Lost & Found Part 2: “Subway Sketch” by Renée Valmont

Sketch by Cully/ChildOfAtom (flickr.com)

Sketch by Cully/ChildOfAtom (flickr.com)

The content on this web page is not to be reused or reprinted without permission of the author.

Subway Sketch by Renée Valmont

It was 7:30 a.m. eastern standard time on a bright September day in 2001.

Jaime was a busboy and dishwasher at the Swedish Cafe in Manhattan, on the first floor of the Sony building. He hoped he would be missing the breakfast rush, but the cafe was busy this time of year, selling coffee cakes and other Swedish style pastries to mostly commuting patrons who somehow didn’t have time to make breakfast. And they always looked like they were running late. There were a few regulars who worked in the building, and they never seemed rushed.

Jaime usually prided himself on being like the regulars, but not this morning. This was the first time he was late for work.

It bothered him, and he and Lydia had their first big fight because of it. He overslept because she had disconnected the alarm clock the afternoon before to listen to the portable stereo she bought from a thrift store. She told her new lover she meant to plug his alarm clock back in the worn socket, but somehow forgot. She appeared nonchalant – detached from considerate thought – when he confronted her about it.

Maybe because she was always running late. Maybe because she didn’t own an alarm clock or watch. His lover had a complete disregard for timeliness, and he prided himself on being punctual. But her cool, detached demeanor vanished as soon as he accused her of being “a spoiled Mexican princess.”

Somehow his anger subsided as he walked down the street, three blocks up and down the stone steps, and as he entered the subway stop he decided to draw another picture of his muse – the careless girlfriend with an angry face. He couldn’t forget that face, which turned a plum red when it was upset by something or someone. When he could afford new paint supplies, the subway sketch of Lydia would become a painting.

He didn’t possess much in the tiny one-room flat and his supplies were limited for a dedicated artist, but the soft-spoken Guatemalan painter missed the bedside lamp that provided the only light when he was the most inspired to sketch his thoughts and dreams – in the early hours of the morning. The light bothered his live-in girlfriend, and she convinced him to place it on the table she had moved in, below the apartment’s only window. Since Lydia moved in last month, his life had become full of light – and simply complicated. He began noticing things he had taken for granted before she moved in. Like the fact that he was missing a rug on the apartment’s aged hardwood floor.

“I will buy a rug for this floor,” Lydia announced after complaining about plucking splinters out of the soles of her feet. Jaime wore slippers.

He accepted the rug. He accepted all of her idiosyncrasies, and all the female clutter in his bathroom. Their bathroom now. A disrespectful co-worker (who whistled at Lydia when she brought Jaime the sketch pad he had forgotten to bring on his last weekend subway trip), asked him if she was “high maintenance”. Jaime didn’t quite understand the slang until Lydia explained it last night, offended- then amused.

Lydia was the daughter of a pottery artist from Mexico City, and she moved to Los Estados Unidos when she was 17, college bound. She told Jaime, after the first time they made love, that she wished she was born with the hands of an artist, like him and her father. Or at least the mind of a poet. Long ago she had accepted that she lacked the gift – and the patience – for creative writing. And she was a grammatical taskmaster according to her students. That was how they met. She was a public school teacher, moonlighting as an adult education English instructor, and Jaime was one of the sudents who called her “The Dragon Lady” behind her back.

He let slip her nickname when they were eating Chinese takeout. One night in class, a thirty-something businessman from Spain pointed out to Jaime that she was wearing chopticks in her hair, and had a visible tattoo of a dragon on her little brown left leg. Both men thought it was odd because she was definitely not from the Orient. Jaime learned later that it was Henna art, a temporary tattoo that faded like his contempt for her abrasive teaching methods. He stopped referring to her as “The Dragon Lady” when his employer at the hotel commented how much his English had improved. While the English Verb Drill Sergeant casually sat on top of her desk, legs crossed, Jaime quietly sketched her tattooed leg and muttered irregular conjugations with the rest of the class. He rarely had trouble with verbs because she was his personal tutor now that class was over and they were together.

But that erasable pen sketch wasn’t Jaime’s first drawing of Lydia. On the first day of class she was late, feverishly writing barely decipherable code on the blackboard. The older, impatient students fidgeted and started conversations with strangers – strangers who became allies against the rude young woman who didn’t even announce herself when she entered the room late – almost 15 minutes late! Jaime didn’t think much of his new English teacher, but he was reserved among strangers, so kept to himself those first few weeks of instruction. That first night he whipped out his sketch pad and drew a picture of his teacher. Not one of those funny caricatures, but a delicate drawing of her naked backside. He imagined her naked, with her hair still up in a loose bun as it was that first night and many nights since. It wasn’t a student crush or fantasy, but something he drew to pass the time.

He showed her the sketch after they were no longer student and teacher – after she moved in, months after they had started dating – when he knew she wouldn’t be offended, but flattered.

It was 6:00 am when Lydia left, and she was running late to her first Reading class at P.S. 117 in Jamaica Queens. Jaime imagined her hurriedly putting on lipstick at the bus stop a few blocks south of their apartment. Jaime imagined her face flushed and beautiful, her little legs rushing along that busy sidewalk. He began sketching the morning memory and her imagined face, minutes before the previously silent passenger beside him shouted “Oh, God, no!”

Jaime attempted to move away from the distraction who was listening to a walkman radio, but a few minutes later the strange man yanked out his earplugs, grabbed his arm and cried out – “They’ve hit the towers!”

“Terrorists I bet. Those fucking bastards!” The man didn’t seem crazy, but unsettled. His face was almost the same angry plum red color as Lydia’s that morning.

He would never forget that face.

A painting of that angry face rests on an easel next to the table Lydia left behind when she moved to Texas two years later. “A parting gift for him,” she told the movers. The gift table defies gravity with the weight of sketch books. Inside one of those books is an unfinished sketch of a former lover.

© 2006 Renée Valmont/Danna Williams

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Lost & Found Part 1: “What The Training Bra Taught Me” by Renée Valmont

The content on this web page is not to be reused or reprinted without permission of the writer.

I thought another story was lost from the last move and a P.C. crash, but luckily found a personal treasure on gmail – a lot of poems and a few stories that are being shaped for publication today. The following short, short story may never see print but I have a strong attachment to it. Maybe because it’s a (slightly) fictionalized account about a transitional time in my childhood, and how one adult seemed to understand what I was going through without giving me a hug and telling me it was going to be OK when maybe it wasn’t. Her love was tough, but I always felt loved, and it taught me that being tough doesn’t make me any less a woman. I miss her everyday, and this month marks five years without her in my day to day life, encouraging me to read and learn more, to write more, and to give more to the great-grandchildren who sometimes remind me of her in little ways.

Why am I suddenly teary eyed? The next introduction won’t be so sentimental and mushy. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

What The Training Bra Taught Me by Renée Valmont

Like all adolescent girls at the threshold of womanhood, I have to buy a training bra.

I don’t understand why it’s called a training bra. Riding down the Eastex Freeway to Parkdale Mall in my grandmother’s blue ’68 Chevy Impala I ask the question that is burning a hole in my brain all Saturday morning: “Why do they call it a training bra, Grandma?”

“It’s called a training bra so your breasts won’t grow wild,” my sister Marley jokes.

Grandma actually agrees with her.

I’m 11-years-old going to the 6th grade soon, and Marley is five years older and her boobs are gianormous. (Is that even a word?) Anyway, she’s popular and trendy, and because she goes to Beaumont Senior High School and gets to wear lipstick. I’m a little jealous, so Mama buys me Bonne Belle Lipsmackers for my birthday. They come in all kinds of flavors, like strawberry, grape, watermelon… And as we ride in the air condition-less, vinyl upholstered back seat, I’m piling delicious artificially flavored grape lipgloss on my lips. Yummy…

We’re finally at Parkdale Mall, and I’m still not convinced I need a training bra. I’d rather go to the Goldmine Arcade at the mall than shop for undergarments, but Marley has to get some back-to-school clothes, and Grandma insists that I’m getting too big not to wear a bra.

And you don’t argue with Grandma. She’s one tough old broad. When my friends call for me and she answers the door or the phone, they’re either scared witless of the doll-like Indian woman holding a Winston cigarette in one hand and screen door handle with the other; or her hoarse, mannish voice that my friends always assume belongs to my grandpa, Papa. But Papa has a sweet tenor’s voice. My sister and I always laugh when Grandma sings “Happy Birthday” to one of us – the one time of the year she will dare sing out loud.

But we don’t laugh when Grandma tells us we’re going to J.C. Penney to buy clothes – and my first bra.

For any 11-year-old girl on the threshold of womanhood, J.C. Penney’s Lingerie department is a frightening alien experience. But I survive it somehow, with Grandma holding my hand. OK – she isn’t literally holding my hand. We aren’t the touchy-feely kinda folks. But she asks me, nicely, to follow her to the land of bras. While my sister is free to browse the Junior/Miss department, Grandma embarrasses me by asking a saleslady for help in Lingerie. I am already freaked out by the pale mannequins whose lower limbs are missing. Their upper torsos are wrapped with natural and synthetic fibers designed to bind their fake plaster breasts. Freaky.

My mother and grandmother are petite women. But Grandma has a big bosom, unlike Mama who balloons to a B-cup after the birth of two kids. Grandma is always in search for the perfect support bra, and Playtex 18-hour is her brand of choice these days. So while picking out something for herself, she makes me try on different training bras. One of them has those cute, pink flower accents. Then you have your regular polyfill, criss-cross action, which is perfect for a practical girl like me. What am I going to do with little flower accents, anyway?

It seems like we have spent forever in that department, and I ask her if we can buy the plain bra that doesn’t seem so… unnecessary.

Grandma insists we buy both bras. It’s her J.C. Penney card, so I don’t argue.

I forget to mention that when I look in the dressing room’s three-way mirror trying on both bras again to make sure they fit, I almost feel like a woman. I also dread going to the gym locker room to change on my first day at Beaumont Junior High.

So going to the mall and buying bras for the first time with your grandmother can be almost as cool as playing Frogger at the arcade. OK – not really. But to reward me for almost reaching womanhood, Grandma takes me to Waldenbooks and buys me a Judy Blume book I hadn’t read yet – It’s Not The End of The World.

~For M.V.W. (February 13, 1913 – September 27, 2003) with eternal gratitude.

© 2006 Renée Valmont/Danna Williams