The Treacherous Toes

Neema Muneer

My father used to ascertain the degree of beauty in others by the shape of their toes and toe nails, be it in people he knew or in absolute strangers as well. Sometimes his observations would stretch upwards to the fingers too, but it was the toe that could command his attention. With women, especially. A woman could have the most ordinary face and disposition but if her toe nails looked out a certain way, if they rose timidly, detaching from the edge of skin, but did not stick out too much, he’d declare her beautiful. And a man could be trusted if he kept his cuticles trimmed and nails robust. Back then, this used to amuse me a lot. It felt like some great study of the human anatomy. Also, it opened up a way to connect with him, my father, the one I used to look up to the most and the one who seemed to revolve on an orbit higher than mine or my mother’s. Soon, I started looking out for people’s toes and fingers as well, often forgetting that they had faces. I wanted to win my father’s admiration and time, to draw him out with regards to his conclusions on such a matter, which if not for his quirky interest in it, would have actually been totally unworthwhile a subject to me. I wanted him to look at my face as I spoke, to listen with utmost seriousness to what I thought of someone’s nails and cuticles or of the shape and texture of those protrusions, both below and above. I wanted him to feel he had a friend in me, someone who felt the same strange compulsions as him, that I too harbored this irresistible urge to sneak a peek at random toes as they looked out from sandals or from underneath fluttering dresses and skirts and that I too felt compelled to click a mental photograph of them, and later derived pleasure letting those pictures marinate in the privacy of my mind as I tried to reach grave conclusions on the validity of their purpose and existence. I wanted him to look at me as if I were important. This eagerness of mine to impress him, the talks it led to and the discussions we had about it did make my mother edgy. She thought and said so loudly, more than once, that my father, her strange husband, was leading his kid down the wrong way. We only smiled as the accusations flew but then would blissfully go on rambling about our observations, adding to her well-intentioned chagrin.

Whenever we went over to a friend’s place for dinner or had a picnic at the park with other families, I’d watch my father slyly. I hoped to catch him in that exact moment when he would attempt to take a peek at the host’s toe or fingers, like perhaps when they would raise one leg over the other, or when they would pass the sandwiches to him, or when he took a long moment gripping a hot cup of tea extended towards him. But I always failed. I never did see him do it. He always met his subject at eye level. His looks never wandered off, not overtly nor stealthily. And yet, later when we’d be by ourselves, he would offer his judgement about the beauty of the subject who would have caught his interest; some poor unsuspecting soul who would have had no idea that her toe nails had been subjected to such intense scrutiny. If I had spent time observing him keenly and had not succeeded in catching him mid-act and if he’d still have conclusions to declare with confidence and details to share with precision, I would begin to doubt him. I would wonder if he was simply trying to appear intellectual. Or if maybe he was just trying to arouse my mother’s impending irritation or simply making things up to pull my leg. My mother would roll her eyes and ignore the both of us initially but if we stuck to our case, inevitably, we would earn her wrath.

It was at Uncle Dereck’s house that for the first time fear gripped me by the shoulders all the way down to my ankles. Nick had turned twelve and we were at their place to celebrate. Uncle Dereck and his wife, Aunty Michelle were known to be superb hosts. The parties they threw were different from the others. A certain aura of wealth and glamour followed the couple — their home, their kids and the lifestyle they took pleasure in showing off were all a grade apart. For us, it was a matter of pride that we were among the invitees every year for Nick’s big day.

Of course, we never let this show or spoke about it. But one could sense it in the extra care we took to dress ourselves up, the extra time we haggled between ourselves choosing that perfect little gift for imperfect little Nick and the money we spent when finally, we would reach a consensus. In fact, the general flutter in the air would be so hard to ignore for a whole week before and after the party that we would take the effort to tidy up and organise our own place with much gusto, even if nobody was expected to visit. As if at any time, as a consequence of our hobnobbing with the Dereck’s, our home and lifestyles too, otherwise bland and boring, would automatically upgrade, and so we had to be ready to play the part if ever we would be blessed with the opportunity. Suddenly, it would seem that somehow, we would have also risen in stature simply by being a part of that list that would throw open the doors to the Dereck & Michelle home for one fancy evening in the whole year. And that too, only because I and Nickola Dereck shared the same classroom at school. It seemed it would be no different this year as well.

The day had finally arrived and my excitement had to be tamed by biting down on my lip throughout the morning. We reached the venue around five in the evening and found ourselves awkwardly placed in the main hall where the guests were streaming in and seen nodding, smiling all over and hugging. The children, too, were still stuck with their parents, it looked like to me. Later, I knew to expect, they would disappear to their imaginary dens and the far-flung corners of the house, huge bubbles of noise emanating from them, rising above the crowd and mixing seamlessly with the much more civilised bubbles of banter rising from the adults, never breaking into each other though, just afloat above us all. Then of course, there was the tinkle of expensive cutlery, the whisper of caterers, the bawling of babies still not old enough to wander out on their own and not enough in number either to produce a whole bubble of theirs and finally the faint sounds of chant coming from some lone grandmother discarded on a sofa somewhere, occasionally enquired at but generally forgotten. I would sometimes disconnect myself from them all and listen in to the individual sounds and take in all the faces huddled together or standing out as singles. As I stood there, thinking out all the possibilities this particular evening could offer, I could literally feel heaven under my two very excited feet.

Soon enough, Nick came along and helped me start my float towards the other kids, saving me before I began to melt into a puddle with my folks. My parents were not as happy as the others to see their child leave. They looked slightly unsure of themselves but it was evident they were trying hard to appear otherwise. I began to feel that aura rub off on me but before it could get a grip on my nervous excitement, I darted away from them, feeling slightly sorrier for my mother. I hoped someone would find them like Nick had found me. Upstairs, white balloons flew in the air, floated on the floors and waved from the walls. Three kids with faces unfamiliar to me sat on the plush carpet in the space between the two bedrooms and had their necks craned up to look at the big TV screen mounted on the wall, Nintendo sticks in hand. Nick and I went inside his parent’s room first where all the gifts had been collected and deposited. I handed over the large package in my hand to him and wished him a very happy birthday, relieved to have the weight off my arms, a little of which I’d made Nick shoulder. He thanked me and placed my gift amongst the others. I was happy to notice mine looked huge compared to the other packets neatly arranged around his parent’s bed and hoped that Nick would like what it held when he would get around to opening it. My parents had, after much deliberation, bought the Yamaha digital piano for him, something for which I had been pining an eternity for. They promised me that soon I’d be given one of my own as well, but priorities first. Somehow, that argument, when it came to Nick, seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I wanted him to get something big from us and for that I could sacrifice or postpone my own happiness.

Before I left the room, my eyes fell on the small seat at his mother’s dressing table. Round and covered in gold velvet, it evoked a strong emotion in me. There, facing Aunty Michelle’s numerous bottles of perfumes and potions for her exquisite face, that little seat seemed befitting to a star. I suddenly had an urge to drag it all the way out of the room, down the stairs, through the patio and into our car. I wanted it for my mother, in our home. Never had I looked at something with that sort of longing. For a long moment there, before Nick grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out of the room, I stood looking at that chair and despaired over how very little my mother had. But soon, all was forgotten and I was lost in the din. I found myself all over the house, flitting in and out, at times in the yard and sometimes out on the street even. There was no rhythm or rhyme to our movements and it was laced with devilish fervor but this evening, as expected, nobody bothered to stop or question our crazed race towards everyone and everything.

At one point, back upstairs, when I was finally offered a chance at the Nintendo station, I plonked down with burning cheeks and a fluttering heart, only to be dragged back downstairs by the birthday boy, flanked by two other kids. They were hungry and urged me to accompany them to find some grub. Reluctantly, I joined them in skipping the stairs downwards — I was famished but unsure if it was wise to give up my chance right then at the Nintendo. The kitchen counters were laden with snacks and drinks but before we could dip in, we were gently directed by one of the white-capped caterers to the main table at the hall where all the food was spread out and he gently nudged us to go feast from that side. I caught a glance of my mother standing at the far corner of the kitchen, a glass of juice in her hand, smiling and talking in a hush with some other women. I was happy to see her engaged and looking comfortable, though I would have preferred to see her with the louder women, but before she could catch a glimpse of me, I moved on with the others towards the sumptuous feast that lay waiting on the table. It was difficult to choose from the grand assortment so I started piling a plate with whatever my hands fell on. As I turned from the table, a full plate in hand, I spotted my father seated on one of the elegant couches not too far from where we stood.

He was listening intently to the other men seated and standing around him, nodding and then not. Careful to not tip the contents of my very inviting platter of food, I slowly started making my way back upstairs. At the middle of the staircase when I turned around to look at Nick who was cracking about something to the other two, I noticed that my father had been left alone on the couch by the others. I saw no one around him but he looked fine. I continued on my way up when again I had the urge to look back at him. This time I saw his gaze pull up from his lap to face the woman who had approached him, drinks in hand, and was standing right next to him. It was Nick’s mother, Aunty Michelle. I saw her offer a tall glass of some chilled drink to my father and he almost politely stood up before accepting it. I should have moved on but I allowed Nick and the other two to pass me by, saying that I’d join them upstairs in a moment. I was unsure of what I was doing but there I stood, plate in hand, looking down at my father, feeling an emotion nameless to me. Aunty Michelle had sat down on the edge of the couch, next to my father who had slightly turned towards her. He smiled politely and took a sip of his drink at her request. As she pulled up one leg of hers over the other, my heart almost stopped beating. I did not take my eyes off my father and saw that his eyes didn’t waver from her face.

Aunty Michelle’s shiny arms, toned and bare, prompted me to take one step down towards them. Suddenly, I wanted to be rid of that plate. Hunger had been replaced by a primal fear, a fear so real yet so baseless. Like a secret I had been carrying around for all my life, but had been clueless about, was now going to prance out of my chest and topple everything on its way downstairs, ahead of me, making a show for all the world to see. Keeping my eyes fully on them, I went back down. Aunty Michelle was now covering her mouth, seemingly stifling a chortle which would have anyway been only a timid explosion of sound, I felt, had it been allowed to erupt. Her slim fingers swept away strands of golden hair from one side of her neck all the way to the other. When I was at the last step, I saw her gently place a hand on my father’s knee, saying goodbye to him and then she was on her way to float amongst the other guests. I saw my father look at her for a second as she walked away, his heat slightly visible, but then he was back to looking into his glass. I did not know what to make of anything or where to proceed with that cumbersome plate in hand. I had a sudden urge to leave that stupid party and go back home to process in peace this monstrous loss of something I had no name for and to nurse my hollering head back to normalcy.

After dragging my heavy heart somehow through the remainder of that party, I was relieved to find myself back in the car headed home. I had missed the cake cutting ceremony and generally felt like I had missed it all. My parents sat in the front, oblivious to each other, lost in their own thoughts. Once home, we all quickly changed our outfits, which were suddenly so much heavier what with the weight of the day added to them. My mother washed her face laboriously, my father threw his shoes off and I drank cold water in long sips of satiation, all in an attempt to feel ourselves back in our bodies. The shabbiness of our real lives was a blessing then, we were all visibly soaking it in whilst carefully keeping our distance from each other. By the time I finally got myself to bed, I had forgotten about the cross that had lodged itself in my chest that horrible evening.

Two months later, my father left us and our home. It was not a loud situation. We had felt it coming ever since Nick’s birthday party. He had grown more and more silent and seemed to be closing in on himself by the day. He did not even bother to put up the usual performances for our sake and we had not missed them much either. I did make some half-hearted attempts to draw him out by talking about the toes I had studied during the party for about a week following it, stemming partly from my imagination and partly my dread whenever I thought of Aunty Michelle’s shimmery toe nails, their satin effect visible even from afar, and what all of that could mean for the future of my own little family here. But he barely reacted to any of it. For the first time, he did not put on a show of how impressed he was of my observations; instead, he shooed me away. He became a stranger in his own home, a tragedy we all knew was in the offing but which we hoped would take a longer course in coming. Once we knew we had lost him, the suffering we thought would follow did not materialise. We were tired. We had for a long time been trying to keep up with his obvious longings for a different and better life. Something in Aunty Michelle had done the severance, mesmerising him beyond redemption and as much as I termed her a witch in my head in the initial days, the strength of those emotions waned. Perhaps, she had done us all a favor, I secretly told myself, and I knew I could dare to think like that only because of my mother. She had gradually, but almost effortlessly, it looked like, took on a lighter air, much sooner than one would have expected. She did not really bother to pause at the gates of grief or depression, she merely began to shed him away. I had expected her to tear her clothes and hair, to come apart as a mad woman would, but she just took time off for a few weeks, letting him out, it seemed, one breath at a time. It helped a lot, this smooth transition of hers. That fateful evening, as those shimmery toe nails had bewitched my father, I had felt the world crumble in my chest. I had not known what to do or who to turn to. The exhaustion I had felt at my powerlessness, as I had watched my father being stolen from us, holding a plate full of food that I never did find the heart to eat that evening; I had believed the end was near. I had even cursed my mother for being a simpleton, believing she had no idea who her husband was and what kind of secrets he held in his manly heart. But in hindsight, I believe I grossly underestimated my mother. When her husband of fourteen years left her, she was definitely heartbroken, I can confirm, but she did not give herself the permission to wallow. Within the month, she had applied to the school in the neighborhood and had found herself employment as a teacher of science. For the senior students, that too. I had always thought that it was in my service that she had accepted to be bound to a life at home. It had never occurred to us that perhaps there could be something she wanted to do outside the home, that perhaps she had been good at something before my father and I had jailed her in. But it seems now that I had never truly been a hindrance and my father’s departure from our lives swiftly helped her cross the threshold.

We no longer get invited to big birthday parties and we are almost grateful for it. My mother does not discuss people or their bodies with me and I do not act cleverer than I am. She has gradually kneaded my participation into every household chore there is but in such a way that I do not mind and sometimes even look forward to them. She gets me out of the house regularly during the week for classes in swimming and for hours on the football ground, wagging her head at my presence if she finds me at home earlier in the evenings. I don’t find myself inadequate or nervous in her presence. The responsibility of holding it all together, something I hadn’t really known I was carrying, has been lifted off my shoulders. I don’t have to perform anymore for the sake of my parents or their happiness and the rings under my mother’s eyes too have disappeared. The simpleton I thought she was, she isn’t, I now know.

Every now and then though, I do find myself looking for my father at the table next to mine in a restaurant or in the man I run into at the school gate. Sometimes I reach for the telephone even before I am sure it has rung. It never is him and that leaves me surprisingly relieved. And every so often, much to my shame, I find myself looking at the toes and toe nails of strangers, particularly those of females, only to end up admonishing myself over the futility of it all. Let me also tell you that so far, I have never dared to look at my own mother’s toes. I’ve promised myself to never ponder their shape or look down carefully at them, for another shift in this delicate balance that we have carved out for ourselves, a second time, would be far beyond my tolerance. So, I look away when she draws her knees up to her chest and talks to me in the evenings in our downtime or when she rubs lotion over her callused heels before she goes to bed. I do not want to look and find the answers to the questions I never will have the courage to ask.

Neema Muneer is a perennial recluse living in Saudi Arabia with her husband and two children. She is currently working on her debut novel.