This is the final story in a series of three. Click here to read the first.
One tiny dot at a time, the daylilies are taking shape on the sun-splashed canvas, their yellow and orange trumpets vivid against the green-shadowed background. Serra can almost imagine herself in the long-ago tranquility of Monet’s garden—that is, if she ignores the skyscrapers on all sides, the rumbling traffic, the chattering pedestrians, and the buzzing of an edger as one of the park’s groundskeepers comes nearer.
After she finishes the painting, she’ll walk back to the tiny apartment she has reluctantly called home since her divorce three years ago. Serra never cared much for city life, but it’s not as if she has much of a choice now. After losing her middle-management job in the recession, she ended up stuck in long-term unemployment hell, and that was when her husband left her. No kids, thankfully. By now she has given up her car, her jewelry, and her collection of antique jewelry boxes, while trying to convince herself (without much success) that a minimalist lifestyle suits her better anyway.
Last week she’d had a particularly awful interview for an office assistant job that was far below her qualifications. The hiring manager, an older man with deep creases around his mouth that gave the look of a perpetual smile, hadn’t even gone through the usual checklist of questions before stopping mid-sentence to ask her, not unkindly, “Do you really want this job?”
Taken by surprise, Serra had been about to stammer a response when the manager had told her, even more gently, “You should have said yes already.”
Now as she’s standing at her easel, the hot sun on her face reminds her of the shame she had felt, stumbling out to the bus stop with her briefcase full of useless resumes. Of course she didn’t really want that crummy job, but the rent wasn’t going to pay itself, was it? She tries to focus her attention back on the painting, but there’s no hope for this latest effort at mindfulness: Monet’s imagined garden is long gone.
The nearby edger whines like an overgrown mosquito, loud and annoying. Serra turns her head to locate the sound, flipping a long braid back over her shoulder as she does so. She’d prefer to get her hair done in almost any other style, having been raised by a single mom named Rainbow who grew up on a commune and always had braids hanging down to her jeans pockets; but going to the salon every few weeks is another luxury Serra has given up.
A spot of white in her peripheral vision resolves into a man’s shirt. Serra realizes in annoyance that some guy she doesn’t know has been standing behind her, quietly watching her paint. He looks harmless enough in a business suit, and he’s kind of cute, with dark curly hair and a Latin complexion. She has no intention of letting some random guy waste her time, though. They always vanish when they find out how long she has been without a job, and she certainly doesn’t need any more of that.
She’s about to scowl and tell the guy to shove off; but then she notices the young woman with the edger, cheerfully waving hello to her. Before Serra knows it she’s smiling in response, feeling mysteriously lighter, as if she just put down something much weightier than the paintbrush she’d been holding. Two robins sitting in a purple plum tree chirp smugly, like they were in on the secret all along.
The man standing behind her smiles, too, a flash of bright white in a smooth bronze face. In a pleasant baritone, he introduces himself as Ricardo and says he’s the second-shift manager at the coffee shop across the street. This morning he’s been meeting with bankers about a loan to finance buying out the shop’s owner, who recently decided to change careers.
Serra knows he doesn’t mean to put her on the defensive. It’s just the usual conversation of people who have a place in the world—a category that doesn’t include her anymore. She feels the familiar tension creeping back into her jaw and shoulders as she gives her name. What else is there to say? But this time, something feels different; the stress doesn’t quite take hold. There is still a bit of a smile on her lips, a touch of the moment’s lightness.
“Serra is a nickname, it’s short for Serendipity,” she finds herself explaining, without the usual self-consciousness about having a silly hippie name. Ricardo compliments her on its uniqueness—he’s being sincere, as far as she can tell. When he follows up by asking if she is a professional artist, she figures that’s got to be nothing but flattery. Still, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to let this conversation bother her; so she goes ahead and tells Ricardo that she paints as a hobby and doesn’t have a job at present.
She expects he’ll make himself scarce quickly enough after hearing that. Instead, he asks what sort of work she does. Then, much to her surprise, she finds herself telling him the whole miserable story, which she generally never mentions at all. She has kept it bottled up all these years because the last thing she wants is anyone’s pity. Once it starts spilling out, though, Serra just can’t manage to put the lid back on.
Ricardo listens calmly. After a while he asks, “Have you ever waited tables? One of the servers at the coffee shop just quit.”
“Yes, when I was in college,” Serra says. She thinks back to those days, not all that long ago, when life was still an adventure full of shiny new possibilities. Somewhere along the way—she still doesn’t quite know how it happened—life turned into a restricted-access highway fenced in all around by plans and expectations, with ever-narrowing lanes and traffic moving so fast there was no way to slow down.
She never had time for painting after she got so busy. As much as she told herself she’d find a few hours on the weekend, there was always something else to do. The notion of spending a gorgeous summer day at the park, contemplating a bed of daylilies and slowly bringing them to life by way of tiny dots in the pointillist style, wouldn’t even have crossed her mind.
Maybe it was not her choice to travel the side roads and the detours, but Serra realizes she has learned something from them. As with the dots on her canvas, every moment of experience has its place in the picture. She finds to her surprise, when she tells Ricardo she’d be interested in the job at the coffee shop, this time she really means it.