Ten days ago I met the eyes of a stranger, a store clerk stacking the deep, ripe crimson rounds of fresh tomatoes. And they smiled.
The kind of smile that eases the lines about eyes, relaxes the furrowed tilt of brows from their intent purpose, and draws a warm, vibrant curve of lip. Unbidden. As if they couldn’t help themselves. Teeth flashed, pale and fearless and easy behind that sudden unexpected, wordless reply.
When I was in my late teens, that smiling aura wisped about me as a wedding veil might, giving those who looked intently the chance to glimpse me beneath it… and see that what they saw at first glance was the kind of thing that looked out even after a second, sudden scrutiny.
Sometime in the last decade, I lost it. So burdened by my own perception of my troubles, the strain of waiting for the next dark moment to descend, that aura I once claimed faded. Disappeared. Somehow, when I wandered public spaces, I didn’t stir forth that response. I felt the lack, from time to time, wondered where that secret something had faded, and why, but more often than not, I simply wrapped my fingers tightly about the handle of a grocery cart, or tightened them about the straps of my purse, ducked my head, and focused on whatever item was next on my list.
Yet suddenly, since, I think, my friend started that GoFundMe account to help pay for my new-to-me vehicle – I walk into a store, or down the street, and those who catch my eyes, and I theirs, greet me with a smile both friendly and soft and welcoming. No words clutter the air, merely the friendly congeniality that a smile can engender. I’m not sure if I merely lost awareness of the people around me, so mired in the slog of a life at odds with my dreams and hopes. Yet, there is a strange certainty, after that first startled awareness of the grocery-clerk’s responsive smile. It is me.
I am different.
I will never be the naive girl of seventeen again. But neither will I be that burdened, desperate wife of the last decade either. Even so, there is a trace of the person I was flickering back to life, like the strands of fire stirred by a person’s breath, crackling along the strands of loose, wiry tinder. That first smile startled me. So unexpected and full and responsive. Yet even I can see a change, when I glance in a mirror. The strain is fading. The corners of my lips are no longer weighted by secrets, perhaps. My eyes no longer seek to hide from scrutiny, as they used – so fearful someone would understand something of the white lies my public life lived.
Not everything is perfect. But I have what matters. The love of my friends. The unconditional support of my family. A roof over my head. Food to eat. A job that will support me, and a boss who is far more supportive than any single supervisor ought to be. As of yesterday, after more than four months without my own transportation, I have a vehicle – something that will allow me to follow up with physical therapy, doctor visits, counseling and more.
The future is far from certain in many ways. But somehow, when I step out the front door and into the sunlight, it’s easier to bask in the warmth of those who love me, and let go the things I cannot control.
And smile, feeling that warmth slip through my veins until even the sun on my skin cannot compare to the warmth of it.