Everybody has a story.
Smooth-skinned and curly-haired, the Home Depot sales associate looked no different from countless young people whom we see behind counters every day at Target, Chipotle and the local bakery. As workers, many are indifferent, some downright rude.
But there was something open and warm about the girl's face. Something that made me feel that returning the faulty light fixture I'd purchased might be . . . pleasant. Sure enough, she smiled "hello" before examining the lantern.
Four words, I noticed, were tattooed onto her right wrist: "I wonder how I . . . . " On her other wrist was the rest: "shine in your eyes." Unthinking, I read the whole message aloud:
"I wonder how I shine in your eyes."
The young woman looked up. "Is that from a song?" I asked.
"No," she said slowly. " . . . It's something I wrote."
"Keep writing," I told her. "It's beautiful."
Who hasn't wondered how he or she shines in other people's eyes? Who's so secure as to be completely unconcerned about someone else's perception?
I have a friend, 24, who recently began his first job in which he daily wears a shirt and tie. Stopping at 7-Eleven on his way to work, he was astounded when a stranger paused to hold open the door for him. "That's never happened," he marveled.
What else had he been missing?
The man hadn't changed. But in businesslike attire, he shone differently.
"Hardware store clerk" isn't one of life's most sparkling jobs. Anyone who spends time behind a store's "returns and exchanges" counter inevitably encounters scowling, snippy or shifty characters who clearly view themselves as superior to the help.
Yet this young black woman, in her jeans and orange canvas apron, believes the world sees her as shining. What's her story?
Montgomery College student Andrea Albuquerque, 19, who was born in Brazil, was a junior at Rockville High School and "heavy into art" when she got her wrist tattoos. "I'd just sold one of my paintings -- a charcoal drawing -- and thought of that phrase 'shining in your eyes,' " she says.
"The line was mostly about the art. Some people liked it, some didn't . . . .
"I wanted to be recognized as independent."
Albuquerque is taking a semester off, saving her earnings so she can continue at MC, where she's studying criminal justice. Despite her long hours behind the counter, she sees herself as an artist.
The tattoo is a "reminder" of her true identity, she says. Certain customers, she admits, tempt her to forget.
"Some scream at you," Albuquerque says. Others are brusque. And then, "Once every three weeks, someone takes the time to say, 'How are you doing today?' To actually talk to you before going into details of what they're there for."
That's great -- but the less-shiny customers don't bother her. "If I can't solve someone's problem, I like getting them a step closer to solving it," she says.
Nice story. But why is an artist-at-heart studying criminal justice?
Albuquerque pauses. She entered college as a nursing student, she begins, drawn by the prospect of helping people. "But I just couldn't stop drawing. If I was following my heart, I would be in art school."
What's the problem?
"My parents are partially paying for my college," she says. "And I feel they should have a say in what I study."
Everybody has a story -- and nobody's is simple. Albuquerque's is about a woman who etched her hopes for independence on her wrists -- but who can't excise her dependence on a parent from her heart. Her Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking mother works locally as a domestic to help educate her child.
Mom sees her daughter as a medical professional, maybe a lawyer. Never an artist.
No wonder "heartbreak is what most of my poetry is about," Albuquerque says. "If I was really brave, I'd go against my mom's will and follow my dream." But such a choice wouldn't be brave, she fears -- it would be disrespectful.
"I'm really torn," she says.
I told a friend, Kensington clinical therapist Kathy Rushing -- whose son Carl is a successful music producer -- about Albuquerque. Rushing immediately recalled a cartoon mounted on the wall of Carl's first violin teacher.
In it, an alarmed mother holds the hand of a little boy clutching his violin as they walk past a ragged beggar playing -- what else? -- a violin.
"It made an impression," laughs Rushing now. "It takes some courage on any parent's part to support an artistic child's dream. . . . And immigrants have taken so many risks already. . . . A traditional career path seems much safer."
The limits that parents place on their kids can hurt, Rushing acknowledges -- but the parents usually place them out of love. She recalls frankly discussing with Carl the financial risks of a music career. Ultimately, it would have been "much worse watching him take a 'safe' job for security and be miserable," she says.
Albuquerque's tattoos, Rushing theorizes, say: " 'The things that are uniquely mine and wonderful -- do you see them?' Some loving parents criticize because of the sense that too much praise isn't good for a child. But it isn't about praise or criticism -- it's about knowing, at a deep level, who your child is. We can all shine in some way.
"The challenge for parents is helping a child be who they were meant to be."
I'd love to say that Albuquerque has figured things out since I talked with her. But sometimes, easy answers and happy endings aren't within sight. Albuquerque -- like you and me and everyone else -- must decide whose vision for her life matters most.
But if this thoughtful, openhearted soul asks how she shines in my eyes, I won't hesitate to answer:
Ever so brightly.