"Don't do that."
The sound of his voice coming out of the dark startled her and she dropped the box of tissues she was holding. She bent over and picked them up, and he lost his breath again. She was so beautiful. In the half light of the quiet hospital room, he could only see her left cheek and outline of her face on that side. It was a vision.
"You scared me Mr. Damone. What was it that I'm not supposed to do?"
"I'll tell you, but you have to promise you won't get creeped out or think I'm a old pervie dude. Promise?"
He switched the lamp on by his bed, so that he could study her reaction.
"Now, how would I know what I would think unless I knew what you are going to say?'
"Now, that's a good question, Bella. You been taking care of me for two weeks, so you are going to have to make your decision based on what you've learned about me so far." He had flirted harmlessly the whole two weeks, but that was who he was. He had always flirted with women in his life and didn't intend to stop now.
He watched her pretend to be thinking about what he said and studied her face. He didn't know if it was the meds or the fact that he was lying at death's door, or what; all he knew was at this moment in time, Isabella Montoya was the most beautiful woman that he had ever laid eyes upon. And he felt that his opinion should matter more than most men. Appraising beauty was his job, or had been for the better part of the last fifty years.
John Damone was one of the most well known photographers in the world. In his prime, people had paid him ridiculous amounts of money for him to travel all over the world and photograph beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes in beautiful places. His coffee table book World Class Beauty was still a hot seller. He was working on the sequel when the cancer was diagnosed. He was living on borrowed time and knew it.
"Okay, I'll trust you. You have an honest face, and you never complain about things," Bella smiled; she also blushed.
"Complain? I got no complaints. Why should I complain; I get three squares a day and get to look at the most beautiful nurses I've ever encountered."
"Now you're lying," she smiled again. She pulled a chair up next to his bed and poured him a glass of cold water. He made the gesture that he usually made where he was asking her to put something extra in the water, and she made like she was going to slap his hand. "Tell me; What shouldn't I do?"
John took a long drink of water and cleared his throat while handing the glass back to her. He was still a handsome man with his gray hair swept back, and the eyes behind his black framed glasses were large and blue. He looked very much like he should be senator from some East Coast state.
" When you turned just now, your left profile almost took away all of the air that I had left in my body. I have several female friends who would pay in the six figures to try and obtain the cheekbone structure that you have." He was being dead serious, speaking in his professional voice. "I've photographed many women over the years, and you are as beautiful as any of them."
It was his seriousness that made her silent. She lowered her eyes and blushed even more. Bella had a habit of pulling on her collar when she was nervous. Combined with the demure innocence of her reaction, it made her look adorable.
Finally she spoke, " I think you are making a joke at the expense of a poor night nurse who also happens to be a single mom."
This time the laughter burst out of him only held in check by his sore lungs. It ended in several wrenching coughs. When he stopped coughing, he spoke in a low raspy voice, "It is not a joke. I joke about many other things, but I never joke about a subject so serious as a beauty. It has been my mission in life to find and capture it on film. I'm being serious, Bella."
"You want me to stop being pretty?"
"No! No! Let me explain. You were reaching for something over the mirror and turned to your left. The line of your face and your left cheekbone was the Garden of Eden."
"A writer I knew once said that all great artists are trying to recapture the Garden of Eden, but they all fail miserably, so their efforts are pretentious. He told me that while the world is better off for their trying, he said that it is in the backgrounds and the corners of paintings where one runs across a shadow in fold of a curtain or a fence surrounding the subject that one can find the true hint of perfection, hence the Garden of Eden. Your face just then was such a vision."
He paused a moment to let her take it in; then he went on, "When you turned back into the room, you lowered your chin and the soft flesh of your face overwhelmed your bone structure, still quite beautiful, I assure you, but not Garden variety."
"So, I'm supposed to always present my left profile?"
This time they both laughed. Bella was imagining going through life while only showing her left profile. John laughed because of the fact that Bella, always serious, always sad, was laughing.
John stopped first, "You're laughing but I've known some very famous actors who have done exactly that."
"Gone through life on their left side?"
The old man nodded.
Her eyes had softened. He wanted to tell her that it made her look like a silent movie star, one of the great ones who were usually chosen for their huge expressive eyes. "I have a great friend who would no more let me on her right side then she would let me see her without makeup. It made it very hard to get to know her always having to penetrate the mask, but I finally did; took me several years though."
"Because of the make-up?" She saw him nod again. " Damn, where I'm from in Boyle Heights all the women are in incognito then."
He wanted to ask her about how long her drive was to get to to the hospital, but didn't. He already knew, and he also knew that their time together was short and couldn't be wasted asking trivial questions when he already knew the answers.
"Bella, what do you love?"
She was already getting nervous for sitting so long and was looking over her shoulder. She had first turned to her left but quickly turned back to her right. She was going to say Sara, her four year old daughter from her bad marriage to Juan Arias, a charismatic young thug who had seduced her when she was only sixteen and left her with Sara when his brief attempt at parenthood had proven too demanding. She also knew that time was short, and that they both needed to speak a kind shorthand; no, they needed to speak a poetry of sorts using words with real meaning.
"Mr. Damone, I wanted to be an artist so bad. I loved art.
Before I had to work to support Sara, I would always draw and paint," she sighed, "It all kind of dried up, ya know."
" Do me a favor and call me John, Bella. I can read people. It is my one great skill. I studied faces searching for beauty for so long that I started to notice how the faces started lining up with who the people really were on the inside. I noticed the first night I saw you that something was amiss. Your face did not line up with your essence."
His word stirred something inside her, something that been hibernating for years, " I know, Mr. Da....John, I just don't know what to do. I am always so tired, and Sara is the only thing that makes me happy."
"Could you please hand me my phone? I wish I had my camera, but I don't. I could tell you in words, but I'm much better with pictures. I want to take your picture. Would you let me do that?"
Bella, apprehensive at first, nodded.
He posed her in the chair that she sat in. She turned her right cheek, so he could see it. They laughed without sound.
"Turn your head a little to the right and look back over my left shoulder." She followed his directions. He put the camera down for a second and turned out one of the bank of lights behind him. There was a small lamp on the bed table, and he switched it on. "Think about someone you love."
She thought of Sara.
"Now, Bella, think about something very bad." He took three pictures very quickly. "There, that didn't take long did it."
She waited for him to show her the pictures, but he didn't. She then understood that he wanted to work on them a bit. "John, I have to get back to work."
"Write down your email and leave it on the table. I'll send the pictures when I am done. I can't promise too much with this phone, but I think you'll be pleased."
"Are just trying to get my digits, John."
He smiled broadly, "Very perceptive, Girly. Never trust an old man even when he's down."
On her drive home, Bella was deep in thought. She thought about how she used to notice every little spot of color in her life and how all the arguments and fights with Juan, her mother's illness before she had passed, and the stress of surviving had bleached everything to a solid black and white. Tonight, she saw color. When John had asked her to think about someone she loved, she had envisioned Sara in vivid colors and the green covered trellis of her mother's garden had even seemed to breathe.
The vision she had of something bad was when she had walked into her mother's house the last time and saw her darling mom lying on the bathroom floor. She thought of the geometric red and green pattern of the floor framing her mother's face. She remembered vividly how her mother's tired face had softened in death. And she also remembered that her mother's head was turned revealing her left profile.
After she had sent her Aunt Lucy home, she went in and checked on Sara. She sat by her daughter's bed for several minutes looking at her sleeping peacefully and trying hard to see if her tiny face aligned with her true essence and was happy to see that it did.
She tiptoed out of the room and closed the door softly behind her; then decided she needed a cold beer and time to process before sleeping. She sat down at the walnut dining table her mother had left her and took a drink of the Modelo that she had retrieved from the fridge. She had hidden the six-pack in the crisper drawer so that Sara wouldn't see it. She was starting to take a second drink when her cell phone pinged. She grabbed it off the table and quickly opened the text that John had sent.
She almost dropped the beer. She then carefully sat the Modelo down and held her phone with both hands. What she saw on the tiny screen took her breath away.