Copyright is held by the author.
EARLY SPRING. She surfaces from her makeshift construction of cardboard boxes where she’s been living for the past week. Though I’ve overslept, I’m glad I haven’t missed her and that she’s okay — it’s dangerous here, especially at night. I like to keep an eye out and want her to be safe. Seated at my kitchen table, I am only a few feet away, but she doesn’t see me watching her through the metal bars of my window.
This morning starts like every morning since she moved into the alley behind my apartment. She’s seated on the cold pavement, a Barbie doll case, black and shiny, with a picture of a blonde Barbie on the cover, precariously propped open on her knees. From this angle, I can see the glint of a mirror glued to the pink satin lining on the inside lid.
Her breath visible in the morning chill, she exhales and steadies herself against her reflection. Yesterday’s makeup is still caked on her face. As she scrubs it off, her face emerges puffy and pale. She looks frail. Her hands stop to stroke a fresh bruise on her cheek.
Somewhere in her late fifties, early sixties, I think. She stares in the mirror. Then begins, hands shaky, reaching in and out of the black box on her lap, unevenly applying foundation, concealer, blush, eyeshadow, liner. This takes a while, as she often has to rub it off, start again.
Her stained fingers pin back her greying hair. She grabs a wig from inside her shelter, pulls it on, slightly crooked. Then reaches for a lipstick. Bright red, daring. She manages to put it on evenly – this time. One last look, she puckers her lips, attempts to straighten her wig. She could be quite pretty, I think, as she stands slowly, brushing herself off, bracing herself against the brick wall before making her way out onto the street.
Later that afternoon, as I’m out running errands, I see her with some guy outside the liquor store, his arm around her neck. He smacks her cheek with his lips, takes a swig from a bottle in his other hand, and passes the bottle to her. I wonder if he’s the reason her cheek is bruised.
When I get back I discover all the boxes and her belongings are gone. Someone from the community centre tells me people were complaining about the smell and rats, so some workers came and hauled everything away in a dumpster.
I ask around, but nobody’s sure what happened to her. The staff at the women’s drop-in tell me they got her housing at a shelter but she refused. My neighbour says he thought he saw her coming out of a rooming house on King Street with some guy.
I don’t see her for years. When I do, I almost don’t recognize her. She walks with a cane, and she’s replaced the wig with a baseball cap, but still wears the same unmistakable red lipstick.