mira a los ojos
by bruce yale
reprinted from short shorts – january 2006
“Mira a los ojos.”
“You gotta look in the eyes, man. Look in the eyes.”
“I know what it means, Martín. I’ve taken enough Spanish to at least know that. But what the hell are you talking about?”
It was the first day of Psych, Freshman year at Pac. Martín and I were coming out of the building along with the other hundred students. Martín had suddenly started to babble to me. That’s how it started. Martín was babbling. Martín was always babbling.
“It’s the only way to really understand someone. I mean, you can take this class, learn about the human psyche. But, really, it’s like my dad always said, mira a los ojos.”
“It’s only appropriate that you take Psych, man. You have some serious psychological issues.”
“Mira a mis ojos y comprendes.”
“I don’t need to look in your eyes to understand.”
They have commissioned a damn big space for this painting. Betrayal of Christ at Gethsemane. This guy really wants to impress the Pope. Would have reincarnated Michelangelo and told him that he liked what he had done with that ceiling, but he wanted improvement and he wanted it done by Thursday.
Luckily for me, I still have time.
The hardest part has been the eyes. Jenkins was one of the greatest painters in the world until the accident that took his left hand. He’s got a precision eye for detail. This is my shot at the top. I can’t blow this.
Eyes have always been my problem. Looking into them (Rachel’s, around the time of the divorce). Facing them (mine when Laura died). Drawing them. Always such a problem to make them work. I want, I need to get them all right. Four pairs. Peter. Judas. Jesus. Pilate.
“So what’s up with you and Rachel?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you love her?”
“I can’t believe you’re even asking that. You know I fucking love her.”
“Does she love you?”
“Says she does.”
“Mira a los ojos.”
“Oh man, don’t give me that shit.”
“I’m serious. You look there when she says it. You’ll know if it’s real or not.”
And he was right. And it was real, at least it was when we were 20. I looked again at 34. The same day I went down to file.
Three of the pairs I’ve managed to do. I look around at the world to find real eyes. Surprisingly enough, the easiest one was Christ. Honesty. Tragedy. Quiet dignity. Perseverance. Determination. The photographic memory comes in handy. Not long before the divorce, going with Rachel when she interviewed Arthur Ashe about living with AIDS. Looking into the eyes and knowing, both he and I knowing, he was dying. Yet refusing to give in, refusing to stop fighting or to falter in his course. It was like having Christ alive and dying in the twentieth century.
Next up was Judas. I had intended to move on to Peter when Tony called me and told me he knew where a Scorsese Film Festival was being held. Stuck for inspiration and bored out of my mind, I took off with him. We caught all four movies on the second day: After Hours, The Color of Money, Last Temptation of Christ, GoodFellas.
It wasn’t Last Temptation that helped. Keitel as Judas has just never worked for me. But at the end of the day, it suddenly hit me. Leaving the festival, I went out and rented GoodFellas. I watched it all the way through. I paused on the final courtroom scene as Liotta indicts everyone he has ever known, ever touched with friendship. Trapped. No choice. Offered a way out. Betrayal and a few coins. Damnation of the soul. Self-damnation. I stared at Liotta and the look in his eyes and suddenly I knew I had my Judas.
To try and find Peter, to find what I wanted, I headed back to the source. Thrice before the cock crew, Peter would deny ever knowing Jesus. Deny it, but it was true. He had known Jesus. I do not know him. I don’t know him. I’ve never known him.
I do not love him. I can still hear her saying it, Rachel’s words, talking to Leah in the foyer, not realizing I was walking in the door. I don’t love him. I’ve never loved him. But she did, much as she tried to deny it. Peter had found eyes and a soul. Rachel’s.
I remember hearing the buzz at the apartment. It was out first year out of school and Rachel and I were living in a small apartment by Union Square.
“Yeah?” I asked, pressing down the button.
“Mira a los ojos!”
“Martín! Get your ass up here. I need help.”
“They’ve got no soul,” he said, looking at my paintings. We were walking through the loft, taking a good look at my work.
“How do you mean?”
“There’s no there, there.”
“So my paintings are Oakland, is that what you’re saying?”
“Look, man, look at the eyes of the guy you got there boarding the streetcar. Blank. I mean, he’s got eyes, but they’re blank. There’s nothing in them. If you’re gonna be a coward about it, at least paint their eyes shut. Don’t just leave him a blank.”
“What am I supposed to paint there?”
“Look, he’s a man. He’s got dreams, realities, illusions, disillusions, delusions, problems, bills, all the everyday shit we go through. Give him some of that.”
“Go down to the fucking Castro district or down by Fisherman’s Wharf and find some poor slob like your guy here. You look in his eyes and then you paint those eyes. Also, man, don’t fuck around. This painting is supposed to be New Orleans, so fucking make it New Orleans, not here. Just because you live here doesn’t mean it has to creep into all your work. I see SF and Stockton in every painting here. Let you imagination roam free. Remember . . .”
“Yeah. I know. Mira a los ojos.”
I look in the eyes now. I look in everyone’s eyes. And I’ve finished three of them now. But I’ve got Pilate in the corner of the painting, waiting for the results and he needs eyes. And I don’t know what to do about them.
Out to dinner with Jan. She asks me if Rachel called me. I tell her no and ask why. Seems Rachel has met someone. Is getting married again. Wants to know if I can handle going.
“Say if she ever loved me?” It just slips out.
“What?” Jan asks.
“Just an old argument we never resolved. Sorry. Nothing.”
That night when we make love, there is a marked intensity to everything I do, everything I say. Afterwards, Jan sleeps. I’m out on the balcony. After an hour I feel a compelling urge for a cigarette. I’ve only smoked rarely in the years since the divorce. It’s been so long that it takes almost twenty minutes to find a pack. I almost wake up Jan. I don’t need to have her knowing I’m smoking tonight. She’ll think it’s because of Rachel and try to make things better and that’s the last thing I need right now. I try to distract my mind by thinking about other things. I think about the night I first took up smoking. 21 April 1979. Pulling the plug. Staring into the mirror and acknowledging that I was doing it against my wishes. Looking out at the beautiful San Francisco night, watching the moon come up, the stars shining in their place. Then it hits me.
I’m standing by the mural. It is 3:47 in the morning but the guards are used to the way I do things by now. I stand and remember. I remember the look in my eyes that night. My father saying that it had to be done, all the people saying it was for the best and me fighting against the decision all the way. Saying, you’re not giving her a chance, saying, let her live, and in the end, washing the blood off my hands after pulling the plug and sealing my sister’s fate. I remember staring into the mirror and the look in my eyes just before turning it all off and walking out the doors of UCSF Medical Center and down the street so I could light that first cigarette. I paint what I remember: the pain, the guilt, a man caught between his desire to save a life and wrapped up in a destiny bigger than either of the lives involved. My eyes. Pilate’s eyes.
I hope there’s nothing more necessary for this painting. It’s taken everything I’ve got. It’s my ticket into the big time. Martín has once again saved my ass. I’m looking in my eyes now and I know I’ve made it.