What I Need to Say on This, the Last Day of the Flip-Flop Convention

November 23, 2011

'95 Convention--Ukiah, CA

Contributed by Jason Nemec

(Cincinatti, OH)

 I want to start by thanking all three of you for joining me in our quiet, clean room here at the Denver Hyatt, especially since the closing reception and Sockless Hop are about to start, and you’d probably rather be down there in the Grand Ballroom making bad decisions with any number of fascinating sandal specialists you’ve met these past three days at Open Toe 2011. Or maybe just you, Devin. Even though they didn’t hand out the free drink tickets this year because of the economic downturn, I know this final meat market of the convention is right up your alley, big man. You probably even wrangled little Dale here, your new buddy, into going with you. Sally, for all I know, you may have had a date with your new special someone.

But don’t worry. This won’t take long. I have a few things to explain to you, my fellow employees at Flippity Do-Dah. And no, Devin, it can’t wait until we got back to headquarters. For all I know, I may never see you again, because by the time we get back to Cleveland, I may not have a job. Speaking of that, I should let you know that you can relax; I’m not going to freak out like I did with the Chihuahua.

So, if you’ll please bear with me, I want to piece together a few key moments from our time together here in Denver. I want us to re-visualize together, kind of like we did in that Webinar we had down in Berea 1st quarter of last year. Because I’ve been thinking about my actions all afternoon, and though I don’t want to make excuses, maybe it’s the type of thing that’s bound to happen when your wife chases a bottle of sleeping pills with a six-pack of wine coolers on the eve of her thirtieth birthday. And then you end up working as a market analyst for a sandal company you have some…issues with. Issues like, say you don’t wear sandals. Ever.   

 Okay. There it is. Out with it. My wife. Suicide. Not appropriate to talk about in a work setting, and yet I had to say it. Did I make things awkward? It’s just me and the mirror right now, so I guess it’s fine if I well up a little bit. Still, come on now, chin up. This is just practice, but I don’t want to cry in front of them. In front of you.

I think we can all agree there’s nothing worse than a mildly overweight bald guy crying.

Hey, there we go! A little joke to get things back on course. You guys don’t think I can make a joke at my own expense? Probably not, but I’ve been watching some videos on the Internet about public speaking, and they say a little self-deprecating humor can work wonders when it comes to breaking the ice.       

All right, breathe. Adjust the tie. Dale, since I can almost see you there on the edge of the bed, your glasses too big on your little nose, your kid-size cargo shorts riding up your thighs, I’ll start with you.   

That first night in the hotel bar, four or five Amaretto sours in, I tried to listen, Dale, as you told me all about your wife. The place was packed. People were getting their toes stepped on left and right. Which reminds me: did I tell you, Sally? I even saw some people leave and then return sporting the dreaded sandal-sock combination. The SS. Not me though. My feet were safe in my loafers. Devin, you were down at the far end, talking to a six-foot blonde with fake boobs who looked like a man. Sally, you were back in the room, remember? You said you needed to call Flippity Headquarters and then wanted to turn in early, but we all saw the leftover bits of room-service cheeseburger in the trash. I wouldn’t have judged you, Sally, I hope you know that. I know you think maybe you could lose a few pounds, but that’s nonsense. You look great. I’ve always thought so. Ever since you first started interning with me in the marketing department at Flippity in the second quarter of 2006.

Anyway, we all could have used some comfort food that night. We had a long day setting up for the Sandal Fair. It might have been shorter, Devin, if you hadn’t kept slacking off and hitting on the Toe Jamz girl at the next table. Listen, I think all of us can agree she was pretty, easily good-looking enough to star in a Friday night sitcom, but it wasn’t the time or the place. And Devin, before you puff your chest out and say something you’re going to regret, ask yourself: Can I calmly take feedback from a fellow employee, even if he’s not my immediate supervisor? Can I work on my active listening skills in order to become not just a better representative of the company, but a better person, a better liver of life? I only say these things to you because I’m asking myself the same questions.      

Case in point, the other night, I should have listened to Dale better. Dale, you were on your third Cape Codder when you finally stopped watching Devin trying to get his groove on with the Amazon, turned to me, and said something about someone trying to kill you.

“What?” I said. I was watching basketball on the TV over the bar, hoping that would catch the attention of an attractive black woman a few seats down. Was it racist to assume a tall black woman was a basketball fan? I don’t think so, but I don’t know. I’m not too good with people from other cultures. I’ve always wanted to be though.     

“My wife,” you said. “She tried to kill me.”

Like I said, I’ll admit, at first, I was only half listening. Denver’s team made a three-pointer and I cheered, hoping the woman was a Denver fan. She turned her back.

“Twice,” you said.

I figured I better start cheering for the other team, but I didn’t know who the other team was. What did CHA stand for? Charlottesville? Chattanooga? I called the bartender over to ask, but then remembered another question. “Do you guys serve Rocky Mountain Oysters here?” He shook his head and walked away. Which disappointed me, because I had seen a show about them on the Deep Fried America network and wanted to try them in the spirit of trying new things, taking risks, all that stuff.     

Regional delicacies aside, Dale, I’m pretty sure that’s when you raised your voice. Which basically means – I’m just being honest here, Dale – you went from sounding like a mouse to sounding like a rat. Again, just feedback, Dale. Something to think about when you’re on the sales floor.       

“With a lawnmower, Rick,” you said. “The second time, she tried to kill me with a lawnmower.” At that, I swiveled to take you in, Dale, all 130 pounds of you. You looked like you were either about to cry or about to whip out a firearm and start shooting. “There I was,” you said, “pouring a Gatorade bottle full of weed killer over the cracks in our sidewalk, just like she asked, when she comes flying toward me with the push mower, and then – get a load of this, Rick – she picks the darn mower up, while it’s on, mind you, and swings it toward me like a baseball bat.” The black woman was glancing at me, but upon seeing what looked like a crazy townie trying to recreate a Wrestlemania chair bashing, she promptly turned away again.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “While it was on? You’re shitting me.” I tried to look concerned, Dale, like I was squirming under the weight of all the pain of your life, but honestly, I didn’t feel a thing. I forced myself not to. Belinda never had the energy to swing a live lawnmower at me. But I didn’t tell you that, Dale. I was right on the cusp of saying something to you about her. I could feel it rising up inside me, this big bubble of Belinda, a smile stretched across her pale face just like the old days.

Belinda.

We got married right out of high school. I know, old fashioned, right? I went to CSU and she got a job downtown at the library, in the children’s section. Sometimes she used to come home and read me one of the stories that the kids really liked during circle time that day. I would lay on the couch with my feet up on her lap while she read The Polar Express or whatever, and she’d always interrupt herself where the kids had interrupted her, mimicking their voices, their surprise, their questions – How fast does the train go? Does it stop in Cleveland? – and even though I thought it was sweet how she did that, it also kind of bothered me how silly she made their voices sound, all squeaky like cartoon babies. I never told her that. Still, those were happy times. Before I graduated and started working 70-hour weeks with Pop! Marketing in Beachwood, coordinating their SAP server, bringing home huge paychecks that we always talked about spending on a trip to Disney World but never did. Before we stopped talking about having kids. Before she lost that job at the library, and then another at TastyBurger, and then just gave up trying altogether.

God, what was that, six years ago? We got married in 2004, and it happened in 2005, so that’s about right. Dale, at the bar, I could almost see all that about Belinda, all those words floating out of my mouth, but then I turned away for a second, and they disappeared in the tangle of the black woman’s hair.

When I turned back to you, I have no idea how I looked. Whatever my face was doing, it sure as hell wiped the somber look off yours, Dale. You smiled and itched at your elbows. “I’m not futzing with you,” you said. “The only reason I was able to roll away from those blades of death, if you will, is because I had on these bad boys. You pointed to your Jesus-sandaled feet. “The Flippity Chesters. Series 9. Best sandal we make. I love these things. They make me agile. Like a cat.” I took my first look at your milky white legs – it wouldn’t be my last – as you pinched your fingers into claws and scratched at the silk of my shirt. After you let a little meow slip out, you seemed to remember yourself. You backed away and downed the rest of your drink. “But the scars on my back healed. And I love her. I love her, Rick. She’s quite the kitten in bed, if you get my drift. The sex is out of this world. I’m talking whips. Chains. Tazers. It’s interplanetary.” 

“Who’s talking about sex up in this bitch?” Devin, that’s when you came up behind us and threw your arms around our shoulders. Maybe you don’t remember because of how drunk you were. “Dale,” you said, “you dog. You hot diggity dawg! Let’s get you a shot. You wanna do a fucking shot? Buttery Nipple? Or Red Headed Slut? You look like more of a Red Headed Slut type of guy. Am I right? I’m right, aren’t I? Tell me you want to do a fucking shot. Say it. Say ‘I want to do a fucking shot, Big D!’”

“Dale doesn’t cuss, Devin,” I finally said, after five minutes of you, Devin, shouting in my ear and you, Dale, saying Um, well, yeah, and I don’t know in varying combinations, as if by waffling in the right order you could make Devin stop blowing his Jagermeister-breath in our faces. I was beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t have skipped out on that evening’s Open Toe 2010 keynote address by Richard Headley on the eventual comeback of the heel strap and the reemerging place of the sandal in our national consciousness.

The woman across the bar was lost to me now. I stared at her back and let the dream of watching basketball with her in the mountains die. Devin, you saw me staring and flashed your teeth. “Well, that’s fine,” you said, and at first I didn’t know if you were referring to the woman or to Dale not cussing. “That’s not that weird,” you said. “Not as weird as you, Rick, refusing to wear sandals even though you work for a fucking sandal company! You douche.” 

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, Devin, I have to tell you: I hated you so much right then. Why I prefer to keep my feet covered at all times – I even wear aqua socks during showers I take in the comfort of my own condominium – has always been my business. And working in the front office with respectful, professional people like Sally instead of out in the sales field like you and Dale, I’ve almost never had my choice of dress questioned. Well, maybe on Flippity Fridays for my first few months on the job, but not since then. So when you said that to me, I wanted to knock your whitewashed teeth out. I wanted to smear the cherries from my drink into your perfectly styled hair. Of course, violence is not the answer, even if there was a time, back when I used to work out, when I could have taken you down. But I decided to take a different tack. “You’re lucky I’m not your direct boss, Devin,” I said. “But you can rest assured Lao is going to hear about your insubordination.”

“Is that a threat?” you said. “Lao? You mean Lay-O? Lay-a-A-O? Lay-O come and I wanna go home? Shit, Rick-Dog, Lay-O is my boy. We hang out. I taught his daughter how to drive. Stick shift. Know what I’m saying, Little D?” Then you squeezed Dale’s shoulder and he smiled from ear to ear. Right like that, a bond was created. Dale and Devin. Little D and Big D. Double Ds! I must have heard you say that at least a hundred times in the past couple days. 

I’ve never really made friends with people I work with. I always thought it was bad business. Ever since Belinda, I’ve been pretty content as a lone gunman, if you will. I come home from work, sometimes make small talk with my neighbor Cal – but never for more than a few minutes because he smells like cheese – and then I watch TV and go to bed. And that’s worked for me for a long time now.

So Devin, I told myself that night that if I was a different type of man, I might have gotten my feelings hurt over being left out of your Big Guy Little Guy club. But I decided I didn’t want to be super-friends like you guys were. I went back to the empty room, arranged my clothes for the morning, watched a little Celebrity Rehab Mud Wrestling, and slept. Because I didn’t want to close down the bar and hear all the frat stories and the suburban S&M stories. I didn’t want to get drunk and lose control of what I was saying. And Devin, I definitely didn’t want to be there when the attractive black woman came over to you when the bright lights went on at 2 a.m., so drunk, you claimed, she let you take her pants down in one of the stalls in the men’s room near the front desk.

Which I still don’t believe, Devin, especially since when I woke up, you and Dale were in the same bed, even though I thought for sure you would try to sleep alone in hopes that Sally would come back and be forced to sleep next to you. I was the one who ended up sleeping alone, and I might as well admit it, Sally: right before I opened my eyes, I thought I felt a warmth next to my arm, and wondered if it was you. It wasn’t the first time I’d imagined what it would feel like to wake up next to you. You probably don’t remember this, but about a year and a half ago, when we were working up the Power Point on that focus group of college kids – the ones who had tested out our new line of three-inch-thick shower sandals – we both picked the same color scheme for our slides. I still remember the name of the template: Calm Seas. Well, that struck me, Sally. I knew then that we were connected somehow, and even though I never said anything about it, I always liked you, if nothing else because of the way you looked me in the eye when you talked to me. Not a lot of people do that. Belinda told me it was because my eyes are so far apart. People don’t know where to focus, she said, and so they end up staring at the wide bridge of my nose, which, to me, makes it feel like everybody is looking straight through me like I’m some sort of robot. Just pick an eye, damn it! I always want to say. Well, Sally, you never had a problem with that. Just like Belinda, you picked an eye. You focused on it.                

But of course you weren’t there in the morning, and we were worried. Or at least I was. When I looked over at the other bed, I saw Dale’s face pushed up into Devin’s clean-shaven armpit. Dale was drooling on the grainy beach-like skin. His glasses where smashed against his face. It was almost tender. Devin, when he opened his eyes, jumped back as if he’d been shocked and punched Dale in the arm, then right away regaled me with stories about the flexibility of the woman from the night before. I barely listened, because I was wondering what had become of you, Sally.

When you finally showed up at the Sandal Fair around ten that morning, I was a bit annoyed since we had been manning the table without you for almost an hour at that point. Plus I was hungry. I had gone out in the rain to see if they had Rocky Mountain Oysters at a café down the street, but no luck. At the Fair, Devin and Dale wore matching cargo shorts, modeling the Flippity Euclids and Carnegies, respectively. They were sitting on the table, throwing a bottle of sandal polish back and forth, pretending it was a live grenade and making explosion sounds every ten seconds. Double Ds! they kept saying. I was seated behind the table in a suit and tie. The convention center felt like an airplane hanger. The lights must have been a hundred feet above us, and yet they beat down too bright on the crowd milling through the maze of tables and dividers. Most of the people in the crowd were ratty-looking street kids who’d come in out of the rain and had no real interest in buying anything. Occasionally a well-to-do family would walk through, most of them lost on their way to the SUV convention going on next door. I was in the process of explaining to a girl whose hair looked like a giant mass of tree bark why all of our sandals are named after streets in Cleveland when you walked over in a skirt that showed quite a bit of your ample legs, gave a look to the girl at the Toe Jamz table, and sat down next to me. 

“What?” you said, immediately defensive.  

“Nothing,” I said.   

“Are these all natural?” the girl with the tree bark hair said, picking up a new model E. 99th sandal and staring at it dreamily.

“You okay?” I said to you. 

“Sure,” you said. “I’m better than okay.” You were beaming. You turned and looked directly at my right eye. “Are you okay?”

“Yes.” I wasn’t, though. I still felt warm from running two miles on the treadmill that morning. Well, I had to walk a lot of it, and it wasn’t so much that I was out of breath but more that the treadmills were facing out this huge window that went across the whole wall and I kept thinking I was going to fly through the glass and go crashing to the ground. I kept envisioning my body on the sidewalk, rays of blood shot from my head like juice from a crushed watermelon.

“Hey,” said Tree Bark Hair. “I was asking you a question.” 

“Sweetheart,” said Devin to Tree Bark Hair, “you’ll be hippy, I mean happy to know that all our insoles are made from 100% dried granola.” 

And that’s when it happened. That fucking Chihuahua, barely bigger than my fist, jumped out of the girl’s hemp bag and started gnawing at my pant leg. I yelled out and tried to kick it away, but the damn dog just dug in harder. He moved on to my shoes and chomped down on the laces. The way I remember it, everybody was yelling. Dale picked up a sandal and moved to swat at the dog, but Tree Bark grabbed at his arm and pushed him back. Devin just stood there laughing.

“Take your shoes off, Rick!”

“No!” I shouted. People were starting to gather around the table. 

“Skyler!” Tree Bark shouted. “Come back here!”

If it wasn’t for you, Sally, bringing that sausage sandwich out of your purse and waving it in the dog’s face, I think little Skyler might have gnawed my feet off. But that did the trick. The dog let my feet alone and set his piranha teeth to work on the sausage. Then Tree Bark Hair snatched up both the dog and the sausage and disappeared into the crowd. 

And yes, that’s when I lost it, when I got up on a chair and cupped my hands to my mouth and shouted, “You people are disgusting! Put some goddamn shoes on!” But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was when I turned from the crowd and told the three of you that your lives were like the stupid sandals we sold: they didn’t matter.

I yelled these things. I know.

My armpits were swamps. My heart was beating like crazy. I ignored the noise coming from the people who had gone blurry all around me and ran outside to the street in front of the convention center. 

I sat on a bench and watched the traffic. It had stopped raining. The streets were slick and the air smelled like oil. My hands still shook. A little ways down from me a kid was holding up a sign that said “National Poetry Month” and reading from what looked like a phone book. Nobody even looked at him as they walked past. It was like he didn’t exist. He raised his fist and said something about America fucking itself with its atom bomb.

Sally, when you came out and sat next to me and we didn’t talk for a while, just watched the pedestrians and listened to the city moving, I have to tell you, my heart leapt up a bit. Maybe it was just because the poetry kid was saying something along those lines, but still, I felt something like hope, some sort of bridge between us. I guess I was an idiot to see the two of us holding hands on that bridge, because after I said I was sorry and you said it wasn’t okay, it really wasn’t, and that I didn’t know the first thing about who you really were, then you told me what you had apparently just told Dale and Devin: that you’d hooked up with the Toe Jamz girl the night before. I don’t know why I was surprised. I had heard the rumors around the office, had watched your hair get shorter and shorter. But we hear what we want to hear, don’t we? Ah well. You’re a beautiful woman, Sally. It makes sense that you would want to be with other beautiful women.

You kept staring at my feet, Sally, and I thought maybe you finally wanted to ask why I keep my toes under wraps 24-7 even though I work for a company with a mission statement that celebrates the freedom of the toes. Dale and Devin have asked me before, but never you. Out there on that bench, you still didn’t ask. I suppose it was because of the Chihuahua incident. That’s too bad. I always thought you were the one person I would have told.

Well, I’ll tell all of you now. Full disclosure. Like I said, after we touch down tonight in Cleveland and go our separate ways at the baggage claim, there’s a chance I may never see you again.

Deep breath. Okay. Here we go.

The night Belinda killed herself, she sprinkled shards of glass into the carpet next to the bed. So when I woke up and swung my feet to the floor, I tore them to shreds. I went limping into the bathroom, trailing blood across the room, and there I picked the glass out of my bloody arches. It must have taken me a half hour.

I found her downstairs on the couch where she used to read children’s books to me. The TV was on, her head was titled back, her body was already cold. Her lips still smelled like alcohol and sugar. I held her hand and didn’t cry for a long, long time.

After the funeral, I started skipping work at Pop! It wasn’t long before they fired me, which is what I wanted. I spent almost a year sinking into the couch where she took her last breath, numbing myself with daytime TV, getting up only to go to the bathroom and to answer the door every night at five when the pizza guy came. After I depleted my savings, I wondered if I should kill myself too. It didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t have the nerve. So I looked for a job instead. For months, nobody was hiring. Then, finally, I landed an interview at Flippity. I of course had to lie about how much I believed in the product since I’d decided I never wanted my feet to be uncovered, and was wrapping and rewrapping them twice a day like a pair of ruined birds I was preparing to bury. And occasionally re-cutting them too, carving little zigzags along the arch with a piece of glass I had saved from that day. Nobody every found out. Why would they? As you know, there’s no physical exam required for the employees at Flippity Do-Dah.

Well. Now here I am. A sad man with a terribly ironic job. Talking to my reflection in the mirror. They just slid our receipt under the door. The three of you will be here soon, so I’ll have to speed this up.

There was no note. Nothing. Just my scalloped feet, which is how she wanted to leave me. Can you imagine it? The care she had to have taken, spreading out that tiny apocalypse of broken glass in the middle of the night while I slept? It wasn’t enough that I would forever wonder how I could have prevented it, why I didn’t take the signs more seriously – the turning away in bed, the empty looks, her slow curl into herself – she wanted to scar me, to make me walk through life gingerly. Just like she had done in her final year. And perhaps throughout her whole life.

What was it the poetry kid said? Something about how little we know each other, and what it is we clutch for in the dark. 

That’s pretty much exactly what I was feeling when I took the stage last night at karaoke. Like I was clutching for something. But I had to do it. Because when I came up to your table and you let me sit but ignored me – for which I don’t blame you – and you all lit up when Sally said that Footloose was one of her favorite songs of all time… right then, after I stopped sweating and shaking and pounding energy drinks, I saw all of my actions laid out before me. Filling out the slip and handing it to the DJ. Going to the bathroom and puking up the Rocky Mountain Oysters I’d finally found at a Mexican restaurant just an hour earlier. Walking across the stage, watching your surprised faces, your tentative applause. And then reading the teleprompter, wincing every time I had to sing the words cut and foot – a lot of fucking times – but singing them just the same. Belting them, louder and louder until the very end. 

I did it. I sucked it up, all my fear, and did it. I hope it makes sense now, why it was such a big moment for me. Why in a song about dancing, I, well, didn’t really move an inch up there. And botched probably no less than 75% of the lyrics.

I did it for me, but I did it for you guys too. Because your lives do matter. Even yours, Devin. I didn’t mean it when I said they didn’t. I was temporarily out of my mind, and I’m sorry.          

When you get home, you’ll probably get a call from Helen in HR, asking you about my outburst at the Sandal Fair. And you’ll have a choice. You can tell her I was way out of line. That I made damaging remarks about my company and my coworkers. That I have no business working at a place like Flippity-Do-Dah. 

Or you can tell her something else.

That maybe I can change. That maybe by believing in the people who represent our product, I can believe in the product itself. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a Flippity Friday sometime in my future, a golden morning when I walk into the office, heel-strapped into our softest possible model. My scars visible. My feet breathing.

 

Jason Nemec’s stories and poems have appeared in Meridian, Nimrod, Rattle, Switchback, storySouth, and various other magazines. He is a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati.

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