Friendship: A Friend with Benefits

Forget sex. How about a fabulous new pair of shoes?

By Sandra Tsing Lo
shoe illustration
Photograph: Reinhard Hunger

I HAVE A confession to make. All the nice shoes I’ve accrued over the past decade—some 12 pairs—were gifted to me by my elegant friend Susan.

     Which raises questions. Am I some sort of odd, middle-aged kept woman? Am I so poor that I was walking around barefoot and Susan took pity on me? Or is she like the fashionista girlfriends who recently did an intervention to force the practically-at-gunpoint surrender of my fanny pack (which I started wearing when my first baby came 10 years ago and never got around to shedding)? Never mind that I simply placed the fanny pack in my purse and zipped it shut—the criticism stung.

     Happily, my relationship with Susan is more benign. Her hobby (some, not I, might call it an addiction) is buying shoes online. But more often than not, when the Zappos boxes arrive, the shoes are heinously uncomfortable. And uncannily, Susan and I wear the same odd size: 9½. “Look at these. Aren’t they perfect?” she purrs, tilting the slingbacks slowly in the light. Her eyebrows go up with an idea. “Hey—I think maybe you would like them!”
     I do, always, of course I do. The shoes are from grownup designers like Stuart Weitzman and Donald J. Pliner, whose names to me soothingly recall kindly, bald-pated gynecologists practicing on the Upper West Side. The colors are ones I’d never otherwise see in daily life: Japanese eggplant, burnt tangerine, the scarlet-marigold of an heirloom tomato. And what wonderful narratives these shoes suggest. Take my Susan-acquired, fawn-colored Cole Haan walking shoes. I love the notion of a shoe just for walking. Not walking as in traversing the Target parking lot balancing 18 rolls of toilet paper and a beanbag chair while screaming at children, but walking as in “I’m going to don my herringbone cap and twill vest and sail out into a wooded glen. Ring me when supper’s ready.”

     Yet I dare say I help Susan, too. Because let’s call a Kate Spade a Kate Spade. It’s not as if Susan doesn’t have her share of shoe-sizing tricks. She’ll plod around the house for days in ballet flats to stretch them out. A sandal’s back strap can be lengthened with an extra color-matched centimeter of elastic. A too-rigid toe box may be rigorously attacked with a hammer—or a meat tenderizer (she’s a foodie).

     The fact remains, though, that she continues to order up a storm while knowing that perhaps 50 percent of the time, the shoe simply will not fit.

     But oh, the thrill of tossing the tissue aside and meeting new friends!

     Oh, the hope for the right 9½ that springs eternal!

     And oh, the comfort of knowing there is a poorly dressed wide receiver always standing downstream (in hideous Big 5 tennies)! There goes the guilt.

     So in a way, Susan needs me.

     Or so said the parasite about her host.

     “Oh no, really,” Susan insists earnestly. “It’s true!”

     Don’t you see? She’s the wind beneath my wingtips.

SANDRA TSING LOH is the author of Mother on Fire and a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

Want MORE? Read the rest of our friendship pieces listed on the next page.

First Published October 25, 2011

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