It usually takes being away for me to appreciate the sweetness of home. As I have grown older, the shorter and nearer bouts of such away-ness have brought on equal (if not stronger) sense of homeliness in me. The things that normally annoy me about that good-ol' home, the snorting bunny, the squishy old couch, the oddly placed piano, the forever humming fridge... all take on a new voice. It says, welcome home, sweetheart! It says so in the voice of a calm and patient friend, a throaty lover, a cat you've had for so long that you tend to forget her aloof presence except on those days you stayed home sick and she curled up next to you, lowering your stress and fever with her quiet purring, and her warm, soft fur brushing against your clammy skin.
I returned from an overnight party this afternoon, agitated to go out again after a proper shower and a change into something comfortable. The neighborhood coffeehouse gave me the last of its brew on clearance before closing its doors. So I sat outside in a common area tucked away between two buildings. The management of this urban strip mall had stepped up in the last few years, upgrading it with new storefronts, outdoor seating and water fountains. On one of the newer outdoor couch I noticed a shopping cart parked in a corner, piled high with homeless essentials: backpack, empty bottles, shopping bags stuffed with unseen objects. The lady sleeping next to it was dressed in clean shirt and pants. Her summer hat looked crooked around the edges but also stylish in a way. She covered her face with one arm but I could see her snowy hair and weather lined face. She looked Asian in some ways, like one of those grandmas who had came across the ocean to visit her child and grandchildren. They pushed strollers around the park in the afternoons and did Tai Chi there in the morning. Occasionally you'd see them gather around the stone benches next to the park playground in a pot-luck party, chattering in languages that sounded familiar yet not quite understood.
This woman was alone. Perhaps because of this she seemed to resemble all yet no one ethnicity in particular. I wanted to ask if she needed help, yet she slept soundly, feet propped up on the wooden handle and arms blocking her eyes so I couldn't see whether she was really sleeping or simply tired. I set down with my books and my drink, deciding not to intervene. A few mall workers came by a few minutes later, making a racket with their trash emptying and leaf blowing. When I looked up again the lady had gotten up, grabbing an empty bottle from a neighboring table with the type of slow walk reminiscent of a recovering stroke patient. I tried to walk up to her but the cleaning crew blocked my way, their arms strategically stretched out in front of me wherever I turned as if to keep me from bodily harm. Their equipment covered my voice, and the whole thing seemed a bit fruitless and absurd in the end when I gave up. She wobbled away with her shopping cart towards the back of buildings where no shoppers typically went, her floppy brimmed hat and her polyester mint green pants flapping gently with each step. From this angle, her clothes seemed to be from a thrift store or a discarded donation pile left on the curb on trash days. She disappeared around the bend surprisingly quickly, as when I finally freed myself from the maze of workers stepping all around me I couldn't find her trace. Nothing remained between the white stucco walls of the buildings, and the now clean concrete patio floors, empty outdoor furniture. The whole scene of her being next to me, close enough for a conversation, a touch, had vanished like a dream. When I questioned the workers about her whereabouts, they shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders the way my son did whenever I asked him about missed homework, lost jacket after field trips.
I lingered in the mall for another half an hour, eating a quick dinner that seemed exorbitantly expensive at $11. After that the evening out crowd rushed into the restaurant, surrounding my table with the kind of loud chatter you only find in American restaurants. It was still early, the summer sun high overhead, so I kept my sunglasses on and read quietly until the tide of crowds finally irritated my server, and he asked me for the 3rd time whether there was anything further he could help me. Quickly I paid and left the hubbub of this rich, clean and classy world with free flowing wine and grass fed sirloin burgers piled high next to wild caught Alaskan shrimp bowls.
Home, quiet, unassuming in its worn edges and patient with my ceaseless washing of the old sofa covers, was extra sweet after that. I sighed and cooed into my floppy cushions and ten-year-old blankets. Memories of the homeless lady lingering in the back of my mind like a negative image, fainting into a recess but ready for a special kind of light, to bring it to exposure.