Joan feels remorse for having hated her toes most of her life. She inherited them from her grandmother, who had hated them too. Her grandmother had cried at the swimming pool on Joan's 11th birthday while her friends stood around her singing and dripping on the cake. At first, Margaret, Joan’s mother was touched. Her mother’s first grandchild was growing up. She squeezed her shoulder and smiled.
But then the cake was cut and distributed, and Joan’s grandmother was still weeping. Really, Mom, it’s okay. Joany is still a little girl. That’s when the shaking woman pointed to Joan’s overlong toes, and then back to her own feet, concealed beneath brown mules. She’s going to get bunions, she said loudly.
She was dead a week later after a massive stroke, and that was Joan’s last and strongest memory of her. For about a month, Joan worried that the sight of her toes had killed her grandmother.
But she grew up quickly and learned it was not the case, though she would forever associate her toes with guilt and horror. She painted her toenails pink, red, purple, blue, but paint could not conceal their shape. She began stuffing them into mules just like her grandmother had worn, and soon she had bunions.
She moved to Connecticut, where it was practical to cover your feet. She was pre-law for a time, but a boyfriend of hers said she didn’t have it in her to talk with criminals or argue with men who were old enough to be her father. She began to smoke, and she didn’t pick up her books again, even after the boyfriend left. She only took her shoes off when she could be sure she was alone. Her cat, Patsy, liked to sit in Joan’s lap and nibble at her toes. Joan loved her for it.
Now they say they have to go, that the tobacco probably messed with her blood vessels and now her tissues are dying. She imagines angry blood vessels scowling as they inflate like pufferfish.
The toes are the first of her body to crumple and fall away. Her bad habit has gone too far and she regrets it. She regrets not letting her toes see the world before they leave it.
She wonders what they would enjoy most before they are let go. She thinks of the photos she’s seen on calendars and vacation brochures of feet at the ocean’s edge, the waves coming up to tickle them. She drives to the Jersey shore and tries it. But it’s April and the water is cold and dark, and she cries out when it reaches her. This has only made her more afraid.She decides to have it done at home, in Florida, where her mother can care for her afterward. Margaret has just remarried and moved into a house with a pool out back. The night before they have to be let go, Margaret makes everyone cookies, and they stay up late talking about everything but what’s going to happen. When everyone is finally asleep, Joan goes out to sit in the dark by the pool with her feet in the water. She thanks her toes for hanging around so long where they were not loved.