I’m going to tell you a secret. This is only something my family and my pedicurist knows: I’m missing half a toe—the fourth toe on my left foot, to be precise.
I wasn’t born that way. Moments after my arrival at Mt. Sinai hospital, the doctor announced gleefully to my mother: “A perfect baby girl: ten fingers, ten toes! And a red head to boot!”
But one night when I was 5 years old, watching TV in my parents’ room with a babysitter while my parents were out, I had an accident. I’ll confess, I was multi-tasking: taking in “Candid Camera” while simultaneously balancing my entire self on a single peddle of my father’s exercise bike.
I was extra-excited that night because I was wearing my older sister’s nightgown. It was too long on me still, so I used the nylon hem to protect the soft skin on the bottom of my little feet from the hard surface of the pedal.
Around and around and around I spun, using all my weight to propel myself at top speed, laughing at the TV set, laughing with the joy that comes from moving at such velocity, until I slipped.
I don’t really know what happened exactly because it happened so quickly, but something happened; something painful. In my mind, I see myself seeing a small, flesh-colored nugget on the floor beneath the bike. And I still recall with surprising clarity the trail of blood I left on my parents’ cornflower blue carpet as I instinctively hobbled towards their bathroom. The blood appeared dark brown, not red like I thought it should. It didn’t really register as blood until much later.
Our Yugoslavian babysitter, Lubitzia, a super-glam, peroxided blonde who wore skin-tight, bell-bottom jeans and painted in her eyebrows like Marlene Dietrich, took a practical approach to the situation: she told me to hold my foot over the toilet bowl and then poured a bottle of rubbing alcohol over the exposed wound. I also distinctly remember her dropping my toe into the toilet bowl along with some bloody toilet paper and flushing.
My dad was out of town, but by some miracle my mother came home from her art opening in a short amount of time. Maybe Lubitzia called her; maybe my mother just felt that she best come home. Mother’s are like that sometimes when their babies have been wounded.
It must have been December because I went to Mt. Sinai emergency room in a taxi, held tightly in my mother’s arms, and still recall the way her fur collar made me feel safe despite the terrible throbbing my left foot.
After a long wait, I got an x-ray, which was interesting. I still remember the heavy, weighted gown I had to wear and the enormous lens that narrowed in on my foot with an “x marks the spot” symbol. Afterwards, I was taken to a room where a nurse soaked my foot in a stainless steel bowl filled with soapy water that burned as much as the rubbing alcohol. Then a friendly plastic surgeon came in who looked like Mr. Clean and I lay down on a gurney and the nurse covered my eyes. I got a needle in my foot, which hurt, and then the surgeon cut the exposed bone and cartilage away, which didn’t hurt but which made an unnerving sound. The whole procedure took minutes. It was only a toe, after all; the toe of a five year old at that.
I got to eat vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce in my parents’ bed and sleep there that night. And that felt special. It was the only time I ever did that.
My toe ached as it healed but one day it stopped aching. I did sports. I wore open-toed sandals. I became a dancer and stuffed lambs wool in my point shoes to even out my toes. And though my sisters are convinced that I should ask for a discount when I get a pedicure, I can’t say that toe has ever caused me any grief. It’s actually how I know myself now, and how others might know me if, say, they had to identify my body in the morgue: I’m the one with nine and a half toes.
So, now you know my secret. And here’s what I have to say about it: though the doctor who delivered me may have a different definition of perfection, my own definition does not include ten fingers and ten toes. Perfection is the way I feel every day when I wake up and a new day is unfolding.
So let your freak flags fly, folks, and feel free to share your own stories of perfection with me!