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The Same Shoes
There was never any doubt in my mind that I would be married forever. I think that was what made the separation hurt so much, that complete trust in our future. That, and the darkness I felt when that faith was shattered, the shards of our life together scattered in the street, piercing up at the sky for all to see. Driving always made me think about my marriage, the road passing underneath me quickly until it was just gone. I ran my knob-knuckled fingers through the wiry silver of my hair and thought about my wife and those twenty years we shared, gone behind me. Then I thought about the girl, the one in the coffee shop.
She wasn’t a stranger, she was me. I saw her for only a few minutes, and yet I knew her. I knew the heavy feeling of her flesh, the torn seam ripped away from a partner. I knew her.
I drove over the wet asphalt, my foot pressed down too hard on the accelerator. The rain had cleared out most of the heaviness in the air, along with it my mind. Gone was the worry about getting home before the game started, gone was the fear about hydroplaning on the thick sheet of rain beneath my wheels; I thought only of that single, clear image of her. I saw the wet tracks on her face that she thought were hidden under the curtain of rainfall. I drove fiercely through the rain, recalling that woman. Just her.
I had seen her through a screen of coffee vapors, steam rising up in tendrils around her heart-shaped face; she sat alone at a table for two, gripping her frappuccino like a life jacket. Her coffee cup said her name was Kate, and I wondered if that was her real name, or if she had, like I, taken pleasure in the liberating moment of presenting falsified identity to the barista. The rain streamed down in grey torrents on the glass pane beside her and I noticed her face mirrored the window. Her green-gloved hand wiped her face to dry her tears, but her glove too was already soaked. Dark hair turned black by rain stuck to her face and corduroy coat, and I marveled at her golden tan, a surprisingly dark tone for January. I supposed she could have gone to a tanning bed, but she didn’t have the orange harshness sported by most of my daughters’ friends. What scared me was how much she looked like Jeanette, my ex-wife. This woman, maybe twenty-eight years old, had separation written all over her, etched in the recent lines on her face. It could easily have been Jeanette sitting there, checking her cell every fifteen seconds to see if I had called. A fresh wave of guilt ripped through my lungs and I stared at this tragic woman, unable to breathe.
Kate’s eyebrows popped up as her anticipation was rewarded and her phone began to buzz impatiently. She jumped and reached out quickly, then recoiled and breathed deeply, calming herself, and answered the phone casually.
“Yes…no…because I needed to Daniel…no, don’t you dare go there…no…no there is nothing wrong with just enjoying myself for once in ten years! I had to escape…oh, you…I needed to get away from all of this. It’s just too much, I…you know what? Fine! You can got to Jamaica too, but I’m warning you…it obviously didn’t work, Daniel! Why do you think we’re still yelling like this? God! You really think…” she stood up suddenly, knocking over her chair, and stormed out of the coffeehouse, a trail of pained profanities exploding behind her as she went.
I picked her discarded chair off the floor and grabbed the coffee and purse she’d left behind. Dashing out onto the sidewalk and almost spilling her coffee in the process, I chased her down the street, where she stood muttering at the closed phone in her fist. The rain had stopped, and I saw the sun pick up on touches of red in her drying hair.
“Excuse me, “ I tapped her lightly and cautiously on the shoulder. “You left these, back at the coffee shop.”
“Oh,” her grey eyes focused on me, as if just noticing I was there. “You didn’t have to…I mean, thanks. Really.” I shrugged uncomfortably and folded my lips together, sealing us in silence. We looked at each other for another moment and she nodded. Then I turned away and ran awkwardly to my pickup truck.
That was all. Those were the only words we ever spoke, the only interaction we had. Ever. But it was enough for me to know her, and I did know her. If I wasn’t wrong, I think in that moment when her grey eyes locked on my dark brown ones, she knew me too. We knew each other in a way that didn’t require names or explanations or even a history. We were both torn hearts, trying desperately to sew ourselves up and stop the bleeding of our severing. I had felt alone after my wife left me; and today, this woman, this girl, knew me, and reminded me that my experience was not entirely unique.
Empathy is not always about walking in another’s shoes; it is about recognizing that you may wear the same shoes as someone else, just in different sizes; it helps to know that someone else is walking around in those same irremovable circumstances. You are one in the same; an unspoken connection binds your senses. I understand the pain because it is my pain. We had that, this woman and I, with only a few words.
As I drove home that afternoon, I didn’t feel the shards of my sadness beneath my wheels. I just felt what she felt. Her grey eyes told me that was enough.