Nobody can deny the awkwardness and discomfort of adolescence, least of all Ryan Gee. In his piece, he discusses how pubescent pressures to conform forced him into dirty, worn down shoes, but were what ultimately inspired him to don his favorite blue shoes.
My old tennis shoes were so worn down, the holes at the bottom had started to let in not just pebbles but rocks of foot swelling proportions. There was no wearing them anymore. So, armed with some sort of coupon – for we would never go anywhere without one –, my mother and I arrived at Dick’s, with its sweaty, plastic, cheap cleaning product smell and fake wood floor to make you think you’re in a real gym.
They caught my eye right away, as they were pretty hard to miss. Shiny white soles, short stripes of orange adorning the side, and a glowing turquoise body; the Nike sneakers were everything I wanted to be: bright, bold, and unapologetically unique. My mother cautioned me on them, in the best way she could, asking if I was sure these were the shoes I wanted. “They’re very…colorful.”
Yes, and that was the point, I explained. I walked out of the store in them– that’s how excited I was to have them. There must have been fear mixed in with the excitement, because for a while, they stayed in my house, treading only the paths around my neighborhood. Back in middle school, I desperately tried to match my classmates’ preppy footwear with Sperry’s or Clark’s, fearing that the tennis shoes would have been a bright blue flag that I was a loser. If only I had known I already was one, maybe I would have been braver. Of course, that was a different time, and I was, at least outwardly, a different person.
I played soccer. It was something I did because I thought it had to be done. Just like how you have to brush your teeth and put on underwear, you have to play soccer. I played goalie, and I don’t flatter myself; I was never that great. But as the best option for the teams I was a part of, I was put up with. A shaky sort of acceptance, where my presence at the goal was valued far more than at the water bottles where they stood to talk during breaks.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t proud when my name was on the boys’ soccer list. I saw it as my first step towards my inevitable popularity; all of the coolest guys were on the team. But my hopes of invites to the best parties and everyone knowing my name were promptly shattered.
We’d been warned by our coaches that it might rain, and that we should bring tennis shoes in case they managed to get the gym for practice. Indeed, it poured all day, and I’d been hoping desperately practice would just be cancelled, so I could ride the bus home. But announcements crackled through the speakers and proclaimed boys soccer practice would be held in the gym. At the dismissal bell, I hurried over to the boy’s locker room, and huddled in my corner right by the door. It was the most inconsequential circle of hell.
For those of you who have never been inside one, the boy’s locker room is a zoo. Only there aren’t cages to keep the specimens in, and there’s no safe place to observe them from. Instead, we’re all brutally thrust together and left to fend for ourselves.
I put my cleats aside, and took out my tennis shoes. They were a little used, but the colors were still bright fluorescents, and they shined on my feet. No one said anything about them in the locker room, but that’s mainly because no one ever talked to me in there. That was fine. I sat, slowly velcroing my shin-guards, head leaning out to catch glimpses of bare torsos or skin tight spandex. It wasn’t pervasion, it was curiosity; those were the lies I told myself.
A harsh bark came from our coach, Miss Ashcroft, from beyond the lockers, “Hurry up, you’ve got one minute to get out here!” The other boys rushed out, pulling shirts over their heads, shoes still untied. I begrudgingly followed.
With a blow from her whistle, our other coach, Miss Cleveland – affectionately referred to as Miss Cleavage by the boys – told us we were doing suicides; a sprinting exercise that makes one seriously consider the name.
Lucky me, I found myself in the middle of the pack, next to team captain and supreme leader of all that was cool, Will. A fairly large boy for 8th grade, his pasty complexion paired with the tendency for his cheeks to glow red made him a cabaret performer from 1930’s Berlin. The curly red mop on his head turned him into a clown; not the funny kind, but the kind that drags boys into sewers and eats them. I wasn’t scared of him, but he commanded respect among the group that I fervently hated and desperately longed to be initiated into. (Spoilers: I never made it.)
Hulking next to me on the black line, Will looked down at my shoes, and then up to my face. Grinning, he spoke loudly, bringing all attention onto him as he smirkingly said, “Ryan, are those women’s shoes?”
As a joke, it’s not very funny, and as an insult, it doesn’t carry much weight today. But back then, they caused the ground to shake and the world around me poised to crumble into a flaming hellscape. He might as well have castrated me with a burning knife because the effect was the same: total emasculation. The other soccer boys pointed and laughed, saying what can only be loosely translated to,“Hahaha, Ryan has shoes that are a traditionally feminine color. Now we’ll never invite him to our barbeque pool parties outside our three-story mansions. Let’s ostracize him!”
The jeers and chuckles went on forever. Too ashamed to speak, I stood there and took the abuse. The next thing I knew, the whistle blew and we took off to run our suicides. I gritted my teeth and sprinted for my life; I would win back my fragile masculinity by showing them how fast and strong I was. Unfortunately, my anger didn’t make me any better of a runner and, though I stayed far from last, I never came close to the quicker players.
The next time we had practice indoors, I wore my old tennis shoes – the ones with holes in the bottom. Blisters on my feet were better than another round of torment. But the shoes didn’t really make a difference. It wasn’t until I quit soccer and devoted my life to theater like a proper faggot, that things improved.
Those blue shoes wore down over a year, soon bearing holes just like the older ones, and likewise being retired for a newer (more conservative) pair. But sophomore year of high school, I bought a pair of bright turquoise converse, and to this day I still wear them at least 3 times a week. It’s not like I slip them on in the mornings thinking, “Yeah, fuck you, Will and all you soccer fucks,” but I do sometimes remember back to those unfortunate days. At the very least, that moment encouraged me to try and not care what other people think about me. Of course, I still do, but I’ve gotten very good at pretending like I don’t. My confidence might be an illusion, but these blue shoes on my feet are very real.