Athlete’s foot (tines pedis). A fungal infection of the skin of the foot, most commonly between the toes and on the soles.
Esau Harris suffered from a mild form of athlete’s foot, probably because his feet spent most of their time enclosed in the dark, moist interiors of athletic shoes. Esau loved sport. He also loved sports footwear. Close friends called him ‘Shoeman’.
Early one Tuesday evening, Esau was shopping online for Adidas runners. His wife Helen, who had no interest in sports or sports footwear, was out taking a landscape design class. Esau could see, through the window of his study, Helen’s latest work-in-progress – a garden path of mosaic stone. As he contemplated the half-completed project, he noticed a young woman walking past the house, beach towel draped over one shoulder, canvas bag hanging from the other. He was struck by two things – her beauty, and her Nike Air Max trainers.
Esau saw her pass by again on Thursday: same time, same trainers. The following Tuesday, he kept an eye out, wondering if she’d appear, and, if so, whether to go and strike up a conversation. They could discuss shoes and related topics; it would be perfectly innocent.
The sun was already setting when Esau saw her coming up the road. He made a split-second decision to take out the rubbish two days early.
The woman with the towel and the shoes paused as she walked by Esau’s front yard.
‘Isn’t the rubbish collected on Thursday?’
Never had Esau been so eager to talk about household refuse.
‘I like to get in early,’ he said.
She laughed. ‘Wow, you’re organised.’
‘Yes, I am. You live around here?’
‘Right up the end of the street.’
Esau tried to think of something else to say to prolong the conversation. He looked at her shoes once again, noting that she wore a very small size.
‘Thanks,’ she replied.
‘The classic leather upper and visible Air-Sole unit in the heel make for a great combination of style and comfort. Retro meets…er…the now.’
‘Yikes! Quite the expert, aren’t you?’
Esau waved a modest hand. ‘So…swimming, eh?’ He looked directly at her face for the first time, and was charmed by the faint sprinkling of freckles on her nose.
‘I go to the aquatic centre at least twice a week. You swim?’
‘Me? No…not really.’ He paused. ‘I like sports that involve shoes.’
She laughed. ‘Sometimes shoes are overrated.’
Esau took a shower, carefully dried between his toes and applied some anti-fungal powder. He looked in the mirror, thinking, as usual, that his muscular chest and back were spoiled by the thick carpet of black hair. It had been a source of acute embarrassment since his late teens, when he’d stopped visiting beaches and swimming pools because he couldn’t cope with people staring. A couple of early girlfriends had expressed reluctance to touch his naked torso. Helen was the first woman who didn’t seem to mind. ‘It’s the man under the hair that matters,’ she said.
He thought about the towel-and-shoe woman, and found himself visualising the interior of her apartment. He saw a set of those coloured plastic dumbbells, a juice extractor, several tupperware containers filled with different types of muesli. He recalled her running shoes. What little feet she must have, he thought. He’d never once showed the slightest bit of interest in Helen’s feet. In fact, he couldn’t even remember what size shoe she took. Nor was he aware that she suffered from bunions.
Bunion (hallux valgus). Angulation of the great toe away from the midline of the body, typically caused by wearing tightly-fitting shoes. Involves lateral deviation of the proximal phalanx of the great toe and medial displacement of metatarsal I.
‘So what do you do when you’re not swimming?’
They were out by the rubbish bins again, chatting. Her name, she’d told him, was Sophia.
‘A bit of this and a bit of that,’ she said. ‘I’m a qualified masseuse, I do aromatherapy, hair removal…’
‘Yeah. You know: legs, bikini waxes, armpits.’
‘Do you get many…men coming in?’
‘Some. Males models, strippers, metrosexuals…But I don’t actually like doing men.’
I knew it, Esau thought. She’s anti-hair.
‘A bit gross, I suppose – touching them?’
‘No, just the opposite. I love male body hair. I love to run my fingers through it.’
Esau looked at her fingers. ‘No way!’
‘Yes way. Whenever a really hairy bloke comes in, I’m like: “No! Don’t get rid of that!” But, you know, it’s my job.’
‘So even if a guy was literally covered in hair, that would be okay by you?’
‘He could be a freaking gorilla.’
Esau sat for a long time before removing his shirt. He hurried to the pool, slipping in quickly. He swam up and down the designated ‘Slow’ lane, trying to get into a rhythm and remain horizontal. When it came to exercise, Esau liked to feel the ground underneath him, be it covered in grass, clay, asphalt or novacushion. He saw the athletic shoe as the tireless mediator between foot and earth, the silent conflict-resolution expert, smoothing his path like a bridge over troubled astroturf.
He stopped at the end of every lap, catching his breath and looking around for Sophia among the other swimmers, most of whom were disguised by goggles and bathing caps. When he’d completed six laps, he got out, dried himself, and sat on one of a series of tiered concrete seats, thinking about the hundreds of feet that entered the pool every day, the dirt and germs, rashes and fungi they brought with them, each person adding his or her own hint of flavouring to a gigantic, chlorinated soup. Esau gazed up and saw, beyond the aquatic-centre roof, the tips of pine trees in the adjacent park, green arrows pointing to the sky. He found himself daydreaming, once again, about Sophia’s feet. He was sure they were smooth and delicate. A body like that, he mused, and yet I’m drawn to the feet! Until now he’d only ever thought of feet, anyone’s feet, as things to be surrounded by shoes.
He looked up to see Sophia, feet and all. They were every bit as nice as he’d imagined: small, white, elegant, attached to shapely and powerful legs that disappeared into a shiny one-piece bathing suit. Esau watched the water dripping from Sophia’s tangled hair.
‘Changed your mind, then?’ she said.
Sophia continued to stand there like an erotic fountain. It was now or never. Esau stood up, removed the towel from around his neck and thrust out his chest.
She seemed transfixed.
‘Wow! You’re so…hairy.’
‘Can I give you like a lift home?’
The next thing Esau knew, he was sitting on the couch in Sophia’s living room, sipping a watermelon-and-ginger juice.
‘What do you reckon?’ she asked.
‘Not bad at all!’
‘I love ginger. It’s used a lot in traditional Ayurvedic healing.’
Sophia sat directly opposite him, legs outstretched, one naked foot resting upon the other on the edge of the coffee table. The soles of her feet were like white desert sand. Esau looked around for the plastic weights, but couldn’t see any. There was, however, a portable massage table set up in the corner.
‘You’ve got nice toes,’ he said.
She tilted her feet to the left, then to the right. ‘You know, I never used to cut my nails properly. Then I got this really painful ingrown toenail.’
Ingrown toenail (unguis incarnatus, unguis aduncus, onychocryptosis, onyxis). Aberrant growth of a toenail, with one or, less often, both lateral margins pushing deeply into the adjacent soft tissue, leading to inflammation and often infection; due to improper paring of the nails or pressure on a nail edge from tightly-fitting shoes.
‘But now I pay my feet the attention they deserve. Did I tell you I’m a qualified pedicurist?’
‘Multi-talented – pedicures, massage...’
‘Would you like one?’
‘A pedicure or a massage?’
They stood up and proceeded to the massage table. Sophia instructed Esau to remove his shirt and lie face down. She kneaded his shoulders. The fragrance of sandalwood oil filled the air.
‘Fantastic!’ she said, rubbing her fingers through his back hair. ‘Awesome!’
‘Sensational!’ he said.
After a bit more rubbing, Esau could no longer resist.
‘Come here,’ he said, turning over.
‘It must be the ginger,’ she said, and climbed aboard.
Maybe it was the ginger, but all Esau knew was that he’d never done anything like this before in his life.
This is insane! he told himself. You’re a married man!
Married or not, he couldn’t stop, nor did he really want to. It became a weekly ritual: swimming, then back to Sophia’s for a home-made fruit juice, complimentary massage with essential oils, athletic lovemaking, and then home before Helen returned from her landscape-design class. Lying in bed beside his sleeping wife, Esau replayed it all in his mind, wondering who that shaggy individual could be. It’s you, he told himself. You’re still the same person, the same Esau. The thing is, you’re a very physical guy; you need sex like you need sport, and Helen doesn’t need either.
For the first time, he was proud of his fur. At Sophia’s place he paraded around shirtless. She called him her ‘beautiful bear’. Sometimes she massaged his feet, rubbing in a concoction of lavender, myrrh, and tea tree oil – an effective treatment, she said, for his athlete’s foot. More often, however, he massaged her feet; somehow this gave him as much pleasure, if not more, than it did Sophia. He loved the graceful curve of her heel, the gentle arc of the instep, her adorable little toenails, set off by a deep scarlet polish that matched her lipstick. Esau bought her the latest trainers – Nike, Reebok, Adidas, Converse – slipping them onto her feet with the utmost care: a woolly Prince Charming.
One day as Esau sat at his computer, sourcing another pair of trainers for Sophia, he somehow made a wrong turn and found himself looking at Shoeless.com, a Dutch website devoted to foot fetishism. Out of curiosity, he clicked on one of the thumbnail photographs. It was an extreme close-up of a woman’s feet in high-heeled shoes, the carefully pedicured toenails painted shiny pink. A male hand grasped one of the feet, as if offering it to the viewer.
Esau clicked on another photograph. The feet from the close-up belonged to a pale woman clad in red lingerie; the hand belonged to a tall but thick-necked man. He sat on an arm of the couch and drooled, figuratively, over her toes as she reclined on a couch in an anonymous living room. Esau emitted a short, high-pitched cry; the man looked exactly like him.
He could only be seen in three-quarter profile, noting the square jaw, prominent ear, slightly flattened nose, olive skin, and curly black hair, Esau was able to complete the picture in his mind. He and the foot fetishist resembled one another so closely they might have been twins.
He instinctively cried, ‘Helen!’ but there was no reply. Just as well, he thought. He peered through the window. His wife was kneeling on the front lawn, working on her path, which, when complete, would extend from the verandah steps to the front gate, encircling a small water feature along the way. He watched as his wife held up and examined a white pebble, before setting it in mortar, as if that pebble, from the moment it came into being in some distant sea or river, was destined to be a part of her mosaic.
Throughout the week, Esau returned many times to Shoeless.com (‘The premier site for the discriminating foot-lover’), studying the man’s profile, trying to convince himself that the resemblance really wasn’t that close. After all, cameras had been known to lie.
When the photographs on the site were updated, Esau clicked away, bypassing the myriad close-ups of feet, hoping for, but also dreading, new images of his thick-necked double, clearer shots that might settle the matter once and for all. And sure enough, there he was again, performing with a different woman this time, examining her foot in what appeared to be some kind of podiatrist fantasy sequence. Before long, both parties were naked, the doctor violating his patient in a manner that would have seen him de-registered by even the most liberal-minded podiatry board. Instead of using the standard appendages, he used his feet with such dexterity that Esau could only assume that he’d had years of practice. Now Esau could see the man front-on. Not only were their faces identical; their respective physiques had the same dimensions, the same lumps and angles. Even their genitals looked similar. To top it all off, Esau and the foot fetishist were equally hirsute.
For a moment, Esau wondered if he’d been drugged and made to take part in a pornographic photo shoot, of which he now had no recollection.
But that’s impossible, he thought. I’ve never even been to Holland.
Esau took the opportunity to remove his shoes and socks and compare the man’s feet with his own. Curiously, this was the only anatomical detail in which they differed. While their feet appeared to be roughly the same length, the fetishist’s instep arches rose and curved like a rainbow, whereas Esau was flat-footed.
Flatfoot (pes planus). Decrease in the height of the medial longitudinal arch due to weakening of the ligaments and tendons holding bones composing the arches in position. Causes include excessive weight, postural abnormalities, weakened supporting tissues and (as in Esau’s case) genetic predisposition.
Also, the fetishist’s nails were neatly trimmed, whereas Esau only cut his when Helen complained that they scratched her in bed.
As disturbed as he felt at this moment, Esau was relieved to know for certain that he wasn’t looking at himself. He had no intention of mentioning this to anyone. Even though the man on the website was technically not Esau, the casual observer could hardly be expected to make that distinction. Esau couldn’t get his head around the fact that, despite the physical resemblance, his double had an independent existence beyond the world of cyberspace. A flesh-and-blood creature, presumably living somewhere in the Netherlands, he went about his daily business, unaware of Esau’s existence. What did he do, Esau wondered, when he wasn’t fondling feet? Was he married? Was his wife also a foot fetishist? Perhaps she was one of the women in the photographs. Or maybe, like his own wife, who eschewed sport in favour of landscape design, she had no interest whatsoever. Did a man like this have children? Did he play tennis? Would he mow a lawn? Had he ever been to a hardware superstore? Esau resigned himself to the fact that he would never know.
Sometimes as Esau caressed Sophia’s feet, he would disappear into a universe of his own.
‘What are you thinking?’ she’d ask.
‘Do you feel guilty?’
‘We can stop, you know, Esau. We don’t have any claims on each other.’
Esau smiled and gently squeezed one of her toes.
He was at work the following Friday when his best friend Craig called.
‘Er, Shoeman,’ Craig said, ‘something weird just happened. I just got emailed this photo…’
‘This dickhead, Martin, sent it. He’s always forwarding inappropriate shit, thinking it’s hilarious. Normally that stuff goes straight to my spam folder, but – anyway, this one’s obviously from some porn site.’
Esau felt a sudden contraction in the region of his testicles. ‘Why are you telling me this?’
‘Well, the really weird thing is, the guy in the photo looks exactly like you.’
‘What?’ Esau snorted. ‘Get real!’
‘I know it isn’t you. But if you saw this guy – I mean, it’s uncanny.’
‘But what am I – what is he doing in this photo?’
Craig paused for a moment. ‘Well, to be honest, he’s sucking a woman’s toes.’
Esau took a breath. ‘Send me the photo.’
He waited while the jpeg made its way to his computer. It duly arrived; the message in the subject line was ‘CHECK THIS OUT!!!’ He expected the worst, and when he opened the file he wasn’t disappointed. The only surprise was that he hadn’t already seen this particular photograph; his doppelganger was prolific.
‘Craig,’ he said at last, ‘have you ever known me to have an unnatural interest in feet? Shoes, maybe, but not feet. And even if I did – to be photographed in the act?’
‘Like I said, Shoeman, I know it’s not you. I’m just telling you this because – well, you know how these photos get circulated.’
Esau felt sick. It was only a matter of time before the picture was disseminated far and wide. Sooner or later he would be walking down the street and someone would point the finger. Even as he left his office that afternoon, he felt the eyes on him. It was like when he used to expose his hairy body on the beach, only this was much, much worse: being pinned for the twin vices of foot fetishism and appearing on a porn site, when in fact he was guilty of neither; at least, not the latter. As for the former, he could no longer be sure, because even at that moment, Sophia’s shapely little feet were tripping lightly down the mosaic-tiled pathways of his mind.
‘Sophia, I have something important to say.’
They were walking through the aquatic centre carpark, towards Esau’s SUV.
‘Actually,’ Sophia replied, ‘so have I.’
‘I wonder if it’s the same thing.’
‘I have a feeling it’s not. What I want to say is, I’m going to Nepal.’
‘Himalayas. You know, trekking.’
‘For how long?’
‘I don’t know, but after Nepal, I’m gonna keep travelling. Indefinitely.’
Esau held his tongue until they were in the car.
‘The thing is, Sophia, I was going to ask you to run away with me. Far away. Maybe not as far as Nepal, but…’
‘Why shouldn’t we? We love each other. We belong together.’
‘Esau, I think you’re awesome. But like we agreed in the beginning: no ties, no commitments.’
It was hot inside the car. Esau wound down his window.
‘I know that,’ he said. ‘But I can’t keep our relationship a separate, self-contained thing any more. You’ve become like my…my Achilles heel.’
Achilles heel. A small but fatal weakness.
Sophia took his hand. ‘Esau, it’s been great and I don’t regret a moment. But I have to do my own thing and you need to go back to your wife.’
‘Just like that? Just forget about you in the blink of an eye?’
‘Esau, calm down; we’re in a carpark.’
‘Look…let me come with you.’
‘I can’t, Esau. Anyway, how do you know it’d work out between us?’
‘It’s a risk I’m willing to take.’
‘I’m sorry, Esau.’
For a while they sat in silence, contemplating the pine trees in the nearby park. The daylight was dimming. The pines trembled in the breeze. Esau shivered.
Sophia said, ‘But if it isn’t too much to ask, can I take a sample of your hair? As a keepsake.’
‘Take it all. It’s no good to me now.’
‘Don’t be like that, Esau.’
‘I don’t suppose you could let me have one of your feet?’
Sophia embraced him. ‘Esau, my beautiful bear! I’m going to need both my feet, I’m afraid. But I’ll give you back these runners you bought me last week. I haven’t even had a chance to wear them; you can get a refund.’
Esau drove her home, and waited in the car while she went inside to get the shoes.
‘Goodbye, beautiful bear.’ She handed him the box.
Arriving home, he was surprised to see Helen’s mosaic path complete. He stood at the front gate and surveyed the multi-coloured bracelet of pebbles. He walked along the path, tentatively, as if testing the stones, circumnavigated the little pond, and continued until he came to the verandah. Sitting down on the steps, Esau opened Sophia’s shoebox and removed one of the shoes, inhaling the fragrance of pristine pleather and polyurethane.
Esau rested the shoe on his knee, stroking it like a kitten, while visualising Sophia in her every detail, as if she’d already left and all he had now was a cherished image to be stored away in a secret file in a secret folder in his brain. He pictured the unruly waves of her hair; the delicately freckled skin of her face; the white curves of her breasts; the smooth muscles of her stomach; continuing down, down, until, finally, he arrived at her feet: her lovely, soft, painted feet.*
* This story would not be complete without a footnote: Esau may have taken some comfort—had he known—from the fact that thousands of miles away, in Amsterdam, Jan Behaard was also feeling confused and depressed. For reasons he couldn’t fathom, he had of late lost all interest in appearing on adult websites. He traced the beginnings of this change to a day two months earlier when, scheduled to appear for a photo shoot at a private apartment, he somehow got the address wrong and found himself in a sporting goods store. Ever since then, his sexual attraction to feet had waned, only to be superseded by an unaccountable passion for athletic shoes.