Another lovely story from my friend and guest writer Laura.
Sometimes it can take a while to know how a story ends or, in this case, lives on. It started with my lunge for freedom.
I sat on the wooden parquet floor, leaning against the front door. It was my new apartment, with emphasis on “my.” It was a first floor garden view apartment, but the view was actually of the parking lot. I finished waxing the worn floor with furniture polish at 1 am, unaware of how slippery furniture polish is, when you walk on it. My shiny floor ended with me on my rear end and a close up view of my work. But, I laughed at my foible, intoxicated with my new found freedom and poverty; a woman alone, a lone woman. It was all good.
I had just ended a two year affair with a film maker, moving out of his home while he was working in Central America. He was a kind, but sullen man, who said he loved me, but our bargain remained that I would pay his bills and manage his money while he was away, which was nearly 75 % of the time. In exchange for these services, I would live rent free. While he passive-aggressively agreed with my decision to leave, finding the right time for him was impossible. I had to make the right moment. I grabbed my daughters belongings, two suitcases, two avocado trees I had started from seed, a record player, and although it was November, I wore a pair of Indian sandals, which were deemed my “freedom sandals” by my soon-to-be new roommates.
My big plan was to stop working for the first time since I was 16 and go to college. I now realized how much more I wanted in my life for my four year old daughter and myself. My plan meant I had to go on welfare and use food stamps. Nearly all of my friends were already college graduates, they had been married and divorced, had careers, bought and sold their first home, and not one had ever seen food stamps, nor had first hand knowledge of the welfare system.
It wasn’t that I was late in achieving these milestones, I was just achieving them in a different order. I was starting college at 27, had already been married in Las Vegas at 22, and divorced in a matter of months. I also had a child and at least 10 jobs and no career, and I had never owned a home. It was exactly this dissimilar history that allowed me to share my new, two bedroom apartment with my successful, divorcing friends. The wife, a friend since I was 12, would stay in the other bedroom one week, and the husband the next. The other would stay in their home with their child. Supposedly, the one living with me would have nothing but fun, which spoke to their own experience in college, not the one I was about to start.
Eventually I realized that her idea of “going it alone,” was not similar to my journey of self-discovery. Their divorce stayed on schedule, but their democratic plan to board with me only lasted through November. The holidays provided detours to their plan, and we amicably drifted apart as we each pursued our own goals.
I really was alone now with my daughter and my plan, living just inside the beltway near Washington, DC, in a Virginia suburb. There was no family interested in my life, no one to turn to, and no one to help. I looked across the living room of my nearly empty apartment; a love seat, the phonograph on the floor, a fish tank with gold fish, a phone, and a second doorway to the central hallway of the building. To me, it was lovely, even if we were alone.
I selected my apartment complex because it was within walking distance of the community college I wanted to attend. In fact, it is the very same college where Mrs. Joe Biden now teaches. I gradually learned there were a few other students in the building. I also became aware of the odd couple who lived next door to me, simply because they tried to be so invisible.
The girl was tall and thin, with long blond hair, and I never heard her speak. Her partner was a man at least twice her age, perhaps forty. His dyed black hair was shoulder length, and his thin form was broad at the shoulders. We occasionally passed each other when going to the parking lot, or at the hallway mailboxes, but we never spoke. The man was always with her, silent in his directive to keep walking, don’t speak, and don’t look up. While it wasn’t unusual to hear people in the hallway and going to the laundry room, their apartment was quiet. I imagined that their living room must be dark, since their windows were exactly like mine, but the drapes were always drawn.
It was soon December, and the new spring quarter didn’t start until march. I passed the frozen, Virginia winter months preparing for college; studying the lists of courses, finding daycare for my daughter, and learning how to use food stamps with minimal embarrassment. Without a car, I carefully scheduled any buying, getting, and taking of stuff to coincide with the occasional visits of my departed roommates. I also carefully chose my first classes, trying to leverage any knowledge I had learned in the real world, hoping to improve my chances at getting better grades. I had to succeed, there was no going backwards.
I became familiar with the faces of my neighbors, and as the holidays passed, and February came and left, I realized that I had seen little of the young woman next door. The man seems to come and go on a regular schedule, and I imagined that he worked and she was no longer there. Then, one bright day in March she appeared, quietly walking ahead of him to their car. I had just returned from registering for my first college class, “Comparative Religions,” and wondered if she was taking classes, too. It was, after all, the most exciting decade of the century; the beginning of “women’s liberation,” civil rights demonstrations, and the height of the anti-war movement.
I saw her again the following week as I returned home from class. She was opening her front door, when suddenly she was jerked back into her doorway from behind. The image haunted me for a few days. I imagined what would Gloria Steinum say, or do? I waited to hear something at night, but no disturbances or other clues to her existence appeared. Just as I decided to introduce myself the next time I saw them, I literally bumped into her leaving the laundry room, with the sullen man behind her. I was so surprised that I said nothing. After that, I would see little of her, usually leaving and returning with him in their car.
March became July, and although I thought about the young woman from time to time, I was distracted with my own life, my daughter, and the joy of attending college. A bigger surprise was that I was dating again and the man was a card carrying member of NOW. I was also awakening to all the rich possibilities that could be available to me with an education. I had written my first “A” paper for my “Comparative Religions” class, entitled “The Changing Roles of Women in Christianity.” I had read 23 books to write the paper. I became aware of parallels between the women I was reading about and my own new life; women seeking their own lives, and each had their own kind of freedom sandals. Filled with self-congratulatory pride, I was framing my paper to hang on the wall, when a quiet, but constant knock came to my screen door.
Looking at me through the door was the blond girl. She begged urgently and quietly, “please may I come in? May I? Can you hide me? Please?” She quickly came in and said “hide me, he mustn’t find me.” Within seconds, I had opened the door and we were standing in my bathroom, where she stepped into the tub. I closed the bathroom door behind us, as my daughter played with the running water from the faucet.
“I have an airplane ticket home…waiting for me at American Airlines at National Airport. Can you take me to the airport? You have a car, I can pay you. I don’t have to leave until tonight, but if you let me stay until 8, we can run to the car when it gets dark.” I was stunned silent by a woman declaring her freedom plan. “She’s running for her life,” I thought. I didn’t ask questions. We just looked at each other.
“Yes, alright, I can do that.” Something my mother would never have said, but Steinum would. “Then we should leave as soon as it’s dark?” I asked. “Shortly after 8 pm, but he’ll be looking for me, so I just need to wait here….in your shower,” she nearly whispered. “But, he also might see me, or us, and try to stop us.” We said nothing after that. I know we were each wondered what being caught would mean. Would she win? Would I help?
I left the bathroom and she locked the door from within. I began to hang the framed paper again. I was fixing dinner for my daughter when the man came to my door. I walked to the door in my freedom sandals and opened the door calmly, wiping my hands on the dishcloth, and smiled.
“Hey, hi, I live next door, have you seen the girl I live with? She isn’t home, did you see her leave?” he asked. Telling the truth, I answered, “no,” and I leaned toward the door as if looking out to the parking lot. He turned to look also, and we were both quiet. He then said, “Okay, well let me know if you see her today.” I mumbled, “uh huh.”
I closed the door and sat down between the avocado trees on the floor to watch the sun go down. Within 30 minutes he left in his car. surprised, I jumped to my feet, running to the bathroom door to tell her he has left in his car, and we should make a run for it now! With my daughter’s hand in mine, I stood with the blond at the front door in the dark.
“I’ll go first with my daughter to the car, and we’ll pull up to the building, then you get in the back seat and lie down on the floor,” I said. From the parking space to the door was the longest drive in my life. she seemed to walk in slow motion to the car. On the way to the airport, I learned very little about her. She talked about her phone call to her father, and how it took months to find the time to call. “I was never out of his sight,” she whispered. “He always, he always…..” she didn’t finish her sentence. “He” didn’t have a name.
She now sat pensively in the back seat as we pulled up to the airline curb and she got out of the back seat. She turned around to thank me through the passenger side window. She had no luggage and no shoes. “I have to have shoes, I can’t go on the plane without shoes,” she said looking down at my feet, at my freedom sandals.
I reached down and removed my shoes, explaining that I really want them back, but I knew I may never see them again, my $4.00 shoes. I didn’t know her name and I didn’t know where she is going, but I gave her my shoes through the window. She tried to give me money for gas and the shoes, but I told her, “No, I just want my freedom sandals back.”
“Freedom sandals?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder nervously. I told that I, too, once had to leave in a hurry, and they were the only shoes I had when I left. “Now they’re your freedom sandals.” My daughter echoed, “freedom,” and together we watched her disappear through the door of the airport terminal. As I drove back to the apartment, my mind jumped back and forth from thinking about the man I would continue to live next door too, and my hope that my daughter would never need freedom sandals.
Perhaps two weeks later, a narrow, brown package was wedged into my mailbox. As I tugged it outward, it flipped to the hallway floor. In that second, my remaining mysterious neighbor appeared for his mail. He gallantly bent down, scooping up package that held the last, tiny detail to his demise. Our eyes did not meet, but I thanked him with a nod of my head as he handed me the keys to her freedom.
He moved in early fall, I started my 3rd quarter, and the shoes began to show their $4.00 price tag at the end of summer. I tucked them away with my summer clothes and lost track of them.
35 years have passed, and I recently shared the story of the freedom sandals with a student I know, who was in an abusive relationship. Not only did she leave the relationship for her own new life, but, she read the story of the freedom sandals to her “Women’s Studies” class in her freshman year. The karma of the shoes lives on. Sometimes it can take a while to know how a story ends or, in this case, lives on.