On the way to her West Hollywood apartment she was so tired she missed her turn onto Santa Monica Boulevard and ended up on Serrano Avenue instead.
She also missed seeing the scrap metal lying in the street.
The sound of her right front tire blowing was drowned out by the sound of steel shrieking against steel as something metal caught in the wheel well.
She was going fifty and almost lost control. The beeping of the traction control computer was a counterpoint to wheel rims grinding on pavement.
She wrestled the Porsche to the curb and stopped it.
Her body shook from the pounding of her heart. For a long minute she clutched the wheel, knuckles white and eyes wide.
She was alive. Wide awake and alive.
Cecilia got out and walked around the car to see the damage. Both right tires were down. They were supposed to be run-flats, but that didn’t cover having the tire sliced off the wheel.
She knew she could fix it but her brain wouldn’t engage. The adrenaline was draining out and she felt even worse than before.
What did she need?
A jack. She had to make a jack because her Porsche didn’t have one.
Then she had to raise the car, smooth the rims, and replace some of the metal.
After that, make a whole new tire.
Fix the rubber on the other.
Inflate both. She had no air pump. She could make one if she had to…
She reached for her cell phone to call a tow service.
No cell phone.
She searched the Porsche.
No cell phone. It had to be back on the work bench in the Tower.
Cecilia screamed and beat the roof of her car with her fists, leaving dents in the metal.
She cursed in Italian. A stream of blasphemies that would have made the field workers in Camaiore blanch.
She finished with a kick that left a deep dent in the passenger door of her Porsche and sat down on the curb.
She would have cried again but she felt dead inside.
“What on earth is going on out here?” demanded a female voice with the pronounced drawl of the American south.
Cecilia looked over her shoulder and saw a tall, middle-aged brunette with a long face and a stern expression standing in an open door. The woman’s expression softened when she spotted Cecilia seated on the curb. She shut the door, came over and studied the Porsche.
“Well, that’s not going anywhere.” The woman looked at Cecilia again and held out her hand. “Sandra Hartwell.”
Cecilia took her hand. It was bigger than her own and strong.
“Welcome to one of the worst parts of Los Angeles, Cecilia. Why don’t you come inside where it’s safe and I’ll make you some coffee?”
Cecilia nodded and Sandra pulled her to her feet. The door was bounded on either side by empty window frames filled with plywood. ‘Shepherd of Lost Angels Women’s Shelter’ was painted above it in six-inch red letters. Sandra closed the door behind her and shot home a galvanized security bolt that looked like it had come off a gate somewhere. Below it was a built-in deadbolt surrounded by splintered wood.
Cecilia stared at the obvious sign of a break-in.
“We had a man come in a month ago to get his girlfriend back,” Sandra said. “He wouldn’t leave her alone so I called the cops and hit him in the head with a chair. He came back with some friends a week later and messed the place up in the morning while no one was here. Broke some pipes and caused some water damage. Had to put this latch in until we can get the door fixed.”
Cecilia nodded. Sandra took her down a hall and pulled her into a cafe kitchen with speckled linoleum flooring and countertops. None of the equipment matched, apparently salvaged wherever possible.
Sandra pulled out a coffee maker, loaded it with some decaffeinated Maxwell house and started it percolating. She disappeared for a moment and came back with two folding chairs that she set up next to the counter with the coffee machine.
“Sit down,” she told Cecilia.
Cecilia sat in the chair and stared at the coffee machine.
Sandra sat facing her.
“So, what’s wrong? I’ve seen some bad days and you’re having more than just one.”
The words were direct and left Cecilia no room for hiding. It was how her grandmother would have asked. She looked at the woman asking, long in the face where her grandmother’s had been round, pale where her grandmother had been tan, smooth skinned where her grandmother had been wrinkled.
The eyes were the same, watching, not moving.
Sandra wanted to know.
Cecilia stumbled through her story, too tired to care about her accent. Sometimes she slipped into Italian. Sandra brought her back to English and kept her going.
Cecilia told Sandra everything that had weighed on her; how she had come from Camaiore on a scholarship and had never fit in with anyone at MIT; how her art advisor had told her that everything she made was a lifeless copy and that she should drop out of the program; how she had gone full engineer because that was her only option for staying in America and how she now spent her days finishing and repairing other people’s creations; how her parents had died in a fire leaving her alone with no home to go back to and with no dreams left in her soul.
“I cannot even pray anymore. I have nothing,” Cecilia finished.
“That’s terrible!” Sandra said. She squeezed Cecilia’s shoulder and then poured her a cup of coffee. Cecilia took it and started drinking. Sandra poured a cup for herself and drank with her.
They sat together for a time, drinking coffee. Cecilia finished first and Sandra filled her cup again.
“I’m going to pray for you,” Sandra said. She put her hand on Cecilia’s shoulder again and bowed her head.
“Jesus,” Sandra said, “I know you don’t hate this young woman. I want you to show her tonight just how much you love her. Open her eyes so she knows she’s not alone.”
The prayer was over before Cecilia had finished bowing her head. Surprised, she looked at Sandra and saw the look of a woman who expected to get what she had asked for.
“You should spend the night here,” Sandra said. “There’s a bed free in the bunk room and you can drive home in the morning when you aren’t about to fall over.”
Cecilia nodded, too tired to argue about anything anymore. Sandra put an arm around her shoulder and led her out into the hall and over to a large, dark room filled with steel-frame bunk-beds that looked like army surplus. There were four rows of seven bunks each. Sandra led her down to an empty one on the far side of the room.
“There’s a pillow and a blanket already on the bed. I cleaned everything myself yesterday. The bathroom is back up the hall, second door on the right.” Sandra pointed back up the hall and Cecilia nodded. “If you need anything, just come up to my room. It’s the first as you came in. Don’t worry about anything. You’ll be safe for the night.”
Cecilia nodded and sat down on the bed.
Cecilia sat there in the dark, sipping her second cup of coffee, exhausted but somehow too tired to sleep. When her eyes had adjusted to the gloom she looked around and saw that the dim light came from nightlights arranged around the room. The bunks held women of all shapes, sizes, and colors curled up under gray, green, and brown blankets that also looked army surplus.
Some of the women had bruises on their faces. Others had sunken cheeks and looked hungry even in their sleep. Some tossed and turned as if no position was comfortable. None of them had a smile.
There were also children, smaller shapes curled up next to their mothers or big sisters for comfort. She heard faint whimpering coming from at least one of those little faces.
The walls of the room were pale, some tint of white. The floors were more speckled linoleum.
On the back wall she spotted the damage Sandra had talked about. Someone had taken something heavy and beaten holes in the wall with it. It was too dark to see into the holes, but she judged from the bubbled and sagging look of the drywall that it was where the pipes had been broken. The water damage spread to either side of the holes for most of the width of the wall.
She spotted the item the vandals had used to break the wall on a folding table near the hole. A wooden cross, probably two and a half feet high before it had been broken in half.
Cecilia dropped her eyes and saw that her coffee cup was empty. She got up and went to the bathroom to wash it out.
The lights in the bathroom came on along with the whirr of a large fan. The bathroom was larger than she had expected, with two showers next to a row of toilet stalls. Everything was white except the floors and counters, which used the same speckled linoleum as the kitchen and the bunk room.
She went to the sinks, steel covered in chipped white enamel, and turned on the hot water.
She nodded to herself. The broken water line had to have been the hot water for the bathroom.
She used the cold water instead and set the cup beside the mirror. Taped in the corner of the mirror she spotted an index card with a bible verse written on it in blue pen.
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted. –Psalm 34:18”
She stared at the card and thought of the room full of sleeping women, sorrow, hunger and bruises on their faces. The whimpering children clutched in their arms.
Was God really with these women, here in this decaying shelter with its broken pipes and ugly linoleum, forgotten by the city and abandoned by the world?
Cecilia remembered the priest in Camaiore, preaching on the humility of Jesus, how He had spent his time ministering to beggars, thieves, prostitutes, and lepers.
She believed it. She believed that Sandra, that woman who was so much like her grandmother, was with these women because God wanted her to be.
Because He was near to them.
She looked down and saw her long, delicate hands, covered in intricate silver rings and bracelets, products of her days in the art program at MIT. She looked in the mirror and saw her silk Armani shirt, her gold necklace, her fancy silver earrings.
She felt alone, mocked by her West Hollywood apartment and brand new Porsche, her gold and silver jewelry and her four-hundred dollar shirt.
She was not one of the people that God was…
She saw her own face. The thin cheeks. The bloodshot eyes. The dull hair. The mascara-stained cheeks.
Something connected inside her and her world stopped.
The Lord is near to the broken hearted.
She was not alone.
Cecilia trembled as emotion uncoiled within her, a soft explosion of whirling confusion as every painful memory surfaced again and dropped her to her knees. She cried again, big wracking sobs like she hadn’t felt since she was a child.
Her parents’ deaths, her broken dreams, every moment spent in a country where people secretly laughed at every word she said.
Not for one moment.
She wailed into her hands, pouring out tears until there was nothing left, until the sobs settled and left her in utter stillness.
For the first time in six years, she knew peace.
“Grazie,” she whispered.
Over and over again. Thank You.