"Nowadays, it’s hard to find a woman,” he says, “with a pretty face and pretty feet.”
I say, “Is that so.”
I say it because I am afraid that if I don’t respond, he’ll evaporate. He has appeared to me on this faux-rustic trail a breath away from the city, where I was walking alone barefoot, grasping at the tails of a petering heartbreak. That is to say, I was looking for a person to love.
“Once,” he says, “I cultivated a foot fetish. It was an exploratory time. Or, you could say, I was bored.”
He nods, as if he’s explained something.
I look at my toes. A flap of purple nail polish has chipped off from the big one, and the pinky toe on my left foot has, over the years, evolved into an impressive callus. There is a dab of purple on what could have once been a nail, but it’s mostly just for show.
He scans me with cold eyes.
Years later, after he’s broken my heart, he invites me to visit him in New Mexico.
I want to tell him, “You can’t just invite me to New Mexico when you’ve broken my heart,” but I bite my tongue. It isn’t the invitation I want him to take back.
Besides, it’s an exploratory time.
I tell my boyfriend—a younger man I’m afraid to love—“I’m going to New Mexico to see a man whose memory I love more than I think I love you.”
“But—” the younger man says, “your vacation days are so precious.”
It’s a fair point.
I say, “You may have traveled the world, but I’ve never even seen the Grand Canyon.”
“The Grand Canyon is in Arizona,” he says.
His arms glisten, the muscles round and taut, and I consider how pretty and smooth he is with equal ounces of endearment and regret.
“Don’t show off,” I say.
I wear sandals, though it isn’t quite warm enough. I glance from my feet to his face. My feet are turning blue. His face is wearing the intense look, one that makes it difficult to tell if he cares. He isn’t looking at my feet, and he isn’t looking at my face. Instead, he stares at my breasts.
I wonder about the correlation of breasts to faces and breasts to feet.
He stares at my breasts and I stare at my feet and his face for a long time, wondering if we’re going to fuck, when his friend Brutus who sometimes comes over to smoke his cannabis comes over.
“Whoa,” he says, looking at my feet. “Nice podia.”
I am wearing a blushing coral nail polish this time, and nothing is chipped.
Brutus slips an arm around my waist and says, “You wanna get out of here?” and we go into my ex-boyfriend’s bedroom, where Brutus pushes me onto the bed and we start making out. He’s just about to deep-throat me with his tongue when my ex-boyfriend comes into his room swinging a steak knife, grabs the back of Brutus’s shirt and pulls him off of me.
“Get off of her,” he says, even though he’s already pulled Brutus off.
Brutus says, “No way.”
I’m wondering if I should stand up for Brutus, when my ex-boyfriend starts to plunge the steak knife into Brutus’s heart. I jump off his bed and throw myself in front of Brutus.
“No!” I say, a little dramatically. “I love him.”
The knife grazes my cheek. I wipe away some blood.
Later, when everything’s worked out, I get my suitcase and leave with Brutus, who apologizes for not carrying my bags—he would, he says, but he’s just been stabbed.
“I understand,” I say.
At Brutus’s place I nurse him back to health—maybe thinking that the hole in his chest represents the subtraction of what happened between me and my ex-boyfriend from what happened between me and the younger man, or the negative of the sum of my ex-boyfriend and Brutus, or the sum of the differences of all of them and myself. Soon, we can’t even tell there was once a hole. Brutus and I do the things two people do to fall in love: we eat from each other’s hands, sing-shout our favorite songs, carve our initials into the furniture, recite poetry we wrote for each other and weep while holding hands. We almost have a child.
Then, it’s time to go back.
“Goodbye, Brutus,” I say. I think about the younger man in New York with a twinge of warmth. I think about his calves, how round and hard they are. I think I may be ready, now, to love him.
Brutus waves and presses his hand over his heart, where there was once that hole. I touch my cheek. The cut from my ex-boyfriend’s steak knife has become a scar, and the scar grows bigger every day.
My younger man glows. While I’ve been in New Mexico, he’s been at the beach, and his skin has this healthy luster that makes me want to rub my face and my feet all over it.
“I’m back,” I say.
My younger man says, squinting at my face, “You’ve gotten so old.”
“Your face is red and gashed,” he continues. “Your feet are lumpy and brown. Your blossoming butt cheeks accentuate the cellulite around your legs. Is it even you? Everything’s changed, a world-weariness lines your eyes, your cheeks sag, your step is not carefree, and frankly, you don’t even seem like the person you were.”
I wait for him to say something nice, because it seems like the logical next step.
“You aren’t ugly, but you’ll never be beautiful either.”
I say, “I understand,” not because I do, but because I don’t want to say, “More has happened than you can know, but after everything, I did come back.” After all, I am older, and understanding should come naturally with age.
The younger man’s sheets and blankets twist and tumble over each other, orange and yellow and white, and before I turn to leave it occurs to me that in the wrinkled mess, we might have made love. Though the reality is that I just arrived, and now I am leaving. After his door closes behind me, he will vanish so completely from who I am that on the street, in the reflections of storefronts and strangers’ eyeglasses, in the puddles of last night’s rain, I will not even appear changed.
I look at my younger man one last time. And in that moment, before he swirls into the domains of lives that are not mine, I admire for the first time how well proportioned he is—though it isn’t that the ratios of how pretty his feet to his face, his knees to his ankles, his wrists to his calves, or his nose to his neck, are just right. He certainly is not perfect, but his imperfections come together so that as a man—an existence—he somehow makes sense.
Meng Jin was born in Shanghai and now lives in Brooklyn. She is pursuing her MFA in fiction at Hunter College in New York
This story has also been featured in the monthly audio magazine Bound Off. Click here to hear Meng read it herself.