By Eliza Mimski
“Love comes when you least expect it, Lah. At least that’s been my experience.”
Lah and Mr. P sat out in front of his Victorian home in aluminum lawn chairs. She’d helped him set up tables to display his things for his garage sale – teapots and dishes and his piggy bank collection plus other cool items he wanted to get rid of. She preferred being around old people. They were more accepting.
As the famous San Francisco fog rolled in, Lah wrapped her arms around herself in an attempt to keep warm. “I bet it was easier to fall in love when you were my age, wasn’t it?” she asked. Lah didn’t consider herself even close to pretty, her nose too big and her eyes too close together and she’d never been able to do anything with her lank brown hair that looked dead. She doubted anyone would ever fall in love with her, but she still talked to Mr. P about love. He was the only one she could talk to about things like that. Personal things.
Wearily, Mr. P shook his head. “Yes, Lah. In today’s crazy world, I’m afraid it’s indeed much harder. People wouldn’t recognize their one true love if he or she bit them on the nose. They are too busy, you see, and too consumed with their own petty problems.”
Lah opened her purse and took out a half-eaten bag of jellybeans, worked her hand down into the bag and popped a couple into her mouth. Last year, when Lah had been a freshman in high school, her mother had taken her to a nutritionist to try to get Lah to eat more sensibly.
“Jellybeans are made of sugar, corn syrup, and starch,” the nutritionist had instructed Lah. “I wouldn’t mind you having a few now and then, but you need to concentrate on the nutritious foods.” It irked Lah, the nutritionist acting like she actually knew her. She was acting like Lah’s mother who tried to control every aspect of Lah’s life, barely giving her the space to breathe.
An old woman with tight gray curls stopped and picked up an unusual looking teapot shaped like a butler. The sour look on the butler’s face let you know he wasn’t in any mood to pour you some tea. You could stand up and get it yourself. This was Lah’s favorite item. She’d love to have that big personality where she’d put people in their place, and not have to go back and apologize for it later.
Mr. P rose from the lawn chair and made his way over to the woman. His wiry body didn’t move like someone in their eighties, but someone much younger. Lah listened as he educated the woman about the teapot, explaining why it was considered a collector’s item.
A few minutes later, Mr. P folded a bill and put it into his pocket. He gave Lah a thumb’s up. Smiling, he returned to the lawn chair.
“Back to the conversation at hand, Lah. Ah yes, the nature of love. I do have this to say. You never know when Cupid will shoot his arrow, filling you with attraction and desire. This was the way it was with me and my Martin, may he rest in peace.”
Lah had heard this story many times but never grew tired of it. She considered Mr. P an authority on true love. “Tell me what happened, Mr. P,” she said, popping another jellybean into her mouth.
Mr. P stared off into space. “Although we were born to love each other, Lah, when I first met Martin, having been introduced through a friend, we began going out as buddies. Nothing serious. To be honest with you, I didn’t find myself the least bit attracted to him. Martin was a big brawny man, not at all my type. So without the attraction to get in the way we were given the opportunity to really get to know one another and we became close friends.” Lah nodded. She knew the type she liked. She found herself attracted to tall gangly guys with skinny legs in tight jeans, the male version of herself.
Lah hugged her waist from the cold. “I wish I could have something like that,” she said quietly. Yet she had a hard time getting along with people her age, and couldn’t imagine how this would work. She never knew what to talk about, or how to seem interesting.
Mr. P glanced at her. He said for her to hold that thought as he got up and went inside, coming back with a rainbow-colored afghan to keep her warm. He mussed her hair and gave it to her. She arranged it over her body.
“I’m sure the fellows will fall all over you, Lah. I can’t imagine them not. Remind me to later give you a stick so you can beat them off.” Lah didn’t know where he came up with these things, but she liked that in his eyes at least, she was good enough.
“Personally,” he continued with his story, “I believe it’s of utmost importance to be good friends with the person you love. That’s my recipe for success. Friendship first, I always say. That way, when you run up against a problem, you have a solid foundation beneath you.”
“Tell me the next part,” Lah said, momentarily distracted by a woman in a windbreaker who stopped and picked up a wooden piggy bank. The woman looked at it and put it down, picked up a yellow piggy bank, smiling at the pig’s big blue eyes and long black eyelashes. Lingering over it, she then placed it back on the table before continuing down the street. Lah looked up at the sky, a big blanket of white. It was almost five o’clock, and she’d soon help Mr. P put his things back in his garage.
“Well, you see, it was quite a surprise when after eight months of friendship I one day looked at Martin and found myself attracted to him. I saw him with a different set of eyes. I discovered, quite suddenly, that I had feelings for him.”
“What did you do, Mr. P?” She sat forward in her chair, waiting to hear what she already knew.
“Well, I had to be careful, Lah. I didn’t want to run the risk of losing his friendship as it was very important to me. I told Martin I had something I needed to talk to him about, and that I was terribly frightened. That was the wonderful thing about Martin. I could tell him things like that.”
Lah sighed. She tried to imagine being that close to someone. She wanted it badly but doubted it would ever happen to her. The boys at school didn’t even notice that she was alive.
“So we had the talk, Lah. Martin sat across from me as I told him of my attraction to him. What a surprise and a relief it was when he said he’d felt the same way about me for the longest time. We were together, Lah. He then became a part of me, and me a part of him. Each day was its own little world with the two of us in it.” He took off his glasses and set them in his lap. He rubbed his temples. “When Martin died, oh what a mess I was.”
A man stopped his SUV and put on his flashers. He got out of the car and sprinted toward Mr. P’s wares.
Lah’s bedroom had a lot more personality than herself. That’s what her mother had basically told her, implying that Lah should be more like her room. She should do something about her lank brown hair. She should wear more feminine clothes. She should learn to smile. Her mother lectured her about how she needed to develop more of a presence. She called Lah a wallflower. But this wasn’t true, or at least not completely. Lah expressed her personality through the objects she collected. She gave them magical properties.
Her room. Lah was creative with her babysitting money. She’d draped decorative scarves across one wall, some in flashy shades of red and pink, some in bold blues and blazing hot oranges. She’d covered her huge throw pillows in floral prints, one in cabbage roses. She’d spaced her teddy bears who wore dresses and pearls, suits and tuxedos around the baseboard of her room. She thought of them as her fuzzy family, her real family, along with Mr. P.
Then there was a vanity dresser that Lah had painted sky blue and placed decals of clouds on it because she loved the sky, the oval mirror above it trimmed in navy blue. Lah loved the bed she’d picked out for her twelfth birthday a year and a half ago, especially its tufted linen headboard. The woman at the furniture store had called it elegant, chic, and yet tranquil, a combination of words that Lah had found exciting and applied to herself when engaged in her fantasies. The headboard was an aquamarine color, like the sea, with aquamarine buttons, and at night, when she lay in bed, Lah reached up and ran her hand along the material, touching the buttons, and this comforted her. At the foot of the bed she’d placed the afghan that Mr. P had sent her home with, which made the bed even more perfect.
She now sat on the rug on the right side of her bed so if her mother were to swing the door open to Lah’s room, she wouldn’t be able to see her. Lah leaned against her bed, against the giant throw pillows and stared dreamily at her collection of objects on the deep windowsill, the window looking out to the backyard, a shaft of sunlight shining down on her collection.
Mr. P had given her most of the items after one of his garage sales, like the blue egg on a small silver stand, or the glass see-through elephant (Lah admired elephants because she’d read about how much they cared about each other), or a cup with just the middle finger on it (luckily her mother hadn’t noticed it because she’d make Lah get rid of it). Mr. P called them knick knacks or tchotchkes, names she found funny.
And then there were the little plastic mounds of food the nutritionist had given her to show Lah what to eat, one of mashed potatoes, one a plastic piece of wholewheat bread, one a plastic serving of peas and corn, and another a palm-size plastic serving of meat. Even though Lah had disliked the nutritionist, she loved holding the plastic mounds in her hand.
Sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, the plastic mounds transported her to a world of millions of viewers and millions of dollars, Lah the celebrity chef. “Today I am endorsing what I call my back to basics cooking,” she confidently said while wearing her mushroom-shaped chef’s hat and looking straight into the TV cameras. “You’ll see here,” she said, first holding up the mashed potato mound in her hand for the viewer to see, then one at a time the rest of them, “yes, back to comfort food with the American basics. We’re going wholewheat, folks, along with vegetables, meat, and a serving of carbs. Very well-rounded.” For fun, she’d also come out with her own brand of jelly beans. The different colors – lime green, lemony yellow, gray, purple, and a hot red color, portrayed different emotions and could be eaten accordingly.
When Lah was a sophomore in high school, two major things happened. One, she made a cool friend named Max, and two, she took this great ceramics class. Sitting before the potter’s wheel, elbows tucked, hands wet, Lah listened carefully when her teacher, Miss Williams, in denim dungarees, her cheek smudged with clay, dramatically told her students to feeeel the clay. She stretched the word out as if it was the most important thing, and Lah had interpreted this to mean communicating with the clay in a spiritual way.
Lah had communicated with it all right. She’d sent good vibes shooting down her arms and into her hands and fingertips with each and every cup, every bowl, every lopsided vase she made, asking the work of art to get her a boyfriend. She wanted what everybody else seemed to have.
It was during the second semester that Max had transferred into the class. She hadn’t paid much attention to him at first, this short chubby kid with a spattering of pimples across his forehead, cheeks and chin and with dark red hair that stuck up in back. But he started talking to her about how he liked drawing, and he wondered if he could draw her sometime. Lah didn’t exactly know what to make of him. She felt kind of sorry for him because in some ways he reminded her of herself. He was a loner, like her, and quiet, like her. The first time she posed it was by standing against the brick wall in the back of the school and he sat on the grass, not smiling or talking or anything, his serious eyes moving from her to the paper and back, like he was this famous artist and she was this well-known subject and this was serious business. When he got up from the ground and showed her the drawing, Lah narrowed her eyes at the lines going every which way, coming in at crazy angles, a neck on top of all this wearing a necklace that said Lah but no head above the neck. He said it was an abstract of her and the drawing intrigued her.
This was how their friendship had started, him drawing her and her looking at the drawings that weren’t her at all. One time he drew her as all these vertical and horizontal lines with a head on top with no features. Another time he portrayed her as these interlocking circles with an arm sticking out of one of them and carrying a purse. He titled his drawings as Lah #1, Lah #2 and so on, page after page in his sketchbook.
Lah invited him over to her house and her mother allowed him in her bedroom as long as the door remained open. She and Max sat on the floor in front of the windowsill and he asked why each item meant so much to her. She told him about Mr. P giving her the blue egg on its tiny stand and lied about what it meant, saying the egg represented a tiny condo and she imagined that inside of it was a blue bird that sang opera. She wanted to impress Max with her high-up thinking about things since he was this abstract artist with wild ideas. She could have wild ideas too. Max’s eyes had widened as if he had this new appreciation of her. What the egg had really meant to Lah was that she and Mr P had this friendship that she treasured, and sometimes when taking the egg off its stand and holding it in her hands, Lah would sit on the floor imagining that when Mr P died, she’d deliver a big fat speech in front of the whole wide world telling everyone about how wonderful he’d been. She’d come across as elegant, chic, and tranquil, and yet once the speech was over, she wondered what kind of mess she’d be in without him, without the comfort of his company.
During Lah’s junior year in high school she became someone else. The face in the mirror became different from her old one. This new face was capable of many new expressions, one where she’d break into a sudden seductive smile or one where she’d pucker her lips while shrugging. Her lank brown hair that previously lacked personality got one. She now wore a new asymmetrical bob she’d dyed punk pink, and she constantly flipped it back on one side to show off her black nail polish on her new pointy acrylic nails. She lined her eyes like Cleopatra and wore hot red lipstick.
“You look like a streetwalker,” her mother had said.
“Well, you’re always telling me to have more of a presence,” Lah had responded.
Her new look was a constant source of conflict between her and her mother.
When she had first met Max, she hadn’t seen him as boyfriend potential. He was just a friend, this short squishy guy who smelled like Clearasil and didn’t know how to comb his hair right. And yet over the summer his pimples had cleared up and he’d grown several inches. He now wore his jeans with blue plaid shirts and a black tie. He styled his auburn hair in a quiff, short on the sides, long on the top, and she’d decided one day that he was handsome.
Lah had changed her room too. She’d stored her Teddy bears in her closet because they now seemed childish. She’d used rubbing alcohol to remove the decals from her vanity dresser for the same reason. She’d painted it a deep hot shade of red like the color of her lipstick. Her mother had said that the dresser looked like something that belonged in a brothel. Lah had given her mother a look of disgust.
Here were the things that Lah liked about Max: the way they went together to Mr. P’s garage sales, Max sketching him as he got up and spoke to prospective buyers; the way he talked about Picasso, saying Picasso’s art represented people who were disjointed cubes but that they made up a complete whole; how he listened when Lah spoke about her objects on the windowsill, even if she wasn’t always truthful with what she said; how he sketched her and never grew tired of it.
She now took advanced ceramics and Max took a drawing class. She was making a teapot for Mr. P, a special gift for him. Lah focused all her energy on feeeling the clay, as Miss Williams would say, as she shaped the teapot, then the spout, then the lid and knob, and finally the handle. She created a big pair of pop-up lips on one side that she would glaze red, and the rest of the teapot would be an intense pink color that matched her hair.
The same day she presented the teapot to Mr. P, Max presented Lah with a cubist drawing of herself. The bright colorful drawing was on large paper and Max had framed it in a gold frame. In the drawing, Lah’s face was a series of different-sized cubes. One purple eye was looking one way, one green eye the other. Her hair was maroon and her lips were black. Her eyebrows were lavender, and she had a big circle of red rouge on one cheek. Lah could see how all these chopped up images of herself came together and formed an artistic whole.
The more she thought about it, the more Lah admitted to herself that the teapot she’d made was far from perfect. The handle was a little crooked and the spout looked too short, but she’d put her heart into it and had done her best.
“This is a fine teapot,” Mr. P said, holding it up to the light and admiring it, “and I will treasure it forever, Lah.” He placed it on the counter top in his kitchen. “It certainly has a lot of personality,” he said, and Lah thought that this was true. It did have a lot of personality, just like her new self.
As a senior in high school, Lah no longer hung out at any of Mr. P’s garage sales, and she began to wonder why they’d seemed so special to her. She came to the conclusion that she’d been so lonely and hadn’t had anything better to do. Mr. P’s theories on love didn’t hold up for her. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe that love came when you least expected it because that had happened with her and Max. They’d started out as friends, becoming boyfriend and girlfriend, but it had only lasted a year and four months. Lah had grown bored with Max. His drawings had become so predictable, and as far as his cubist ones, she could only take looking at so many dissected versions of herself.
Maybe it wasn’t the drawings. Maybe Lah just wanted to get away from everything she knew – Max, Mr. P, her mother – and find out who she was on her very own. When she graduated from high school, Lah attended a small arts college in southern California. She lived in a dormitory and took classes in Color Theory, Visual Culture and Introduction to Photography. Even though she pretty much forgot about Mr. P, she’d brought the blue egg and its little silver stand with her and set it on her desk.
At college she met all kinds of boys. She went out with a few of them but none of them were special in that they made her feel special. The guys mostly talked about themselves and they wanted sex all the time. She was okay with the sex because she was bored with her otherwise non-existent social life. After a while, though, she stopped sleeping around because the whole thing was so empty. She needed to feel something.
She did meet one guy she liked but he got too serious about her too soon. He wanted to know everything about her. He called and texted her all the time and expressed his passionate love. This wasn’t what Lah had wanted either. He suffocated her.
On Thanksgiving and Christmas she returned to San Francisco and stayed in her old room. She felt as if she was visiting a room that had belonged to a different person. Not that she wasn’t lonely any longer but the room screamed I’m lonely in a way that was so disturbing. Maybe not the room itself, but rather her attempts at trying to lift her spirits when she’d decorated it. She remembered buying every single scarf she’d hung on the wall, and how a feeling of sadness had accompanied it. She remembered running her hand over her headboard because it had made her feel better and she’d relied upon a piece of furniture to do that for her. She looked at the see-through elephant on the windowsill, remembering how she’d wished someone would show her compassion.
She told herself to go and say hello to Mr. P but she didn’t. Not then and not at Easter either. It wasn’t until the following summer when visiting her mother that she was walking by his house when she saw him out in his yard with his wares. People stopped to check things out, Mr. P getting up to help them. She noticed his limp, and how he now walked with a cane.
She also noticed a young boy who was sitting in a lawn chair – her lawn chair – a boy of about seven or eight years old with a mop of brown curls and a slender frame of a body. He was holding a little Matchbox car, running it along his leg.
She stood there next to the tables where everything was laid out. She picked up a yellow piggy bank – she remembered this item from before because of its big blue eyes and long eyelashes. No one had bought it yet. “How much do you want for this,” she asked Mr. P when he walked over, and he looked up to see it was her.
“Lah,” he exclaimed, what a surprise!” She put the piggy bank down and walked behind the table to hug him. It felt so good. He hugged her back, and his body felt so frail. “How good to see you. Why, you look so wonderful. Just look how grown up you are. You’ve gotten so tall.”
When he asked her what she’d been doing, she told him about her art classes at college, saying she liked photography best. As they were talking, the boy got up and wandered over and Mr. P introduced him. “Gregory, I would like you to meet my old friend Lah. She’s a very special friend of mine, just like you are special.” Lah smiled at Gregory and he shyly looked away. When someone picked up a teapot, Mr. P went to help them.
Gregory was looking at a red piggy bank shaped like a truck. “I help out Mr. P, you know. I carry things out of his garage and help to put them away.” He said this with importance, and Lah saw herself in Gregory. She remembered how she too had felt important while being Mr. P’s helper. He’d been like a father to her. No, a grandfather. This figure in her life who’d made her life tolerable.
She gazed over at Mr. P with love. She promised herself that she would no longer stay away. She’d visit him whenever she was home, and the next time she’d bring her camera and take pictures of him and Gregory, and have someone take photos of the three of them.
“How long have you been doing this?” she asked Gregory. She was glad he was here to help out. “A long time,” was all he said. He picked up the red piggy bank and shook it, change rattling inside. Lah looked at Gregory. She thought about how little things, little tangible things could make you happy. When she went home, Lah gave her mother a big hug as soon as she walked in the door.
“What’s that for?” her mother said in a surprised, slightly suspicious voice.
“No reason, mom,” Lah said. “I just felt like it. No reason at all.”