine maybe, or sloth? Ferris wheel?

“Do you like it or no?” And her voice is doing that petulant thing. The thing that happens when we disagree on something and she gets her way and I refuse to be thrilled about the fact that I lost.

“It's artistic. It's original. It's completely you.”

“Well thank you. I think so too. Your hair is dripping on my sea turtle,” she remarks.

You mean the microwave with bat wings, but I don't say that. She hobbles then to her dresser and I can see the pain etched across her face.

“Do you need any help?”

“No, I've got it.”

Her complexion is the color of a newspaper if you left a newspaper rolled up in the rain for a week straight—spider babies and slugs invoking eminent domain. I watch as she tries to slip off her jean shorts and get into her bedtime boxers but even when the material merely grazes her feet, she has to bite down hard on the inside of her cheek to stem a scream.

 

V

 

It’s a few weeks before we are able to be intimate again. I understand of course, considering. Finally though, she is ready. It’s Friday. Work was brutal, and all I want to do is collapse onto the couch with whatever brand of cheap beer is in our fridge. She however has other plans. After all these years I recognize that look.

She instructs me to start slow. She wants to gauge her pain threshold before going full throttle. We kick things off with some tried and true classics although at kindergarten speed. I’d forgotten how good she smells this up close. Growing hungrier but restrained by the fear of causing pain, I vampire her neck a little. She stops me and pulls back. We are lying face to face now.

“I want to try something.”

She smirks that smirk which means a new level of amazing is about to transpire. She reaches for my shoulders and then maneuvers me toward the bottom half of the bed. I assume she wants me to go down on her, which isn’t quite the rapturous experiment I envisioned given the tone of her voice and that devilish grin. But I aim to please, and this is the first time since…

Just as I start to go for the gold, she grabs my hair and yanks me off.

“Ouch. What the fuck!”

“Not that.” 

“Then what?”

“This.”

She licks her lips, does a little more maneuvering and brings her foot up, fitting it snugly between my legs. It’s her right one; I don’t remember if that’s sunflower or malformed turtle. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the design, it is going to town, fast then slow. Constantly changing its rhythm. I am spinning. The small ridges and rises—an abrasive texture that softens the wetter I become. I know I should be returning the favor, but I am just so paralyzed with pleasure. Maybe cross stitching her toes wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

 

VI

 

It becomes our game; it becomes my addiction. Those feet. They’re absolutely Pavlovian. Until all I have to do is conjure the images in my mind and instant slick. I don’t care either that the turtle could just as well be a catcher’s mitt holding onto a fire extinguisher. It’s not about the picture. Cross stitch is every bit tactile as it is visual. Trust me on that.

 

“Did you know that fetishes having to do with body parts—like feet,” I add with an impish gleam, “have evolved according to fashion trends?”

“I'll do you one better,” she says. “In the sensory part of your brain, feet and genitalia are located right next to each other.”

 

Regardless of whether foot-feels and horniness are lumped in close proximity or on opposite ends of the cranial map, it’s just so damn electrifying. Bumpy little sunflowers and zombie turtles slouching toward Bethlehem come to dominate my waking dreams.

 

“I can't get enough,” I say.

 

She sits in the living room chair, her leg outstretched on an ottoman which until recently had gotten zero use. Now it’s my pommel horse; straddling it, I proceed to ride the top of her turtle foot. Nothing has ever been so fulfilling, nothing so sexually cut-and-dry.

 

She comes home from work wearing one of her many retrofitted open-toe shoe designs. I immediately pin her to the ground while undressing us both in a rom-com worthy fit of passion: when horny met sunflower.

“Do you know a woman at the store asked me why I chose a wombat pattern?”

 

I guess it could be a wombat. Wait. No. Be quiet. Just let me concentrate. Content, I finish on the turtle slash wombat slash army tank.

 

I am running late. We are supposed to go to dinner, and I was kind of wanting a quickie first. But as soon as I walk in, I see that she's dressed and ready. Her hair curled and pinned. She never curls her hair. Her makeup’s magazine flawless—a huge letdown for my libido.

“What's wrong?”

 

“Nothing.”  

“Tell me.” 

 

“I swear it's nothing.” Focus on her face, I mantra.

“Were you hoping I’d be less…ready?” 

              

“Sort of.”

              

She smiles.

              

“What the hell, it’s just one sandal.”

              

“Really?” 

              

She assumes her position as I buck myself out of my pants rodeo style. Every layer, every fold, every crevice of me has become an expert at reading the tapestry of her toes.

              

“Ow!” Her foot jerks.

              

“What?”

              

“I don't know, it just really hurts.”

              

I slide off. My ache, I imagine, no less intense than hers.

 

VII

 

              

“So to put it in laymen's terms—”

              

“Layperson’s,” I interrupt.

              

“Sorry, layperson’s...” I don't know why that bothers me, but it does. Sitting in front of this doctor with her and her poor feet...He clears his throat and that angers me too. “The embroidery thread…”

              

“Floss.” Can’t he get anything right.

              

“The embroidery floss,” he emphasizes annoyed, “is causing her feet to rot from the inside out.”

              

“So no more foot fucking is what you're saying.”

              

She squeezes my hand. When I'm anxious my words tend to flow without filter or forethought.

              

              

Case in point, our first date—my opening line:

              

Hi. Wow, don’t you look composed. 

              

Composed? What's that supposed to mean?

              

Like an antique doll someone left in the package—pretty and unnaturally preserved. Thankfully though, she said my nervous giggle and slight stammer were too cute to condemn me.

 

 “So no more foot fucking,” the sharp-nosed doctor echoes, and now I wish I hadn't given him this window into our world. Pervert. The night she said ouch, when they first started hurting, I noticed a greenish/purplish halo forming around the edges of her heels. It’s gotten much darker since.

 

“What’s going to happen?” I ask.

 

She isn’t saying anything. You'd think she'd be more interested in the fate of her feet.

 

“Ultimately bone structure, muscle tissue and then the skin will be affected. The stability of the bone has already been undermined. That sharp pain she experienced was a break, several actually.”

 

“Should she remove the floss?”

 

She just stares out the window at a parking lot. I want to shake her.

 

“Removing the thread, sorry, the floss, unfortunately won't do anything at this point to stop the spread of the rot.” Isn't there a more medical word than rot? 

 

“And the verdict?”

 

“You mean prognosis.”

 

“Whatever.” 

 

“Eventually the feet just won't be there anymore.”

 

“Layperson’s terms…”

 

“As layperson’s as it gets. So I'd say if she wants it and it makes her happy, she may as well just leave the sunflower and elephant for now.”

 

“It’s a sea turtle,” she breaks her silence.

 

VIII

 

Watching something slowly disappear is painful enough. Watching your feet disappear is unfathomable. At least I assume it must be; bearing witness to the daily disintegration of her flesh and bone is certainly agony for me. Everyday there seems to be an angry new color overtaking the “normal” of skin tone and tapestry. And everyday her feet shrink up into gangrenous oblivion just a little bit more.

We tried what I'd come to deem the “sea turtle slide” one last time. I know. I pushed. I was wrong. But they were right there, and I was so ready, and it was a complete disaster. Sex and selfishness: a dissertation that I'm sure has been written countless times. 

She agreed though, for me. I had her stand and lean against the wall for support. Wrapping my legs around her ankle, I sat atop her foot just like that game you play as a little kid when your father or some avuncular stand-in Frankenstein walks you around the living room weighted down by the ball and chain of your child body. My dead dad used to do that with me. But this wasn’t hitting the right notes, not at all. After a few minutes, my thighs were pelted by something hot and stinging from above. Let's call those baptismal tears—debauched fetishizer to devoted caregiver.

              

When she can only take a few steps, I let her lean on me the rest of the way. When her feet are too spectral for climbing into the tub, I lift her in. I stay to wash her with that special stronger smelling soap now that we're trying to overcome the stench of decay. I even attempt to help her find her pleasure again, the old-fashioned way. But sex—though neither of us will say it—has become wrapped up in feet; for me, it's the memory of their past, for her, the void that is their future. Without any present in the mix, it’s either wistful or foreboding—in other words, the satisfaction’s gone.

              

We are turning into strangers. The heart-wrenching disappearance of her heels, then arches, her soles and then her toes casts a shadow over who we are now. She had me take down the twin Georgia O’Keeffes the other day. I wrapped them both together in brown butcher paper and stowed them away in a closet we never use.

              

“It’s over,” she announces one morning over soft boiled eggs and avocado toast.

              

“I know.” I refrain from glancing down.

 

There isn’t much to pack. It’s funny how days, weeks, months, even years accumulate, but not things. Not our things at any rate. Maybe that’s been the problem all along. I wanted her toe tapestries to be our special thing. Maybe I went about it in the wrong way.

 

IX

It’s been years. I’ve never stopped thinking about her. Which is why when I do see her, almost as apparitional as I remember her feet being toward the end, I wonder if it is just the hallucination of a hopeful brain.

              

Her chair comes down hard over the curb. The filthy marriage of a Marlboro stem and a piece of chewed gum clings to one of the wheels. The tall blond doing the pushing doesn’t seem to mind that it’s stuck there. But she does. I watch her eye it, then helplessly turn her neck around and upward to alert her driver. I should leave. I should let them finish this pantomime of conversation in private. But I want to see how it ends. The resolution feels important somehow. Not to mention, she’s spotted me. There is nothing left to do but cross the street.

              

We smile in sync. I am uncomfortable staring down and so I kneel, pieces of stone and broken sidewalk cut into my knees. It’s okay though; I can stand it if it means I get to spend a few minutes looking at her, face to face like this.

              

“I’ve missed you,” I say. And she winces as if I’ve just said you’re such a bitch or something equally angry and long repressed. “Your feet!” I point childlike and amazed at what to me seems the sudden miracle of their wholeness.

              

“Prosthetics.” She lifts her pant leg revealing the slim line of detachment. Not bloody, not jagged. Just clean and official. On this set of what I can only surmise are rubber toes, she’s cross stitched new patterns. A brilliant red rose intertwined with a guitar—far more her. And a dolphin—I warm. My chest flutters.

              

“I did like your sunflower and sea turtle,” I say with conviction.

              

“Thanks,” she half smiles, “but we both know it wasn't ever a sea turtle.”

              

“No, I suppose it wasn't.”

              

I remove the cigarette butt from the wheel of her chair. And the tall leggy blond whisks her away.

 

THE END

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