Explosions at Copley, shootings around the corner from my Cambridge apartment, a police chase on the street out front, city-wide lock-down, sirens as nighttime lullabies, the whirl of helicopters as morning alarm clocks, job-hunting stress, stress over needing to know my friends in Boston were safe and informing everyone I know that I was safe….it’s been an emotional roller coaster ride of a week for the inhabitants of Boston. So it’s no wonder that city-dwellers took advantage of yesterday’s gorgeous, breezy Saturday to running along the Charles, walk in the Commons, and shop at Downtown Crossing.
I decided to be one of those shoppers. Out of necessity, mind you. I own not a single pair of black heels and being that they should be a staple in any young woman’s closet, I ventured out to Macy’s. As I approached the Tahari shoe display, the lady next to me commented on the flats she was holding.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?”
Realizing that she was speaking to me, I agreed that they were. She continued to tell me that no matter how beautiful shoes were, she was unable to wear anything of the sort because of her bunion. And flat-footedness. We discussed sole-inserts and what a tragedy this was for her. She explained how her current sneakers were flexible for her feet, but she was still getting adjusted to them. Then she asked what I was looking for.
“Black heels for a friend’s get-together tonight,” I informed her.
She raised an eyebrow, paused hesitantly, looked at me sideways, then asked, “You’re Muslim, right?”
I nodded and eyed a pair of shoes, half my brain wondering what question was coming and the other half wondering if I could afford the pretty shoes.
“Are Muslims allowed to wear heels?”
This time, I paused. Honestly, I’ve never been asked that. I wasn’t offended, just startled at the unique oddity.
“Yeah. I mean, they’re heels,” I replied with a slight questioning tone in my voice that oftentimes women tend to insert. I mean, sure, they’re shoes, right? As far as my limited knowledge goes, I don’t think there’s a mandate against them. And if there was, there would be a significant decline in shoe sales around the world and shoe store owners would weep piteously.
“Oh. Well I didn’t know. So I thought I’d ask,” the lady replied with a shrug and conversational grin. “I saw a woman on the T the other day, all covered. You know, up to here”–she gestured to her eyes–“and I thought, whoo, I’ve never seen someone all covered like that here before! In other countries, sure, but on the Orange Line?”
What could I say? I went with, “I guess that’s the beauty of America. You see all kinds of people and all kinds of dress.”
“Were you born here?”
“Um. Yes. Not in Boston, though.”
“No, like, in this country.”
“Yeah. In Manhattan. But I’m from Virginia.”
“Oh. ‘Cause, you know, you don’t look like it. What about your parents?”
“Oh so like In–”
“Next to India.”
“Okay. Okay. Well this was the first time I’d seen her,” she said, switching topics as fast as one might shuffle a deck of cards. “I talked to her. Turns out she lives right down the street from me! But what was she doing out so late at night? I mean, it’s not safe. So I asked her and she told me her husband knew she was at a friend’s house and she was headed home.”
“So you made a new neighbor friend!”
“Well I haven’t seen her since. She said she wore that”–again gesture up to the eyes–“to keep men from being tempted by her eyes. She showed me her eyes. Beautiful! When you see women like that, all covered, all mysterious, you get curious, you know?” Here she gave a laugh, nudge and wink (no seriously, she did. Okay maybe not the wink, but definitely laugh and nudge.)
“I can see that. Curiosity is human nature, after all” I replied and reached over for black Tahari leather pumps.
“Oh those are beautiful shoes! You gonna get ’em?”
“I don’t know yet. But I’ll try them on.”
“Beautiful! They look great on your feet! Whew, if only I could wear stuff like that, but I can’t. You should get them.”
I turned one of shoes over to check the price-tag on the sole. “Nah. Too expensive.”
“Let me tell you,” she said putting a hand on my arm. “I lost a pair of new sneakers. $150. I was on my way home the other day when, you know, everything happened. And I saw a woman crying so I stopped to help her. When I got home, I realized I didn’t have my bag!”
She continued, “But the way I see it, I hope whoever took them or found them really needed them. Really needed them, you know? So that my little loss is helping someone else. Maybe it’s a naive way of thinking? To hope like that.”
I replied that hope is indeed, very necessary and pertinent and that she was not naive in her mindset. “It’s better to think that way than negatively. It shows you’re a good person.”
“Aw thanks. Oh I’m so tired! You know, last night I thought I’d finally get some sleep. But at 6am, someone started banging on my door and I thought it was my ex-husband or my ex-boyfriend! And I was so F-ing mad, excuse my language, but I was so mad! Then I couldn’t go back to sleep so I thought I’d come out here, see if I could meet someone to talk to, de-stress, you know?” Another laugh and nudge.
“Ah. And you found lucky me,” I replied with a half-laugh, still wearing the beautiful, $98.00 pumps, which I enjoyed only for those few minutes where I pretended they were mine.
Next, the lady asked me my birthday. I told her the month. She asked for the exact date. I told her and she asked if I was Virgo.
“Libra! No wonder! I’m Gemini! Libras and Geminis get along great! Want to see my granddaughter?”
I won’t transcribe the rest of the conversation here. One, because I don’t think it’s necessary to prove the point I’m about to make. And two, there’s a lot more so I’ll just summarize because at the end of the day, it was interesting. She asked if I was married. How old I was. What I was doing in Boston if I wasn’t married. She told me about her daughter and granddaughter. Pulled out her flip-phone and shared pictures of her mixed-race daughter and granddaughter, then showed me a picture of herself as a child and I agreed that aside from the skin tone, her granddaughter strongly favored her features. Then she said I just had to listen to her granddaughter’s voice messages so we stood, still next to the Tahari display, only I had taken off the pumps by then, and listened to the cuteness through the phone. She told me to guess how old she was and of course, I dropped the number significantly and she responded cheerfully, “I’m 59!” Which I told her she didn’t look it. (And she didn’t.) I asked if she worked out and she said she just walked and biked and liked to dance, which she thought her daughters were jealous of since she could still move at her age. But they should be happy to have such a young-bodied mom. She pulled up her coat to show me her toned, slim legs, courtesy of said dance moves and biking and walking.
I smiled and nodded and gave appropriate replies, sending ESP signals to my friends to call me so I could say, “Sorry, I need to take this call,” then run away to the Macy’s across the river. As fate would have it, after days of inquiring calls, none came this time. Eventually she began to help me look for shoes (on her own accord), reminding me of her bunions and inability to wear beautiful shoes but I should enjoy it before things started growing on my body. As we walked through the displays, she finally wandered off in one direction and I in the other and that was the end of that temporary friendship.
Later, however, I began to think of this odd exchange. And the main comment that stuck out to me was: “…I thought I’d come out here, see if I could meet someone to talk to, de-stress, you know.”
Realization hit me. This poor woman, for all her exes and daughters and new neighbors on the T, was probably lonely. She craved proper human interaction. It was clear to me that she lived by herself somewhere on the Orange Line. Malden, I think. And this past week was not a time anyone wanted to be on their own and not a time that many people got restful sleep. I kept thanking Allah over and over again for giving me a roommate because I can only imagine how less calm and more freaked I would have been had I still lived in my studio.
Bunion-footed-young-looking-grandmother lady needed an outlet. Not a shoe-shopping outlet like many of the other women browsing. But a true, psychological-stand-point-talk-to-a-stranger, therapeutic de-stressing outlet.
Why she chose me, I won’t know for sure. Because I wear hijab? Because I’m young? Or maybe it’s pure simplicity. I just happened to be there and she just happened to be in need of a friendly face and open ear. My friends tease me whenever I tell them about conversations I have with random strangers. I love to talk so go figure. But this was the one random conversation that I feel had a hidden purpose.
It made me come to an empathetic acceptance that each and every person truly does have a story to tell and emotions to express. Each and every person, particularly this week and this city, felt things never felt before. And not everyone is as fortunate as to have loved ones nearby to feel less solitary.
Her questions did not offend. She was perfectly jovial, genuine, and curious. She was not rude and fully admitted to not knowing things. That is what I appreciated. For all my desire to have escaped her and go on with my search for the perfect pair of pumps, I truly believe we were meant to talk so both of us could reach an individualized sense of understanding. She, to satisfy her curiosity and for a time, not feel alone. Me, to not be so impatient with others.
If I was able to relieve the stress of this strange lady, whose name I did not get and who did not ask for my name, then as she said, “So that my little loss is helping someone else.”
I lost a little time, but gained a lot of perspective.
P.S. In case anyone’s truly curious, I did not get black pumps, but found some great on-sale blue Ralph Laurens as pictured.