Every week during my junior year at Berkeley, I would ride the train across the Bay Bridge and into San Francisco, twisting down the streets, eventually arriving in the shopping mecca of Union Square. One afternoon I found myself inside the Jimmy Choo boutique. On a platform of smooth plexiglass, there they were: the perfect high heel. They were handsome, though not ostentatious: three beautiful straps across an open toe; a slim insole that met a modest three-inch stiletto heel. Italian leather, naturalmente, and the perfect shade of nude.
A salesman approached. "I was just looking," I told him. But I couldn't resist. "I think I'm a six and a half or seven?" I said. "These are Jimmy Choos, so they come in European sizes," was his reply, with just an economy of interest. A few moments later, he returned with size 37s. Pivoting my feet on the fuscia carpet, striking little poses in the mirror, I felt flushed and dizzy. "So this is what it's like to fall in love," I thought.
The only catch: They came with a $300 dollar price tag, a mind-boggling amount in my 20-year-old mind. I walked away empty-handed. But for days afterward, I could not get those heels out of my mind. I thought about my future with them the way a teenage girl fixates on an unobtainable crush; these shoes were the phantom variable -- perhaps a ticket to a chicness that I desperately, clumsily, wanted to possess.
In the coming weeks, I made lists of why I needed them. Number one: these were a smart investment, a classic pair of heels that could be resoled for years. Number two: a sexy stiletto was just what I needed to attract the attention of my crush Patrick, he of the husky voice and strong jaw line, who studied philosophy with a beautifully tortured, chain-smoking affectation. Number three: self-defense.
My mentor growing up, an haute couture collector, used to say: "A real lady never drinks beer at a party. Ask for champagne. If there is none, politely decline and sip on Pellegrino." Her counsel would go through my head every time I attended a college kegger, where champagne was a laughable option. No one would dare make fun of the water-drinking sorority girl if she had on menacingly sharp heels.
Beyond that, I was, quite simply, desirous to own something new and covetable. Though I grew up in an upper middle class family and had parents who lavished affection, they shunned material excess and were militantly focused on academics. Anything they could save on, they would. There were no beautiful dresses to be had, just my sister's hand-me-downs, which I would then cut and rip and sew into my own C-rate creations, a la Pretty in Pink. The only item of dress I remember coveting was a pair of Mary Janes: white with a trio of pastel flowers the color of nonpareils decorating the button strap. I suppose I had a thing for shoes, even at age five.
A few weeks after my first visit to the boutique, a serendipitous coincidence happened. My father, who had a PhD from Berkeley and watched over my studies with great exactitude, had become worried that I was not going to pass statistics that semester.
He had grounds for concern: I had dropped the class twice in terms prior, once for failing a mid-term. "Why don't you get a tutor?" he said during a phone call, his voice tinged with worry. "I'll pay for it." I told him that was a great idea.
As it happened, I already had a tutor lined up. A kind, golden-haired classmate who sat in front of me had offered to help me pass the final after I confided to him that I could not tell the difference between discrete versus continuous probability distributions. His offer hinged on one request: he would trade tutoring for a standing invitation to my sorority socials. Money, he had plenty of. But access to girls, he was in dire straits.
That weekend, I headed home to see my father. I found him in the garden of our backyard, crouched over a bed of petunias, heavy white tube socks rolled down to his ankles. "I might have the right guy," I said. I went on to describe him as such: he was an acquaintance from the dorms; a double engineering and computer science major; and he, subsisting on a boxed-macaroni diet, could really use the cash. And then, the most important details: my tutor charges $25 dollars per hour, two hours per week. There were six weeks left in the semester, making the grand total an even $300.
My plan worked. "Great news," my father said. "I'll write you a check this evening." And so, after dinner, we found ourselves in his study, a claustrophobic space wall-to-wall in textbooks. He pulled out his checkbook. "How do you spell his last name?" "C-h-o-o. Jimmy Choo," I replied solemnly. "He's supposed to be really great." My father did not look up from writing. He ripped off the sheet and handed me the check. I glanced down quickly and there it was, in my dad's deliberate, careful penmanship those two magical words: "Jimmy Choo."
I returned to the boutique the next day, exchanging the check for a pair of size 37 stilettos. The total came to a bit over $300; I paid for the excess in cash. I felt elated, and went home to ceremoniously clear out the top shelf of my closet to make room for the new shoebox. As a sort of moral atonement, I donated about a quarter of my closet to the local Salvation Army. I became incredibly nice to my father and his new fiancée. And when I took my last test in Statistics, I walked into the finals hall in my new shoes. They must have brought me luck, because I finally passed.