Baby Blue Bike Shoes
“One cannot live on love alone,” my dad told me after I decided to immigrate to the city I loved to stay with the man I would marry. Attempting to fit in, I bought myself a pair of bike shoes, but I bought them too small with a weak working grasp of English. I found a job in a place I had dreamed of working—a magazine company—in the position of cleaner. My too-small, baby-blue bike shoes became my first pair of work shoes. At first, they were painful for days, but they proved to be as malleable as my dreams as time went by.
“One cannot live off love alone. If you want to immigrate, you will have to sustain yourself,” my dad said a year after my move to Canada.
“Fair enough,” I thought. I was following my heart, and at the age of 20, there is no mission impossible.
With spring blossoming, I was now officially hunting for proper footwear. I settled for bike shoes. Everyone seemed to own a pair. One afternoon, while trying on a pair of baby blue bike shoes with Velcro on the top, I broke the news to my boyfriend in Portuguese.
“So, I got a job.”
“That’s amazing! Why didn’t you tell me before?” he asked in disbelief.
“Wanted to surprise you. Biking there tomorrow. Can you please ask for these shoes in size 8?”
“Alright, Marie, you gotta stop this! You have to try at least to talk to people in English.”
This was an ongoing argument between us, but he let it go just this once so we could watch the news. Meanwhile, I decided that size 7½ might stretch to fit my feet. When so many were expecting me to fail and run back to my comfortable lifestyle in Brazil, the idea of being able to support myself was exhilarating.
“So, where is your work?” He broke the silence.
“Oh, at one of the largest and most important publishing companies in Canadian magazine history,” I said, suppressing a laugh. “I will work part-time. In the evenings. As a cleaner.”
I had always wanted to work in the magazine world. Well, I had just achieved that goal somehow.
“Please don’t tell me you got this job just to avoid speaking to people.”
He was right. I also emphasized that working evenings would allow me to study English during the day, but the truth was the English language terrified me.
“There isn’t any specific training,” my supervisor told me in a thick Portuguese accent. “Who hasn’t cleaned before?” She laughed. I faked a smile. I had never cleaned before.
“This is your cart,” she continued. “You go around first collecting the garbage bins. Recycle on one side, garbage on the other. Clean the washrooms. Dust the reception area. Vacuum under the desks. Every other day you do a ‘special cleaning’ in separate areas—dusting and washing the garbage bins.”
She said all of this as the service elevator stopped at my floor, and she signalled to me to go on, disappearing behind me. The five-hour part-time job turned into more than seven exhausting hours of hard labour. As I did my rounds, the glamour and sparkle of the publishing world were absent. My feet were in pain. I could feel blisters forming on my half-size-too-small bike shoes. The metal piece at the bottom of my shoes that attach to the bike pedals kept getting caught on the carpeted areas, forcing me to lift my knees as I walked. I had sore leg muscles that, until then, I did not know existed. I succumbed to prayers for strength. I second-guessed my choice of footwear. But off I went, to every single cubicle, ducking at the sight of any late-night worker. Ultimately, some security guards, surprised to find someone still working, told me to go home. That floor had long been locked! The job was done for the day.
For the next few weeks, I immersed myself in my ESL classes. I was so determined to communicate better that I didn’t notice how and when it happened. Somehow, my bike shoes grew more comfortable, and so did my job. I was now finishing earlier and even chatting with people in corridors. I got to know some magazine employees who shared tips about the requirements to be part of their team. These included finishing my marketing and advertising degree and enrolling in post-secondary courses to make up for the fact that English would always be my second language. Needless to say, there was also the very famous “Canadian experience.” By the time I acquired it all, I would probably be too old for any position.
Ironically, my dreams of working for a magazine never felt so far from my reach, and gradually, I washed them away. Writing in English is still a challenge, but I proved to be as flexible as my bike shoes. They marked my transition to adulthood and my exhausting attempts to fit in, but my independence, nonetheless.
MARIANA ROCHA left Brazil for Canada and lives in Toronto, where, with her sister, she owns and runs a coffee shop called The Last Drop.