Loveseats & Sex Crimes

by

02/18/2004

3416 Astoria Blvd, Astoria, NY

Neighborhood: Astoria, Queens

“Let’s see. A sexual assault … in the third degree,” Officer D. of the 114th Precinct in Queens said as he looked down at the paper in front of him, searched for, found and marked the two correct boxes. “Sorry this is taking so long,” he said, glancing up at me with a friendly smile. “These damn complaint forms are new and I don’t know them well enough yet.”

I had just finished telling Officer D. what happened to me on that below-freezing snow-threatening gray Sunday last February, less than a week after I moved out to the part of town we were in: Astoria, just over Manhattan’s 59th Street Bridge. I had moved there primarily because it was cheaper than anywhere in Manhattan, the commute into the city proper was shorter than it was from Brooklyn, and I had writer-friends who loved living there. But also because people said there was almost no crime in Astoria.

Around noon that day, as I told Officer D., I went to a part of town where I had never been before—about six avenues away from my place—to look at a 24-hour gym. I asked the girl behind the counter there if it would be safe for me to walk home after dark.

“Oh sure,” she said. “This is such a safe neighborhood.”

After leaving the gym, I turned right onto a nearby block. A sweet-faced man, probably in his early 20’s, with black hair, wearing jeans, walked out of a small coffee shop and looked me up and down. I was wearing leggings and, being a female, I get checked out by men now and then, so I thought nothing of it. He and I seemed to be going in the same direction. I saw an antique furniture store with some cute stuff in the window; outside of it, a guy wearing a black ski mask and orange pants was unpacking some furniture on the sidewalk. I went in, thinking I might find some good stuff to furnish my new place. Baby Face stopped in front of the same store and started helping Orange Pants. They both must work here, I thought.

A few minutes later, I was in the back of the store, the place was enormous, with two or three rooms, when Baby Face appeared and asked if I needed any help. He had a slight accent. I nodded and walked down a narrow aisle.

“Actually, I was wondering how much, this is,” I said, pointing at a bed-side table. He approached me, coming so close that I climbed into an empty bed frame to get out of his way.

After scrutinizing the table, he said, “You have to buy it with the frame.” “Forget it,” I said. I motioned for him to walk out first so I could follow. He gestured for me to go ahead instead. Figuring he was being polite, I went. As I walked the five feet or so down the aisle, I had a very strange sensation in my rear-end. Was he touching me there? That explanation seemed impossible. Why would an employee jeopardize his job like that? So I immediately dismissed it, thinking the long wool scarf I was wearing, or my book-bag, must be hanging low and brushing against my butt.

I asked Baby Face about a love seat I liked next. “Five hundred,” he said.

“Well, thanks” I said, remembering I already had a perfectly fine love seat, and I started to leave. And then I had the strange sensation again. I turned around to find Baby Face hunched over slightly with both hands out, massaging my tail. “I can’t believe you were touching me!” I screamed. “Oh my God! What the hell is wrong with you!”

“Sorry, sorry,” he muttered, and I could smell liquor on his breath.

“Oh my God!” I shouted. “I can’t believe you were touching me!”

I had to get out of there; I was scared. It’s not every day some jerk gropes your behind at twelve noon on a Sunday in the middle of a furniture store, and I wondered what the hell else he might be capable. I walked fast for the door, but suddenly thought I should tell someone what had happened. Suddenly, Orange Pants was in front of me.

“Your employee just touched me back there!” I shouted at him.

“Whaaa?” he breathed.

“Your employee …” Then I realized I was looking for justice, or at least solace, from a face that was still covered with a black ski mask, even though he was inside now. What if he grabbed me? I hurried, shakily, for the door. What might have happened if I had been a high-school girl, or simply a more timid woman? That store was so big; there was no one else in it but me and them …

As soon as I was around the corner, I started asking for the nearest police station. Three people I asked all unintentionally sent me in different, wrong directions. My new neighborhood suddenly seemed much uglier than I had ever thought it. Why hadn’t I ever noticed that barbed wire fence before? Or how much trash there was spilling out from garbage cans?

Freezing and suddenly exhausted, I decided I would try to find the station later, since my dad would be showing up at my apartment in about forty minutes—he was coming to take me to lunch and see how I was settling in. I would try to pull myself together in the meantime. Because the last thing I wanted to do was tell him what had happened.

* * * * *

“Anybody ever lays a finger on you, Maura Kelly, you just let me know and I’ll kill him!” That line has been one of my dad’s favorites as long as I can remember—up there with “When’re you going to do something about that hair?” Whenever he would say that first one, I would roll my eyes—Nothing like that is ever going to happen—and smile. Because I knew that was my dad’s way of showing his love to me: indirectly, with ferocity and machismo.

But I also knew that if he was exaggerating, it wasn’t by much. A construction-working Irish immigrant, my dad is real-deal tough-as-nails. I’ve seen him punch a guy out. I’ve seen him come home bloody from fist-fighting. The point is, I knew if I told my dad about Baby Face, he would really do his best to hunt the guy down and kill him. And I didn’t want to turn my father into a murderer or a crazy vigilante. Nor did I want the news of what had happened to me hurt him more than it had hurt me, as I knew it very well could.

“So, you like it here?” he said, first thing when he showed up at my place on the afternoon of the ass-grab, after he hugged me. I nodded, took a second to fake a big smile. I was still very shaken up.

“Sure. It’s great,” I said. Over an omelet and a turkey club half an hour later, I tried to regale my dad with my usual goofy anecdotes. Like the one about Badal, the Indian guy who runs the health-food store down the block from my new apartment, whom I had met a day or two earlier. After I told Badal I was thinking about dyeing my prematurely gray hair, he thought about that for a second before telling me I looked like a movie star.

“Who?” I asked him, eagerly. I’m vain as hell and flattery will get you everywhere with me.

“Richard Gere,” Badal replied, in all seriousness.

But I wished I didn’t have to fake the conversation—fake my upbeat mood—with my dad. What I really wanted to do was tell him what had happened and have him just hug me. Maybe even let me cry a little on his shoulder. Not stalk the streets. I found myself wishing for my mom, who died twenty years ago. I wanted someone to console me.

It was after Dad left that I finally made it to the police station. I half-expected the cops to raise their eyebrows mockingly, laugh, and say it happened all the time. But instead, Officer D., who was at the front desk when I walked in, said he would be happy to help me file a complaint.

“I don’t mean to sound cynical,” I said, “but what’s the best thing that could come of this?” I asked.

“One of our detectives finds the creep, you I.D. him, and we throw him in jail for a while.”

“That would be great,” I said.

* * * * *

In my apartment that night, I had trouble sleeping; I kept thinking I heard someone at the door, or one of the windows. The next day, I wore frumpy clothes and instead of putting my contacts in, I wore my glasses. Maybe if I hadn’t been wearing those tight gym pants, I kept thinking, maybe then it wouldn’t have happened…. I couldn’t look any guy I passed in the street in the eyes. Maybe if I had insisted the guy walk out in front of me…. I knew I shouldn’t blame myself for what happened, but still, I did.

When the usual suspects wolf-whistled at me on the street over the next few days and weeks, I wanted to scream at them to fuck off, though I’d never paid them much notice before. I will cover my ass with a skirt over my leggings every time I go to the gym—no, I will stop going to the gym and wear nothing but muumuus. I will gain 20 pounds—no, 100. I will never again concede to doing anything that makes me the slightest bit uncomfortable. And I will never go into a furniture store by myself again. These were the resolutions that went through my head as I thought about how I could prevent anything like what had happened to me from happening again. Of course, I knew none of them would have the result I really wanted: to erase the memory of the damn groping business from my head.

* * * * *

Most of my closest friends are male, and I told a few of them what happened. They all had different reactions. The first boy, who reminded me of my dad, said he “knew some people” and all I had to do was say the word, and they would try to find the guy and “mess him up.” Which made me smile, though I declined the offer.

Two others—both guys that I have had flings with—half-jokingly said they could empathize with the perp; my ass was so tempting, they said, it’s no wonder the guy couldn’t control himself. The compliments helped a little, and made me laugh.

A fourth said: “It could have been a lot worse. It’s really not such a big deal, you know.”

“It is to me!” I shouted.

One woman I mentioned it to seemed almost appalled that I was ready to go so far as putting the guy in jail.

“Do you really want to do that to him?” she asked. Hell yes! He’d ruined my sense of security, safety and well-being. Maybe a few weeks in jail would make sure he never ruined anyone else’s.

The days passed. I called the cops to see what was happening. A detective hadn’t been assigned to the case yet. I put the phone down dejectedly.

Then I decided to take matters into my own hands. I called the store where it had happened.

“Can I speak to the owner please?”

“This is her,” said the female voice on the other line. I told my story again.

“Well, the guy you are talking about—no one like that works here,” she said when I was finished. “The kid with the ski mask, yeah, but not the other one.” Then silence.

No “I am so sorry.” No “I am going to do whatever I can to make sure nothing like that happens here ever again. No justice!

“Well, the guy who did this thing to me must have at least have been friends with the ski mask kid,” I said. “So you should tell your employees to be careful about who they associate with. You should tell them to watch out who they bring around the store.”

“How can I tell him what to do if I don’t know who he is!”

“I mean your employee! The guy in the ski mask! He knew the guy who touched me!”

“Listen, how do I know you’re even telling the truth?”

“Call the police station! I’ll give you the complaint number.”

“Why should I go to all that trouble?”

“Because I was sexually assaulted in your store and if I were you, I wouldn’t want something like to happen again.”

Something—I think it was the power and legitimacy of that official phrase, “sexually assaulted,” which I hadn’t used before—made her relent.

“Listen, these guys come here from other countries and don’t know how to act the way they are supposed to in America,” she said.

I have encountered millions, I am sure, of foreign men in my lifetime but not one had ever touched me uninvited before.

“How does someone who does the wrong things learn he is wrong if no one tells him?” I said.

“Why don’t you come down to the store and we can talk this out face to face?” she offered.

“I am never setting foot in your store ever again,” I said, my voice cracking through tears. “And you are lucky I am not the kind of crazy person who would tape fliers all over the neighborhood warning everyone else about what happened to me there.”

I realized I was never going to get the response from her I wanted—an apology, an acknowledgement, some sympathy. I hung up. I realized that I was probably never going to get the response I really wanted from anyone–not my dad, not my friends, and not even from the cops, no matter what happened.

All I could really do was start coming to peace with all this on my own. And that didn’t mean getting fat or ugly, or curtailing my activities. It meant telling myself that I was not to blame just because I walked in front of Baby Face, or because I wore the pair of Lycra gym pants that I have been wearing for years without incident. I hadn’t done anything to deserve what had happened. Stupid, crazy people don’t need reasons to do stupid, crazy things.

A few weeks later, I got a call from a detective. “I had to go down south to apprehend a criminal,” he said. “But I’m on this now, and I am going to go down to the store on Monday and see if I can’t find the guy. I’ll call you after I get back to the station.”

That was months ago, and there hasn’t been any progress. But—though I am prepared to identify the guy if the time comes—I’m not waiting by the phone.

I am getting on with my life, and wearing leggings again.

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