Though I’d just awakened, I was to get up and meet him at the Tacos ‘n Thai cart owned by Javier and Apsara. Not my favorite place at the moment. Food and I have not been on good terms even when I can afford more than this. Stress attacks my insides. The scraping for money. The nights I try to trick my body into sleep as I rock back and forth, all knees and elbows in the hammock Neal left on my porch when he disappeared. I am not often left with an appetite for breakfast. Hunger for relief, yes. I just want to live normally, take care of my business and do good things with no whining. Not so remarkable, but you’d never know it from the fears that threaten to abscond with my brain.
“Lily, back at last!”
Apsara flashes her monumental smile and the morning is improved. Her good will makes every dollar I spend here worthwhile so I order a side of rice noodles with egg, carrots and mushrooms with a bubble tea.
“You got something going on now?” She means work; she dabs her brow with the hem of her apron. “Shining that sweetie face in more glossies?”
“Modelling…well, no. I’ve been cleaning more houses for the past couple months. It covers gaps since Neal left.”
“Cleaning still… ” Her round face clouds and her lips purse. “No good!” But her smile returns as she pushes a pen further into her hair and stands tall. She never prods for information, unlike her husband. “I’ll get you fed.”
I don’t know if she means “no-good man” or just “that’s bad news”, but either way it may come down to the same thing: not the best situation. I find the man who was with me for two and a half years entering my mental screen, all lankiness, blustery talk and warmly lit pools for eyes. A filmmaker, he was often gone. This time gone for good, and it’s not as hard as it looks to others. He was difficult to take in doses bigger than a few days after the first six months. It wasn’t his roving mind, the constant storytelling; I like stories and ideas. It was his expansive self-appreciation. I got bored. Even though he helped me out as my money dwindled, it was not such a sad day when he left on a promising European project, gone before dawn.
I need rent and grocery money, not him. I need things to go just right for me for once. My own time to come, my own passion to be acknowledged and enjoyed. And it’s sure not modelling, which shocked Neal. Well, it would.
Javier sticks his head out and waves. “Back for the best, I see!” he shouts, causing a handful of customers to gawk. “That good-for-nothing guy gone or what?” He makes a motion with his hand as if saying “good riddance” or worse, then is yanked back in by Apsara.
As I walk to a far table, I cringe. My personal life doesn’t need to go public in my neighborhood. I know I should get used to this, a different life. A harder one. I’ve considered the food bank but can’t handle the thought of lining up behind parents who have kids crying in their arms. Patient and often disoriented homeless. Clots of women pared down in size and spirit who are spurred to action by their men or a gnawing pain in their stomachs. It doesn’t seem right; I should be able to manage by now, not take from those who need it when I eat unevenly, that’s all. I’m almost thirty and haven’t gotten off to a roaring success. Well, the modelling paid well but that isn’t the success I aim to have.
As my madly successful family reminds me.
“You might consider getting a skill at last that equals a dependable and decent paycheck,” my father, a mover and shaker in biotech, advised on the phone. I had called for two hundred dollars to pay past due water and electricity. Every word including a “please and sorry” felt like failure. His voice can disguise itself as an audible grater, shredding both my eardrum and self esteem.
I pinned my cell between ear and shoulder as I folded clothes on the bed, then let it slip to the quilt as he continued to enumerate all I might have done or still could do. I counted in sevens as I did even as a kid. It still helps calm me.
“–instead of trying to become some sort of photographer! Art for dear art’s sake does not make for very fortuitous ends. Why couldn’t you have stayed with modelling longer?At least that got you in some doors and offered tangible rewards.”
“Yes, dad,” I murmured into the pause.
“Lily? You still there? You want your mother to talk to you? She’s just back from her book club.”
I clutched the phone and let my eyes rest on a dark corner of my room. I thought how it might look in a wide angle shot, a young woman with voluminous flame-red hair facing a dark plum wall, shoulders and feet bare, soft light slipping over her back. Her shadow flimsier than she imagines. I closed my eyes. “No, dad, it’s fine, I’ll call her another time. And thanks for the money, I’ll keep you posted.”
“Right, will do and love you, just get back on track.”
I’ve lived off my modelling savings for over eleven months and it is about gone now. My three year contract with the agency ran out. I haven’t returned phone calls from other agencies. I don’t want to be anyone else’s mannequin. Beauty alone can carry you for a great many miles. But long ago it left me at a dead end where its meaning and values are at odds with my idea of a real life. How can anyone pay such big money to hang clothes and jewels on my torso? To use me as a canvass for someone else’s often hallucinatory visions? It’s all disposable, even meaningless as I take the longer view.
It was a convenience from the start–easy money before, during and after college where I garnered an Art History degree. But I’m sick of it, want to shed that persona like a coat both heavy and sweaty. I am a burning creature inside this muscle and bone, burning with dreams and impatience.
Neal did not understand my doubts, nor did he try. He found my career invigorating, a jump start for his tendency toward sluggish ambition. I got to be his muse for a bit, gratifying at first. And a useful asset when we went to the endless parties and he could say, “This is my partner, Lily, who last had a starring role in British Vogue. Isn’t that wild?”
“Noodles steaming hot!” Apsara calls out.
I get up and walk near an occupied table. There is “the look” from three young men, that ten second stare as I come and go. The hair, the legs and so on.
“Got a minute?” one asks and another elbows him. The third whistles low and tunefully.
I want to snap my teeth at him and make terrible faces.
Javier is right behind his wife, grilling and turning meat and peppers and onions for tacos but he stops to turn to me.
“So what about it? Gonna go back to modelling jobs or still trying to sell those pictures of yours?”
I pick up the plate, succulent steam flowing from Apsara’s noodles into my nostrils. “No, done with the first and working on the second. I’ll figure it out.” I dole out ten dollars, glad for change.
“And we’ll put a few pounds back on for you. Don’t worry about it, we’ll help out if you need it.”
He gives his head an affirmative nod and his dark eyes fill with an odd mixture of compassion and gentle mirth. I want to take their photographs: hustling side by side in early mornings and into late nights, the joking and running into each other and cussing and stealing kisses. They’re life being lived on maximum volume, quick to respond, full of enthusiasm, cooking a way of life and an offering of affection.
“You got what it takes, little sister,” Apsara says, leaning in the open window. “I know you make it. Your dream life. Look us, we get it done, so too you, Lily.”
Tears arise hot behind my eyes but I shoot her a grateful smile and head back to my spot, the fragrance of noodles and veggies a rich perfume. I thought I wasn’t even hungry but I had thought I wasn’t lonely, either.
“Hey, you lookin’ so good!” The whistler gets up and ambles over. “Got a number?”
“It’s not available, just move on.”
He makes a sour face, as if he put his hand in the shimmering water and got stung. “You got sass, my oh my!” he says but takes off to catch up with his friends.
True enough, I’ve shown it all: sass, melancholy, wide-eyed surprise, riotous excitement, wild fierceness, seductiveness, tender innocence–you name it, I can locate each and work it into my face and my limbs as fast as demanded. But today I feel tired, vulnerable, transparent to the world. Just like yesterday.
Except for that early phone call. Even the persistent ring sounded official and yet I hung back, unwilling to find out who was on the other line. It wasn’t a familiar number.
“Lily here; hello?”
“Herb Winters. We talked last month, remember? Meet me at the food cart, that Mexican and Thai one by the park in an hour. I like it for lunch sometimes.”
I ate half my food when my stomach began to balk. I wanted to leave before Mr. Winters arrived. His voice was devoid of clues as to whether he had good news or bad. That might mean exactly that: indifference. The worst sort of response to baring one’s soul. No one has ever seen my photos up close in person except for two people: my oldest friend and then Neal. It took all I had of small courage to take my portfolio to his gallery. Leave it there for his scrutiny. When I didn’t hear anything after two weeks, then three and four, I knew I had made a serious miscalculation. I hoped Mr. Winters would be open to my work because I admire what he hangs in Winters’ Photographic Arts Gallery: pictures exposing human foibles; scenes of ordinary life so vivid with insight, perspective; moments captured that revealed deeper truth; such layers of texture and form and hue.
If my photography has any true power, it will hold onto one millisecond of life that renders it visible to many, each person bringing with them their history and inquiries, emotions and intuition. A slice of life is brought close not entirely by me in a blink of focus, a suspension of time–but also by the vision others bring to the result. Their eyes see with mine. And I want that intersection to be transformative for them. I’m not sure I want to invoke anything except attentiveness, an experience of all else falling away so the one standing before my visual notations knows some of what I observed and felt, then adds adds his and her embroidering to it.
Exploration can begin that easily. I want us all to be witnesses to lives we carry and lead. To say: I am here; I acknowledge this moment, feel this life force move, regenerate.
And what else is there? A series of truths to absorb and share. I think about all this every day now. About how much I want to make pictures, have them in shows. Put them in print. Hope others emerge from the seeing with a greater sense of life’s density and transparency, too. I guess what I want is to find each essence, then be a person who will tell her truth.
I tried to explain this to Neal. He found me contradictory–“A foxy model longing to be profound?” he teased. I was thought ridiculous with my desire to create something more worthy. Change the ways we know the world, even for even one person? No, not this pretty woman.
“Entertain them,” he said, “that’s exactly what every one wants and that is my aim. Distraction–not being more present in this miserable world.”
I slipped away without answering, the moment emptying me of it.
I have never been very religious in ways I suppose I might be, but photography is a kind of conduit to God. Through my cameras I begin to discover what makes things as they are. The mysterious otherness of each perceived creation shows me a holy Presence. Stillness, astonishment, awe, grace: all I could otherwise lose possesses me with magic. I feel as if caught inside the perfect whorl of time, a still point where everything is unified. Makes sense or may, one day. I feel rent and made whole all at once.
This I could never experience as the posed subject of a camera, as a person to oggle, study or use as a vehicle to advertise material goods. To design an identity that was as foreign to me as my cohorts’ (including Neal’s) hunger for wealth and public adulation. My beauty was a destination for many; for me, simple DNA. Then a reckoning. Then a barrier. But I will define myself through and beyond these. Be a human being who does, not only who is.
I shred the paper napkin in my hands, look at my watch, sip the chilled bubble tea. Herb Winters is late. Nerves jiggle my leg and foot.
Javier is wiping sweat from his forehead with his plaid-shirted forearm, fists full of cooking tools. The lunch crowd lines up, then disperses. Some shift their weight as they check the menu, others stand with arms crossed, patient. A moving tableau of color and form. I reach for my camera and start to shoot, get up and move quietly, my old friends unaware, lunch people shuffling and taking places at tables. The high sun is clear, golden in the autumn coolness, an element that competes with the faces, then complements expressions rippling one to another. A wave of fascination for my eye.
Apsara looks up, past me, her eyes locked on the far treeline, perhaps, and she is turning luminous, black hair almost sparking, her mouth a ripe berry as happiness gathers and she turns toward Javier. He slips his arms about her, pulls her close so their foreheads meet. Another customer arrives, waits, rubbing his tired neck as he watches such big love. But there are so many aromatic choices for lunch. He speaks up. They laugh. My camera finds them all somehow exquisite and I take them in, fill up with images as they are framed and snapped, spellbound.
A shadow splays itself across my path.
I look up. It is Mr.Winters. He has my portfolio under his arm.
We find our way back to my picnic table but it is full up now, so we walk.
“I have spent good time studying your work. I’ve begun to see what you’re doing.”
“Yes? You have?”
He’s a big man, has a girth that is not enviable but he walks with a long, easy stride. I match his steps.
He nods. His beard is more silver than black I see now, his face more lined. It is a good, open face, the sort that’s both distinguished and capable of humor. My heart takes off and I wait for his final report.
“You want to love everything and everyone. The longing is there, the care.”
I steal a glance at him but he is not looking my way. What he says is true, I realize. I feel my insides have been exposed.
“But not everything is lovable, not everyone commands the valor of it.”
“Maybe so… I hope otherwise. I know there’s much more to taking pictures than beautiful design or engaging people or other creatures.”
He says nothing as we enter the park. We’re walking faster. The birds are chorusing and kids are playing basketball; there’s a woman with a red and white striped dress on and she’s reading under trees. I want him to just tell me–that it isn’t going to happen, he doesn’t find my attempts at photography commendable yet; I must work and study harder. Maybe he’s a man like my father, wanting me to wake up and get back to real life, that making art, honoring life and giving it my heart needs to stop before I make a fool of myself.
“You have a lot to learn, Lily Rossiter, but you have both eye and courage, I suspect, to do this. I want to hang a few of your photographs soon. You have much more to do to prepare for inclusion in my next show, ‘Discovery: Works of Rising Photographers’.”
I am about to burst with fear. “I know I need education or a mentor but I had to take a chance. Maybe you can tell me what to improve…wait, hold on…you want my photographs?”
Mr. Winters takes my hand, presses it between both of his thick, warm palms. “I think you have a gift. Let’s see what happens. I’ll call to set up a formal meeting.”
“Thank you… so much.” It comes out a hoarse whisper.
He heads for the Tacos ‘n Thai food cart. I’m standing by the merry-go-round with my portfolio so put it under a bush and hop on, push off from the ground so it starts to spin and gathers speed, and the sunshine is velvet on my skin and the breeze is sweetness and then children call out and jump on. We turn, turn, turn and there’s laughter and squealing. I lie back, let all my mad hair go and it flings itself over the dusty earth like a brazen, happy flag of victory.