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The Right Shoes

“Can you fly with a man?”

Everyone admired how very large they felt, above the trees and the town. Amira had felt that way before, at what she assumed could be called the height of her life, but right now she looked at her feet.

“Excuse me, ma’am. Can you fly with a man?”

She wore a hijab that framed her from hairline to chin. It merged with a floor-length black dress. Her tennis shoes were red like pomegranates. Red like pomegranates, she insisted, only like pomegranates. But they were red like blood as well, so she pulled them back beneath her dress.

The driver turned to catch her eye. He had an indistinct face, hard to focus on. Even while she looked, she forgot him. “Ma’am? We don’t have any female paragliders with us today.”

A young man in the seat in front of Amira, probably in his twenties, cocked his head in her direction, and she recognized him from the day before. “She’s welcome to fly with me,” he said. “If that suits ‘er?” An Australian accent. They were both far from home. She surprised herself by nodding.

“As long as you’re comfortable with that,” said the driver, bored. Amira hadn’t stopped nodding, so he looked appeased.

“Where ya from?” asked the Australian. He had dozens of freckles and moles like splattered mud, and his eyes joined the collection. Amira appreciated shades of beige. She found blue and green eyes alarming up close, and without meaning to, she released some of the tension in her shoulders. But almost immediately, they started the slow climb back up around her ears.

“Syria. Then, Lebanon. Greece for a short time. Now, here, but I don’t know how long I’ll stay.” A hotel in the Swiss town had invited refugees to stay with them when granted political asylum. She could tell he wanted to ask more. She considered asking him where he was from to be polite, but didn’t.

“Ya wore the right shoes today,” he said after a moment.

Amira pulled her feet farther back. “I didn’t know that I’d need tennis shoes.”

“Makes things safer. Can’t have shoes flyin’ outta the air, hittin’ people down below like pigeon poop.”

The day before, she had approached the paragliding van. But when she saw the words on the side of the vehicle, “Tennis shoes required,” she pivoted and walked back to the hotel, joining the group of women in hijabs and dark dresses, other Syrians she hadn’t known long. Although Amira had no children of her own, no children to play in the bomb wreckage, she would join the mothers to circle their young. She saw her fear in all of them.

“Name’s Lou,” said the Australian, pulling her from her thoughts. “I’ve been a surfer, a bartender, a second-grade teacher, a hobo, and would ya believe it if I said I was a banker? Cause I was.” He ended all of his “er”s with “a”s. “And who are you?”

“Amira,” she said, grateful he didn’t try to shake her hand. The last man she had intentionally reached out to touch was her husband, the morning he disappeared 11 months ago. He had been sitting at his desk in the morning, jotting down thoughts that would become poems. He was a driver during the day but wrote his way through most nights. She walked in on him using his pencil to scratch a spot on his back he couldn’t reach. She swept away his hand and scratched it herself, but didn’t recognize the moment for what it was. Since then it was only inevitable shoves on a crowded street or boat. Hot breath on the back of her neck in Lebanon. Probing eyes from between rows of tents.

The van bounced and Amira flew an inch from her seat, enough to make her stomach drop. She smoothed her dress to calm her nerves and noted the quiet conversations going on around her. The passengers were mostly American, primarily here to sky dive, but looking for something relaxing to do on their day off. An older man and his ten-year-old daughter sat in front. So young. Amira had seen other ten-year-olds with courage, but her own seemed to leave her as she aged.

At the top of the mountain, they filed out toward the take-off area. Amira watched her red shoes trod along until the party came to a halt. The sloped hill looked like a natural runway, and opened up into snow-capped peaks, tree tops, and glacial lakes. Everything was ragged and wild. Lou approached her side and shrugged off a multi-colored, over-sized backpack.

“I’m goin’ to get everythin’ ready. Then I’ll walk ya through what comes next. Want a hint? We run and jump.”

Amira watched him unfold the parachute. It flapped in the wind to protest the ground. The people around her, each paired with an instructor, were already hooked up to marionette strings. Lou looked back at her and gave a thumbs-up. Taking turns, every pair, the pilot-of-sorts and the passenger, ran into the void at the end of the hill. The parachute unfurled behind them and at the last second, they lifted their feet and were yanked into the air. Some wobbled about, then soared off in different directions, held up by a thin sheet of colorful plastic, so easily torn or blown off course. The ten-year-old and her paraglider went last, and when they were in the air they rose much higher than the rest. Amira pictured the girl falling, tumbling weightless for too long.

“Ya ready?” asked Lou.

“I can’t do it,” she said, her fists clenched. “I’m not doing it. Take me down.”

“Hey, now. Ya bought the shoes for it, didn’t ya? Just think on it for a minute.”

“I didn’t buy them. I stole them.” she said. “From the hotel’s Lost and Found.” She slumped and sat on the ground, equally surprised and appalled at herself for doing so.

She expected Lou to sidestep the comment and pull the van up. He must get people who change their minds all the time. But he sat down beside her. “If it makes ya feel any better. I’ve taken things. Things not mine to take.”

“I want to go,” she said.

“That’s fine,” he said. “We can go. But tell me first, why did ya want to do this? Flyin’?”

“I don’t know you,” she said. “All you need to know is that I’ve changed my mind.”

He looked disappointed. “I’ll fold up shop then.”

When Amira’s husband folded linens, he did it with a similar focus as Lou did with his parachute now. The lines had to be straight, each fold symmetrical. She teased him often, “Poets are meant to be unruly.”

“My heart is wild,” he told her with a smile, never looking up.

“You don’t carry an ounce of wild in you,” she said.

He scolded her with a pinch. “Not all poets love mess,” he said. “We are unruly because we can’t be kept quiet. We are the witnesses.”

She had begged him not to read his work to others but he did. Three others in town disappeared along with him: a doctor, protestor, and sixteen-year-old girl. That night, Amira burned her husband’s poems, so when the militia came again all they found was ash. She wondered if he was alive somewhere, and silently asked him to forgive her, prayed his death be quick. I am not as brave as you, she wrote repeatedly on a piece of paper. I am not as brave as you. I am not a poet.

“What did you steal?” she called to Lou. But the wind blew her voice aside. “What did you steal?” she shouted again and her voice hit its mark.

Lou motioned for her to come to him, he was trying to tackle the parachute. He leaned in and said, “I stole a car.”

Amira let out a squawk of laughter that, if the wind hadn’t been so loud, would have scared several birds from their perch. It made her lighter. “That’s worse than I thought it would be.” Her squawk deteriorated into giggles, “You,” she had to breath deep to contain them, “you stole a car?”

“It was years ago,” he said with a shrug. “Sometimes ya need to get somewhere your feet can’t carry ya.”

It occurred to her that she shouldn’t trust this man, but there was something so profoundly true about what he said. Sometimes you need to get somewhere your feet can’t carry you, and hers had already carried her such a long way. Her husband would have laughed for an eternity if he saw her now. On the precipice of flight. What a wild woman, he’d say.

“I’ve changed my mind. I want to fly,” she said. Lou went to work, unfolding yet again, though it didn’t take long and Amira suspected he’d been stalling. She stepped her feet into the harness, hiked it up over her dress, and he clipped her in.

“When I say so, we start to run. As ya feel us lift off, scoot back on the bench. I’ll be hangin’ out behind ya, and can take it from there.”

They ran, picked up their feet, and the parachute unfurled behind them, tugging them back gently. And then up. They floated away from the mountain, and what a way to travel. Amira saw that what once looked like chaos – the wilderness, the ragged town – was actually an organized kind of beauty, with sweeping lines and rows of trees, all fitting into little boxes, everything in proportion.

“What kind of bird is that?” asked Amira. It had been following along to their left. A little brown bird that flew from left to right. Its wings worked endlessly to stay in flight.

“Some kinda thrush,” he said. “Don’t usually get those up this high.” He went on to name what types of birds he usually saw – hawks and other birds of prey – but Amira looked on after the thrush.

“Now that I got ya up here,” he said. “You better promise to come back and fly with me again. We could even get ya a license and have you flyin’ on your own.”

On my own, she thought. What a place to be.

Lou continued to name the peaks in the distance, and describe the air pockets he avoided in flight, but she closed her eyes. She could tell they were starting to descend.

“When we land, just stick your feet out straight,” said Lou while the world came closer. “Damn shame about gravity.”

They landed in a field and for the first time, Amira realized how close the two of them had been to each other. She held out a hand and he shook it. She was amazed by how pleasant it felt.

A van was already coming down the road in a cloud of dust. “Must’ve seen us swoopin’ out of the big blue,” said Lou. It pulled up and Amira noted the words painted on the side, “Tennis shoes required.”

She scrunched up her toes and spread them out, exploring the half-size of extra space in her shoes. She wondered if anyone would miss them, or if they needed them like she did, these shoes that made her brave. She heaved a sigh, and agreed with Lou. Damn shame about gravity. For the first time in her life, she felt a poem coming on, alighting on her mind and reaching all corners. She tucked the edges in and held it close, knowing who had sent it.



Emily Laubham is a fiction writer, blogger, and content marketer in Pittsburgh, PA. She travels the world as often as she can afford to.