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Photography Lessons

Illustrator: Yuliya Kashapova

 

1

There once was a man who was of marrying age, and he’d been with many women and he’d enjoyed them, but he thought that he’d like to be with one woman, for a very long time. So he looked around and he found a woman who pleased him with her body and her mind and her voice, and he married her. And they lived together, and sometimes they had good times and sometimes they had trouble, and after they had been together for about four years, she became pregnant, and she gave birth to a little girl.

When the little girl was born, she was red and wrinkled, and she didn’t look like much, but in a month or maybe two, her face began to take its shape and he looked at her and saw that her face looked so much like his own face when he had been her age. And he found himself glad to come home to her, and when she cried in her little crib that they kept in their room, he was the one who got up to comfort her. And this man, who had always enjoyed having a woman alone with him in his bed, who had been very jealous of their time together, would take the crying baby in his arms and bring her back to the bed he shared with his wife, and he’d lay her down between them where it was warm and where she always stopped her crying and went to sleep.

And when she was older and able to do more than just bounce about in her crib, when she’d gone beyond the stage of crawling about the floor on her hands and knees and was big enough to walk on her own bare feet all about their apartment, her feet would get very dirty on the bottoms, and he’d still take her into their bed in the night when she couldn’t sleep, and she’d settle in between them where it was warm, and when he saw her swing those dirty feet out of the sheets in the morning, he’d call her his Blackfoot Indian princess. And she believed that was who she was.

Three years passed, and he and the woman had more trouble than good times, and finally he decided that he had to leave her.

The man made his living as a photographer. One day, he took his little girl to his studio and he stood her on top of a high stool with a round seat in the center of the room, and he walked over to his camera and looked through the lens at this face that looked so very much like his own face when he had been her age, and he focused very carefully and adjusted the light and set the timer. And then he walked over to her and picked her up in his arms. He sat himself on the stool, leaving just enough room on the edge of the seat behind him for her small feet to fit, and then he lifted her up high and swung her behind him so she could stand in that place, leaning her body against his back.

“Put your arms around me,” he said, and she did what he told her to do, because she trusted him. She wrapped her arm across his back and felt his warmth through the crisp thickness of his white shirt. She laid her chin against his forehead and she smiled. And the shutter opened, the light flashed, the shutter closed, and the picture was taken.

That afternoon, the man developed the film and very carefully made print after print, watching the two of them take shape on the white paper in the darkroom, the one body half the length of the other, the two faces that so resembled each other, one with sadness and distance already in his eyes, looking straight at the camera, the other radiant with the moment, eyes crinkled with pleasure, looking down at him. He made an eight-by-ten print that satisfied him, and brought it home to their room where he had slept so many nights, first with the woman alone and then with the woman and the little girl between them. He laid the print on the dresser, took up his bags, and walked out of the apartment forever.

And he never saw his daughter again.

This is the primal scene. And as such, this is the reality: he saw me again, but he never saw me again, really.

 

2

 

One year later, and we’re in a car going up the West Side. I’m in the back seat. It’s May, and the cherry blossoms are pink, in thick, familiar clusters, along the Hudson River. The forsythia are yellow as they were the spring before. Everything is blooming, and against the damp, gray sky, the colors are intense. The car is going north, we are going to the country, and my mother is going to be married. The man she is marrying today is twice widowed and has been raising three sons while living with his sister and her husband, in their apartment in the Bronx.

I know no way to express my resistance other than to repeat a series of questions:

“So who will be my father after you’re married?”

“If you’re not married to my father anymore, is he still my father?”

“And will they be my brothers after you’re married?”

“If they had two mothers before, and their mothers are dead, how can you be their mother?”

“Well, and if my father’s still alive, why are you getting married to someone else?”

I am conscious of being obnoxious, and relentless, and I am aware that my mother is being unusually patient, indulgent, explaining without seeming to tire. I think she may be just a bit uncomfortable, or guilty and sorry, and so I take pleasure in seeming dense, in twisting and repeating the cycle of questions without stopping for more than an hour as the car heads out of the city into unfamiliar territory. There’s something I want to scream but I can’t, so I just keep repeating my questions.

Her strawberry blond hair is swept back into a French twist, and she has used long metal clips to make low waves on the crown of her head. I am young enough to see her as the most beautiful woman in the world. “I look like Grace Kelly,” she told me as she sat before the mirror that morning, smoothing her hair into place, arching an eyebrow, and smiling at herself. Now as we speed north along the gray steel-colored river, past the George Washington Bridge and into the cool damp woods of the Henry Hudson Parkway, I lean forward out of the upholstered seat that used to comfort me. My small hands rise and fall as I repeat my questions, arranging the information contained in her answers like the beads on a rosary chain, telling them with my fingers, trying to get the new story straight, trying to rewrite my life, trying to hold on to the old one . . . The beads are rough, the new string is stiff, not malleable, the old one, broken . . . What would help is if she cried – right now – like I do every night. I want her to say she’s sorry. I want to take her head in my small hands and rub her nose in the dashboard of the car until she cries.

But what I really want is to tell her, “No, Mommy, you don’t have to do this! I promise not to be lonely!”

There was a long hall in the old apartment where the three of us lived together on Riverside Drive. At the end of the hall were French doors, opening into the living room. On the far wall, there was a window . . . In the blue light of memory, replayed at moments like this one, my mother sits facing the French doors, the late afternoon, darkening light coming in through that window behind her, illuminating those red-gold hairs that stray from her bun. She is leaning toward me. I am facing her, my back to the French doors.

“Your father won’t be coming home anymore,” she tells me.

“But why, Mommy? Where is he?”

“Well, he’s traveling, you know, as usual. But we thought it best to get a divorce.  You know, he’s away so much. And you,” she adds, “get lonely.” This was a feeling that had never occurred to me, that I wasn’t sure I knew. Lonely? The word opened a huge space inside me, dark and echoing and endless, and I began falling into that space while my body stood rooted in the room. I had a sense that I would keep falling there forever, for the rest of my life.

“No, Mommy! I don’t get lonely. It’s okay. He can come home.”

“Well, no, he can’t.” Her voice was firm now. Dismissive. “It’s just too hard on you, so we’re not going to be married anymore.”

I want so much to convince her, to promise that I’ll never be lonely again. But I sense that it’s useless. I have done something very, very wrong, and he won’t come home again. And so, on the day she is getting married to someone else, I decide to be happy. If I can show her that I’m happy and not lonely, maybe she’ll realize that she didn’t have to leave my father, and she’ll get another divorce.

Then we can go back to Daddy.

After the ceremony, they line us up to take pictures, four children, aged five to fifteen, one girl and three boys, one dress and three jackets and ties. We’re lined up by age and height. The youngest of my new brothers, just three years older than I, is just about the same height. He has a crew cut and a cowlick and a habit of sticking his tongue out the moment the shutter clicks. No amount of yelling or cuffs to the back of his head can stop him, and no photographer can beat his desperate, instinctual timing.

His uncle is behind the camera today.

“Hey, Tony, be good, okay? This is a special day.” His father talking.

“Okay smile for us, now,” the uncle says. “I’m waiting.”

And one by one, arms at our sides, each of us grins, forcing our lips to stay wide, to show our teeth, waiting for the shutter release. The air is darker gray now, it’s slightly damp and clammy on my bare legs and arms. Out of the corner of my eye, just as the flash goes off, I see Tony’s fat pink tongue dart out. No one else has seen it. For the moment, the adults are pleased. The yelling will begin once the photos come back from processing. For the moment, Tony is happiest. His resistance takes a different form than mine. His is physical, mine verbal.

 

3

 

Murmurs coming through the walls at night. Moon outside and miles of woods beyond the stone wall that borders our lawn. My bed by the window where the moonlight falls across my body and the trees knock together in the wind and there are so many stars . . . I watch them, lonely, dreamy, wishing for another life. There are no buildings in sight, there are no traffic sounds washing up and down Riverside Drive beyond my bedroom, no warm gold rectangles of light from neighbors’ windows at night. I take them out in memory, comforting little scenes of familiar strangers in their kitchens across the street, opening them one by one like the numbered flaps in the advent calendars my grandparents gave me every year.

Just deep blue darkness and silver shadows around me. I lie in my bed, and I talk to the man in the moon, a craggy face that I know from science is really craters, but I need someone to watch over me and so I will a way to see a face in there, and it’s a man’s face and it’s God’s face and he loves me. The windowpane is cold to my fingers when I trace the lines of his face. But cold as he seems, and distant, he loves me. . .

I keep talking to him as the murmurs get louder. I don’t want to hear my mother’s voice laughing in a way that makes my stomach turn, my stepfather’s voice sounding silly sometimes, moaning sometimes, or pleading, and – more often – loud, angry, tightening and yelling from the core of his body in ways I’ve never heard a man’s voice before. I don’t want to hear the fist banging on the wall between my room and theirs. I talk louder to the man in the moon and ask him to take me away.

But he doesn’t. His light is so cold. Sometimes he seems to smile and wink at me.

Thudding of bodies against the wall, something falls in the dark. The dark air shimmers, my skin gets clammy and the blankets can’t keep me warm, my ears ring as if I’d been slapped, and I can’t breathe. I want to die but I don’t. “You’re not leaving,” I hear her say. “Get the hell out of my way,” in his voice. Another thud, someone’s falling, someone’s crying, “You don’t love me, you never did.” A body falls against my bedroom door and picks itself up and keeps going into the kitchen, into the night, then the car is whining at the top of this hill at the pinnacle of the world, the motor turning over and over, gravel, brakes, more gravel . . . And for a few hours the house is quiet.

On nights when there is no moon in sight, I have back up, a photo of my father that I keep under my pillow. I have been to the attic and found a suitcase filled with photographs. I have stolen this one because I know, even at five years old, that I have the right to it. A face in profile, the strong Roman nose that is my nose, a thick, trimmed moustache covering that thin upper lip, the sunlight falling on the back of his dark, wavy hair and bright on his shoulders, the wind blowing in his face so that his hair and his white shirt billow, and he squints slightly, just the way I do. He must be on a boat, at its helm. For some reason I know it’s a sailboat and it’s in Maine. I know my mother must have taken the photo, sitting somewhere near him. He fills the frame, looking off to the right. The sea stretches out behind him on either side, its surface glittering, and a bit of rocky coastline juts out into the horizon line on the left.

“He looks like Errol Flynn,” the teacher at school tells me, and eyes me strangely. And though I’m not sure who that is, I know that the name sounds important and seems to fit.

“He looks like a movie star,” the girls in my class say. “He’s not your father. You’re lying!”

Lying was something I had always been punished for when I lived in the city. But now, when I tell the truth, the people in this small upstate village don’t believe me, my teachers ignore me, and my classmates withdraw and call me names. When I lie and pretend that everything is fine, that no divorce occurred, and when I finally put my photo away, my classmates accept me, even gather around me in the morning before the bell rings, and my teachers smile at me and call on me when I raise my hand in class. . . 

Tony has a picture of his mother, too. He keeps it under his pillow until my mother finds it, screams at him for being insensitive to her, and throws it away.

“Say it,” she repeats, shaking him until he says what she wants. “I am your mother now!” I have begun to like him, ever since that day when he stuck out his tongue, and I feel sad to hear him sobbing as if he’s broken way down inside.

From now on, I know, the world is going to be a very complicated place.

 

 

About the Author
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Nina holds an MA in Poetics from New York University, where she has taught writing, photography, 19th- and 20th- century art and literature, and a long-running series of seminars in jazz. Her award-winning photographs of musicians have been exhibited in the US, United Kingdom, and Europe, and have appeared in a wide variety of media, including Village Voice, Jazz Times, Penguin Books, Ken Burns’ 19-hour documentary Jazz, and CDs for Sony and Enja Records. She has published poems and essays, and has made recordings as a singer and Juno-nominated lyricist.