The laundromat in the Mission was hell, but it was also my private escape. The one down the street from my old apartment has terrible cell reception, no internet, and walls the color of congealed French’s mustard. Aside from a few flyers for yoga and writing classes, the only other decor is a wobbly table and two plastic lawn chairs. I sat in one of those chairs a while back while the machines did their thing. Every time I do laundry, I bring a notebook and try to eke out something creative. This time around, I brought art supplies for a new project: a photograph, tracing paper, a fine-point marker, and a blue pencil. I’d just put my things out when a mother and her two children came in to move their clothes from washers to dryers.
“A question in Spanish,” the woman said to her daughter as she stopped her son’s stroller next to her. “Something about soap and clothing that Annie can infer from her limited knowledge of Romance languages.”
“Si, Mami,” the girl said. As her mother hauled a family’s damp clothing out of the washers, the girl sat down at the table next to me. I smiled at her and she tucked her head away shyly, the way seven-year-old girls do. From a backpack she plucked a pencil, Xeroxed multiplication exercises, and a large pink eraser. Her homework was halfway done.
I traced for a few minutes while she sneaked glances. She pretended to do her homework for a minute or two, then put her pencil in her mouth. “Are you an artist?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “But my father was.”
“He’s not anymore?”
I didn’t know how to answer that, so I just said that it had been a while since he painted. Technically true.
“Oh,” was the quiet reply. Then, shyly: “Because I know how to draw good. I want to be an artist. A painter.”
I looked at her little hands pinched together excitedly, and I saw the faintest blush color her cheeks. A secret dream! Remember when you were small, and you hadn’t yet learned to fully rationalize your way out of them? And how revealing that dream felt like a risk?
I put my marker down and gave her a big smile. “Well, you absolutely can be a painter if you want to be,” I said. “What do you like to paint?”
Eyes: downward. Lip: nibbled. Voice, softly: “Oh, I don’t know.”
She seemed almost embarrassed by her admission. I looked at the girl’s high cheekbones and listened to her mother speak Spanish to her toddler boy. The girl could have been second-generation, or her family could have been in California for decades. Centuries. Who knows. So I decided to ask.
“Do you mind if I ask you about your family’s heritage?”
“What is heritage?”
“Well,” I said. “Heritage means the story of your family, where your family comes from. In my family, my grandfather came to the United States from Germany, so my heritage is German. A friend of mine has parents from Japan, so her heritage is Japanese.”
She nodded. “My family is Mexican,” she said. “Papi came here first from [Yucatecan town redacted for some semblance of privacy] and then we came when I was little.”
“No way,” I said excitedly. “You’re Mexican and you want to be an artist?”
The girl was interested in my sudden (albeit thickly laid-on) exuberance. “Yes…” she said tentatively.
“Well, did you know that one of the most famous artists in the entire history of art was a Mexican woman?”
You could have knocked the girl over with a feather. Her eyes were so big that I don’t know if she believed me at first. “Really?” she asked. “She was Mexican?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “Her name was Frida Kahlo, and she is one of the most respected artists. You can go to any art museum in the world and they will know about Frida Kahlo.” (I didn’t mention the whole mess with Diego Rivera and the car accident. I also decided to leave Ms. Kahlo’s monobrow out of it.)
Then, the girl was beaming. “So already there is a Mexican painter,” she said gleefully.
“Yes,” I said. “Lots of them, actually. But Frida Kahlo is probably the most famous.”
“And she’s a girl,” my new friend said.
“Yep,” I said. “And it sounds like you have talent, just like her. So you need to keep studying in school, and make sure you find time for drawing and painting.”
All the commotion had attracted a glance from the girl’s mother, who gave me the universal “I hope my child isn’t annoying you” face. I smiled and shook my head, and suddenly the girl whipped around to tell her mother all about Frida Kahlo. I couldn’t make everything out because she was speaking so quickly, but her mother smiled as she finished folding socks into little balls. Then it was time for them to go back into the evening, back to their home. My laundry buzzed.
I smiled at the mother, who was pushing the stroller out the door as the girl chirped along with the laundry. “Buenas noches, señora,” I said. She smiled and walked with her children out of the laundromat’s fluorescent glare.
Did the girl’s enthusiasm for Frida last beyond that night? Did she go home and think of becoming the next big Mexican-American painter? Or did she, like so many children her age, find a new dream that she loved even more? I don’t know. I hope that, whatever her dream is, she is taking child-sized steps toward it. What I do know is that in that laundromat, a girl brought me tremendous joy simply by feeling the possibility that exists within her. The unlikelihood of that scene unfolding again is my sole regret about having a laundry machine in my new building.