The idea of a soul mate wasn’t something I subscribed in. And his clumsiness sure as hell didn’t help. But at the age of 19, I was intrigued.
As class ended, I grabbed my bag and hustled out the lecture hall. Blake called my name but I was distracted. My next shift at the Top Lounge was in 20 minutes. Near the entrance, I heard a trashcan fall. Blake accidentally tipped it over. His sheepish grin seemed so pitiful.
I took out my car keys and tried not to think about the photos due in class next week.
Looking back, he was closer than I figured. He briskly walked to keep up with me in the university parking lot. Right then, I couldn’t help but think he wasn’t much to look at. The scrawny frame, his bucktooth smile, but he was so knowledgeable in class. And I could smell the cocoa butter on his skin. We liked the same lotion. He had that going for him.
Blake said, “I know we haven’t talked much. But I want to ask…” He touched his forehead and looked at his wet fingertips. “I’m sweating. Listen, can I take you out to dinner this weekend?”
“This way,” I said.
We walked through additional rows of cars towards my own vehicle. After a few paces I figured the odds of Blake crying from rejection was likely. My auntie had an old dog that reminded me of him. Poor thing only had three legs.
I asked, “Why me? You said it yourself, we hardly talk.”
“Every photo you submit in class has a near perfect balance of color, spatial elements, and composition lines. And more than anything, the subjects you choose are sorrowful, lovely and deep.” He peered into my face. “The unique frequency of your work jolts me.”
We reached my tiny Ford Festiva.
He said, “There’s a power you capture with your subjects. I’m sure that bleeds over to the person. That makes you someone I want to know.”
In class, he had proven himself skillful with a camera. The sunlight caught his brown eyes at just an angle to make them hazel.
I unlocked the car. No one knew I dreamt of making photography my profession.
Blake said, “You’re an artist. This is your calling.”
He was only 19, and Bill Clinton was still president. Back then, Blake was so serious, and innocent, and funny too.
I wrote down my phone number.
“Let’s do Saturday,” I said.
Everyone on the Michigan Adventure roller coaster put their arms in the air. Blake laughed. Then we plummeted. We jerked to the left. Zipped into a tunnel. Snapped around a corner. And another dip. When we stopped, he kissed my cheek. Blake wasn’t like the others. With the physical stuff, he was a gentleman. From the beginning, he treated me special.
That evening we drove past his place and went to the river. The little I knew about Blake’s living situation was that he lived in a one bedroom with his dad and a couple of cousins. What the sleeping arrangement was I didn’t know. His mother had left years ago. Maybe he was embarrassed. Regardless, we usually hung out at public places, or like that night, in his car.
Blake said, “In a few months I’ll have enough for my own place. I’d like a landscape of yours.”
“I don’t know,” I teased, “it’ll cost a lot.”
“I believe you, Jazzy. In twenty years, it’ll be a fortune.”
His fingertips ran over the scar on the back of my hand. A light rain tapped the windshield, a soft melody from TLC strummed through the air.
Blake asked, “You believe me about your work, don’t you?”
“Let’s make a deal, by the time we’re 35, we’ll be acclaimed, financially stable, and together. Deal?”
Never had I heard earnestness until right then. Blake saw our futures intertwined.
“Deal,” I said. I initiated the kiss and what followed afterwards. The savagery of men was almost forgotten, because with Blake, I remained safe.
I had just come out of my makeshift dark room. The pictures were still drying, the super-saturated colors of the unemployment collection nearly done. Jasmine’s gift to me was on the wall. Her latest was a black and white negative of a car stuck in a flooded street. Just like her other pieces, she leaned towards the jarring, the morose.
In the bedroom, under the covers, she read about national security. This was about a month after 9/11.
Jasmine could live in her own world. Sometimes I asked questions. Her answers created another hallway in the maze. She didn’t believe in long-term relationships, but we lived together. She only admired buoyant, garish photographs, but her own work was the opposite. Jasmine admitted her mother was a fine parent, but they hardly spoke. “Bad things happen to everyone. Keep it moving,” she finally said.
I took off my pants and got in bed.
“You’ll have an easier time with digital,” Jasmine said.
“If Annie Leibovitz is film, so am I.”
Jasmine put the magazine on the night stand and turned the light off. She snuggled next to me. “It’s cute your hero is a girl.”
“Everyone needs an idol.”
“Blake, after graduation, where will we travel?”
“Maybe Thailand. There’s plenty of diverse areas to shoot.”
“I need the Outback of Australia. It’s a dream of mine. Years from now, let’s make both happen.”
The best moments were her creating plans for our future. She wanted to stick around. “If that’s what you want, Jazzy, I’ll make it happen.”
On my left arm, she used her index finger to write letters. It wasn’t until her second go-around I realized the word was “LOVE.”
At the courthouse were Jasmine’s girlfriends and mom. Her latest stepdad was absent. There was a clash over his attendance. Details about the argument were kept intentionally vague.
My old man and cousin were there. The wedding was quick. The official had another couple scheduled after us. Everyone asked why marry so young. We said the same thing to all of them. “Why not embrace the thing that makes us better?”
Outside, my dad took the pictures. Jasmine and I kissed in a gazebo as the shutter from the camera clicked frantically. Our embrace tightened as the blessing of time disappeared.
The night we invaded Iraq, Jasmine talked about money. That was a year after we married. She hated her job as a product photographer for Kellogg’s cereal. I free-lanced and did odd jobs.
In our living room, Jasmine said, “Baby, we got money saved. Let’s go somewhere and really work on our portfolios.”
Karla, Jasmine’s best friend, would be over any minute. There wasn’t much longer I needed to stall before she’d be distracted.
“This isn’t the best time to travel abroad,” I said.
“Even so, I know how badly you need this. And you know where I’ve always wanted to go.”
“I do, Thailand. But you said the other day there might be layoffs at Kellogg’s. I’ll build up my clientele first,” I said, and rubbed her shoulder.
She went silent. The distant explosions on our television intensified.
“I’m just worried,” Jasmine said, “if we don’t go now, there will always be a reason not to.”
“Maybe we don’t make it now. But next year we’ll go to Asia, I promise.”
“Stop saying Asia. That’s your dream, not mine. Where do I want to go?”
Someone knocked on our door. I leapt to my feet and entered the hallway. As a means to ease her mind and end the discussion, I said, “Jazzy, we both want Thailand. And you probably did say another place, too.”
Gratitude washed over me when I saw Karla. Our former classmate was also a photographer and a mutual friend to us both. More importantly, she had a calming effect on my wife.
“Australia,” Jasmine said, “that’s the answer to the question you get wrong.”
Karla had known both of us long enough to see a problem. She went over to the couch and the girls hugged and commented on the news reports from the Middle East. Sometimes we all became spellbound by the specificity of a particular shot in Harpers or Time. It could make for a fun evening. This wouldn’t be one of those nights.
As Jasmine pulled out the deck of cards, I asked, “Can I get anyone a drink?”
“I’ll take one,” Karla said. Jasmine shook her head.
In our fridge was the final beer. It seemed like there should have been more until I remembered drinking two beers felt like drinking one.
I took the bottle to Karla. Jasmine was dealing the cards for Rummy.
Still looking at the news coverage, Karla said, “We’ll own that country in two weeks.”
Usually, Jasmine winked when she dealt me my cards, but not tonight.
“Iraq is getting their ass whooped,” Jasmine commented.
The game was at a loss for me when Karla asked, “Anything planned for your birthday, Jazzy?”
She said, “Blake made secret plans for Saturday. But it shouldn’t be big since we need to save money.” Jasmine delivered that message to me, not Karla. The best I could do was cease eye contact. Sometimes the first years of marriage can be the toughest. At least that’s what my father told me.
There were times I looked at Jasmine and felt an overwhelming desire. There were other times I imagined losing her, and the devastation became insurmountable. Then there were times I looked at her signature of JB on her newest project, and I knew with certainty, she was better than me.
The light for an empty gas tank came on. Our car had another 17 miles left before it would stop. I was a couple miles away from the hardware store and another six back home. From our apartment, the nearest gas station was a mile away. Thankfully, tomorrow was payday.
My newest landscape in the backseat was a burden. Even with today being my 29th birthday, my luck stayed shitty. I figured it wouldn’t sell, but the gallery refused to even put it on display. Since Lehmann Brothers went down, every gallery in West Michigan began tightening their belts. Blake knew more about the sad economics of it than me, but the short version was that my tiny pool of buyers had vanished.
I parked by the curb and turned the engine off. No point in wasting gas waiting for Blake. I had told him I didn’t want to celebrate my birthday. Between a tight budget and long hours working, I felt like an old hag already. Blake had accepted an associate position at the hardware store three months ago. He was certain my work would sell again.
Blake, with his orange company shirt, same color as our hideous car, finally left work. Even from a distance, his eyes caught my unsold piece in the backseat. He jumped in and I initiated a lingering kiss in our freezing car.
“Jasmine, did they even take a proper look at it?”
With the car started, we entered traffic. My response was a disinterested shrug of the shoulders. Blake squeezed my knee. I had a temp job in a dental office, but Blake refused to let me do full-time even though my boss offered more hours. Blake insisted I focus on completing my portfolio. He professed that my talent was too good to treat as a mere hobby. I tried believing him.
It was at the next stop sign Blake noticed our gas gauge.
“I’ll do a few extra shifts,” he said.
“My boss needs me more–”
“Please don’t,” he interrupted.
Years ago, when I could nearly touch my future, I knew I’d be jetting off to one exotic location after another, maybe working for National Geographic. My mother and her treacherous husband would know I made it. She’d admit to being wrong. But that was years ago, back when I’d go off on any fool that interrupted me. I parked the car in our assigned spot.
The best I could do was promise myself next year would improve. In our living room was a Happy Birthday banner on the wall.
“When did you put that up?” I asked.
“I was a little late to work.”
Smiling, he went to the fridge and took out a lopsided chocolate cake.
“Damn directions were defective.”
His hand clasped mine and he led me over to our work desk. In the first drawer was a 70 millimeter zoom lens, the high-speed version. I had been reading about the newest one from Sony for a couple months. I didn’t dare ask how he afforded it.
I tried to remember the vibrancy from Blake’s own work, the monochrome portraits he would take of families. For the last few years, we talked about my own ambitions, but rarely his. I wrapped my arms around him as I felt all my muscles relax. The scent of almond from his men’s soap wafted into my nostrils as he whispered another happy birthday into my ear, along with other sweet messages.
Our embracing had become rare.
The tension of the family dinner grew. I struggled to dull the anger. Blake had used our tax refund, our travel money, on repairs for a dying car without telling me. The table shifted as Blake poured another glass of wine. My mother and her newest husband were seated across from us.
They all burst out laughing after Blake finished his story. “And that’s why,” Blake said, “you should never answer the phone in a bathroom.”
I’d avoided this dinner for several months. Eventually Blake pressed me about my past. In bed last night, he said, “Trust me,” but what was the point? I couldn’t even trust him with a refund check.
Blake said, “Gloria, you get the last of the wine.”
“Aren’t you the gentleman,” she said.
My mother leaned forward with her glass. In the kitchen were the dying tulips I recently gifted her. Beyond the flowers was the same stove from twenty years ago. The scar on my hand burned all over again. Like most things that happened, we never talked about it.
“Jasmine,” she said.
Maybe she read my mind. My left hand taken to a stove top. Had she felt guilty? I would never know, but I wish I could’ve taken a picture of her right then. If I had, and shown it to her, words I longed for might have been spoken.
Whatever she was going to say got lost in the mix of our husbands shouting about the Detroit Lions and their perpetual losing. I checked my watch and knew we could leave.
“Let’s go before snowfall,” I said.
When the dinner was finally over, Blake finished what was left in my wine glass and offered thanks for the dinner. As he helped me with my jacket, I made sure to grab the car keys from him.
Outside, the wind was both bitter and deafening.
The event that did it was a date night.
A mutual friend had given us free tickets to a local band that I never liked, but it was a night out. Blake looked handsome in his black dress shirt. Even though it was freezing, I had freshly shaved legs to look good in the red mini-dress I wore. During the car ride, we laughed about some silly incident from our wedding. Amazingly, we were having a nice time.
Inside the crowded bar, I ordered a craft beer, Blake got a whiskey sour for himself. The music pounded and a stringy-haired singer belted out vulgar lyrics. An hour into the night, I regretted the cheap pumps I wore.
A couple we knew from school had arrived and we drank more, even though Blake and I were on a strict budget. The pounding of the loud speakers vibrated all the way to our distant table. The couple blabbered about their upcoming European trip. I grabbed Blake’s hand and gave it two quick squeezes, our signal to wrap things up. He withdrew his hand and kept talking. It was settled, we stayed.
After another round of drinks we couldn’t afford, my girlfriend and I swam through the crowd. Near the hallway of the restrooms, eerily close, words lurked from behind.
“Hey baby, what’s your name? Let me get you a drink. Hey baby–”
Inside the bathroom, my friend touched my shoulder. “Honey, what’s wrong with you and Blake?”
“What are you talking about?”
Embarrassed, she shook her head. We went to our own stalls. On the toilet, my head swirled, and I felt nauseated, and my eyes burned, and my feet swelled in those damn shoes, and I wanted to go home. After I finished, I struggled to stand. Blake and I needed to leave.
My friend and I started the trek back to our table. The behemoth used his heft to block my way. He said:
“Hey baby, you lookin’ damn good. Im’ma about to buy you a drink. What you want?”
A sinking feeling took over. “Not tonight,” I said. I tried to walk past. He blocked my way. The lights blurred everything and my eyes couldn’t latch onto my friend.
“Baby, I’m getting you a Long Island. What’s your name, sexy?” The brown leather of his jacket rustled as he moved in closer and placed his right hand on my shoulder.
“I’m married.” I slurred the words.
“I believe you,” he said. His hand slithered down my back. The bar merged into a poorly lit bedroom, and my childhood bed was in the corner, I had on Minnie Mousepajamas. The door cracked open, my stepfather.
“And I believe,” he said, waking me from my trance, “that your husband don’t know what to do with all this. Am I right?”
His big paw rested on my ass.
Instead of vomit, words spewed out. “Fuck off!”
The crowd parted as I stumbled back to my table. My friend told Blake. He stormed over.
I grabbed him by the shirt collar.
“Stop it,” I pleaded, “take me home.”
“He touched you?” Blake screamed.
“It’s over,” I screamed back. “Let’s go!”
It all happened in flashes. Blake went up to the huge man and pushed him against a chair. The pedestrians ran. The man’s fist was so big. The smack of skin on skin flooded my ears. Blake’s head jerked back. His head hit the corner of a table. Blood, Blake’s blood, flowed down his forehead. More blows landed to his limp body.
A scuffle erupted as a bouncer jumped in. The monster escaped into the night. Blake remained motionless. My friends and I helped him up.
Outside, he regained consciousness and spoke a little. Spectators insisted on calling an ambulance. Blake stubbornly shook his head. The cut on his forehead ran deep. I stayed silent about the emergency room. Neither of us had health insurance.
Back at home, with an ice pack on his jaw, I felt something rise. I still wanted to puke, but nothing came out. We glared at one another.
“Why’d you do it?” I yelled. “I told you it was over. And you do some stupid hood shit.”
“What the hell was I supposed to do?”
“Go home. Or call the cops.”
He took the ice pack off his puffy face. Even from a distance, his breath reeked from God knows how many drinks.
He said, “Nobody touches my wife. And why’d you wear that slutty outfit tonight?”
“So this is my fault now? You always make it my fault,” I yelled. I took a few steps closer to him. It was almost here.
“You spent money we don’t have on stupid drinks. And then you parade your body around in some nasty dress. And now look what happened,” he howled.
“What happened,” I said, knowing there was no going back, “is you got your ass beat in front of 100 people. He made you whimper, like an animal.”
“You’re a real bitch.”
“And you’re a bitch who can’t fight.”
Blake, once again defeated, plopped down on the couch. With his head in his hands, he whispered, “What now?”
I crossed my arms and shrugged. But even though I wasn’t ready to say it, I knew what was next.
Inside the corridor, past our gym and the girls’ bedroom, was my personal office.
“Jazzy, it’ll be two weeks,” Karla said.
The pixelated image of my friend made her look like she hadn’t aged in a decade. Only reason I got the job offer in D.C. was because of Karla’s recommendation.
“Going out of the state is risky. And with quarantining, I can’t be away from my girls that long.”
A high-pitched wind crashed against the window. Large snowflakes blew everywhere.
Karla didn’t try to hide her disapproval. “Is this really what you want?” she asked.
I averted my gaze onto the frozen terrain outside. Wind-chill was below zero.
“Jazzy, and don’t answer this if I’m getting too personal, but Darius…you’ve always said he was supportive. Are you two, okay?”
I nodded. What she was getting at was true. We were good. Darius’ dental practice was good. Fuck it, the practice was thriving. The house, the two cars, the girls’ private school were largely paid for by him. Years ago, while laid up in a hospital bed following the arrival of Penelope, I swore to myself I’d be professionally stable by age 40. I’d be 42 next month.
“If I complete this semester,” I said, “they’ll probably give me tenure.”
Karla said, “I’ll let them know. Anyway, I got a birthday card in the mail from Blake. He wished me well,” and as an afterthought, “there was no return address on the card.”
After Blake disappeared, his name became forbidden. Not remembering was easier.
She said, “I guess he has a collection in some gallery.”
“He’s selling work?” I asked, partially proud, and partially something else.
“That’s what he wrote,” Karla said.
This seemed like the time to take a professional risk.
I swished the Merlot around in my glass. Penelope stayed seated by me at the table, completing an arithmetic worksheet. Seven years ago, when Darius and I were deciding on names, I mentioned “Penelope” in passing. He loved it. That was the name Blake and I agreed on if we ever changed our minds about kids, and if we had a daughter.
My rule was broken, and I was remembering him. Penelope gave me a random, goofy smile, and then went back to work. Darius walked past and squeezed my shoulder. I understood I was lucky. That was worth remembering.
I had declined the job offer in D.C.
Outdoors, the snow accumulated. This meant the technical contrasts in shooting light on top of snow could be covered soon. Teaching made sense, long as I had a few good students. I glanced at the sleek, marble countertops in my oversized kitchen, and my attentive husband lounging on the couch, and my girl, who was funny without trying, and I knew I was lucky. That was my truth.
The bitter wind howled. For only a minute, maybe two, I imagined being trapped outside. Could anyone hear me? If I screamed with all my strength, would anyone hear me?
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change/Courage to change the things I can/Wisdom to know the difference.
Another meeting concluded. Ordinarily I leapt from my chair to escape the delusional banter from these losers. I wasn’t one of them. Even so, for the first time in six months, I stayed and daydreamed, touching the dark scar on my forehead. I didn’t notice Jorge sit next to me.
Jorge, a Vietnam vet, sighed loudly to get my attention. “Fields,” he said, “you didn’t talk tonight. What’s your number?”
“174 days,” I said. “I’m sober, Jorge. But thanks anyhow.”
“And how’s the job?” Jorge gently stretched. I knew he couldn’t fully extend his right arm. For all the months I had known him, he was evasive on whether the injury occurred in Nam.
“My job is steady. But you know that.”
“Naw, you lookin’ different tonight. But if you’re going to be a clam, I won’t pry.”
“My nights are sleepless. That’s what the job does to me. The horror lingers. Don’t have much else to say.” I leaned forward to stand. This would be another night of walking the streets of East L.A.
“Add positive pictures,” Jorge recommended. “The things we’ve seen don’t get erased.” The old man closed his eyes. That was the first time he indicated we shared a trauma.
The members of the Los Angeles Police Department grimaced when I walked onto the scene. No one was happy to see me, and I couldn’t blame them. The idea of preventing harm had vanished.
The objective of the job was all about the details. For example, the brown carpet stained with blood was easy to point a camera at, or the broken door handle, that’s another easy photo. The detectives and forensic team covered it. What separated the great photographers from the average were the details.
In the upper left corner of a wall was a vent. While framing my angle, I applied the zoom feature to get a tighter shot of a loose screw on the cover. Later on, when the hammer was found in the vent, my superiors at the LAPD offered praise. The details were what made me great. The photos I took of a caved-in face that belonged to a father of four were routine. There was nothing special about overview shots of a corpse.
“The warmth of the whiskey flowed down my throat. Everything flashed back. I could see the bartender mixing the lemon juice and sugar. Ordering a whiskey sour on the rocks feels like being home with mama, before she ran off,” I said.
Jorge nodded. The turnout tonight was light, just a few other addicts.
“Going into that bar for my job today was hell. Outside, in the blinding sunlight, I forgot about the bloody teeth on the barroom floor. Anyway, day 187. I’m still here. I’m still breathing.”
One piece of nicotine gum left. I needed to save it, but I was just so goddamn tired of being good. I popped it in my mouth and headed over to Shiloh’s Gallery.
At the exhibit, the only one showcasing my work, I took in the varied art from L.A. natives and some select artists across the nation. Shiloh was well-traveled and prided herself on picking the best, so she told herself.
The gray hairs surrounding my temples were visible in the reflections of each glass frame. Towards the end of the longest hallway was my own work from a collection I called Ecstatic. It consisted of images from a single day in the life of a family. My favorite shot was a monochrome pic of a young girl on a trampoline caught midway in air doing a flip. She appeared to be in danger of not sticking the landing, and yet she did. It hadn’t sold, and even though I wanted to lower the price, Shiloh convinced me otherwise.
“Stick to your fucking convictions,” Shiloh said.
And I did. I was good for one thing in this life.
Pieces next to mine consisted of subpar paintings of beaches or traffic jams. The following works were standard shots of people hugging. There was nothing unique about the take. I figured Shiloh was getting soft as the years wore on, until the last photo.
On a stark landscape largely consumed by the whiteness of snow, there were several barren trees in a field. The tree furthest to the right had a few living leaves on a branch, despite the harsh conditions. From taking a guess, the setting seemed to be in the Midwest. I let the image soak in before I glanced downwards at the title, “You Hear the Words, but No One Hears Me.”
And then my eyes shifted to the letters “JB,” the name of the artist. All at once, I was devoured in a shiver on a warm spring evening. My mind calculated the probability, and concluded the vitality, the durability, the isolation, couldn’t be from that JB. Shiloh traveled the entire nation, the odds of this landscape being hers was almost impossible. There was no year listed with the piece. It felt like it was made both a century ago and this morning. Shiloh knew the artist’s identity, but I didn’t ask, even though the picture screamed.
Later that night, after cleaning the single pot and plate I owned, I settled in bed. Dead leaves landing on frozen snowflakes conquered my mind. I struggled to swallow as buried memories emerged. Maybe it was desperation, but I got down on my knees and prayed to a God I rarely believed in. I prayed only for myself and that I could make it to the morning, and another day sober.
Back in bed, with the lights off, I felt compelled to do it. I grabbed my phone and went to the Shiloh’s Gallery website. All the art pieces were on there, including a link to message each individual artist about a price or to ask of other works. As I looked at the message field for “JB,” I couldn’t afford to make an offer. Instead, I wrote paragraphs about so much, and then deleted everything. But I rewrote the last sentence. Eventually I tapped SEND.
I rested. The sent message resided on my fingertips.
“You’re never alone.”