El Pintor, the newspapers called him—an unschooled muralist—never Paul, the guy who lived in his wiry body beneath a thatch untamed hair. Thirty-six years old. He made a living off his art. Damn lucky, his buddy Axel called him. Axel who’d married Mara when he wasn’t looking. Axel was the one who was damn lucky. Mara expected their first child.

Photo by Maxime

He looked at the 8-by-10 glossy black and white Mara had posed for, envisioned her immortalized on the face of the Mesa Arts Center. At least here, she’d always be his. Another part of him wanted to beat his head against the stuccoed cement blocks. He was torturing himself, staring at her image all day, every day for over a week—waiting for inspiration. He’d thought she was a muse.

He hoped Axel appreciated her beauty, not prom queen looks, but the ethereal “something” that drew him. The wideset cheekbones, broad forehead, lips that looked lusher in late pregnancy. Her face told a story. She’d suffered growing up poor in Guatemala. Beneath her earthiness, there was something holy about Mara. Maybe not in the way she looked, but the way she was.

He’d met her when he came to Phoenix to see Axel and paint a mural on the side of Axel’s newly-opened Cholla Market. Mara had been around, bringing him and his painting partner, Luís Río, whole pitchers of iced tea during the day and after dark, Guatemalan coffee that tasted faintly of chocolate. Sometimes she sat cross-legged on the sidewalk in the evenings, wrapped in a blanket against the Phoenix winter, chatting about the life she’d left behind.

Photo by Mike Wilson

People talking while he worked usually distracted him. They expected his full attention, answers to their questions, or both. But Mara’s Guatemala-colored voice was musical like wind chimes, fueling his creativity. She seemed to “get” that he needed to focus on his art. But he absorbed her story. He knew about Raul, the 17-year-old soccer player she’d said goodbye to, tears slicking her face, as she climbed aboard the bus. That bananas had grown outside her family’s door. That her dreams were small—indoor plumbing, medical care, a job.

At the end of the week, he’d wanted to take her out for tamales so he could look her in the face, fill in his half of their conversation, but he was due in Boston for a commission, home to Miami, then Barcelona. He wouldn’t be back in Phoenix for months. Instead he dreamed about the sound of her voice and tried to remember her face.

The next time he talked to Axel, Mara and Axel had gotten engaged. And now, he’d be godfather to their son.

He filled his lungs and forced out the air, sloughing off his melancholy. He took one last look at Mara’s photograph, shook the spray can of pale gray pigment, and went to work.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez

As Mara took shape, two stories tall, like she’d lodged in his mind, he realized it wasn’t Mara he ached for. It was what she represented. Love. Family. Completeness. He painted her eyes closed, chin lifted. Over a rounded belly, her hands cradled a rose that grew from the desert floor—fat and pink with life.

When he painted the last bit of her lashes, peace settled on him, a lofted sheet that floated down onto his skin. The plea wasn’t a conscious thing, but pray for me pinged around the cement courtyard and came to rest in the still, hot Mesa air.