Walking Barefoot in Queens
By Stella Cabot-Wilson
Illustration by Charlotte Mei
The first time I walked barefoot in Queens, it was past midnight on a Sunday. It was July. The concrete was warm and sticky, hungover from a long day of sun.
I walked, I think, for about 30 blocks. I didn’t exactly count, and even now I have only the vaguest idea where I began.
I was barefoot because my right shoe had been rubbing against my anklebone. In a fit, wanting to take some portion of control over the situation, I pulled off my sneakers and slung them over my shoulder. One shoe thumped against my collarbone as I walked, keeping time.
When I woke the next day, I discovered two blisters had spawned underneath my calluses. That was certainly a first; previously I didn’t know such a thing was possible. My calluses had always protected me before, through every rock-hopping moment of my Wyoming childhood. But I guess 30 concrete blocks is a high demand.
I have since peeled the blisters off. They left tender, new-skin ovals. Now I have matching soft spots, one on each heel. A little bigger than my thumbprint, they sit nestled below the stick-and-pokes my friend gave me a few weeks before my urban trek.
While I slogged through abandoned streets of Queens, I talked to myself. I started the conversation because I was angry and drunk, but continued because I thought maybe people would think I was crazy. If they thought I was crazy, I might be left alone.
Before the trek I had stepped into a deli to ask for directions. It was like all good New York delis: fluorescent, with a mechanical hum originating somewhere unknown. The refrigerators were loosely stocked with every kind of soda you could want at midnightish on a Sunday. The deli meats looked suspiciously room temperature. There were bright yellow packets of nuts. Crinkly cheerful chip bags. There were two deli guys. Very sweet, very concerned. I remember them twin-like, expressions moving in identical unison across their faces.
“Where’s the nearest subway?” I asked them. “Any train, it doesn’t matter.”
“Where’re you trying to go?”
They chuckled, a little nervously. “There’s an M train. But it’s like fifteen blocks away.”
“That’s perfect. How do I get there?”
After staring pointedly, searching for confirmation that I could successfully walk fifteen blocks, the deli guys gestured toward Fresh Pond Road.
That’s how I started walking home. When I finally arrived at an M stop, with a shaky calculation involving street number ascension and gut-feeling guesswork, I figured I knew how to get home. Plus I didn’t feel like getting into a train full of strangers. So I kept walking.
Before the deli, before barefoot, post-drinking, I had found myself next to the subway entrance outside Carl’s apartment. But instead of waiting 30-plus minutes and getting on a train only to wait even longer for a transfer to take me to my part of Queens, I was going to sit down and buckle myself into a car seat. A cab is a luxurious but sensible decision when out too late alone.
A row of drivers stood next to their sleepy cabs in front of the subway entrance. I was a little frazzled but one of the older guys stamped out his cigarette and gestured to a car. I climbed gratefully into the backseat while a buddy patted his shoulder goodbye.
He got in, turned on the cab. Flipped off the radio. “Where can I take you, miss?”
“Ridgewood,” I said. He made an understanding sort of noise and began to drive.
“Thank you,” I said. I gave him the cross streets near my apartment.
“Okay, okay,” he said. Then a pause. “I’m not sure where that is, exactly, so I’ll take you partway and then you can tell me where next. Okay?”
My relief nosedived. I was bleary, drunk, confused, but I did not want to admit I had no smartphone and no idea how to get home. I straightened in my seat, adjusted my hair.
“Okay, that sounds good, thanks.”
I figured he would drop me off and I’d flag a new cab. That’s not what happened, of course, but at the time it seemed a workable solution.
The cab was like all other cabs. At first it seemed the cabbie, too, was like all other cabbies—other than the fact he was the first not to know how to take me home.
He spoke with a round and lovely accent. He told me about his daughters and his wife, and how pretty they were, how much he loved them. As he embroidered descriptions, he’d peep excitedly into the rearview mirror to catch my eye.
Once I had made the decision to pretend like I knew how to get home, I had made the decision to act like everything was okay. I was a wonderful listener. I nodded and smiled and gave polite, appropriate exclamation. By the time he told me he didn’t know where next to turn, I was actually feeling semi-okay, like how all those articles claim pretending to smile will better a sour mood.
“You know what, that’s okay. You can let me off right here,” I said.
“Really?” He pulled over. He was delighted to have taken me where I needed to be.
“You’re a nice girl,” he said. Or something like that. Cab driver speak is a unique vernacular, one in which “beautiful,” “nice,” and “smart” are interchangeable.
I paid, blundering the card machine, considering money already spent that evening and wondering, guiltily, about tip. If NYC is good at anything, it’s good at making you feel both broke and shitty for being broke. As I stuffed the receipt into my purse, he turned toward me, hand extended. How strange, I thought, before extending my own. I felt a philanthropic glow, leftover from tipping, and besides, a handshake seemed apropos given our pleasant car ride.
But then his face moved toward my hand. I can still see the crown of his head bowing gently downward, as if following a predestined trajectory. My drunken brain struggled to refocus, to recalculate. A kiss? Was he going to kiss my hand?
But no. He didn't kiss my hand. He instead inhaled my hand, bringing into his nose enough of my particles that I heard them leave my body. His head lifted slightly, a creature breaking the water’s surface for air, before plunging back down. He sniffed again. I pulled my hand away. Tears welled confusedly in my throat.
“Thank you so much, have a good night, tell your wife hi….”
I walked quickly around the corner, behind the deli I would soon enter for directions. I sat down on a stoop. His smile hovered inside my head like a camera flash.
I cried a little bit on the stairs.
I had trouble understanding my own tears, but as the movement of his head replayed over and over in my mind, I understood. It was not like he was smelling flowers, in the same way that catcalling is not like telling your mother she is wearing a beautiful dress. It was like he was smelling ass.
This story really began a week or so earlier, when a guy also “in the industry” had come into the restaurant where I worked and tipped his to-go order with smoked uni instead of cash: “A gift from Chef.”
He was cute, and sad to learn I was leaving town. When he came back a few days later with some coworkers and asked if I would go for a date, I said yes.
So on Sunday I took the 1 train up to Harlem, to meet him at a new bar and ramen shop.
Though I don’t date much, I’d say the date part was standard. The food was pretty good and the drinks were pretty nice. The conversation was interesting in the way that everyone says a few interesting things the first time you meet them, though as you sit and listen you realize this is not someone who is going to be interesting forever. Or even for a second date.
Later, on the train, we discussed possibilities. Dessert, of course, was an option. Or another bar. He was momentarily revved up at the idea of dessert cocktails and pulled up pictures from a bar somewhere in Chelsea: Fluffy pink and blue drinks in big glasses as round as fishbowls. I felt kind of yikes about that and when he suggested a different, less fluffy bar I said okay. The bar was in Astoria, close to his apartment. He was, of course, “a regular.”
He took Snapchats as we rode, examining and deleting one after another. I was embarrassed by the careful joy he took in curating and unsure whether he was retaking for a better picture of himself or a better one of me. Upon being included in his Story, I thought how tomorrow his friends would ask about the date. They would tell him I was pretty, whether they thought so or not.
At the bar we had several drinks. I was a bit bored so I drank a lot. I should have left instead of being bored, instead of drinking more, but I have a hard time disappointing people. And he seemed so pleased I was there.
When we left we did pickle-backs, my idea, though why I wanted to, I don’t remember. To buck up before saying I’m sorry, you’re a nice boy? You’re beautiful, or you’re smart, but it’s time for me to go?
But when we got out of the bar there was another bar we just had to go to, and he kissed me and said, “We can walk there.”
We walked there. We ordered two beers. We sat on stools. I don’t remember what we talked about. I remember fake semi-laughing. I remember I didn’t really care about his company one way or another but was getting tired. I began to fully conceptualize that I was in Astoria and home was all the way in Ridgewood.
When we left the bar he hailed a cab. He didn’t ask if I wanted to go home with him, but I knew, of course. I was drunk; I told myself it shouldn’t matter.
When we got to his apartment, I discovered it was a studio and his roommate was asleep five feet away from what I presumed was Carl’s bed. I was standing there in vague astonishment when he pulled me into the bathroom and shut the door. He tried to tug off my dress, but it was tight and cotton and could only be removed with unzipping. I didn’t feel like telling him so he just got it hiked around my chest.
He began kissing me. I was uninterested in the kissing, but I was drunk, too.
He started to pull down my underwear—my least favorite pair, cotton and nude-colored, not what I would have worn had I any notion of having sex that night—and I pulled it back up. He tried to pull it down. I pulled it back up. In my drunken memories this happened four or five times, the same way each time, like a record skipping on the turntable.
Eventually, he gave up. This is where things start to get even fuzzier for me. I can’t, for instance, remember making the decision to stick my hand in his pants. I think perhaps he stuck it in for me.
I do remember continuing to let him kiss me, as he fumbled over to the edge of the bathtub and pulled out his dick and pushed my head down.
I forced my head up. “I don’t want the lights on,” I said.
“I want them on,” he said.
“I need them off,” I said. This was, for some reason, important, and I stood up and turned them off before returning to the tub. After a few seconds, I heard that ugly electronic camera sound. I felt the flash against my eyelids. I rocketed up, toward the bathroom door.
Finally, through my drunken haze, I could hear myself loud and clear: Nope! I maybe said, “I don’t think so.” I maybe said nothing at all.
He followed to me the door and pulled it shut as I opened it, flipping on the lights. I pulled my dress back down over my panties, now whispering ferociously that I wanted to go. He grabbed my wrist. He began to plead, softening, turning cutesy again. He sat back down on the edge of the tub. I sat on the toilet.
I kept repeating that I wanted to go. He kept begging me to stay “for just a little while longer.”
My brain told me if I could come up with some way of saying I wanted him but couldn’t stay, I would have a better bet. I turned my voice weepy. I said I was leaving New York so soon, I couldn’t do anything more because I didn’t want to become attached.
Finally, somehow, I got out of the bathroom and into the hall. He was quiet, resigned.
As I moved toward the door he said, “Hey, it’s late. You shouldn’t go home alone. Stay. I promise I won’t touch you again.”
I looked at him. He was smiling as if we could move on, maybe even script a comedy sketch for what had occurred.
My drunken exhaustion raised its head and threatened me with its hackles. I thought of how late it was, and on a Sunday, the emptiest of all New York nights. How difficult it would be to get home.
He became immediately cheerful. He brought me a soft grey t-shirt to sleep in. I unzipped my dress and put the shirt on. He watched.
“Come on! Take off your bra. Don’t you want to be comfortable?”
I laughed an agreement-y laugh that was not mine, giddy and tired. I pulled off my bra with the shirt still on, the sleeve maneuver.
I moved over to his bed. He turned off the lights in the kitchen, in the bathroom. He came over, too.
He moved his body close to mine. He reached through the new dark to grope at my underwear.
I sat up and got out of bed in one motion. Though my body was responsive, it took my head a minute to catch up.
“You said you wouldn’t do that,” I said.
I walked to the door. I pulled off his shirt and pulled on my dress, zipped it up by myself. Or did I ask him to zip it for me? It seems foolish, but maybe I did. I stuffed my bra into my backpack. I stuffed my feet into my shoes.
“You forgot your bra,” he said. In my memory, he says this weakly.
“No,” I said. “I didn’t.”
I got into a cab and then I talked to some sweet deli guys and then I walked thirty blocks home, really damn pissed. I knelt in the shower and sobbed. I remember the tiled floor, the simultaneous grit and slime. I scrubbed my body, my beaten, grubby feet. I went to sleep.
Waking up the next morning, I discovered I had made it home. I had left and I had made it home.
Plugging in my phone, I was alerted of a text from Carl, asking if I got home okay. I replied, Yeah thanks, intending its brevity to signal the end of communication forever. But then he sent another text, wondering if maybe I was upset. I stared at my phone before finally sending I said no and you didn’t respect that. I wanted, somehow, through the inefficient, inadequate method that is texting, to inform him he had done 28 years of life wrong.
His reply: Oh no that really is a bad impression! Let me make it up to you next time. I wanted to shake him, except I never wanted to see him again.
During the next couple days, I examined my actions mercilessly. Why hadn’t I gone home after the restaurant, or the first bar? Why had I got in the cab with him?
Carl continued to text, trying to convince me to meet up. I felt guilty whenever I didn’t reply. The idea that I was keeping from him things he deserved continued to creep up.
I share this story not because it is unique or especially horrific, but because it’s a story I’ve heard an exhausting number of times. I hope my version can help to illuminate a gray area that should be black and white.
I understand why we muddy these situations. It’s easy to focus on the stupidity and danger involved in shared drunkenness. It’s less scary if I was unclear and Carl was confused. I think it’s relieving to walk away with that reading—it’s sometimes the reading I want to walk away with.
But let me remind you: I had to hold my underwear to my body. Carl attempted to take a picture of me in a sexual act without asking. I said I wanted to go repeatedly. I was upset enough that Carl promised he wouldn’t touch me again. And then Carl reached for my underwear.
It’s important to consider these facts while acknowledging it feels like the story of a girl who put herself into a dangerous situation. If your impulse is to tell me to be more careful, you are asking to paste a Band-Aid over a tumor. I didn’t make the situation dangerous, Carl did.
For my whole life I’ve been taught to be careful. These are the ways I am careful: I cover my body, because it says things I don’t intend; I make men feel special while assuring them I’m inconsequential; I keep a penknife in my purse.
Carl has been taught things, too. After fine toothed-ly combing my evening with him, I found it was not that I was unclear. It was not even that Carl didn’t care about my consent. Instead, he was utterly unable to understand my negations. For twenty-eight years Carl has been taught to assume that I want to say yes even if it sounds like no. Women, after all, never say what they mean.
In the world today, though Carl was the first who didn’t hear when I desperately said no, it is unlikely he will be the last. But what if Carl, too, is taught to be careful? Taught to be careful with my body, taught to listen to my words. What if we are taught that “women” and “men” are not markers of difference, but markers of humanity?