When I saw her again
Recently I became obsessed with drawing portraits. I drew many of my friends, and sometimes when I’d meet someone at a party or a coffee shop and we would talk for a while, I’d ask if I could draw them. “It only takes a few minutes, and it’s not going to be good,” I would sometimes say.
One day I got it in my head that I would draw strangers. The most magical place I could think to draw portraits was the park blocks during the Portland Farmer’s Market. I mean, it’s Saturday and these people love vegetables. So I grabbed a little footstool, a handful of pens and a couple pads of paper and I posted up on a bench.
I would sit there with a sign that read, “Say hello” and if anybody wanted to be looked at, to be paid attention to, I would happily take the opportunity. I would ask them questions while I drew bad noses and bad eyes, asymmetrical faces and terribly oversized chins. I would try to remember one great thing that they said.
~ ~ ~
Medina and I crossed paths in early winter when the weather was almost too cold to sit outside, but I was there on the bench with my sketchbook in hand. She was probably in her 60s, with long gray hair, sad eyes, and a contagious smile accentuated by many missing teeth. She moved slowly as if her whole body hurt, but with great dignity. She looked at my sign and then at me, so I asked if she’d like me to draw her portrait. She barely spoke English but we made it work.
“Free?” She asked.
So she sat down very slowly, set down her belongings, and then as if taking the portrait very seriously, situated herself on the bench and looked right into my eyes without smiling. I understood in that moment that she was the reason I was here. This mattered to her.
“Wait,” she said, smoothing her ponytail and adjusting the beads in the necklace across her chest. She wanted to look perfect.
“It’s not going to be good,” I said. I was so afraid she would be disappointed by the result.
Her eyes were full of things I didn’t understand. She looked like she might be the loneliest person in the whole world, or maybe the strongest. But she was smiling, too. She was loving this. We did our best to have a conversation, but we both understood that it was okay we didn’t say much. I sketched her eyes and the crinkles at their edges. She smoked a cigarette and tried to smile every time I looked up at her from the paper. God, she looked tired.
I tore her portrait from my book and handed it to her, laughing. Her eyes lit up, and she laughed too. Then she sat back, lit another cigarette, and we sat side-by-side, mostly quiet, making bits of broken small talk for another several minutes.
That day was the last I thought I’d see of her, though I think of her from time-to-time. She stuck with me.
~ ~ ~
I was startled when I saw Medina months later at the market, just recently on a warm and sunny day. She was standing among the booths looking tired and stressed, with a handful of newspapers she was trying to sell. I was gripped with a combination of excitement and fear because I wanted to say hello but I didn’t know what we would talk about or how. The language gap seemed even more daunting without the whole portrait thing to fill the space.
Still, my heart leapt at seeing her.
“Medina!” I called out. I don’t know if she recognized me so I reminded her that I drew her portrait and made a little motion with my fingers like I was drawing. Her eyes lit up like when we first saw each other and I hugged her, wondering if it was okay to do so.
“How are you?” I asked. And she was very honest. She was not okay. She was freaking desperate. She was missing more teeth and embarrassed about it, the way she covered her mouth when she remembered me. I did my best to understand her while she explained that she was selling cheap newspapers and struggling to pay for life. I didn’t know what to do so I bought a paper.
There are many levels of poverty and I won’t pretend I know the deepest. But I know how it feels to be desperate. To wonder how you’re going to be okay. This is the desperate that led my mom to sell her saxophone to pay our utilities when we were kids, and the kind that led me to sell my blood plasma in college when someone stole my identity and I couldn’t afford groceries. I felt her worry deep in my guts and it sobered me instantly.
I had $20 in my pocket that I brought for the market, but I didn’t really need anything. I know what $20 feels like when you’re desperate, even though it does not solve your problems. It’s like catching your breath for a second. Like God is looking at you.
I slipped her the bill and she said thank you, smiling deep into my eyes then reaching out to embrace me. Maybe that’s the reason I was at the market that day. Not to buy vegetables but just to share a moment with Medina, for both of our sake. After our embrace, she looked up at the sky and began to pray.
“God, bring her very good boyfriend!”
I burst out laughing. She was really pleading with him, so much that I thought it might actually work.
“Good luck,” she said, putting her hand on my shoulder.
“You too,” I said. And I walked away with her heart in my heart.