The year was 1996. We were in El Sereno, amidst the palm trees, panaderias and liquor stores. where I lived with my grandparents . It must have been late winter because the night air was cold and damp. He asked me if I wanted to go out painting with him...be his lookout person. Excited just to be around him, I said yes. Is this what being in love feels like? I thought to myself. Breathless, light-headed, self-conscious, dreamy, up for adventure.
This is a cool spot, he said.
It was right off a busy street, near the car wash that I went to on the Fridays when I couldn't afford to take it to that expensive place on Main Street in Alhambra that gave you your choice of air fresheners. Within walking distance from where I lived. We parked a block away, then walked through the alley with buckets of paint. We tried to tread lightly so as not to arouse the suspicions of the people that lived in the tiny duplex. I pretended to act like I wasn't aware we were about to paint on private property. It was someones garage and we were shielded by a tree, and it was facing Huntington Drive. An abandoned clothesline stood there and it made me think of the summer days my Nana would hang her bed sheets, pillowcases, and her towels in the back yard. And the towels were always crunchy against my skin after they'd been dried in the sun.
Let's wait right here and listen, he whispered.
He made me sit with my back against a west-facing wall, a rough stucco. He sat across from me. The cars zoomed past us. Even a police cruiser that crept through the alley. The city looked different at night. It was like I hadn't driven on this road a thousand times, hair flying in the wind, music blaring, weed smoke curling out the sides of my windows like the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice and Wonderland.
While I sat in the shadows, he began to sketch with the paint. Directly on the wall with a paintbrush, guerrilla style. I watched him admiringly, thinking that never in a million years would I have the nerve to do this. Head tilted to the side, he would step back and observe his brush strokes. He worked at a feverish pitch, like someone who was accustomed to expressing his creativity while hanging from buildings and freeway signs. Entranced, I watched him use pink on the wall. Black. Yellow. Green. White. He offered me the paintbrush, but in my excitement, I could barely paint a stroke. I was much more comfortable against that rough stucco wall...watching him and loving him.
Little by little, I saw a word forming. A name, actually. As I sat, crouched in the shadows, my heart began to beat through my chest. My breath was making little puffs of white in the cool, night air.
Denise...it says Denise, I thought to myself.
He turned to smile at me. The first of many smiles he would give me that made me feel like he was smiling into my soul. No one had ever painted anything for me. No one had ever made such a physical demonstration of their feelings for me. It may not have been a fat diamond ring or a bouquet of flowers delivered to me. But this...this to me meant so much more. It was an unforgettable feeling...romantic and special and good. So, so good.
Suddenly there was a whistle from across the road. Immediately, Michael took it to mean the person was warning us to finish what we were doing. It gave me the chills, realizing there was a person watching us, probably crouching in the shadows just as I had been. We packed up and walked back through the quiet, empty alley. There was no fear, no sense of doom around the corner. Which is what you would expect walking down a dark alley in East L.A. in the middle of the night.
As we stood in my grandparents driveway, I remember looking down at our hands, which were curled around each other. They were covered in paint. And to me, it was the most beautiful thing to have our paint-stained hands threaded through one another. There was a deep intimacy about it, an intimacy we had achieved in other ways but this...this was different. Once again, I was excited, breathless...dreamy.
That mural served as a visual reminder for myself. A reminder that someone loved me. I passed it everyday and I couldn't help but look at it every single time. The owners of the home must have liked it because they didn't buff it out. It stayed there for several years. Taggers left it alone, save a few tags around the top and bottom. It felt good to know that after I moved away from El Sereno, a piece of me and my love was still there.
For all the world to see.