My sister and I walked barefoot on gooey-gray hardtop that made up the street in front of my grandparents’ house in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. We were on our way to the Circle K gas station just a mile up the road. It is the middle of summer, an “Amazon summer” we called it. To be in the tropic climate of south Florida during any length of time in the summer, is a test of your ability to entertain yourself. During the day, you avoid the heat that builds slimy nets in your lungs and on the backs of your knees, by lying flat on your belly in front of an oscillating fan. My sister and I walked, slowing our pace in the patches of shade we’d find and speeding up when we’d meet one too many hornets circling our pastel colored shorts. We walked barefoot in order to build up a thick layer of yellowy callus on the soles of our feet, so when we’d return home to the suburbs of California, we could show our city-slicker friends how rough and country we were.
The asphalt absorbs the sun’s heat so much more deeply than the grass does. Walking with our naked toes along the strip of street to the gas station was a test of endurance. We hissed in air between our teeth when we would hit a rough bit of road with a clipping of beer bottle or some cast out nail. My sister and I would practice the art of feral first aid, licking the pad of our thumbs and applying slimy pressure to a fresh cut on our feet. We would rely on the searing burns on our feet because we relied on the authenticity of our imaginations. We’d travel in time, speak new languages, switch skin colors, become impoverished. We’d enjoy the somber stroll to the gas station store next to one another, a mile up the road, across a bridge and a broken traffic light. We’d often walk in silence, our smudgy, thirsty faces studying the ground, preparing our feet for every tingling step. My sister and I are barefoot, in the early afternoon, walking a mile to the service station for a glass bottle of Coca-Cola.
Sometimes we would ride our bicycles up to the Circle K. That is, if we could manage to sneak by our grandfather, who was usually sitting at the edge of the open garage, in a rusted beach chair, drinking a hot cup of coffee, sweating profusely, ready to threaten a belt whippin’ if we didn’t put our shoes on. It was more effective if we just left the antique arch radio on in the back room, and sneak out past the pool, through the backyard fence. It’s not as if we weren’t allowed to go out and walk to the gas station, we just had to let someone know, and letting someone know meant putting shoes on. I understand now why shoes were so important. That’s why they spent money on them, scores of them, to match our tops and our shorts. No one wanted to spend their afternoon taking us to the hospital for a tetanus shot or comfort our cries of pain if we got a piece of glass lodged up between the ring and pinky toe.
They would never be able to understand the significance of leaving the shoes under the guest room bed and barefootin’ it a mile to a gas station in the middle of the day. My sister and I needed to give life to our imaginations. We didn’t play soccer, or basketball or jump rope or any of the sports in which children occupy their time outside with. We played games, by all means; only, the type of games where you’d spend half as long as playing, creating your back-story and your new identity. Sometimes we’d be gypsies, cast out from our nomadic troupe for practicing witchcraft and had to walk to the next town to create a new name for ourselves. Other times, we’d be rural dust-bowl children, walking our way down an imaginary abandoned town to buy a coke from the druggist for 5 cents. My sister enjoyed conventional, believable scenarios, where as I would sometimes say that I was half animal, half girl, a terrible science experiment gone wrong and I had escaped the lab and was on my way for enjoying a new world with new eyes. My sister never enjoyed these games because then I would walk the whole time on the pads of my toes, haunched up in an animalistic show of progression. She hated those games. She would quit and walk home if I refused to speak to her in English. So more or less of the time, I’d be some human, strolling silently to the Circle K to get an old-timey glass bottle of Coca-Cola.
The Cokes cost 75 cents and were kept in a short, round cooler right next to the ice cream freezer at the front counter. There was an antique bronze bottle opener installed in the side of it, where we would hook the cap and lift upwards on days were we couldn’t wait for the walk home to enjoy them in the shade of the front porch. We would proudly tell the man that we wanted Cokes, and would pay in advance. I think this annoyed him. He was a foreigner, dark skinned and showcasing gold necklaces and gold rings, by tracing his neatly trimmed mustache with two chocolate fingers and bubblegum pink tongue. He made us nervous, in the type of way where you are bracing yourself to be scolded or arrested for doing something wrong.
We would count out the coins onto the counter, each of us separately, so that we could each feel the thrill of handing him something in return for a coke and getting that empowering “Thank you, come again” routine. He would try and sell us other things, always sugar-stick cigarettes that said things like LUCKY or HORSESHOE on the flimsy paper and sheer wrap packaging, or telling us what a deal the atomic cinnamon candies in the clear plastic bucket were, only 10 cents each. I didn’t like cinnamon candies and neither did my sister, but sometimes we’d go fifty-fifty on a box of Lemonheads. I’d boss her into it. She always wanted bubblegum but I’d trick her into thinking that she didn’t have enough money or saying that bubblegum wasn’t invented yet, so there was no way we could buy it and stick to her fantasy. I feel only slightly bad now, in retrospect, because she didn’t really like Lemonheads anyway, but the other half of me doesn’t feel sorry for her, because she discovered how perfectly paired lemon and Coke go together.
And then we’d start home, barefoot, a mile back, across one bridge and through a broken traffic light. Once we finished our Cokes as we stepped up into the driveway, we’d hide them in the pool-towel chest on the back porch, so that no one would see the evidence of our solo adventure out to the service station. As soon as either of us crossed the threshold into the house, we were ourselves again; two sisters who didn’t like each other too much, one who wants to go swimming and the other who wants to watch television. I don’t know how no one ever noticed the black and red bottoms of our feet, as we criss-crossed them, lying flat on our bellies in front of an oscillating fan.