Janet Thomas and friends in Lucea, Jamaica
March 24, 2015
3550 Science Center 3
March 26, 2015

The Foot Doctor


Mayumi continued dozing under a pile of blankets an hour after Michael pecked a kiss on her forehead then dashed for the bus and his early morning class in Current Views on Relativity. She lay between the embroidered silk sheets she had bought for him in Kyoto, wondering now if perhaps her gift was too extravagant. She scratched her nose and stretched until she remembered Michael’s promise of two days ago—that she was free to visit center city Philadelphia alone before flying back to Japan.

She stared up at the curls of once-white paint peeling from the ceiling and wondered how she might spend the day—what shops she’d visit and whether she’d stay in town through dinner. She was eager to get a taste of American culture without Michael explaining everything with his oftentimes-distracting commentary. He told her four days ago that he was feeling guilty she had seen so few of the city’s historic sites, but added he still fretted about her safety.
Mayumi bounced out of bed, showered, and downed a breakfast of reheated rice topped with seaweed flakes. She pulled on her black tights over her slender hips, slipped into a lavender silk blouse and wool miniskirt, retrieved a pair of her black low-heeled shoes from under the kitchen table, tossed a palmful of Hershey kisses into her handbag, and headed for the train.
The morning air at the front door of the Fairfax apartments was cooler than expected, so she ran back up for a light jacket, snatching also Michael’s English version of Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties. She had started the book soon after arriving in the States, eager to improve her English, but the going was slow.

She recalled Michael’s words of caution about the neighborhood, but saw nothing that even mildly spoke of danger as she walked briskly along Wayne Avenue. Halfway down the next block, she saw a well-dressed man with an embroidered cap stepping with some discomfort out of an old mansion recently converted to doctors’ offices. The bold gables and ornate Victorian carvings on the verge boards reminded Mayumi of her childhood visits to the Nijo Palace in Kyoto. After stowing what looked like a business card in the pocket of his suit jacket, the man limped from the porch to the pavement, eyeglasses glinting in the low morning sun. When he saw Mayumi, he stopped and smiled engagingly.

“Hello, there,” he said in a lingering manner that conveyed something more than a greeting. She slowed her pace and bowed respectfully but offered him no eye contact. Another man sitting on a low stone wall on the other side of the street and wearing overalls, his scarred lunch box balanced on his knees, called out to the man she had just passed.
“Hey, Frankie. Where ya been, bro?”

Frankie looked up. “Hey, Jamal. Took a few days off to ease up on this bum toe.” He glanced at his watch. “Listen. . . let me hit ya later, man. Got a settlement in South Philly and this is one buyer I can’t be late for. Call ya tonight.”

Mayumi walked on toward the train station. Once on Chelten Avenue she could see the brick and terra cotta towers of Alden Park Manor, where she had gone with Michael to visit his suntanned Uncle Andrew. From his penthouse windows she had seen the glass towers of center city and the honey-colored walls of the art museum grandly perched above the Schuylkill River. It was a scene similar to those on the postcards she had mailed to her friends, Yuka and Toma, in Tokyo with her hopeful note that she would soon write to them of her adventures in the States.

She quickened her pace across the bridge and skipped down a flight of crumbling concrete steps to the train platform. A few scattered commuters stood some distance apart like expressionless mannequins posed in a surrealistic photograph. On a concrete retaining wall on the far side of the tracks were several slashy graffiti signatures surrounded by a constellation of dayglow stars. The graffiti reminded Mayumi of kanji ideograms and she suddenly pictured her mother in their tiny pink kitchen, a cloud of steam swirling around her head, the contents of the nabe pot bubbling over the fire. She was certain she smelled Japanese food and looked around to see if someone nearby had a carton of take-out.
Mayumi walked over to a row of steel columns, hoping they would break the onslaught of piercing spring winds. A number of gray chewing gum scars defacing the train platform caught her eye. Not like Japan, she thought. She also noticed that her left shoe was scuffed, so she leaned against a column, slipped off the shoe, and buffed it on her skirt. A few heads turned.

Growing impatient, Mayumi walked to a shallow niche where a schedule was posted behind a sheet of foggy plexiglas. The schedule was not easy to decipher—long columns of miniscule print obscured by a fuzzy thicket of names, obscenities, hearts, and telephone numbers. There was a reek of urine. She did not hear the man walk up behind her and was only slightly startled when he politely asked if she would mind if he read the schedule alongside her. She bowed, then stepped a shoe length to the left. The man wore a neatly pressed blue suit with a maroon tie half-hidden by a silk scarf. His hair feathered out rakishly below the bottom edge of his cap. Wasn’t this the same man she had seen earlier on Wayne Avenue? Yes, she thought, recalling his colorful cap.

He peered at the schedule through his bifocals, but when he tilted his head to study her from head to toe, she turned away and watched a young mother holding her toddler’s hand as the child tried to navigate the broken steps down from the street.
“Ten-fourteen!” the man muttered. “That damn train’s never on time.” Instead of walking away to wait near the platform edge, he once again faced Mayumi, who looked back at him and smiled demurely.

“Excuse me,” he said, “but may I ask where you bought those shoes?” He asked the question in a manner sounding at once slightly nervous, but practiced.
“Shoe? My shoe?” What could this be about, she wondered as she looked down to see which pair she had put on? “Shoe buy . . . Tokyo.”

“They look very sturdy. And the toes are nice and square. Are they comfortable?”
“Hai. Shoe comfortable. Very comfortable.” The long word with its r always twisted her tongue.

“Women wear such awful shoes. Ruin their feet.” He turned as three scantily clad teenage girls giggled their way down the stairs. He began his next question while his eyes still followed them along the platform. “You don’t wear high heels, do you?”
She waved her hands in front of her face. “No. Never.” Her glossy black hair rolled luxuriantly from one pink cheek to the other. Her eyes, though sweet and gentle, were now serious and respectful. He nodded. She bowed.

“If you had said ‘Yes’, I was going to tell you to throw them away. They can really hurt your feet.”

“Hai. Throw away.” She went along with what seemed like a very odd subject for a conversation with a stranger on a train platform. She bowed deferentially.
“I hope you don’t have any shoes with pointy toes either.” Observing her puzzled expression, he formed an acute angle with his forefingers.

“Oh, never buy. Have no shoe with toe . . . point.”

“That’s good. You must never buy them. Women from over there—China and Korea—have had such bad problems with their feet. You know they used to bind them.”
Her questioning eyes again registered confusion.

“Bind ‘em . . . like this.” He used the fringed end of his scarf to tightly wrap one hand.
“Now unnastand. Hai. Unnastand.” She bowed with a smile and assumed that his pause meant the conversation had ended.

“Are you here visiting?”

“Bisiting? Hai. Here, bisit.”

“How long are you here?”

“Here, um . . . one week.” Suddenly she flushed and waved her hands in front of her face. “No! No! One month! . . . Engrish no good.” One hand rose to form a small fan in an attempt to conceal her embarrassed smile and less than perfect teeth.

“I think your English is just fine; especially compared to my Japanese. Sushi’s all I know, and Moo Goo Gai Pen.” He chewed his lip searching for a segue then asked, “Are you visiting with friends . . . or relatives, maybe?”


He couldn’t understand why she kept saying Hi but her nodding head seemed to confirm a yes.


“No relatibs.”


“Hai. Friend! Friend, yes.” She nodded with both a vague sense of relief and a growing sense of unease.

“How many?”

“Many? No many. Four friend.”

“Your friends—are they men friends? Or girlfriends?”

Americans ask many direct questions, she thought. Fearing she might offend him by not answering, she said, “Two man, two ooman.” She was referring with deliberate imprecision to Michael, Michael’s sister, and her boyfriend, and another student in their apartment house she had met only once.

The man’s questions seemed to have taken an odd shift in tone, but Mayumi assumed this was perhaps yet another example of that easy American familiarity she was eager to understand. When the man again began eyeing the three young girls who were now doubled over in laughter, Mayumi took the opportunity to move a few steps closer to where she thought the train would come in. She searched her purse for a chocolate Kiss. The man limped away, dropped two quarters in the slot for a newspaper, and glanced at the headlines. After a muffled loudspeaker announcement, he limped back toward Mayumi.

Looking up suddenly he said, “Hope my questions didn’t bother you.” He saw she was puzzled. “My questions about your shoes. Hope I didn’t offend you.”

She shook her head No and tried to smile convincingly.

The man peered over his glasses. “Guess I should have told you. I’m a doctor, a foot doctor, a podiatist. One track mind, I’m afraid.” An older gentleman standing nearby and holding a thick briefcase glanced over with an expression that shifted from frown to smirk. The foot doctor returned to his newspaper.

As Mayumi waited for the train, she began to shiver. She wished that Michael were standing behind her with his long basketball arms drawing her into his warmth. She recalled moments like this when they were together in Japan, he there for his semester in Tokyo. He had more time to spend with her then and she was always free to come and go as she liked. She was generally not keen on displaying her affection in public, but in the privacy of his apartment Mayumi felt sexually free and they were frequently intimate. In Japan, Michael was light-hearted and carefree and never worried about her safety. But soon after arriving in Philadelphia, he cautioned her solemnly, “Mayumi, listen. I don’t want to alarm you, but the States are not like Japan.”

“What mean, Michael?”

“You just can’t stroll around here by yourself, like you could in Japan. If you ever got into trouble—it could be a real problem. And even you’ve admitted you can be a little naïve—and your English is, well . . .

“Michael. I not child!” The assertiveness of her declaration surprised even her. Had America already begun to transform her?

“I’m just saying, Mayumi, if you go out, it must be with me or my sister.” Mayumi looked out the window so Michael couldn’t see her pout.

A week later, Mayumi overheard Michael on the phone with his sister. At one point he lowered his voice, “She’s so damn trusting; I’m really afraid for her to be out alone around here.”

Mayumi did not let on she had overheard the conversation but later asked, “Rearry, Michael, is dangerous here? Like mubie?”

“Exactly like the movies. But don’t worry—I’m sure nothing will happen to you. But it can be a little iffy in this area.”

“What . . . iffy?”

“Sorry. Risky, dangerous.”

“Hai,” she said with a dip of her head. “No worry, Michael. I stay house. I no go street arone. OK, Mike? OK?” Her half-smile failed to hide her resignation.

Before flying to the States, Mayumi never imagined she would be cooped up in Michael’s apartment in front of his snowy TV screen watching the soaps all day. She had imagined days wandering the city with Michael, followed by long romantic evenings. But most nights were spent in his apartment waiting for him to break from his studies. She sometimes wrote to her mother in delicate Japanese characters the size of insect feet. I’m safe, Mom; please don’t worry. The States are nothing like those warnings at the airport. It’s really safe and Mike is extremely protective!

Sheets of newspaper sailed back and forth along the tracks as if they couldn’t decide on where to settle. Mayumi began wondering whether this long-awaited day of adventure was really worth it. She was cold and a bit baffled by her exchange with the foot doctor and just when she thought the train would never arrive she heard the wheels screeching around a sharp curve into the station. When the train stopped, the foot doctor moved in front of her to lead the way. As she followed him into the middle car, he glanced over his shoulder and asked what she had seen during her visit to Philadelphia. She barely answered, unsure how much it was safe to reveal. Walking behind him now, Mayumi noticed that from the back, he looked almost like a different man, taller and round-shouldered. Two sides different, she thought. He motioned to a pair of empty seats facing one another and sat down first. She followed, sitting opposite him.

“Did you have a long walk to the train?”

“Walk? No long. Small walk.” She raised her thumb and forefinger as if holding a pea. He chuckled. She bowed her head.

“Where are you staying?”

“House. House, friend.”

“In this neighborhood?”

“Hai. Neighborhood crose . . . I sink.” She glanced out the window and saw Uncle Andrew’s apartment house winking at her through a line of trees growing along the tracks. Should she have said she lived there?

He opened his newspaper and she opened the House of the Sleeping Beauties. The cover had a green border and a feathery rendering of a young woman surrounded by a cloud of butterflies. It showed only the woman’s head and shoulders, no apparent blouse. The woman’s eyes were closed, perhaps in dream, perhaps in avoidance of the world beyond her dreams. The man looked up from his newspaper, read the title of the story, and then gazed for a while at the illustration, then at Mayumi. He tapped his lower lip with his forefinger, looked around the train, then returned to circling notices in the real estate section and looking out the window at a string of sale signs on abandoned industrial buildings.

A few minutes later and almost without looking up he asked, “Have you ever had your feet examined?”

She shook her head No.

“Don’t they have podiatists in China?”

“What . . . China?”

“Sorry.” He started to chuckle. “Foot doctors. Foot doctors in China . . . I mean Japan, in Tokyo?”

“No, I sink no. Never see—Tokyo.”

As he returned to his paper, a white-whiskered conductor with nicotine-stained fingers sailor-swayed down the aisle punching tickets with a piercing metallic click. His smeary glasses wobbled drunkenly on the bridge of his nose in counter-rhythm to the lurching train. As Mayumi faced the foot doctor’s newspaper, she half-expected to see the sexually-explicit cartoons that were printed on the backs of sports-papers in Japan. She saw no such cartoons and presumed he was a decent man.

The foot doctor lowered his paper into his lap. “What did you say your name was?”
“Name?” She pointed tentatively toward her heart but spoke formally. “My name, Mayumi.” She bowed slightly.

“Mayumi, do you mind if I get a good look at your shoe? It seems quite well made.”
“Hai, Doctor, shoe good.”

She slid her foot a few inches toward his, placing her shoe in clear view. She directed his gaze to the floor. “Thanks, but I meant up close. I’d like to see how it’s made.”
“See crose?

She looked around the train. People were buried in their papers, snoozing, fiddling with children, munching doughnuts, sipping coffee. A black woman across the aisle was engrossed in her knitting. Mayumi glanced out the window and wished Michael would suddenly materialize on a passing street, nodding yes or no. She had never met a foot doctor before, hadn’t even known they existed. But she did know she must be respectful, and yet she wasn’t sure she should remove her shoe.

After looking around the train once again, she took a few short breaths, one atop the other like a stutter, then reached down and slipped off her shoe. She wiggled her toes a bit in her black tights as she presented the shoe to him with both hands extended, eyes down, as if making an offering. Because of her erratic breathing, she noticed that her nipples showed through her lavender blouse, then disappeared, then showed again. He also noticed, but when she raised her eyes he lowered his and examined the shoe.

She observed an exit sign at the back of the car. Above it was a faded advertisement for a personal injury attorney, a square-jawed fellow with carefully coiffed hair and an overly eager smile. The message meant nothing to her but the man looked self-impressed and she chose not to look at him again.

“OZMA. Is that a popular brand?”

“Many shoe, OZMA.” She was clearly proud of the smart styling and meticulous construction. “OZMA strong name, Japan.”

“Listen, Manumi . . . uh, while your shoe is off, would you mind if I look at your foot?”
It felt like many minutes passed as she sat there, heart racing. I must show respect. He is a doctor and I must do as he says. Slowly, she lifted her foot and reluctantly placed it on his knee, toes curled, heart thumping. As he brought his fingers to the black tights stretched around her foot, she noticed his eyes sneaking a glimpse at the place where her raised leg caused her black mini-skirt to gather at her hip.

“And now would you mind if I really examine your foot? I don’t get to see many Oriental feet.”
She raised her hands in front of her face and waved them to signal no but was smiling as she declined.

“Are you embarrassed?”

“No, Doctor. Embalass? No! Well, maybe. Maybe embalass.”

“You don’t have to be embarrassed. In this country this is not so unusual.”

On the other side of the aisle, the heavy-set black woman with primly fixed silver hair interrupted her knitting. She shook her head from side to side and clicked her tongue behind her teeth. Mayumi wasn’t sure how to read her expression; was it directed toward the doctor, or her, or a mistake she had made in her knitting?

Mayumi watched through half-closed eyes as his strong fingers moved around her foot with gentle pressure, inching it down from his knee to the edge of the seat and then further up between his legs. As his fingers moved over her toes and around her ankle and up her leg a few inches, he turned to look at her. Her eyes were closed, the contours of her young face delicate and subtle, her lips and cheeks pink and smooth, her eyelids barely offering the suggestion of a curve. He glanced over at the cover of her book.

As the train pulled in and out of several more stations, he continued to work her foot, feeling the bones and gliding his fingers around the firm contours of her ankle. At times his touch felt like a caress and when his fingers inadvertently tickled the ball of her foot, her toes curled. She tried to hide her smile.

“How far from the station do you live?”
“No far . . . few stleet.”

“I live in the neighborhood, also. I’ll bet not too far from you. What street do your friends live on?”

“Name stleet long,” she lied. “Never remember . . . name long.”

“I can tell it isn’t far from the station. Your feet aren’t sweating at all.” She was surprised and relieved. “Do you mind?” Before she could respond, he slowly lifted her foot to his bowed head. She could hardly breathe.

“Do you wear perfume on your feet? Your foot smells heavenly. That’s probably not something for a podiatist to say, but then again, this isn’t really my office.” He laughed. She forced a smile. A feeling of apprehension passed through her and yet the man seemed so gentle and respectable. Oh, Michael, she thought, this is so confusing.

She pictured Michael sitting in his Relativity class but wished that he was right there beside her—explaining these customs that were so odd and unfamiliar. Explaining was what Michael always did well, but she wanted something more from him. She wanted his heart and believed in Japan it had been hers. Was she different here in the States, or was he, or was he different because she was? She saw Michael in the apartment surrounded by his books, hunched over his laptop in a narrow cone of light. She wondered why she had pressed so hard to come to the States at this particular time. Had she not listened when he said he would be really wrapped up in his studies? Had her fantasies about their intimate moments together outweighed her good judgment?

She inched her foot out of where it had become slightly engaged in the fabric of the foot doctor’s pants.

As the train pulled out of the next station, the foot doctor asked whether he could look at her other shoe. Mayumi’s eyes worked the train. The woman across the aisle was shaking her head. Had she missed a stitch again? Weirdo, the woman muttered to herself. It was a word Mayumi wished she understood.

She reluctantly removed her other shoe and handed it to the foot doctor, both hands outstretched again to make the offering. She watched him run his dark brown fingers over the smooth black leather, around the low square heel, intimately around each of the three eyelets. Then he encouraged the shoelace to slide sinuously between his broad thumb and index finger. The lace was unusually pliable and seemed to surrender as it slipped through his hands. She looked into his gentle eyes and he looked back into hers.

He was handsome, quite fit and strong; that’s the way Mayumi would have described him to Michael. She studied his gold bracelet and small gold earring. No poor, she would have told Michael.

“Do you mind?” He tapped the knee on the leg that was now shoeless. As it became clear he wanted to examine her other foot, she kept repeating to herself, But he is a doctor!
“Hai,” she whispered into her chest then raised her leg slowly. Again her mini-skirt rode up her thigh offering a view even more revealing than before. She felt her foot drawn deep into his lap, felt his fingers pressing her ligaments, gliding over her black tights, kneading the ball of her foot, and massaging (or was he caressing?) the ligaments around her toes. She closed her eyes. Her thoughts spun about like leaves in the churning currents of a stream.

Lulled by the gentle rocking of the train and the soft clacking of the wheels racing along the rails, Mayumi closed her eyes. A kimono fluttered before her like a flag in a gentle wind. Was this the one Grandmother gave Mom when I was born? Floating images of rock outcroppings and herons formed the background of the threadbare kimono. It was an earthy landscape with somber fields and half-naked, wrinkled old men bent in labor. When Mayumi was a child, her mother had explained that many samurai women wore this style kosode in the royal courts, but the imagery of the half-naked men agitated and mildly threatened Mayumi, despite its beauty. It was only the brightly colored chrysanthemum and peony blossoms sprinkled across the dark landscape that invited Mayumi to unfold the kimono on her bed from time to time and stroke the fabric.

The train entered a long tunnel as it approached Center City. Mayumi, now deep in her dream, imagined herself dressed in the kimono, leaving the royal court, and strolling self-assured past the Nijo Palace. The kimono suddenly fluttered in the wind again, above her head. Then the flowers, and the rugged landscape, and the field workers all began to undulate in wave-like rings as if they had been painted not on silk but on a still pond just visited by a few stray drops of rain.

The conductor suddenly bellowed “Suburban Station. Last stop.” The kimono vanished and Mayumi opened her eyes. She removed her foot from its warm cradle between the foot doctor’s legs, blushed as she put on her shoe, rose, bowed, and walked out of the train and up the steps to the main concourse. Despite his aching toe, the man stayed just a few steps behind her. At the top of the steps he tapped her shoulder and they both stopped walking. After a moment she turned. For the first time, her expression registered what could be read as impatience or mild annoyance. She wanted to see the city.
“Listen, Manumi.”

“Ma-yum-i,” she said with precision.

“Yes, yes . . . Mayumi. I’m sorry. I don’t know how long you’re going to be here, but if you have the time and would like to have me examine your feet more carefully, feel free to give me a call.” He stood gazing at her as people walked briskly around them heading for the exits. A friend of his passed by, said nothing, but once certain he was out of Mayumi’s line of sight, turned and winked.

Mayumi and the foot doctor stood in awkward silence. Then, looking like one who had just remembered the location of a forgotten key, he reached into the pocket of his suit jacket. He fished out the business card he had stowed away earlier, then reached for his pen and crossed out the printed telephone number. He wrote another number and handed it to her. She ran her thumb across the raised letters. Below Dr. Robert J. Schamburg’s name was the word PODIATRIST. Below that was his handwritten telephone number. It started with the same three digits as Mike’s phone number.

“Doctor . . . Sc . . .sham? . . . bug?”

“Schamburg,” he said with a kind tone.

She thought again about how handsome he was with his hair spilling out below his cap.

“Do you think you might call?” he asked gently.

Her head nodded and bobbed in a way that any passerby might have read as a No or a Yes, or both. Her hair swirled around her face as if in slow motion. She bowed deep and long. When she straightened, she was surprised to see that he, too, had bowed, his hand on his cap, holding it in place. Her eyes softened.

“Maybe . . . no sure. I thinking.”

He walked off first. She had almost forgotten about his limp. In seeing him once again from behind, she had the same thought as when she followed him into the train — two sides different.

She stood there like a tiny kiosk set down temporarily amid the crisscrossing of commuters, her feet tingling pleasantly. People were rushing off in all directions, some stopping to buy a coffee, others a pastry. She caught sight of his cap rocking from side to side in rhythm with his limp until it finally disappeared near the exit to 16th Street. Perhaps she would call him after lunch to say goodbye. Had she explained she was leaving tomorrow for Tokyo? But she wondered whether in this country it would be an insult to call a doctor and not make an appointment? Perhaps she would ask Michael. Michael would know.

As she often did in Tokyo, she strolled around the concourse looking in shop windows and pausing in front of newsstands. She passed an empty telephone booth, ran her thumb across the raised letters of the business card, then moved on to join a small crowd pausing to watch two black kids break dancing on the terrazzo near an upturned hat. The 16th Street exit looked as promising as any other, so she trailed behind a stocky, anxious-looking student straining against a heavy backpack as he trudged up the flight of stairs. Twice he looked back at her; twice she barely bowed.

Mayumi wondered as she drew closer to the exit door whether her day in town might provide some adventures worth writing home about. Certainly her examination by a foot doctor on a train was worth a few lines. A disorienting patchwork of blinding spring reflections and long slanting shadows assaulted her when she stepped out on the pavement and for several dizzying minutes she couldn’t decide which way to turn.

1 Comment

  1. Denise Ucciferro says:

    Well written and Fun to read.
    Good message, if you step out of your comfort zone, unexpected experiences and (pleasures?) might come along.
    Not sure I’d be letting a stranger fondle my feet on the Broad Street subway, but it was fun to picture and,
    as a reflexology fan, I vicariously sensed the pleasure she felt. Being older, I need to be reminded to Balance
    spontaneous with safe!

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