ablutions

(photo courtesy Gonzalo Espinoza)

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.

*

(Thanks to Gonzalo Espinoza, Tom Stone, and Yunchung Lee for loaning these powerful, exquisite photographs.)

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About girl in the hat

aka Anna Fonté, writer of novels, short stories, personal essays, and bits about the neighborhood crows. The things I write want you to look at them.

42 comments

  1. A very powerful piece Anna.

  2. Incredible piece. Absolutely alive. And a POW ending.

  3. Also poignant images. The eyes.

  4. gailytr

    i like this. it really catches all the layers of such and experience in a minimal, strong way

  5. Love the imagery, Anna. In fact, I’m taking it on as an example for a writing exercise tomorrow morning, something tangible to kick me into writing.

  6. This is really powerful writing, Anna. A hooker doing yoga. Ouch. And the juxtaposition between watching her and assuming she can’t see you with the photographs staring back at us is completely unnerving. Poverty is so harsh. To see it up close is one of the most compassionate things one can do.

    • The photos are so perfect, aren’t they? I’m very lucky to have found them and grateful to the photographers. As an artist, do you respond better to writing that has a good picture? When blogging, do you start with the words or the image?

      • Writing is incredibly difficult for me so having a picture (even if it’s only in my mind) helps enormously. As for responding, unless the photographs belong to you, the writer, I rarely pay any attention. The ones you linked to were particularly moving. I am a very visual person so I find myself being sensitive to things like layout and font. I loved Averil’s previous blog theme (I believe it was called grunge). I might steal it now that she’s upgraded her site.

  7. I love this. And I love that she looked right at you. Makes her real.

  8. very powerfully written Anna. continue…

  9. Thanks so much for the little glimpse of reality

  10. This piece speaks so honestly of your own questions and fears, and the photographs… such beautiful people. (Love these photographers!) Personally, I’ve lived in places where I’ve had many opportunities to interact with a portion of the homeless community. All people, everywhere, need conversation and connection— a truth that you touched on here with such a light hand. Thank you for this, AF!

    • The photos are amazing, aren’t they? Homelessness is one of my big fears. In dreams, I’m often pushing a shopping cart full of trash/treasures.

      • That’s a really potent dream. Do you think that most folks have this fear? I’m wondering if that’s a big part of why some people are afraid of interacting with the homeless population? I’m not finger-pointing. Fear can be a potent deterrent for any interaction. For instance, parties make me nervous. I have nightmares about going to parties and not knowing how to have a simple conversation.

  11. Your “transient gaze” and the transients’, gazings? The eyes are so amazing. The last one, the lady with the dark hair, face cocked to her left, such pain in her eyes.

  12. Respect. To you, for noticing, and bothering, and for the excellence of the writing.
    And to the photographers, and to those who allowed themselves to be photographed.
    I read recently that ALL of us, are one decent bout of mental illness away from being homeless, unless we are fortunate enough to have EXTREMELY supportive family, or LARGE amounts of accessible cash.
    In my case this was certainly true, and proved more than once.
    Those people are us, with a little less luck.

    • Thanks for remembering the women who let themselves be photographed. These photos completely outshine my writing. Like I told BB above, homelessness is one of my big fears. In dreams, I push a shopping cart full of trash/treasures.

  13. Oh. My. This was absolutely beautiful, Anna. And heartbreaking. And the photos. . . .

  14. This is a powerful piece, Anna, expertly written.

    I had quite a visceral reaction to this. It grabbed me in the gut and hurt to read in a way that feels stranger to me than the feelings I’ve been having lately. I’m not sure why, but an acute anger and sadness crept in on me as I read it and looked at the photos, and not the kind I’m used to. The only part of those feelings that I recognize is the ache for something more. But I can’t tell if I want the ‘more’ from you or from someone else. I’ll give it time and see if I have a self conscious sort of filter up today that’s muddying my perceptions. I know I’ll be back to read it again.

    • Thanks for noticing, Re. I can always count on you for attention and insight. I filed this under short story consciously. I think what might have tweaked you was the speaker’s desire to hide from reality in language. Or maybe it was something else– either way, I want to know.

  15. You have such a way of noticing.

    And the images are so well captured – just like your words, such amazing echoes.

    Write on.

  16. Definite POW. And in each of the photographs, I couldn’t help but see the innocence of the child they once were peering out through those eyes…those eyes.

  17. So well put together. I really like this one.

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