I watch the macabre and the lovely with equal fascination. Each swirling face slips through the looking glass and I stare in awe. The young mother and her dancing daughter trailing behind are as beautiful as the bum sitting in his own stench with one eye cloudy and one eye clear.
My artist’s palette knows no discrimination as I sketch with quick sure strokes. It’s peaceful here away from soul draining men, peaceful locked inside my mind. I filter out the street, the sunlight, and even the Yucca Plants blooming atop their mighty stalks. I see only mother and child. I see only the bum. I chew my lower lip and scrape the pencil across the paper, knead, erase and smear. I abuse the canvass of heavy weight white vellum.
The bum smiles. His toothless grin brings tears to my eyes. The little girl giggles bouncing blissfully unaware of the world around her. And I weep openly. Wipe away the tears and sketch some more.
It’s healing here. Perched on the bank’s steps, drawing in the cool shade—this must be heaven. I take a sip of cool iced tea. I love the feel of the sweet liquid slipping down my throat. I’ve got to be to work soon, won’t see my children till the next day, and I know when I get home to my empty apartment there won’t be a message from you. The loneness will crush me and I’ll sit in a pile of self-hate and doubt.
But that’s later.
Right now is paradise.
The mother chides her daughter, calls her closer, as mother’s like to do. I remember being free like that. I remember the promise of life hanging sweet and ripe from the vine of youth. I remember the feel of love curling up so innocently and wrapping welcoming tendrils around my heart. I remember you saying “Wanna talk about your pretty smile?” “You’re ace, Kitten.” “I love you.”
I remember you saying good-bye.
Syllables are weapons, too, Babe.
The bum holds out his gnarled hands and greets the passersby. They avoid him. He’s toxic, you see. He’s the path not taken, but that could one day take us all. One missed paycheck, one bad choice, one drink too many and we could all be bums with yellowed fingernails and dirt that’s merged with the texture of our skin.
I remember dirt. I remember the flush of innocence stolen in a darkened room with whiskey on his breath. I remember the tears, the fear, the confusion. I remember feeling lost, that’s when I met Alice. She smiled and held my hand as we skipped through Wonderland until it was safe to crawl out of the rabbit hole. She kept me busy until it was safe to open my eyes and sob in the stillness…the door closing quietly behind him…whiskey on my skin.
Scrape, wipe, streak, erase, and pour the pain into the piece. The mother and child are barely visible now. Their forms are little more than black silhouettes against the sun. I’m so flawed, so weak and clawing at some intangible thing. I grasp and fight and struggle, but it’s good. It’s when the fight goes out that the trouble begins. I blink as they disappear like some fantastic dream, its elusive strands already slipping from my memory…
The bum’s still there. He’s solid and real, immovable as the stones on which he rests. I can see the pain in his weathered face, but I also see his joy. That’s right, I said joy. It’s there shining in his mismatched eyes. A pureness that I’ve lost somewhere along the way emanates from his childlike expression. I smile through my tears and he nods at me—a living exhibit in this museum I call life. He’s the finest work of art.
And I realize something then and there. This strange limbo that I’m drifting in is nothing in the scheme of things. It’ll come, it’ll go. Men will come and they will go. I’m likely destined to be unlucky in love—used and cast aside. Because I trust too easily, love too deeply. I used to hold myself at bay, keep them from touching the real me. I let my guard down with you. I let you touch the core of me. And now I don’t know what to do.
But it doesn’t matter. Sure as the sun kisses the Organ Mountains the bum will be here, the little girl will dance and the mother draw her near. Life happens when I’m not looking and then I miss so much. I made a promise to myself, right then and there to look, to always open my eyes and see the people around me. I want to see their pain, their joy, to find the thing that makes them beautiful. I want to understand. I need to understand. That’s the only way I can forgive.
And I have to forgive…
Because we’re all beautiful. We all contribute in one way or another. I smile and close my sketch pad. I wipe the charcoal on my pants and look at my blackened fingers. Am I so different from the dirty bum? Am I so different from the child? I smile through my tears and smear black streaks across my cheeks as I wipe the wetness away, but I don’t care. I nod my thanks to the old man and his dirty face as I walk away. We’re all beautiful.