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My last six hours studying abroad in Buenos Aires were spent hunting for boots. I had been unhappy there; I can admit it now. At the time, it was hard to understand my own misery, because on paper all the facts were lined up for contentment: I was young, I was healthy, I lived in a foreign city, and I was attending a frighteningly cool film school that was packed tight with disdainful South American hipsters. Straight-shot to joy, right? I thought something must be wrong with my brain, that I couldn't appreciate all the glory life had given me, but my inability to enjoy myself just drove me deeper. Now, being older and wiser by a whopping three years, I realize that, yes, something was wrong with my brain — I was depressed. It happens. And even the building blocks of happiness can't construct the real thing. But still, I felt awful for feeling awful. On the phone, I'd tell my parents, "Things are great! I'm great! The world is my oyster, I shall not want!" But most of my days were spent locked in my bedroom, playing the same five chords over and over on my host mother's guitar and reading The Brothers Karamazov — not a book I'd recommend if you're in the throes of an existential crisis. I did a lot of crying about free will.
I also did a lot of shopping. Even now, when I dream in Spanish, it's often a language of conversion: how many pesos equal how many dollars? Thanks to the exchange rate I had more spending money than I'd had in years, and the apartment I lived in was off a long commercial avenue that boasted hundreds of tiny clothing stores, all filled with variations on the same themes: knee-length acrylic sweaters, bright jersey skirts, black leggings masquerading as pants… and boots. So many glorious boots. I'm not an inherently fashionable girl — I like what I like, and I wear what I want, and I hope other people think I look purty while I do it — but I have a true weakness for boots. More specifically, a weakness for genuine leather cowboy-style boots that make me seem tough. I am tough, don't get me wrong, I am downright fierce, but sometimes I smile too much for people to be able to tell that right away. So, the correct boot is very important to my overall ass-kicking image. And, Buenos Aires is nothing if not boot heaven. Have you seen old photographs of the gauchos, in their wide-brimmed hats and their classy bombachas? Have you seen their boots?
Somewhere between the botanical gardens and the Plaza de Mayo, I became convinced that if only I could find the right pair of boots, I could turn my life around and drink up all the happy that had managed to elude me. I'm not the first person to believe that a purchase could have that kind of power — I'd even go so far as to say that the entire American consciousness is built around just such a belief. Clothing, in particular, has been endowed with immense authority and the ability to recreate an entire life from the ground up. Makeovers promise A Whole New You!, and sometimes it's hard not to trust that promise, especially in a world made of eyes. One of my favorite literary time periods is the modernist movement, and in nearly all female-authored texts of that era you will find the heroine thinking, "If I only had that dress, if I only had that hat, then things would be different: then I would be employed/in love/at peace/white." You'll find this pattern of thought in Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight; in Nella Larsen's Quicksand; in Djuna Barnes' Nightwood. Yet, you'll find, too, that nearly all the modernist heroines are morbidly unhappy.
I must have tried on a hundred pairs of boots. Thigh-high suede boots, delicately laced anklet booties, sedate matte-black boots, hideous green patent-leather monstrosities… yet by the day of my flight home, I still hadn't found what I was searching for. Insert cliché: "Because I wasn't really searching for boots! Boots are just a metaphor!" Okay, yes and no. The boots represented something intangible, unreachable, sure, but also, I really, really, really wanted a nice pair of boots. Finally, with just about an hour to go before leaving for the airport, I found them.
Soft black Argentine leather from soft black Argentine cows, about mid-shin, lace-up combat-style yet utterly elegant, and a decent price. (No, I won't say how much, because it was not a decent price, I was lying.) They fit me like they had been tailor-sewn for my feet alone, and they made me look badass and delicate and smart and patient and musical and interested in astronomy and good at math and a real whiz with baked goods and everything else I'd always wanted to be, and they were perfect.
I've never worn them.
My friend borrowed them last Halloween for her Daria costume, and that's it. That's all the action they've ever seen. Because, honestly? They don't look very good on me after all. They don't go with anything I own, they're a little clunky, and I have about six other pairs of boots that fulfill the same function but more successfully. It doesn't help that every time I see them I get a bitter taste in my mouth, thinking of the hours and hours I spent roaming up and down the Avenida Santa Fe, looking for boots instead of seeing live music or going to a museum or calling up a friend. (Or, hell, making a friend.)
This is where the moral of the story should come in. This is where I should say, "So material possessions don't make you happy after all, the end!" Except, when I bought them, they did make me happy. Furthermore, they made me happy during a moment in my life when happiness felt near-impossible to come by. They allowed me to get on the plane and watch the lights of Buenos Aires swallow themselves in blackness below me, and feel as if I'd accomplished something. (Something besides a 14-second animation of a house on legs that took me the better part of six months.) Those dumb boots set me free of the city where I'd been so sad, and, in a way, set me free of my own sadness.
Last week I bought another pair of boots, at a thrift store in Minneapolis. They're black leather belted harness Frye boots, barely worn, and I got them for $20 while they go for about $220 online. I can't swear I'm not writing this essay just to brag about them. When I found them on the shelf, my heart did a triple-kick and my fingers got tingly, and I stared at them and thought, "You're perfect. You're the ones. I can stop looking now."
But of course, I'll never stop looking.
Very few of us will.
Emma Törzs is wrapping up her MFA in Fiction at the University of Montana. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fringe, PANK, Joyland, and The Cincinnati Review. She's working on a novel.