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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