The first time my wife took me to Italy after we were married, I wore flip-flops. It would be stifling August hot over there. I planned on wearing short-shorts and sleeveless t-shirts as much as possible, to maximize exposure to sun and air. And flip-flops. These were nice flip-flops I had bought at Pier 1, with rattan footbeds and royal purple velvet thongs, anything but ordinary. But no sooner did we arrive that she started to insult them.
“I can’t believe you wear those things,” she said.
I looked down, turned a foot, and admired the rattan. “Comfortable,” I said. “Naturally cool.”
A dismissive shake of the head.
I pointed to the purple thong. “And elegant.”
“You don’t see Italians wearing those things.”
Those things. She couldn’t bring herself even to say their name. Flip, flop. Flip-flop. In truth, I did not see any Italians wearing flip-flops. Neither did I see envious looks from passersby on the streets.
“Why don’t you get some ciabatte like Domenico’s?”
Domenico, her cousin, was an arbiter of fashion. In a state of relaxation, he wore both plastic beach ciabatte and wooden clogs. That summer it was obvious clogs were the most common mode of transportation for Italians. On sidewalks you’d hear people clopping in and out of stores and trattorie, to and from the beach, like so any fashionable clothes horses. Clogs, I could see, were hot.
A few days later, at the mercato in Rimini, weary of hearing my footwear slandered, I picked up a pair of clogs, smooth blond wood with a wide blue leather band to fit over the bridge of the foot.
“Yes,” she said.
No, I discovered repeatedly over the next week or so.
When we were kids, we called them thongs, not flip-flops. The first time I ever wore a pair was in the Straits of Mackinaw. The bridge was only a few years old, and my paternal grandmother wanted to see it in the worst way. “Daddy,” she’d say to my grandfather, “wouldn’t you like to see the bridge?”
He’d take his pipe out of his mouth, shake his head, and say, “No.”
Her sight and hearing were fading. She felt a sense of urgency.
“What?” she’d say.
“I’ve seen a bridge,” he’d answer.
Then one Thursday night late in the summer she called us and said Daddy was ready, and shouldn’t we go before he changed his mind?
We left early the next morning, drove north, and camped that night in a park at the base of the bridge, not far from Fort Michilimackinac. While my grandparents sat in lawn chairs through the afternoon, regarding the bridge, the rest of us did what seemed like the only sensible thing. We went swimming in the Straits. The water was cold and rough. We expected that. And the bottom was rocky, so rocky as to be almost impossible to navigate. My parents must have figured swimming was going to be essential, maybe the only thing, outside of the fort, that my brother and I would enjoy, because they loaded us into the car, drove to a nearby five-and-dime store, and bought thongs for us. (This is before the advent of swim shoes.) They came in one color: blue.
In theory, it seemed like a solution. In practice, it was a disaster. Thongs, we discovered, were more floatation device than barrier between your foot and sharp rocks. Take a step and one fetched loose and bobbed to the surface. When you reached for it, your toes clenched to hold the other one on, the moment you relaxed the second one also slipped free from your foot. In an act of desperation we tried tying them on with nylon clothesline. (This was before the advent of duct tape.) It was no use.
For a while after that, I associated thongs with frustration and failure, until they became flip-flops and, in my mind, at least, inseparable from summer ease and freedom.
I flip-flopped into the theater twice this summer and saw movies that took me back to early adolescence in all of its fullness—the ease and freedom, but also the confusion, self-doubt, and fear. In “Mud” I saw myself and a couple friends at the county park in Lake City. We were lords of the lake. We patrolled the park on bikes. We sauntered the beach in flip-flops. We had girl friends. They looked at us, when they looked at all, in an irresistibly alluring way. Chase us, their looks said. But don’t catch us . . . because you are gross. We were ten years old. We were gross.
One friend, Shawn Dryer, wore his hair in a crewcut. He was thin and sinewy, a natural leader, ready for anything. When we came upon a bubbling mud puddle in the pavilion parking lot one afternoon, it was Shawn who reached into the water and pulled out a chunk of dry ice. He tossed it from hand to hand, blowing on it. Then he took his investigation to the next logical step. He popped it in his mouth and swallowed it.
He smiled and tilted his head, thinking with his stomach.
“Well?” we said.
“It makes you burp,” he said.
In “The Way Way Back” I saw myself again, in the way back of one of those giant station wagons, gazing out the rear window, no idea where we were going. I had something on my stomach my mother thought was ringworm. I’d walked around all that morning with my fly down. No one had told me until it was a joke. Now, worst of all, I was sickened by the unmistakable scent of dog poop. Sitting next to me was Don Booth, whose nickname was Foot (rhymed with boot).
“Leaping lizards!” he said.
It smelled awful. And it was coming from my direction.
“Is that you?” he said. “Criminy, is that you?”
I looked at my foot. Fortunately I was wearing shoes that day, light canvas tennies with a curving blue line on each toe, an upside down smile. There it was on the sole of one shoe, a smear of poop.
“Stop the car,” Donnie yelled.
I was mortified, thinking, as any kid would, Why does everything happen to me?
Most mornings that summer we went to the park store for penny candy—straws full of colored sugar, miniature wax coke bottles with an amber liquid sugar inside, ropes of red and black licorice. It was in that store, in August, we heard news that Marilyn Monroe was dead. It was a hot sunny day. I didn’t know much about death. I’d seen a few ancient relatives, stiff as manikins in their caskets, hands peacefully folded. I didn’t know much about Marilyn Monroe either. She had not yet become an icon. If there were movies and photographs, other people saw them. To me she was mostly just a name. Found dead.
We walked down to the lake and looked across the water.
“She killed herself,” Shawn said. “She took pills and killed herself.”
“How could she do that?” I said.
“And did you hear?” he said. “She was nude.”
This detail somehow made her death more terrifying. To be dead was unthinkable. To be dead and nude was even worse. We looked at each other and ate our candy. Nothing made sense. How many weeks of summer left? From a radio in the parking lot came the Beach Boys singing “Surfin’ Safari.” We tore off our shirts, kicked off our flip-flops, and crashed into the water.
Clogs and I were not made for each other. I kept falling off them.
“I can’t walk on these things,” I said to my wife. We were in Nuovo Fiore, an ice cream shop in Riccione. “It’s like they roll or something.”
“You don’t know how to walk,” she said.
I had just picked myself up off the sidewalk outside. I was a danger to myself. Now I watched fashionable people clogging up and down the streets. What did they know that I didn’t?
“You’ll catch on,” she said.
I kept trying. But I didn’t.
The previous summer, another cousin, Vincenzo, had visited us in the US. I had taken him fishing one day on the Saginaw Bay, where we caught half a dozen perch. It was more leisure fishing than sport fishing. Nevertheless, he was determined to return the favor. He knew a little English, I knew a little Italian. With my wife’s help, he explained he wanted to take me to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. My wife rolled her eyes. (No Italian I’ve met since was remotely interested in the Leaning Tower of Pisa.) I said sure, I’d go.
The next day he picked me up in a red Fiat convertible.
There are stretches of autostrada between Bologna and Florence that call to mind the Pennsylvania Turnpike, lots of hills, lots of curves. Only these were European drivers. Vincenzo drove like a madman, determined, I think, to wow me with his car. While he drove, we tried to talk.
He said, “I like a good Coca Cola.”
“What’s the speed limit?”
He said, “My Aunt Tita is 90 years old.”
“It would be all right to slow down.”
He said, “Today we will ask for our spaghetti molto al dente.”
“Are we almost there?”
He said, “Later I will take you to a town where only ugly people live.”
At that time, it was still possible to climb to the top of the Leaning Tower. Vincenzo said he would pass on the climb. To me, it seemed like a good idea. From the ground I counted seven levels. A narrow spiral staircase corkscrewed around the perimeter inside the tower, all the way to the top. As you ascended, you leaned with the tower, into the interior wall, then against the outer wall. Back and forth, lean in, lean out. At each level, you could step outside onto a loggia. By the third level, I was feeling dizzy. I poked my head out in the direction of the loggia, then kept going. Lean in, lean out. By the fifth level, I was stricken with vertigo. And I was teetering on my clogs. I skipped the fifth and sixth loggia. Finally I gained the top level. Terrified I would fall, I pulled off my clogs and walked in bare feet to a bench and sat down. Vertigo, I discovered, made you sick to your stomach.
What hadn’t occurred to me was the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a bell tower. As soon as I sat down the bells began to ring. Seven deafening bells. There were vertigo-free children everywhere, darting from the high side of the tower to the low side, and there were traumatized parents calling to them. “Maura,” one father kept saying, “be careful. Please, Maura.” Good heavens, I thought, the little shit was wearing clogs. I knew my Galileo. If Maura and I fell from the tower at the same time, we would hit the ground below at the same time. I also sensed, given my track record of the last week, I was fully capable of falling from the middle of the tower, whereas Maura was going to be just fine.
I’d had enough. I picked up my clogs and slowly took the stairway down, hoping I would corkscrew myself back to equilibrium. Later that night, when Vincenzo deposited me safely at home, I flung them in the back of a closet, retrieved my flip-flops, and never looked back.
Dana Stevens, writing for Salon this summer, lodges this complaint against flip-flops: “[Their] use seems to transport people across some sort of etiquette Rubicon where the distinction between public and private, inside and outside, shod and barefoot, breaks down entirely.” Dana Stevens is right. And I think that’s my wife’s beef. Dude, get some decent shoes (a very Italian point of view). I get it, totally. And yet, to jailbreak your feet, to give them good clean air to breath, and to slow down to flip-flop pace, the fwap fwap fwap of your footfall saying take your time, that’s living. That’s summertime. How many weeks of summer left? How many summers? However many there are, I’ll take mine in flip-flops.
RICK BAILEY‘s work has appeared in Ragazine.cc, The Writer’s Workshop Review, and Drunk Monkeys.