Awakening Grace

I go to the dentist today. For him to look at my rickety jaw. The jaw that clicks and moans, and that long ago popped itself out of its bony cradle, and now rubs itself the wrong way, making crooked again teeth that were once tamed into straight, proper rows by orthodontia.

I watch as he speaks. Soft round lips that I think about kissing. And a full mouth of not-too-perfect teeth, a little crooked, and ground down to an uneven slant.

His hands are on my face as he manipulates my jaw, the agile fingers tentative, careful. Warm, skin on skin. He shows me models and graphs, explaining what is wrong. Anterior this, posterior that. And tells me that the starting price for a splint will be fifteen hundred dollars. Then, if the teeth don’t fit once the jaw corrects, we can look at grinding, new crowns, orthodontia, oral surgery.

In his waiting room I have flipped through a Vanity Fair. A handsome blonde hunk with perfect teeth staring me down, alluringly, on the cover. The latest “Who’s Sexy Now?” tilting his chin, cocking his head, pouting those big, round, kissable lips out at me, in the pristine, antiseptic stench of this proper dental chamber. Pages and pages of his beauty shine out from the glossy slick paper. I turn them quickly, wondering who he is, where I might see him, and who gets to touch that face, suck those lips, stare into those big beautiful eyes, in person, whenever they please.

Thumbs latched casually through belt loops, his tan taut abdomen yearning beyond his jeans. Or posed mischievously, humping a Rubenesque statue. Or hands behind his head, staring up from a supine position. Beautiful, happy, wealthy, up and coming.

I flip through the next pages. Stark contrast. The war in Sierra Leon. And a little girl. The caption reads, “age three”. Her black eyes like chocolate, like deep pools of yummy three year-oldness. And the dark smooth skin. And the face, precious, close up. As adorable and remarkable and profound as any three year-old, really. Beautiful in all her newness and innocence. And an odd sight, just a page or two from Hollywood’s latest wonder boy.

But still I look. And I hardly see it. Not at first. Because the eyes call me in so deeply. Because I am as in love with three year-olds as I am with blonde, sexy hunks. The perfect skin. The wide, creative delightedness. The crazy joy in being incarnate, so that silliness and play reign, and we can be wild, wild alive.

She looks up at me.

I read the captions, but I do not see them.

How I would tickle and twirl her. How we would hold hands and skip. But there are no hands here. No arms. But two passive stumps that hang there. Victims of war. That some soldier—a man, I have to assume; a man quite possibly with precious children of his own—just hacked them off, as part of the rampage, part of the game of war, that would devastate tens or hundreds of thousands, and leave them to scream the bloody mayhem, and live their lives completely powerless over the little things we take completely for granted. Brushing, scratching, buttering, picking, caressing, writing, buttoning, unbuttoning, pointing, dialing, feeding, touching. Holding an entire lifetime, slaughtered, and left worse than ‘for dead’.

She is just a photograph.

I can turn the page.

I can look at other pretty people, the latest fashions, make-up tips, gossip about who’s doing whom, the camera catching stars in compromising positions. “News.”

A week earlier, I walk the town of Puerto Vallarta. Hot, humid, sweaty, loud, with the rush and chaos of taxis and buses, spewing exhaust and going somewhere fast. We clomp along the cobbled streets and on to the intermittent sidewalks. To my right, the seawall, and a long expanse of expensive tourist shops where the proprietors are anxious and overly friendly, promising a good price for stuff we can get cheaper back home. Ahead of me, the ocean, and a bandstand where people come nights—families with youngsters and grandparents—to hear music, eat a mango on a stick, buy a balloon of Buzz Lightyear or Mickey Mouse, and promenade the Mexican evening. To my left, looking down from the second story, is a large sign announcing “Hooters”, the double O’s the eyes of an owl, the firm round silicone breasts of what this American chain promises inside.

I am humiliated that this even exists, let alone here, and turn my back to it and walk slowly the little plaza where artists show their work. Airbrushed platters, and beaded bracelets, and bad renditions of other people’s paintings on poor quality greeting cards. I am polite, but hardly look.

I come upon a row of small paintings. Fanciful, detailed, lit brightly with color. Two cats looking down over the rooftops of Puerto Vallarta toward the cathedral. Whales smiling though the waves of a sunny seaside village. Outdoor cafes lit up at night by a vast twinkling of stars. Simple, but executed in great detail.

I could keep walking, but I notice the artist, working on a piece, the fine lines drawn with immaculate care. And I watch. His bare feet. His droopy old tee-shirt. A faded pair of baggy shorts. And the concentration, as he dips the thin brush into the paint, and with great focus and intention, adds another stroke. The brush poised, like a cigarette, between his teeth. His arms as droopy and lifeless and worn as the tee-shirt, the shorts, this hot, humid afternoon.

I speak to him, and there is love and kindness in his eyes. Ask him about the little black dog that is in each painting. In some, a tiny figure, watching. In others, falling from the sky in a colorful parachute. Or there, prominent, like in the piece I buy from him, of a naked woman reclining, face down, by her window by the sea. His daughter’s dog, whom he honors, with humor and grace, in each.

He tells me his name is Jaime Jimenez. I tell him his work is muy bonita. I take in the grace of him. Want to carry him home as a reminder, of one who didn’t give up. But became himself, in full honor. To help me remember, when I am feeling cranky and not good enough, and too vulnerable to leave my rooms and meet the world and be seen.

It is night as I write this, my hand gliding over the page, the paper smooth and soft and cool against my skin. All the tiny muscle movements, automatic, as I scrawl the ink into this speaking.

When I am done, I will close my book, pick up my glass and take it to the sink, the warm water gushing against my skin as I simply wash it and put it in the drainer to dry. I will brush my teeth and comb hair, turn down the bed and undress. I will check my e-mail and then put my computer to sleep for the night. I will live, as I always do, taking for granted my ability to execute these small, crucial tasks. As simple and easy and nonchalant as a hand. Turning the page, holding the cup, shutting off the light. That I have forgotten and now am called to wake up and remember.

To hold.

As if it were the world.

2 Comment(s)

  1. This journey is so vivid, so heart-full, so authentic, it makes me feel I was there, feeling the feelings, every step of the way. Even at 70-ish, I
    want to feel those lips, hold that child, walk the streets of Puerto Vallarta again. Such a surprise, the memories, the feelings evoked!

    Diane | Jan 29, 2010 | Reply

  2. Johanna,
    What beautiful, true and affecting writing; it zings to my heart with its importance. You help put the everyday into magnificence. Thank you
    Basira

    Basira | Jan 29, 2010 | Reply

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