She could remember her grandmother’s feet so clearly. She needn’t shut her eyes or employ some such other hooey “memory-inducing” method to do so. They were forever seared in her mind’s eye. After enough summers spent under the guise of “staying with” her grandmother in Naples but actually being put to work for her, Adriana knew every jagged curve of that foot. The sight of them shoved into that same crude and crumbling sandal every day instilled an almost irrational fear in her that she, too, would one day be genetically predisposed to having bunions, not realizing it had nothing to do with heredity so much as wearing ill-fitting shoes.
She would later not understand why it was so anathema to Nonna Elena to wear a decent pair. Of an orthopedic variety even. For she was on her feet, moving about the casa every day from six until midnight, always finding some menial house chore to fulfill. The only time she sat down was for a brief pause at the table to enjoy some of what she had spent hours preparing for everyone else. The most delicious homemade pastas, fish, meat, fagioli, scarole, zeppole–everything under the umbrella of Neapolitan cuisine. She could make it, and did. Often to the point of over-stuffing her guests like badly taxidermied animals. The guests at her table ranged from family members to neighbors to friends of Elena’s husband, Fausto. No one was ever turned away, regardless of who might show up unannounced. It was for this reason that Elena grew so reliant upon Adriana during the summer. Adriana who had no excuse not to do as her mother said and aid her grandma in any way possible while her parents worked or went on vacation without her.
Often, she yearned to have an excuse. Would wish that school continued all year-round to avoid having to do the thankless work of a casalinga. Watching how Elena functioned–was expected to function–on a day to day basis was enough to make Adriana never want to get married. Buy into the grand Italian propaganda that it was the most important thing one could do with her life, especially as a woman. She wasn’t going to, refused. If Elena’s life taught her anything, it was that. And, of course, to always spend the extra money on well-made, perfectly tailored to one’s foot shoes. Because the sight of those bulging bunions as she swept the floor dutifully was almost enough to make Adriana burst into tears. To weep for the blithe manner in which Elena had so willingly chose to surrender her body to the cause of domesticity. For running a household in Southern Italy made corporate operations look childish. There was a twenty-four hour commitment that came with the nature of this job.
The job of being an Italian matriarch. As far as Adriana could tell, the rest of the women in the neighborhood operated in much the same fashion. And when she would see them shopping at the market, whether open air ones in the street or a proper grocery store, it was a patent phenomenon in all of the more aged donne: a bunion barrage that sprawled throughout the cobblestoned strade teeming with grandmotherly females just trying to go about the business of providing a comfortable and pleasant living space for their family. A home in the most connotative sense of the word. Rife with olfactory-triggering aromas and well-used cushions that molded perfectly to your posterior. Out-of-date wallpaper or chipped paint. Rickety furniture that creaked whenever you shifted on it in a certain way. This was what the Bunion Brigade lived for. And eventually died for. Adriana wanted no part of that.
After the summer of her twentieth year, she decided to do something about it–to actively ensure that she would not endure the same fate as Elena. So it was that, despite the very vocal protests of her parents, she applied for a summer internship at 3M in Milan. Training under a UX graphic designer, Adriana was determined to break the mold of her lineage in being the first woman to not only leave the South, but to not get married and subsequently grow bunions there. For it was as though once you consented to the casalinga existence, this foot deformity was part of a sealed and irrevocable fate.
While in Milan, Adriana was exposed to an entirely new way of living. One that did not involve being a slave to one’s family. Food could be purchased outside the home, life could be lived without people telling you how and when to do the most minute and inane of tasks (brushing one’s hair, teeth, etc.). In short, it was liberation. Of a kind she had never thought possible until now.
At the same time, there were certain lonely nights in the cheap room she had rented in a dormitory-like palazzo that made her yearn for the invasive closeness of her family. Elena in particular, who would be there at a moment’s notice if Adriana indicated so much as the slightest physical or emotional discomfort. She tossed and turned throughout the night, the sound of cars and drunkards outside her window keeping her awake. She was starting to miss the quiet. Yet she could not be deterred, or fooled by the trick nostalgia plays on us all in trying to cajole us back into the “effortlessness” of the past. A past which chased us into the present in the first place. Adriana could not let herself fall into that trap, or so she self-soothed as the summer wore on and she began to feel increasingly useless and out of place at 3M. Like some sort of country bumpkin not fit to lick the shoes of any Northerner.
And, speaking of shoes, it was one day while roaming the Corso Venezia that Adriana was overtaken with the inspiration to spend her entire summer’s wages on a pair. The most rhapsodic two-tone teal and aquamarine Mary Jane stilettos from Prada that no one in her family would ever dream of wearing, least of all her grandmother. Not even when she was still young enough to wear such a style. But Adriana was immediately glamored, seizing the chance to sport them that very evening as she walked through Brera and sat down for an aperitivo. Feeling endlessly confident and suddenly rather ridiculous for ever having considered wanting to go back to the South, she could feel a strange pain starting to tingle at the sides of her feet.
Assuming it was the natural “molding” agony of any new pair of shoes, Adriana bent down to adjust the buckle so that it wouldn’t feel so tight. As she did so, she could see the sides of the shoes start to expand, being pushed outward by the bone that was spreading and protruding near her big toe. Bunions, like she had never seen. Ones that made Elena’s appear hardly noticeable. Unlike these, which were fast attracting attention from everyone around her watching with a snickering sort of horror. Shamed and terrified to no end, Adriana tried to get up so that she could run away, flee from the assured embarrassment of being in a public location. But the torturous pangs of her budding bunions rendered her immobile.
Eventually, her family was contacted after Adriana was transported by car back to her room in Bovisa. It was her mother who came to collect her. By this time, they had cut open her precious Pradas to free her feet from the torment and suffering of being confined inside of a shoe.
In tears, her mother demanded, “Oh Adriana, what happened to you?”
Adriana, who had been looking out the window in resignation, turned to face her mother, glaring at her grimly. “It’s the South. It has decided it wants me. I belong nowhere else.”