Attending UCSD meant she got to leave the harsh winters of Chicago for the sunny warmth of southern California. Not that she couldn’t deal with cold. Growing up in the frozen white north, you acclimatized or you moved to Florida.
Or San Diego.
She’d acclimatized for years. Her childhood and later school years were full of snow and ice. Online friends in warmer places ribbed her about the one-day summer, joked about meeting penguins and polar bears on her daily run, and generally gave her a hard time about the northern winters.
She’d pushed back, defending the place she’d grown up, secretly agreeing with every word they said.
When her parents announced they were selling the house and moving to Florida, and also announced that the profit allowed them to pay for a degree at virtually any university she chose, she jumped at the chance to flee her homeland for warmer climes.
When she’d announced her choice of UCSD her father was pleased, told her it was his first choice for her bioengineering career. She didn’t bother him with the little detail that her bioengineering career was a nonstarter since the only reason she’d passed a single math class in high school was because her ex-boyfriend let her copy all his homework in hopes she’d relent.
Silently thanking the stars for her parents’ lack of interest in her personal life and details of her academic endeavors, she’d thrown away her winter clothes, packed a small suitcase and one of her father’s credit cards, and flown first class to Lindbergh Field and her new life in a place it never snowed.
Without an ex-boyfriend to share his homework answers, the classes required for bioengineering were a wash within the first few months. Her instructors offered tutoring, suggested supplemental materials, and generally acted like they thought she was capable of succeeding at something for which she had no proclivities, no preparation, and no interest.
Switching to an art major raised eyebrows on campus. It had no effect whatsoever on her parents’ eyebrows, because she had no intention of telling them. Her classes, her business. Their eyebrows, their problem.
Taking the easiest route once again, she’d started copying the best graffiti from walls near her cheap apartment near the Sports Arena. Sketch the shapes, change the colors, a nip here and a tuck there, and who was going to out her, some tagger? What would a graffiti kid be doing at UCSD to see her art homework anyway?
Different neighborhoods had different patterns. Some of the painting was gang-related, she knew that. Much of it, though, was bored kids who were good at stealing spray paint from the hardware store or Dad’s garage.
Bits about style, line, color choice, and shapes filtered into her brain as she stared out the window during her art classes. She found herself able to identify a few of the repeat offenders, could tell when Sleepy, for instance, left his zone and tagged the back wall of a Walgreen’s parking lot, or when mikebravo switched from greens to reds and she wondered why.
One artist, though, caught her attention, primarily because he deserved the label. Some taggers were indeed graffiti artists, adding beauty to otherwise ugly alleys, parking lots, and abandoned warehouses.
B1259 was different. His work, she thought it was a he for some reason, his work had depth, realism, and a feeling she couldn’t describe except to say it shimmered. Not photorealistic, what would be the artistic point of that, but real, like the homeless people and their shopping carts, the trash blowing in the doorways where they slept, the stink of the shipyards and the angry noise of the traffic.
B1259’s art made her feel alive, in a way only available to a young girl too sheltered from reality to know what it was or what it wasn’t.
That Tuesday morning, the day before her 21st birthday, she’d given herself the present of taking the day off from school to wander the alleys and collect more art with her cell phone’s camera.
There, down that alley off Kurtz Street, was a new B1259.
She rushed to get up close, to bask in the glow of his genius.
A hand grabbed her ankle.
She hadn’t noticed the old woman sleeping at the base of the wall and had stepped on the woman’s hand.
Shrieking, the woman grabbed Leigh’s ankle and yanked.
Losing her balance, Leigh fell against the wall, against the painting.
At least, that’s what she expected, falling against the wall, then falling to the ground.
Instead, she slid as if greased and squeezed through the wall, falling a dozen feet or more, landing in the deepest snowdrift she’d ever seen.