If, page 5
Because of my jobs, I often found myself either in tights and sweatshirts, or my standard all-black serving getup. So I took the opportunity to dress up, even if it would only be for my gay husbands. I let out my elbow-length curls, pinning back two small braids on each side, and put on a royal blue, spaghetti-strap dress that was tight in the bodice, flaring out into a 1950s-style skirt. Faux fabric buttons formed a line from the low collar to the hem. I felt feminine, and dare I say . . . pretty.
The final stage was makeup. It was always a nice concept, but I struggled with this part the most. Make up is meant to not just highlight features, but cover flaws. Well, my flaws could not be covered, and it felt defeatist to even try. So I left the foundation and concealer alone and opted for the highlighting of features. I lined my hazel eyes with black eyeliner and liberally added mascara. I swept my lightly freckled cheeks with apricot blush, and coated my lips with red lipstick, which I rarely wore. Just as I was puckering my lips, the doorbell rang.
“I told you I would be in the shower—” I said, flinging the door open. Except it wasn’t Jordan forgetting to bring his keys, it was—well, it took me a second to register who it was.
The guy in front of me had his messy hair not under a beanie, but twisted into a topknot. His beard was trimmed down to resemble week-old stubble. And instead of a T-shirt, he wore a button-down plaid shirt over a fresh pair of jeans. For a second I thought I had it all wrong, but when I spotted the familiar rucksack on his shoulder, I knew it was definitely him.
“Ash . . .” I tried hard not to sound surprised. “You made it!”
I did not do a good job of hiding my shock.
“I can go. I understand if you weren’t expecting me.” He already began stepping away.
“Not expecting you? Don’t be ridiculous,” I was so not expecting him. I stepped aside to let him in and wondered if it was smart to let someone I didn’t know into my place without the guys here, but I didn’t know what else to do. I mean, he did save my life, so I felt pretty safe in his presence.
“How’d you get in?”
“Someone was on their way out when I got here.” He looked around and scratched his shoulder like it might be a nervous habit. “I brought this.” He handed me a box, and I peeked in through the cellophane to see an assortment of pastries.
“Oh you didn’t have to do that!” I said, amazed and confused by his generosity. Wasn’t he destitute? Did he buy this new outfit and food just to come here? And in a way, I felt like I had put him in a position to go beyond his means. “Thank you.”
We stood there for two seconds and it felt like two centuries because he doesn’t ever talk and his silence makes me blurt out things. “You shaved. You really look good.” Again, I felt like I should just not speak because that sounded a little intimate to say to someone I didn’t really know. But god he looked even younger than before. He couldn’t be older than his mid-twenties, but I thought he was closer to exactly twenty. He looked fresh and I could see the face that he had hidden underneath the beard and it was so boyish, but angular.
He tucked back a rogue tendril of his shiny auburn hair. His eyes flittered up and down as he looked at me. “You look really nice today. Colorful.”
Thank Moses that just then my door flung open and Trevor and Jordan were laughing about something and the crumpling sound of plastic bags and their laughter broke the awkwardness between me and Ash.
It took them a few seconds to even notice someone other than me was in the room.
“Oh, hi,” Jordan said. I could tell he didn’t recognize Ash, because he didn’t notice Ash like I noticed him.
“Jordan, this is Ash. The guy that helped me when I was being mugged.” I wanted to say “saved,” but I knew Ash would hate being called my savior. And it was more than a mugging, but I didn’t want to drop the heavy “R” word in a room full of men.
“Oh . . . Oooooh!” Jordan said, “My man, thank you so much.” He wrapped Ash in a bear hug and Ash’s arms hesitantly return the gesture. Jordan gave him a few good shoulder slaps. “This girl right here. She’s one of a kind. I don’t know what I would do without her.”
“This is my boyfriend, Trevor.” Jordan raised his arm in Trevor’s direction.
Trevor moved in for a hug too, and I realized I should have warned Ash the TV producer would be here. I didn’t want him to think I was trying to finagle the news segment.
“Nice to meet you,” Ash said, returning the hug with stiff arms.
“Likewise. It’s great to finally meet you. I know Bird was afraid you had disappeared for good.”
I was a little embarrassed that it sounded like I spoke about him even though it was already clear I had.
“She had mentioned inviting you a couple of weeks ago, but she said you probably weren’t coming.”
“I guess I didn’t give a definite answer. I don’t have her number or anything, so I didn’t know how to RSVP.” We all laughed a little. It felt a little crude to laugh at off-hand references to his situation, even if he was joking.
“Well, you look like a pretty strong boy,” Jordan, said clenching Ash’s bicep. I guess he did. He was taller than me, and I’m tall, so he had to be at least six feet. He was slim, not skinny, but perfectly built with just the right amount of muscle tone. It made me wonder about his eating situation. But if there was an abundance of anything on Skid Row, it was food pantries. “Want to help us move a beastly table and some chairs across the hall?”
Ash glanced over in my general direction before addressing Jordan. “Happy to.”
Jordan had that way about him. He made people feel like home. I wasn’t a wallflower, but Jordan engulfed people with his warm aura. Jordan had a way of getting people to fall into his arms. And in my interactions so far with Ash, I felt I actually pushed too hard in my efforts to welcome him. I felt like I sometimes put him on the defensive. You know, with him calling me stupid and ignoring me on the street and all.
Minutes later, Trevor was guiding the other two as they maneuvered Jordan’s table across the short distance between our apartments. I had pushed what few furnishings I had to the perimeter, making an open space for the table. By the time they were carrying in chairs, Ash’s posture seemed more relaxed, and I could hear Jordan telling him about Trevor’s horny Chihuahua that he forbid from coming to Thanksgiving since it would spend the entire night humping our ankles.
“So, Ash, are you originally from LA?” Jordan asked.
“San Diego. My dad was stationed there, but my family moved to Pasadena a few years ago.”
It was weird, hearing about his background. He had a family, one that didn’t live too far away, and yet most of the time he was on the street. Usually at dinners, people ask about family, jobs, hobbies. You try to create a person’s story based on these nuggets of information. But something happened between growing up in San Diego in a military family and living on the street alone here in LA. And whatever it was, it wasn’t dinner conversation.
“Bird mentioned you’re all transplants?”
“Who isn’t in this city?” Trevor chimed in, uncorking some wine. He poured me some, then Jordan. He tilted the bottle in Ash’s direction as an offering. “No, thank you,” was all he said.
“Yeah, I’m from Madison, Wisconsin. Jordan is from Boston. Trevor is from San Francisco.”
“How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Trevor asked. Trevor was the oldest of the bunch at twenty-seven.
“Twenty-one.” We’re the same age.
“How’s the wound?” Jordan asked as his eyes widened with realization. “Oh my god, I just realized I had you lifting this heavy-ass table! I am so sorry!”
“No. No, it’s fine. It’s healing well. Moving the table was not an issue.”
“Jordan is a terrible host. You get here and he immediately puts you to work,” I chided.
Ash looked at me and half-smiled.
It didn’t take long before we were all stuffed. Jordan proclaimed that we would play Cards Against Humanity, but first, he had to scour his messy apartment to find the decks. He told Trevor he would need his help. Jordan came over and whispered in my ear as I brought my plate to the sink. “You’re okay for me to go look for the cards, right?”
“Of course. You are literally on the other side of the hallway. I’m fine here,” I whispered back.
Then it was just the two of us.
I started collecting the plates and loading them into the sink. Without being asked, Ash walked over to the sink, unbuttoned and rolled up his sleeves, and started scraping the plates.
“You don’t have to do that. You’re a guest.”
“Please, let me thank you,” he said, throwing my words at me.
“Okay, well you can scrape and pass the plates and I’ll scrub.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
When he passed the first plate to me, I observed his hands. “Your hands are clean.”
He looked at me strangely, as if he was wondering if he should be offended.
“I mean, when I last saw you, it looked like you were using spray paint.”
“Oh. Yeah.” He seemed surprised by the observation.
“Do you do graffiti?”
“Sort of. I don’t vandalize. I find big boxes, flatten them and use them as a canvas. It’s a newer medium to me. Only been using it the past year or so.”
“Newer medium? What other media do you use?”
“All kinds. Watercolor, acrylic, oil. I draw as well, charcoal and pastels. Many times I combine. But paint and canvas are expensive. I don’t really do much of anything these days anyway. I was trying with the spray paint, but it’s better I don’t.”
“I lost my vision.”
“Artistic, not the eyes.”
“Oh.” As an artist myself I felt so sad for him. To lose your vision is like losing your heartbeat. It’s like an adventurer losing his compass. It made me wonder if that’s why he wandered. I looked over at him as he passed me the next plate. His big eyes, turned down slightly at the sides, made him seem both sad and young at the same time.
“I mean, the name. You told me I would get the story if I came.”
“So that’s why you’re here. I hate to disappoint, but it’s not worth the visit,” I said with a smirk.
“I guess I’ll have to be the judge.” It felt good that he was starting to converse with me without me having to pry every word out. Maybe all he needed was a friend or two to help him get out of his situation.
“Well, when I was little I was really skinny. I mean just bones. My knees were like two giant knuckles. And I had really skinny legs. Like a bird. And I loved to jump around and dance. So it stuck. The legs aren’t skinny anymore because of dancing, and the fact that I’m no longer ten years old, but the name stayed.” His eyes shot down to my legs, an involuntary response to my claim of leg musculature, I was sure.
“You’re a dancer?”
“Yes, though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.”
“And what is your medium?”
I laughed softly, since people usually ask what style of dance, not medium. But it seemed intentional, like he was trying to be a little cheeky with me. “Modern, classical ballet, jazz.”
He nodded as though my answer was sufficient.
“How long have you been painting?”
“Since I can remember.”
“Are you any good?” I asked.
“Are you?” he replied, raising his eyebrow.
“I can’t find them!” Jordan shouted busting through the door like my own version of Kramer. “I think I lent them to Damien or was it Joanie? Shit.”
Trevor and Jordan cleared the table while we finished up the dishes. Between the alcohol consumption and the urgency with which he cleared out the table, I just knew Jordan was planning for us to have what we called Dance Party 2000, which is basically just us dancing like assholes all over my studio. Even though nearly a decade had passed since the year 2000, adding that number to anything still made it seem fresh and modern.
“I should head out,” Ash said as he handed me the last dish.
It felt so wrong. How could I host this person in my home, this fellow artist, and just let him go back out there, and get swallowed into the street to become another faceless homeless person? I couldn’t do anything about the hundreds I had to pass daily, but I had a chance to help him.
“It’s still early. We planned on hanging out for a while. You don’t have to go back out. You could sleep here tonight if you want. We’ll probably be up all night.”
There I went again, blurting out things that were too familiar and just idiotic. I barely knew this guy. But I trusted him, that he wouldn’t hurt me, and I had my guys here. It wasn’t like I was all alone.
“Listen, thank you for all of this. I appreciate it. But, I don’t like walls,” he said. “You could say I’m like a bird, too. I just need to get outside.”
“Are you sure?”
He focused his eyes on mine to convey his sincerity and said with emphasis: “You’ve made me feel very welcome, Bird.”
I wanted to ask if I would see him again, so maybe we could be friends, but then I thought it would be weird because while in ways we were from the same world, but in other ways we were from entirely different planets. I knew I would see him again, somewhere on the street, wandering with traces of spray paint on his fingers. How could I go back to my cozy apartment and eat my meals knowing that the guy who saved my life was all alone out there? How could I just accept that he didn’t have a home, and what exactly did he mean by not liking walls? There were so many layers to him. He wasn’t the caricature of destitution so many of us create in our heads. He was complex. I could tell he had so much story to share, and I wanted to hear every word. But, I didn’t say any of that to him. I just let him leave.
A COUPLE OF weeks had passed since Thanksgiving, and I hadn’t seen Ash since. In a way, it was a relief. Passing him daily on the street before I knew him was easy, but now that he had saved my life, that we had shared a meal, washed dishes together, and shared glimpses of who we were, I dreaded passing him. Indifference was no longer an option. And it made me think about everyone I passed on 5th street on my way home.
They all had stories. They were all people who had been shoved onto this street so the rest of us didn’t have to feel the guilt or disgust or whatever unpleasant feelings were provoked by dealing with society’s rejects. But it was Ash’s story that had intrigued me most. Something told me that his was especially unique. And it was the one that happened to interject itself into my life.
I figured I might not see him again. That we had gotten too close and he didn’t like walls, and knowing me, Jordan, and Trevor had become a wall of sorts. He was trying to disappear and I wouldn’t let him. So I assumed he found a new place to hide.
One evening, while Jordan was at a late rehearsal for a local Christmas show he was choreographing, I picked up some dinner for him after my shift at the restaurant. As I walked down the buzzing streets of downtown LA towards the rehearsal space, my mind was pleasantly empty, taking in the surrounding sensory experience. Building. Bricks. Car horn. Two woman laughing. Art supply store.
Art supply store.
Just like the day I stepped out of the audition and saw Ash across the street, this felt like an omen. Or maybe I just saw omens where I wanted to. Either way, I found myself pushing open a glass door, a bell ringing my announcement into the quiet storefront.
“Can I help you?” a waif of a man asked. I watched him do that thing with his eyes people do when he first noticed my scars.
“Um . . . I was thinking of getting a gift for a friend, but I know nothing about art.”
“Do you know what your friend likes to use?”
“I think he listed almost everything to me and he said he mixes things.”
“Okay . . . hmmm . . .” the man said, resting his chin in his hand. “Do you have a budget?”
“This was kind of on a whim, but not much.” From my brief time perusing the aisles on the store, Ash was right: this is expensive.
“Okay, well there are some things on sale over there. Have you been to his studio? Do you know what he has?”
“He doesn’t have a studio or a place to paint. I don’t think he has anything.”
“Okay . . .” I think that confused the guy even more, but I thought the background story would be too much.
“I guess the best way to explain it would be . . . if you were to start all over again, what would you need?”
That seemed to spark some ideas and he stood up tall.
“We have a lot of holiday specials, so this is a great time to stock up. He’ll need an easel, and this one is only $40 on sale.”
My stomach twisted a little. That wasn’t even the paint yet! But I nodded as he grabbed the long, narrow box.
He grabbed a huge pad of paper, that isn’t ideal, but will work for most paints and charcoals.
As I recited all the media Ash had mentioned, the man grabbed a box of charcoals, a box of pastels, and a tray of watercolors with a couple of brushes. Finally, he placed acrylic tubes of primary colors and a few more brushes into my basket.
“This is where we stop. There is plenty for him to play with and he can mix to create colors. It’s a great starting point.”