The Smile That Melts The Walls Around My Heart

IT was an unlikely match - Regina and I. She comes from Guatemala, and I come with a made-in-America label. Her face is framed by short black hair. It is a face that widens as her smile takes over, a smile of sweetness, of all things good. A smile that exudes joy, buries her hardships and disappointments.

Regina's accent is thick, and the way she says "(Ch)Hi (ch)honey, (ch)how is my special friend today?" as if she's clearing her throat on the "h"s, touches my cynical heart.

She chisels away at my stony countenance, the one that meets salespeople with a brusque "No thanks, goodbye," mid-pitch. I'm a skeptic who demands, "What are you trying to sell?" or "How much money do you want from me?" the moment the person on the other end of the line says, "May I speak to the man or lady of the house?" I avert my eyes from other people in an elevator with me, and I look at the worms on the sidewalk instead of other pedestrians I pass.

But all those walls around my heart crumble when Regina hugs my little boy and leaves rust lipstick marks on his cheeks before she asks, "(Ch)How is my little friend?" She scoops him up in her arms with the genuine affection of an aunt who is head-over-heels in love with her nephew.

But, she's not his aunt. She's not related to us. She's not a friend, really; not a colleague; not a temple acquaintance; or someone I met in a mommy-and-me class. She's not our baby sitter, not a long-lost and re-found college buddy, or a fellow graduate student, either.

In fact, our only connection is through the grocery-store scanner. She scans and beams her sweet smile. I ask questions and let go of my somber face.

WHEN last winter came and the malls turned green and red, I grumbled about what to buy the gardener, the postal carrier, and whether to get the garbage collector anything at all. Even the Federal Express man sent us a card with his name and address on it, hint, hint. However, there was one person for whom I was excited to buy a Christmas gift: Regina.

I picked out a sparkly purple, yellow, and blue pin of a little boy, to remind her of my Joel, her special friend. Wanting to give Regina the gift before Christmas, Joel and I went to the market almost daily the week leading up to the holiday. But we kept missing her. After learning her schedule, we were finally able to catch her. I gave her the gift, and she gave me a hug with warmth to match her smile.

Regina didn't open it right then. Shortly after that day, we went back East for an extended vacation. On our way home from the airport, we stopped at the market to pick up some milk for the baby. I ran into the store, exhausted from flying with three young children, and headed straight for the milk.

I saw Regina working one of the lines. I didn't feel at all social, so I thought I'd avoid her. But she saw me and beckoned me with her smile and that guttural "(Ch)Hi, (ch)how are you?"

There on her royal-blue market apron was the little-boy pin. She told me she wears it to keep her little friend near her. It was the perfect welcome home for me.

For several weeks, Joel and I looked for Regina at the market, hoping for a glimpse of that lovable face, but she wasn't around. One day, while cruising the aisles, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I turned around and Regina thrust a colorful woven coin purse into my hand. She said it was a gift for me from Guatemala, where she had just been visiting. I thanked her and, leaving my stiff faade behind, embraced her in a bear hug.

We're learning about each other through bits and pieces of conversation wedged between tomatoes and diapers, frozen chicken and bread loaves. I see her more than I see any of my "close" friends.

Are Regina and I friends? I don't know. We may never see the insides of each other's homes, and chances are we'll never go out for lunch together. Ours is strictly a grocery-store relationship. But there's a spark of good feeling that touches me whenever I'm around her, something so rare in this life.

I know as long as she keeps giving me her smile, I'll keep seeking out her line at the market.

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