Empathy Shoes

Empathy Shoes

Issue 38 by John Phillips

Empathy Shoes

The instructions were simple: Choose an item that piques your interest, put it on and walk down the runway. This would give you an idea of what it was like to be someone else.

David caught wind of it while eavesdropping at a bar in the Lower East Side. It was a former dive that had been renovated to cater to an affluent crowd, the place David had spent most nights since his divorce from June and the funeral that he wasn’t invited to. A handsome young professional half his age was relaying a story to a small circle of friends that were occupying excessive real estate near the entrance.

The guy struck David as a contradictory liberal, the type that snapped selfies on guided tours of shanty towns but only consumed fair trade coffee. He could spin the yarn though. His audience listened with slack-jawed stillness as he gushed, their phones tucked away the entire time.

A crush of music obscured important details, but David caught the gist of the guy’s story. He had participated in some sort of jarring immersive performance. It was a new concept that didn’t involve technology, just a bunch of clothes, a runway and an audience. The experience was raw, the guy said, enlightening. It went down at a place called Empathy Shoes.

Later that evening, David bumped into the guy while queueing for the bathroom. Normally David wouldn’t give this type the time of day, but the couple that had slipped in before them was taking ages, so he attempted to force conversation the way strangers often do when crammed into small spaces.

“There should be a time limit,” David said.

The guy grunted without looking up from his phone. David often wondered what would happen if smartphones disappeared. Would the always connected generation look around and tell us something new about the world, or had they already made their statement.

“Honestly, why would anyone hang out in a filthy bathroom,” David said.

“Maybe they’re not hanging out,” the guy said. “Did you consider that one of them might be sick? Maybe the guy is diabetic and needed his friend to administer an emergency insulin shot. Or maybe the girl bumped into an abusive ex-boyfriend and felt unsafe.”

“I doubt that,” David said, elevating his right eyebrow.

“What makes you so sure?”

“You only had to look at them to tell what those two were up to.”

“I used to think that I knew everything about other people, too,” the guy said. “It wasn’t until I put myself in their shoes that realized how wrong I was. You should try it.”

David winced. The words meant nothing coming from this nonentity, but they reminded him of something June had said during the divorce – that David was so self-absorbed he couldn’t see the world from anywhere but the throne he had built in it.

“It sounds hypocritical when you say it like that.”

“Maybe you’re right,” the guy said, stuffing a creased business card into the breast pocket of David’s suit as the couple spilled out of the bathroom emitting a post-coital glow. “I was saving that for a friend, but you probably need it more than he does.”

David tugged the card from his pocket and forced a laugh as he crumpled it into an origami meteorite. Empathy Shoes, he muttered, tucking the ball of paper back into his pocket after failing to find a garbage bin.

“That card is your only way in,” the guy said, slipping into the bathroom. “Give it a shot.”

***

David dislodged the week-old wad of paper from his suit pocket while lunching at a steakhouse in Washington Heights, annoyed at having traveled to the nosebleed area of Manhattan for a meeting only to have the client bail at the last minute. The paper flaked as he unfolded it, but the words were still visible: Empathy Shoes on one side, directions to some godforsaken place in the Bronx on the other. David recalled the snide little dirt bag at the bar referring to “Empathy Shoes” as a speakeasy for meaningful experiences. Apparently, this card was his only way in, but it sounded more like a place you needed to escape. He tossed it beside his empty plate and paid.

The tattooed waitress that David had under-tipped chased him down nearly a block away from the restaurant. Defensive reasoning kicked in – her service was mediocre, and she wasn’t pretty, so she hadn’t earned a decent tip. David prepared to undercut the girl, who was already sticking her hand out in his direction, but she drew first.

“You forgot this,” she said, proffering the tattered business card.

“That’s garbage, I don’t need it.” Poor girl, at least stupid was better than greedy.

“Do you know what this is?”

“Some sort of hipster sham. You keep it, seems like your kind of thing.”

“You’re right,” she said. “It changed my life.”

“Great, another one. What’s so special about this,” David said, nodding at the card.

The girl took David in with the wide-eyed stare of a true believer, his pristine suit that was probably worth her monthly wage, his self-assuredness, the permanent crease that the wedding band he wore for ten years left below his knuckle. Despite his confidence, being seen often made David uncomfortable, yet the girl’s eyes were kind, and at the right angle there was a touch of June in her smile, though this girl could only ever be the dollar-store equivalent.

“We assume too much about the people around us,” she said. “We rarely try to find out who they really are. I thought I was different, but I was guilty, too.”

“Judgment and assumption are survival instincts, they’re evolutionary.”

“That may be, but some assumptions lead us to let the best things in life pass by,” she said, taking David’s hand and pressing the card into his palm. “What do you have to lose?”

It was the first time that a woman had touched him in years.

***

The entrance to Empathy Shoes was tucked behind a walk-in refrigerator in the basement of a Chinese restaurant. There were no passwords, just awkward stares from the kitchen staff – undoubtedly illegal immigrants – when David pushed through the saloon-style doors in search of the basement. The location was implausible, yet no one from the restaurant had tried to stop him, so he pressed the buzzer beside the unmarked door.

A chubby man around David’s age answered and waved him into a small vestibule. The man was African American – black, David thought, why couldn’t you just say black? – which gave David pause. Walking into a basement in the Bronx alone with a black guy was high on the list of things you shouldn’t do if you wanted to celebrate another birthday.

“I’m sorry, is this Empathy Shoes?” David asked.

“Do you have a card?”

“This?” David asked, offering the scrappy business card.

“That,” the man said. “Come in, we can help you.”

“Who said I need help?”

“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”

“Well, I’m not entirely sure what this is supposed to be. I heard about some life-changing experience,” David said, taking in the array of bygone soul singers caged in cheap frames on the vestibule walls. “Seems unlikely.”

“It has the potential to be life changing,” the man said. “That depends on you.”

“That sounds like a lot of responsibility.”

“It’s worth it,” the man said. “I’m Vernon.”

“How does this work, Vern?”

“The room behind me is full of clothing, everything you can imagine. You go in and dig around until you find something that interests you, something that you normally wouldn’t wear, then you put it on in the changing room.”

“What if it doesn’t fit?”

“You squeeze. Once it’s on, you hit the runway.”

“The runway?”

“Yes, the runway. You walk to the end and back wearing your item. I won’t unlock the door until you make the full trip.”

“Hold on, what door? When do you lock the door?” David asked, back stepping towards the entrance.

“The changing room door. Once you’re in, I lock it. You access the runway through another door on the far side of the changing room. I let you out once you’ve walked.”

“No deal,” David said. Did this guy think he could lock David in the closet, maybe send someone downtown to raid his penthouse?

“If you can’t handle it, that’s fine,” Vernon said, “but this is your only chance. You don’t get the card back if you walk away.”

“Yeah, well I don’t need it.”

“You need it more than you realize.”

“I doubt that,” David said. “Tell me what happens on the runway.”

“I can’t. It’s different every time.”

“So, you lock me in a room, then I have to walk across a runway without knowing what will happen? Do you know how ridiculous that sounds? For all I know someone might attack me.”

“There’s no violence,” Vernon said.

“How do I know that?”

“It’s completely safe, I guarantee it.”

That’s reassuring, what else don’t I know?”

“Two things. There’s a little envelope attached to each item of clothing. You have to read the note inside before you hit the runway, but you’re not allowed to look at it until you’re in the changing room. The note will tell you a bit about the person who owned the clothing.”

“What’s the other thing?”

“Empathy Shoes is free, but only if you walk the runway three times. If not, you have to pay the back-out fee.”

“How much is that?”

“Five thousand dollars.”

Five thousand dollars! If I don’t let you lock me in a closet and walk the runway three times, I have to pay you five thousand dollars? Do you know how that sounds?”

“Like a good incentive to walk the runway three times.”

“And this happens now?”

“Midnight,” Vernon said. “You come back at midnight.”

“Midnight? In the Bronx?”

“That’s your only shot.”

***

Derelicts and drug dealers dotted the street near the Chinese restaurant. David’s cab circled the block for the third time as he sought the right opportunity to make his move. He had brokered a deal with the driver to wait outside until he returned. If David didn’t come back in an hour, the driver should call the cops. The last bit was nearly a deal-breaker because the driver was worried that he wouldn’t receive the hundred dollars that David promised in the event that he didn’t return, so David paid half up front.

David dashed into the restaurant unnoticed and considered retreating when he discovered that it was empty. No patrons, no staff, nothing. David never had a wild spirit, even in his youth. But something about the way the waitress pushed the crumpled business card into his palm and her earnest smile that bore a tiny strand of June lent David courage. It wasn’t until he saw the mountainous man beside the unmarked door that David turned back, but the guy had seen him, so it was too late.

“Who are you?” David asked, throwing weight into his voice.

“Are you David?”

“Yes, who are you?”

“I’m security. Hold on,” he said, knocking on the door.

“Security for what?”

“In case you get out of hand.”

Me?” David asked. “Why would I get out of hand?”

The guard stared back in silence. Conversation over, apparently. David didn’t press any further to avoid pissing him off. He looked like he could do horrible things to David’s skeletal system.

“You showed up,” Vernon said, waving David into the vestibule.

“Your phone,” the security guy said as David reached the door, his massive palm upturned.

“Is that really necessary?” David asked.

“You’ll get it back,” Vernon said.

David checked his watch. Only forty-five minutes until the cab driver would call the police, how much damage could they do?

The main room smelled of dry sweat. David took small breaths to acclimate, surveying the used clothing that was tightly packed into racks, shelves and organizers along the walls. They had everything – jeans, skirts, blouses, jackets, shoes and belts. There was a separate section with saris and hijabs, and even a rack dedicated to work attire that was segregated by profession.

The sheer volume of clothing overwhelmed David. Empathy Shoes felt more like a hoarder’s garage than a curated collection. David didn’t know where to start, so he veered towards a rack of jeans that resembled what he wore on weekends.

“More clothes than shoes,” David said.

“We started with shoes but had to branch out,” Vernon said. “Ever seen a man wear stilettos for the first time?”

“How would I know if it was his first time?”

“First-timers stumble around like newborn animals. They’re a danger to themselves, so I branched out to clothing.”

“Vern, is this blood?”

“Cloud be blood or dirt. Wine, maybe. We put the clothes out the way they come in. It’s authentic,” Vernon said. “The stains are meaningful.”

“How can stains be meaningful?”

“It’s part of the experience.”

Used clothing was bearable but used clothing that bore the marks of people’s mistakes and bad habits was another thing. David stepped back from the rack and surveyed the room for something that he could slip over what he was wearing. He considered a solid navy-blue necktie with a creased tail. The tie made sense to him, but he heeded Vernon’s suggestion to choose something that he wouldn’t normally wear.

David stopped at a rack of skirts. There were several shapes and patterns – a gray knee-length pencil skirt, a pastel gypsy skirt, a summery pleated thing spotted with little birds. Despite the vivid colors and unfamiliar shapes, it was a black leather miniskirt that caught his eye. The zipper was partially torn away, and the leather was blemished, but the skirt was large enough for David to slip over his pants. He confirmed his choice with Vernon who directed him to the changing room and locked the door.

David tore the little envelope from the size tag, stepped into the skirt and pulled it up to his waist where he had to pinch the leather around the torn zipper to keep it from falling down. He gawked at himself in the mirror. Had he not been wearing pants, his bits would have been exposed. So, this was what it felt like to dress like a slut. He turned his back towards the mirror and slowly bent forward while looking over his shoulder to see how much of his ass would have been exposed. Even with pants shielding his legs he felt the violent leer of imaginary strangers. But that’s why people wore miniskirts – they wanted attention.

Ready for the runway, David tore open the envelope and read the handwritten note inside:

‘I wore this skirt the night I was raped. When I showed the police the following morning, they told me that girls shouldn’t drink too much at frat parties. I was asking for it, they said. I had an abortion four weeks later. - Sarah Brown, age 19’

David dropped the skirt from his hips and kicked it to the other side of the changing room. A rape skirt? Was that even legal? He could clearly see stains in the changing room, crusty blotches that looked like dried cum.

“Vern, is this a joke?” David yelled, banging on the door. “I’m not wearing that.”

“It’s part of the experience.”

“It’s disgusting. I could have you put in jail. Let me out.”

“After you walk the runway. Otherwise you have to pay the back-out fee.”

“You can’t make me pay anything.”

“My security guard can.”

***

The runway door moaned as David stepped out of the changing room. Fluorescent light pierced his eyes. Beneath him, a patchwork of maple planks squeaked like styrofoam being wiggled out of a cardboard box, announcing his first step into the limelight.

A wolf whistle cut through the room before David could close the door. He whipped his head around to find a group of strangers sitting in rusty folding chairs beside the runway. They wore white T-shirts with black font that read: Frat Boy, Mother, Police Officer.

“Damn girl, did you put that on for me?” Frat Boy called out. “Come over here. Let me get you a drink. We can chat for a bit and then find someplace a little more private. You look good, but I can make you feel good. I promise.”

Cat calling was so common in New York that it almost made David laugh. That’s what boys did. Was this really worth getting worked up about? Who cared what other people said? He grinned and began to walk the runway.

“You wore a miniskirt to a frat party,” Mother said. “I’ve told you a hundred times not to dress so aggressively. Do you know what kind of signal that sends? I’m honestly surprised that it didn’t happen sooner. You should be ashamed of yourself. You brought this on.”

A bead of sweat rolled down David’s face. Cat calling was one thing, but Mother’s criticism was a sucker punch in the face of injustice – a sign of home without the heart. What sort of twisted life-changing experience was this?

“You got black-out drunk at a frat party,” Police Officer said. “There’s a certain point at which you have to take responsibility for your actions. Even if it was non-consensual, there aren’t any signs of earnest resistance. That rip in your skirt could easily be the result of wishful thinking when you bought something a size too small. It’s your word against his.”

***

David’s shirt was soaked with sweat when he spilled into the main room. Nothing like that had ever happened to him and never would. He was a man. Nobody could take that away from him, but the thought was nauseating.

“I told you to unlock the door,” David said.

“And I told you the rules. Once you enter the changing room, the only way out is to walk the runway,” Vern said. “You chose the skirt, so you walked with the skirt.”

David balled his fists and gave Vern a look that might scare an intern but did little outside of the office. The world was David’s domain. He was used to getting his way and didn’t know how to respond when he didn’t. Probably best to de-escalate with that security guard lurking around.

“That was intense,” David said, pressing his ear towards his shoulder to ease the tension in his neck.

Vern pursed his lips and nodded. “What now?”

“Pick your second item.”

“My second item?”

“You walk three times, or you pay the back-out fee. Let’s go, it’s getting late.”

David examined the navy-blue tie that he found earlier, feeding it through his fingers as he searched for clues about the story that brought it to Empathy Shoes. Nothing stood out. The tail was creased, but that wasn’t unusual. He had owned ties with similar creases before he earned six figures. The only trauma he could imagine the owner experiencing was pushing past the nasty Occupy Wall Street crowd to get to his office.

Tie knots were serious business in David’s world, a secret language. Fluency worked in your favor. Most guys started with four-in-hand and half-Windsor knots – the hasty nooses that Catholic school boys used. These were acceptable for teenagers but suggested poor taste and bad decision-making in adults. During several job interviews where David was on the fence about a candidate, he based his final decision on their choice of knot, rejecting four-in-hand and half-Windsor wearers. Trinity and Eldredge knots were the stuff of dandies – overly complex things that suggested a candidate was likely to get bogged down in details that would keep them from meeting deadlines. This, too, was a bad sign, even worse in clients as it screamed high maintenance. Always best to stick with a classic, David thought, as he tied a full Windsor in front of the changing room mirror. The classics commanded respect.

David opened the envelope and read the tie’s accompanying note as he prepared to step onto the runway.

‘This is the tie I wore when I became a legal citizen 15 years ago. I also wore it to church the day I was attacked for being a foreigner. I spent eight days in the hospital. – Juan Martìnez, age 38.’

***

There was no wolf whistle when David stepped onto the runway, but he instinctively looked at the audience as he closed the door: Neighbor, Defense Attorney, Judge.

“What are you doing in my country?” Neighbor called out. “Did you come here to steal my job? How would you like it if I snuck into your shithole country?”

Neighbor leapt onto the runway and barreled towards David. Flecks of spit shot through the air as he yelled in David’s face: “The American Dream wasn’t made for you. Get out of my country!”

David loosened the full Windsor with his index finger, balled his fist and prepared to defend himself. His heart was racing as he made his way to the far side of the runway. He braced against the wall with sweat-slicked palms after skirting past Neighbor and caught his breath. The runway was clear by the time he started to head back towards the changing room.

“This man is a threat to our community,” Defense Attorney said. “My client behaved with the interests of our nation in mind. He was protecting our collective dream. My client isn’t a criminal. He acted out in patriotism.”

“I’m going to let the defendant off with a stern warning,” Judge said. “As for the plaintiff, I advise you to think about whether or not you belong here. There is a place for everyone in America, but not every place in America is for everyone.”

David slammed the changing room door, the Judge’s finals words muffled by the wooden barrier between them. Slumped against the wall, he loosened the full Windsor and let the tie tumble to the floor.

***

“You told me I needed this,” David said when he entered the main room. “Nobody needs any of this.”

“You’re right,” Vernon said.

“That man got in my face,” David shouted. “He threatened me.”

“And here you are, unscathed. If only Juan had been so lucky.”

It was beyond arguing about, and Vernon had a point. This was as close to the real thing as David would ever get, but a lot of people couldn’t say the same. He was lucky.

David still had to make his final strut to avoid paying the back-out fee, so he combed the room for something safe. He considered pants, shirts, jackets and accessories but imagined horrible experiences and cast them aside. A pair of stained pyjamas sent scenes of a violent home invasion racing through his mind. A yarmulke stoked fears that he would become privy to another violent hate crime. A handsome blazer made him think of workforce prejudices that he never experienced but had perpetuated throughout his career.

David was sorting through a rack of tops when a sweater knocked the wind out of him. It was a homely grey thing with oversized shoulders and decorative blue flowers. June used to wear one exactly like it around the apartment during winter. He hated that sweater.

“Vern, can you tell me anything about this?”

“That’s against the rules,” Vern said.

“Can I look at the card?”

“Rules.”

“It’s personal.”

“Trauma always is.”

There was no way that it belonged to June. All of that had happened a few years ago. How many of these things did they sell, and who else wore them? Were they somehow like June? What had they suffered through?

“Okay,” David said, stepping into the changing room, “let’s get this over with.”

David scrambled for the envelope and tore it open after Vernon locked the door.

‘This was my sister June’s favorite sweater. She often wore it in her apartment where her mentally abusive husband was having an affair. June was wearing it the day she committed suicide. Even after the divorce the affair drove her over the edge. – Sarah Colton, age 44’

***

Thirty minutes passed before David scraped himself off the changing room floor. The cops would be on their way by now if the cab driver’s word was any good.

She knew. But how? He had been discreet. Sure, his attitude towards June had changed during that period. He was less patient with her, short-tempered and condescending at times because the burden of his secret chipped away at his composure, but even then, he was cautious. He hadn’t even told his closest friend about the affair until he began making plans to leave June for the other woman.

The back-out fee was pocket change. He could afford it. There was only so much he could handle on the runway, he had to draw the line somewhere. This was personal. This was from his life, yet there were clearly things that he had missed along the way. Surely there were things that you were not meant to learn about yourself, your life and the people in it.

You must reach a point where the force of present and future stripped the past of its hold on you. Yet, how could you turn away?

David shuddered as he slipped into the sweater. Even on him it was boxy and sat low on his shoulders. This was the closest he had been to June since early in their relationship – before the divorce, before she slipped that belt noose around her neck in her sister’s spare bedroom – but he had never felt further away.

The door creaked as David inched it open to peek at the commentators. Mother was missing. So were Father and Sister, Best Friend, Therapist and Other Woman. There was only one person looking back at him: Ex-Husband.

“Are you wearing that sweater again,” Ex-Husband said. “You look like you crawled out of a trash bin. You used to take care of yourself. What changed? Why don’t you make an effort anymore?”

David’s eyes began to burn as he shuffled onto the runway.

“I have to stay late at the office again,” Ex-Husband said, a touch of honey in his voice. “I won’t be home in time for dinner, you go ahead and eat without me.”

A loud crack echoed throughout the room as David doubled over and dropped to his knees. Planks of runway tore through the fabric of his pants. He clutched at the stabbing pain in his stomach, while his eyes welled with tears. He was afraid to look at Ex-Husband, afraid to hear what he would say next.

“Must have been from the coatrack at work,” Ex-Husband said. “My secretary douses herself with perfume before she comes in. Sometimes the perfume on her coat rubs off on mine. You might learn something about taking care of yourself from her.”

The runway melted into kaleidoscopic blur as he wept. Ex-Husband was no longer visible, but it wasn’t the sight of Ex-Husband that hurt David, it was what he said. How could anyone be so cruel to someone who loved them so much?

“Sometimes I really think I would be much better off without you,” Ex-Husband said. “Maybe everyone would be better off without you.”

About the Author

John Phillips

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John Phillips grew up and went to university in New York. After graduating, he pursued a career in journalism that took him across Asia, Europe and North America. Today, he lives in Singapore and works as a creative content strategist at Bloomberg.