It’s early morning. A shapeless form lumbers along the sidewalk, dragging a loaded cart on tiny wheels.
I sit sipping tea at the front window of a café on Shattuck Avenue, pretending to be busy my pile of papers and pen.
The hulk collapses cross-legged on the sidewalk outside, facing me. I stare. I think that it’s almost lewd the way the tongues of those battered combat boots lick the pavement. I strike the word “lewd” and search for another. Don’t confuse one kind of dirty for another, I tell myself.
Out there in the growing sunlight, layers are shed one by one–shirt opens to reveal another which lifts to expose a sweater; the heap of discarded skins grows–and I can’t help but think “strip tease” even though the wrongness makes me glance around to see if anyone’s looking. Vulnerability makes people uncomfortable. Poverty is hard to face. I tell myself this is why I’m on edge and pretend my eyes have merely wandered for a moment, a brief deviation as I withdraw into paper and pen.
I write: deviant and deviate, so close they must be sisters, one step removed. But I can’t resist. My transient gaze swings back to where the sidewalk metamorphosis has revealed a woman, skinny and flat-chested, sunburned face lined with dirt, and a knot of bronze hair. No wonder she needs all those clothes: Camouflage. Her eyes are flat as glass and I think maybe she can’t see me here in the window, watching. Maybe it’s okay to stare because she doesn’t know. Maybe she can only see her own reflection.
She pulls out something wrapped in fabric and unfolds ceremoniously, placing each item carefully on the cloth: jars, tubes, pencils, brushes, surgical instruments, a cigarette. A compact unfolds into a mirror. She places each item reverently like a relic on an altar cloth.
And then the ablutions begin– a lid lifted, finger dips in and smears a dollop on her forehead. Her hands move in slow, circular patterns until the whole face is covered. All the while, her eyes are locked on the mirror. A shirt from the pile becomes a towel to wipe and her face emerges, moist and pale, strangely naked, almost childlike.
But it only lasts a moment. Next, another layer from a tube, then another, then pencils, black and blue and red. Eyebrows lift to arches, cheeks blush. Then the hair, first with fingers and then with the brush, she works it until it loosens and sends stray copper strands slithering along the sidewalk and floating into the air. With bright red lipstick she draws a smile, big and shiny.
Why is it so hard to look? Why is it so hard to look away? Maybe because I haven’t decided what to do about it. I write, two opposite things can be true simultaneously. Maybe three, maybe more. When I look up again she’s there, cross-legged, supple supplicant, a hooker doing yoga, a technicolor buddha. Her hands make an open bowl in her lap.
She cocks one leering eyebrow and looks right at me.