HIRAETH - A homesickness for a home you cannot return to,
or that never was…
After a tortuous couple of hours, Professor Blackwell finally said
Thank you everyone in attendance, that's all for today.
I shoved my laptop into the case after saving my (not so promising)
beginning of the short story assignment, I could not get out of the room fast enough.
Away from Blackwell and her long, black, unruly, curly hair I once drew as Medusa's snakes.
I asked myself, who the hell gets assigned something like this in their first writing class?
When I phoned Stephanie a friend from back home in California and I told her about my little writing project, she laughed and said
"Man I thought my professor was harsh! How the hell are you going to pull this off?"
For gaiety I suppose, I contrived a laugh of my own.
I tried to tell myself it was some kind of writer's block.
I was no writer but I knew that it was more than that.
"I'm only twenty three years old!" when I woke up that morning and looked at my reflection in the mirror. I looked like a beat up hooker. I hadn't even removed my eye make up, let alone washed my hair. So blonde waves of sheer insanity were draped unevenly across big black circles. Not cute. It was also easier to rationalize when that's what it all seemed to be about then. I knew that I had to pass and maintain the G.P.A I had. I knew that I would. But shopping, flirting, trying to have fun at the right clubs and the right shows was running a dangerously close second this year with my academic priorities. Everyone I hung out with or talked to around campus had a similar lifestyle.
I hadn't even considered that it might be challenging for me.
I half smile inquisitively in her direction.
Madonna! Nicki Minaj is most definitely going to perform too, I know that much for sure!"
"Oh, don't be ridiculous!
She playfully shoves my shoulder.
What could possibly be more epic then that?
Ohhhh... Celeste! Are you seeing someone?"
Now I was flustered, so I told a half truth.
"No, I.. no, it's nothing like that. Actually, I'm kind or worried about my writing assignment. I'm sort of lagging behind, umm, it's sort of embarrassing. (I shrug my shoulders and smile a little painfully) I need to study and kind of take a little break this weekend. But have fun Vera, really... I'm sure it will be epic! Like you said...But I gotta run, I'll talk to ya soon."
I turned around and started walking towards the crystal clear doors. The sight of the bustling pedestrians was a comfort in comparison with the linoleum floors and the expectations hovering in the air that were beginning to suffocate me.
I walked out without waiting for a reply or an inquisition, phone in hand like a weapon.
I walked north down Broadway towards Astor Place to get a coffee and just think for a while, clear my head. I had my sketchbook with me. I had the option if I wanted to, if I was up for it.
That is when I first really saw her....
I had seen her before, a tumult, a storm. I never allowed my eyes to meet hers since the one and only time she asked me for a dollar. When I told her I didn't have cash on me, dramatically, she said long and drawn out
"Riiiiggghhht... let me guess. She points two fingers at me like she's drawing a set of pistols. "Credit cards only. Am I right?"
Then she was gone. As quick as a phantom, away from me, on to some one else. She asked some guy who then reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. "What the hell?" I thought as I walked away before I could see what he handed her. She was right though, I really did only have cards on me. I almost never have actual paper money on me, who does? I have thought about it since that first time she spoke to me and I would like to believe that if I did have cash on me that day I would have given it to her.
Since then, she had kind of scared the hell out of me. I can laugh about it now, but I steered clear for a while. She was either alone writing or reading - or- she was with this one guy she was always screaming and cursing at. As if she didn't care at all about who heard or saw her or what anyone thought about it. I think I even saw her slap him once, funny to think of her that way now. As frightening and different as she was, how unlike every other female I knew in New York, I was intrigued by her.
Well on this particular day, Celena was sitting right out front of Starbucks next to that same filthy guy with the crooked nose. He was always ignoring her or he was falling over drunk or high on something. This day was no exception. They might have been sitting next to one another but they seemed worlds away when I looked out at them through the glass of the front window. He had a cardboard sign in front of him that read simple and loud in all capital letters,
"ANYTHING HELPS. GOD BLESS."
He was leaning so far over to his right that I thought to myself, it is a wonder that he never seems to ever make contact with the concrete. I smiled at the thought. She on the other hand, had her nose aimed inside a book, her eyes skimming carefully across the page, a pensive expression. She had one of her hands up to her face, perhaps intentionally obstructing the sight of the guy next to her. I assumed it must be a boyfriend, girlfriend thing because I had never seen her with anyone else for any significant length of time.
I just can't say why I was so curious about her, almost drawn to her. I had seen plenty of other young homeless people around the village. We were warned about them before anyone of us even boarded the plane bound for New York University. We were told things like, "Don't give them any money"... "They are all drug addicts and alcoholics" ... "Derelicts!"
I think crude and violent were thrown into the mix of warnings and accusations. We were told to avoid contact with them. Everyone I knew did, so I did too. I tried to believe what I was told and to do as others did.
I tried to stop staring at them but I figured I might as well pull out my sketchbook. I started to draw what I saw. She was an attractive young woman, couldn't be much older than I was. She had androgynous features but eyes and lips that screamed female. Also, for someone I knew for fact slept on the street, (I had seen them asleep together) she was rather clean and well put together compared to other homeless girls or women I had seen around. As I finished up the details of her features and expression along with her seemingly obstinate hand, I noticed what it was she was reading.
It was the very same book I just finished for my women's studies course. Virginia Wolf's, "A Room Of One's Own".
My hand went still as my mind wrestled with this conflicting message.
When I began to sketch her again I made sure to pencil in, with precision the title she was reading. I simply couldn't believe it. I didn't even draw the guy or the mailbox behind her, Nor the entrance to the six train to the left. I had an idea. I shut my sketchbook and gulped down the last bit of my iced grande non fat vanilla latte and I made a subconscious decision that I would talk to her the next time I saw her.
I walked back to the west side of the village to the apartment I was renting, I think I was asked for money at least twice. I did what I was taught. I had my phone in my hand and my ear buds in and pretended I didn't hear them. I didn't like how that felt. I Pulled my keys out of my bag and opened up the buildings door. I practically ran up the steps to my apartment as if my idea would disappear at any second if I didn't reach my canvas. I grabbed my pallet and my tin filled with several different colors. Aqua marine, lapis lazuli, deep crimson red, a golden shade of yellow, raw umber and the basics. I clipped the sketch of Celena (of course I didn't know her name yet) to the canvas and started to draw the outline, her expression, her willful hand and of course, the book she was reading. I thought this was of paramount importance given her being homeless.
Rather then add the insipid mailbox and the cement face guy, I painted a dark and desolate background all around her using a combination of colors that ended up looking like a late evening sky with stripes of indigo as well as black even though when I had sketched her is was sunny out. There is only scrapes of litter and debris floating past her, Celena is intently focused on her book. I drew, nor pained any pedestrians or traffic, instead of the train entrance, I painted a small flickering fire. From the top of the canvas down to where it fanned out to her converse shoes, I painted a solitary beam of light the shade of sunlight at dawn, that grew wider until it surround her body, an all encompassing warmth. I painted her just as I had seen her. She was dressed in denim jeans, a small black backpack next to her. A black tight fitting leather jacket and hair that looked a dark shade of chestnut brown with highlights of a much lighter shade of brown, like the color of honey. I wondered for a moment where and how she dyes her hair, she obviously cares for her appearance.
Painting was my passion. Capturing the truth, the magic, the secrets. To bring it all to life with color. That was what I loved. That is what I want to spend my life doing. However that is not what brought me to New York. I came to N.Y.C to continue my education, to placate my parents and hoped to find something to ignite my passions in the process.
My Father is a lawyer who does well and tries to stay modest. My step mother was his real estate agent back home in California. They met each other three years after Cancer took my mother and my father couldn't bear to live in the home he shared with my mom. He told me that it hurt too much to stay in a house filled with memories that haunted him. I think I knew what he meant. My father gave me some of my mothers most beautiful paintings to adorn the apartment I live in now. I wish my mother could see some of my work. I wish I could tell her how grateful I am to have been born so much like her, my father always said I was like her and I took him for his word.
I wondered then if Celena's mother was dead as well and if she had any family at all.
All I knew of Celena was what I saw and what I thought I saw beneath it. I knew I had seen her writing vigorously in a composition book more then once.
What hell it must be to not have a space of her own! I thought as I continued painting. What if I had no place to paint, no canvas.
How awful that she is so obviously intelligent and driven and reading of all things, "A Room of One's Own" I thought above all these things that she is indeed quite an oddity. As I put the finishing touches to bring the painting to life, I asked "What happened to you?"
As scared as I was about how she may perceive me, I knew I must talk to her. I almost considered walking over to where I had seen her camped our over by Great Jones on Lafayette Street, but thought it better not to. I knew there was almost always other young couples or people with dogs in sleeping bags lined up against that building. I had a bad feeling about that, it was intimidating enough just thinking about approaching her by herself. So I decided I would seek her out the next day.
I placed my brush in a tin of water and took a few steps back from the painting and considered it. It certainly was darker then most of my work I had done since arriving here but it was better. All was dark except for that sliver of light that surrounded Celena. I didn't know how that vision came to me. Yet as I took it all in, it felt right. No, it felt like truth.
As I settled in for bed a little later, I hoped I was right about her.
When I woke the next morning, a Saturday, I checked my messages and Facebook. Again Vera telling me about Madison Square Garden. I did not call her back. I washed my face, brushed my teeth and walked to the front room and I looked at my painting. Her painting. This girl that didn't know me, nor I her, but I wanted to. I sat down at the kitchen table and opened up my laptop and opened up the file where I saved the writing assignment. "Create a short story about someone you do not know that you have seen before of the opposite sex and write it in the first person" is what Blackwell had instructed us to do. I made a mental note not to ask anything about the dirty crooked nose guy she is always with when I talk to her today (if she'll even talk to me at all). I already began my story and I choose him a few days back, besides I am a pretty good judge of character, I think I can thank my dad for that one.
I typed up some more for only a half hour or so. I remembered I hadn't eaten anything, so I grabbed a granola bar from my bag and pulled out a sugar free Red bull and Greek yogurt from my fridge. I ate my breakfast and thought about how I could approach her without being weird or creepy. I cracked open my caffeine in a can and I remembered the bag of clothes in my closet. I had been meaning to give it to one of the girls I knew from school or look up some kind of charity, but never got around to it. Well, good. Celena looks about my size and the jeans and pants I have in there are three's four's and five's so something will definitely fit. There is nothing wrong with the clothes, some are barely worn, if at all... It's just that these were last seasons. Shopping is kind of an addiction for me.
I doubted Celena would care or even know the difference between this season or last, it suddenly seemed terribly trivial. I bet she will appreciate it more then any of the girls from school.
So it began, I grabbed the bag from my closet. It was already full when I thought of the perfume I only used once in the month I had it. Then the brand new bottle of conditioner I bought when I already had a near full one, the make up I never used at all and so on. I walked out of the bedroom and looked at my bookshelf. I grabbed The Picture Of Dorian Grey, Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems, and a fantasy stand alone that I had read and thought was pretty cool. The main character was a female protagonist, a heroine. I didn't know if she would like it but it was only collecting dust here. I went to place the three books with the rest of the miscellaneous things and saw that it was over flowing.
If I would need a back pack for all this just to get it to her, then she would definitely need a back pack to carry around all this.
I placed everything down at the foot of my bad and got properly dressed. I left and walked briskly to the R.E.I only a few blocks south east on Houston and Mulberry. I chose an all black Burton Tinder pack that had several different pockets and storage space. It wasn't too bulky or too masculine. It was perfect, I thought as I handed the sales clerk my Card. I don't even remember the price. It didn't really matter to me. I was oddly happy, for the first time in quite a while doing something for someone else. Then I thought briefly on my way back that I might be going overboard, I worried it might freak her out but the thought left as quickly as it had come.
When I got back home and transferred everything into its own little pocket, toiletries in one, clothes folded in the largest part and the books stacked neatly on top of them. I zipped it up and walked towards my front door. I looked back at the painting and it seemed different somehow. Perhaps it was my overactive imagination, but her eyes seemed to be peering above the book. As if she were scoping her surroundings. The light seemed a bit brighter. I shrugged off the notion and slung her backpack over my shoulder and closed the door behind me.
It was 3:18 pm when I arrived at the Starbucks at Astor Place, I remember the time because I had my phone in my hand. To my surprise she was already inside, and she was by herself. So far So good I thought. She was sitting in the corner by the front windows at one of the low tables. She had her composition book closed in front of her. She was just staring at the ground with her hand in her hair, she looked as if she had been crying or was about to. I guess it could have been either and it would be the same result, discontent. I sat down opposite her and she didn't seem to notice. I placed my purse on the tall counter and the backpack next to her. She looked at it and shuffled her chair away from it, as if she thought she was in my way. I thought, I better say something now.
"Hey, I'm Celeste."
No reply. She didn't realize I was talking to her.
I put my hand above her table and knocked softly...
"Hey, I'm Celeste..."
I said again and willed her to look up at me so I could make eye contact)
She looked up at me, unsure, confused I'm certain. Then she spoke.
"Celena, sorry, do you need this seat or something? Cause I could get up, it's no big deal.."
No, no, not at all. Ahh, I know this may be a seem a little odd and you don't have to take it if you don't want to, but... well.. This is for you."
(I bent down slightly and pointed at the Burton pack)
Yep. And you said Celeste. That's a cool name.
Thank you. Selena? I wouldn't have pegged you as a "Selena".
(Yes I assumed her name began with an "S"- shoot me.)
Umm, it's just that Selena is usually a Hispanic name... Are you Hispanic?-
No.. Ha. (she gave a little smirk) "My name starts with a "C", so it's not quite the same, the meaning has to do with the moon.
I see, no not quite the same at all. I'm sorry. Celeste means heavenly, I think.... That is a really cool name. I never met a Celena with a C.
She lifts her Starbucks cup in the air and says with a smirk,
"Cheers to having skyward names."
I noticed the cup in her hand had the name "" written across the cardboard.
She saw me looking at.
Yeah, this isn't mine. I took it out of the trash.
I cocked my head to the side and said, Do you want a cup of coffee or tea?
No, we all do this, street kids. As long as there is a cup in front of us with a Starbucks logo, most of the employees will assume we are a customer, ya know?
I Didn't, I had no idea what she was talking abut. My confusion must have shown.
Well, they typically won't tell us to leave or buy something if it's sitting in front of us.…
I didn't know they did that, that's kind of harsh.
I got tell ya that's pretty clever though.
Ha, Yeah I guess, one of the tricks I picked up along the way.
Anyway, wow… (she looks at the backpack)
Thanks... This pack looks brand new, do you need the bag back?
No, all of it's for you. No big deal really, I was cleaning out some things from my closet, I think we may be about the same size. Also there is some girly stuff in there, things I had lying around.
She unzipped the larger part of the pack and pulled out Oscar Wilde's classic. Her eyes skimmed across the cover, then the spine back to the cover.
All the while a smile slowly spread across her face and she said, I have always wanted to read this. Thank you so much.
There was not the slightest hint of insincerity in her voice, nor her smile.
It was a little disarming and I started ranting a little.
"Yeah, I love that book. I had two copies, my step mother bought me a copy, which I guess was nice of her, but if she would have asked me what I wanted or needed, or if she knew me at all for that matter, she would have known it was one of my favorites and that I already had a copy. So, like I said its all yours."
"Thank you, Cell… Celeste.
Celeste, I'm bad about names, I meet so many… Nevermindif you don't mind me asking, why is The Picture Of Dorian Grey one of your favorites? I'm only asking because if someone asked me what my favorite books were I honestly think I wouldn't know what to say! It would just end up depending on the mood I was in. Or, maybe just what I was reading at the time!"
She laughed then, it was an infectious and genuine laugh and it made me smile.
Then I began to tell that I loved the idea, the possibility, that a portrait, that art, could have that kind of power, that mysticism. I told it may be because I am obsessed with painting, to literally capture life, capture truth, that it was my passion.
I was surprised at how much I was telling her, she was so easy to talk to and she didn't show any sign of boredom or annoyance. I had checked. Hands down the most genuine person I had spoken to since I arrived in New York two years prior. She was listening when I spoke of how I felt about painting and told me she feels the same way about writing.
She asked me if I had any of my work with me. I told her that I didn't have my portfolio with me because I had the day off from school.
When I said that she became quiet for a moment and busied her hands.
I saw her face lose some of it's light. She noticed me looking at her and gave me a half smile.
I quickly told her I had my sketch book with me and asked if she would like see it.
I was a little reluctant, but I admitted to having sketched her yesterday.
I worried it would be awkward but it wasn't at all.
"Really?" I nodded and smiled; A nervous smile.
I slide the sketch of her across the table. She looked at it for a minute. "Wow. This is amazing. I love what you did with the background, it's gone, it's kind of symbolic. I could never draw like this, I never made it past stick figures!" Then she she laughed that electric 'high voltage' laugh again.
I smiled involuntarily,
Well I bet I can't write like you, so…
She glanced at her composition book, smirked and said,
Yeah, probably not, you want to read something?
I nodded, and said that I'd love to.
She opened it up, skimmed for a second and slid it across the table, it glided and came to halt right in front of me. Before I read the third word, abrupt and matter of fact she tells me
Hey, fair warning - I spell like I am still in grade school, so prepare for some guess work.
Mary Catherine, Cowardice Queen