Close Calls

Photo by William Eggleston
Photo by William Eggleston

Helen wasn’t especially brilliant and not even beautiful. And she wasn’t overly interested in pleasing guys, much less pursuing them but they liked her immediately, or at least always thought they liked her. Her sister’s chin-length hair nicely framed a half-crooked smile. She did have eyes that pulled you in, like they saw something you misplaced or even lost altogether–they somehow saw and held more than others did. But, Talia mused, it had to be her sister’s nonchalance around men that did the trick. That or being a more sporty type, quick to state she’d rather split and stack wood than dress up and attend the latest play at Blackwater’s Stage and Screen. Even if Talia was in it. Now and then she gave in and went, though.

Talia was the one who’d been easily complimented, told she was attractive like their mother had been. And favored by some serious talent. But the reality remained: Hellie (a nickname earned for her infrequent but epic temper) drew men with the barest slip of a smile or a noncommittal nod. Talia had quickly turned into an ethereal butterfly while Hellie remained more like a moth, she guessed. But things were still not how Talia imagined they could be. She couldn’t wait to get out of Blackwater; next year she’d be in college, at last studying drama. Her big sister wasn’t interested in formal education, just the family-owned Bells and Whistles Antique Goods store. She was good at business, better at finding unique treasures.

“Haven’t you noticed how moths are exotic but camouflaged?” Hellie said, laughing when Talia came right out and told her sister her thoughts. “And better to be burned by a light shining in the dark than buzzing around the same smelly flowers all day!”

Talia didn’t agree but was glad she wasn’t hurt. She shielded her eyes to better focus on the road. “Maybe.”

She was waiting for Jamie Hartman. He’d stopped to see her after the play the night before and asked to visit. He was so good looking, such a gentleman, and the grandson of one of Blackwater’s original citizens. It was a shock when he  knocked on her door; she’d mutely assented to his request. She took a half hour to get ready, rushing, and now he was late.

Hellie reached for an acorn on the porch’s leaf-strewn floor, threw it at a crow on the lawn that kept overriding their conversation with a rancorous cry. It missed the bird–she’d meant it to–but it flew into a tree, momentarily silenced. She licked her finger and made an invisible mark in the air, one point for her. That crow and she understood one another but they still often played the game.

The girls were enjoying the last of tender radiance of a fall afternoon before the rainy season arrived, a soothing breeze ruffling their hair. Hellie admired the scarlet maple leaves, how they waved and flipped about. She was relaxed, glad to have the day off. She rarely took Talia’s blurted thoughts to heart. Three years older, she felt her younger sister fussy and self-centered. Even though she was a good actress–even very good–she had a lot to learn about everything else. There wasn’t much hope that it’d happen before she went to college–she was a starry-eyed girl, also too accepting. Hellie thought how strange it would be to no longer have her about to debate and mess with. She threw another acorn and hit the trunk of the tree. The crow flew higher.

The car came up quietly. It was that sort of vehicle–low to the ground, gleaming silver, stealthy until its power was unleashed. Hellie sat forward to better view it, then leaned back as a taller-than-average, well-dressed young man unfolded himself from the driver’s seat.

“Here he is!” Talia arranged her skirt about her knees, flashed a welcoming smile. “Hello there!”

He took the porch steps two at a time and offered his hand to Talia first. The overall effect was of a burnished blaze, a blonde and tan display of blue blood and deeply ingrained confidence.

“Glad we could get together. I’m Jamie, in case you forgot.”

“Of course not, glad you made time to stop by.”

He smiled indulgently at her, then glanced at Hellie who appeared to be studying something in the trees. Talia motioned to the chair next to hers, into which he lowered himself as though he had been meaning to do just that all day and had found the best spot.

“It’s been a long day already,” he stated. “I’m here helping my aunt out things. You must know her, right?”

“Of course, Ms. Lulu Hartman. Sorry she lost her husband. Your uncle.”

“Yes, thanks.” He frowned down at his soft beige loafers. His ankles were bare, like in magazines. “I haven’t been here for a few years. I think we knew each other somehow. I mean, I only came summers for a month or so, and that was before university but you”–he nodded at Hellie, who turned, cocked her head at him–“I sure do seem to recall.”

“Oh, hey, I’m Helen. You may have seen me peddling around on my bike, went everywhere on  it. I’m still a dedicated cyclist, ride in marathons. I often picked up a few things from the store or post office for your aunt for a little cash and maybe a cinnamon roll. But it’s a small place, even during high season when folks pour in.”

“That must be it. Yes, she’s a good baker, her one talent in the kitchen since the cook won’t let her near meal prep.” He let go a light, perhaps embarrassed laugh. “Anyway, I’m sure she appreciated it. She does not like to leave her little kingdom much. What about you?”

“Oh, I’m let out of my cage every few weeks at the antiques store Dad owns so I can shake off dust and mildew, clear my head of nostalgia. I mean out of my office, but my door’s window has bars on the window…you know, to keep the robbers at bay since we have so many diamonds and other precious things.”

His forehead wrinkled a bit, then he relaxed. “So, you’re a working woman. I imagine that business can be interesting, though I prefer more contemporary style. I’m curious to hear what you imagine I do?”

Hellie considered. An uncomfortable feeling rose and fell; she ignored it. She could say the truth as she saw it–“nothing much if you can help it”–or she could say the more polite, reasonable thing: “attend law school”.

“Jamie, are you here for long?” Talia asked, sitting forward with hands on knees. Her pale eyebrows rose, making her clear blue eyes larger and brighter.

“Oh, sorry, Talia. I came by to tell you how much I enjoyed your performance but got diverted by your sister! Just here a few days. Anyway, it is clear you want to be an actress. Lawyers and actors have something in common, I think. Tell me your story.”

Hellie got up and slipped behind their chairs, opened the screen door and stepped into rectangles and slivers of sunlight and shadow in the ramshackle house. It was her first day off. She kicked off her shoes and made a beeline to the kitchen. Her chore list stared back at her from a small bulletin board right inside the swinging door. She had laundry to finish before starting dinner so got to work,  putting in another load, drying, unloading and folding the family’s clothing. She recalled, just barely, how her mother had hung sheets out on the line, and how she’d been delighted to watch them flap and billow, how they smelled like the bright wind. Hellie hadn’t hung out anything for a long time.

Ever since their mother had passed when she was fourteen–eight years ago–she had taught herself rudimentary cooking, one recipe at a time. Tonight it was beef stew. The chopping and dicing emptied her out. Work had been busier lately. She worried about her father working so much overtime. She worried that they had too much inventory and not enough positive cash flow, but they managed well enough. She wanted to help the business grow.

An hour later, Talia rushed into the moist, savory-scented kitchen to find Hellie wiping down the counters. her cheeks were blooming and her eyes dancing about–giddy like the teenager she was.

“I invited him! To dinner–set another place. He wants to hang out more.”

Hellie stirred everything into the heavy pot and looked up recipes for biscuits. “Dad will be home late tonight–he’s eating at Brew and Bounty, though.”

“Well, that’s fine. We might take a walk later, but first he’s driving me to the coffee shop!”

“Great…don’t let him go fast,” she muttered to Talia’s vanishing back, then threw the dishrag at the wall; it slid to the floor like a crumpled creature. She looked up and rolled her eyes at the ceiling and beyond. “Great, I am not an entertainer, Mom. I hate doing stuff like this and not for strangers…what was she thinking? Maybe he’ll leave right after dinner.”

But he didn’t. He proclaimed the stew and biscuits the best he’d had, talked voluminously of things that lost Hellie’s attention and gained Talia’s. He stayed too long. She had been right; he was going to be a corporate attorney, would return to school after helping his aunt. He lingered in the kitchen by her side afterwards, offering to help her clean up which she found mocking not kind, knowing he had little clue about such things–his father was VP of an oil company, they’d always had “help” he’d said–and Talia right there waiting for him. But his eyes landed on Hellie’s near-navy, deep-set ones that were frankly irritated so skidded right past his. Then his rested on a curve of collarbone showing itself atop her scoop neck t-shirt. She turned to the sink, her mind discarding each honest but impolite word.

“Go on you two, I’m busy,” she insisted and flicked the tea towel hard at them, advancing when he didn’t move, then her sister grabbing his arm.

She thought Talia far too bright-eyed; he, too chummy and confident. She could hear them laughing on the porch, his increasingly brash voice rising over hers while her mellow alto underlying his remarks. Then their words changed to a light, dull hum of sounds she wasn’t able to fully interpret.

Hellie still watched out for her little sister but she didn’t any longer consider it her imperial duty to oversee her activities, to admonish her about life’s every pitfall. Well, she was still figuring hing out, herself, though she knew she had a more level head than Talia. And she possessed an instinct about life that her sister feigned, couldn’t quite locate within. She floated in and out her world of imaginings while Hellie lived with sure-footedness in the intriguing but trapdoor-strewn domains of reality.

Talia had taken a year off after high school to work at the theater and get more acting experience. In their tourist town she had the added benefit of larger, forgiving audiences. She had a passion for it; Hellie thought she might make something of her dream. She wasn’t exactly a child as she closed in on age nineteen. She’d dated a few guys, made some decent choices and some less so, but she had some gumption and was moving in a better direction. Or so Hellie wanted to think. But she didn’t take guidance from her “wanted tos”; she followed her gut. Near the end of dinner she wondered what the point was, this guy sitting in their dining room stuffing himself with excellent stew, making weak jokey comments that Talia tittered at, then trying to engage in a quasi-urbane conversation with Hellie.

Hellie had  been visited by a sudden desire to make Jamie disappear as she’d swallowed her last bite. She just wasn’t clear if it was necessary.

As the porch got quieter, she entered the living room to listen deeply, waiting just beyond a warm spill of light from a milk glass lamp on the entry table. Outside they were murmuring things. Then Hellie heard a thump against the outside wall. There was a sharp intake of breath that seemed to predict a mighty exhale from the vicinity of chairs. But it didn’t ever happen, to her best observation. She peered out the door but they were leaning against the porch rail. She stepped away. More rustlings and bumps, feet moving. What passed as a kind of yelp, something almost alarming. Hellie felt her head flush and chest constrict and burn.

She scurried to the back stairwell, yanked the chain of the single light bulb, ran downstairs to a heavy locker. Unlocked the door, got what she needed, then ran up again and out the back door. She crept along the side yard, dropped one of the rifles at the base of an evergreen tree, just for back-up.

It was a bright evening. The crows were at rest and crickets were awake, singing. Moonlight touched the trees, the grass, the shimmering sports car in the driveway. Hellie crept around the corner of the long, comfortable porch until she could see them: Talia pinned back in an Adirondack chair, Jamie leaning over with mouth plastered on hers, Talia’s wrists gripped by his hands. Talia’s right leg and foot shot out and up as she tried in vain to kick him off. She was squirming and pushing with more will than might.

Hellie lifted the old rifle to her shoulder, took slow and steady aim. She found the voice that no one wanted to hear, the one that pushed hard until she won a battle.

“Let her go, Jamie Hartman, or your slick car will be a pile of pitiful metal and glass in five more seconds. You’ll end up beside it.”

He startled, backed off her sister, came to stand at the top step, fine shirt all rumpled, big hands on hips.

“What the devil—what do you think you’re going to do? Put that damned hunting weapon down! We’re just playing around here”

Talia cried out then scrambled into the house, pressing her nose against the screen door. “Hellie! Don’t!”

She jabbed the rifle in the air as she walked closer to him. “What do you think you’re doing, presuming on our good natures, feasting on my beef stew, making innocuous conversation and unintelligent jokes at our hospitable table, taking up space where our father should have been? Mashing your face on my sister’s like some idiot seventh grader? Restraining her like some bruiser with worse on his mind? Is that who you are, then?”

“Hellie! Come inside, he’ll leave!” Talia was near-screeching but it came out a squeak. She thought if there was ever a time to call 911, it might come very soon. Her throat tightened right up and she could say no more.

“Listen, your little sister was glad to see my face at your podunk theater, she’s a barrel of laughs and you’re a regular madwoman–a fool if you think you can get away with intimidating me. I’m calling the police, then my lawyer.”

Hellie swung the rifle around, squinted to better site the center of the windshield, then changed her mind and aimed for the right front tire.

Jamie ran down the steps, hands pressing against earthy night air hard as if against Hellie.

“You’re nuts! Enough already! I’m leaving now, alright?” He got into the exalted car with one swift movement. “There.” He fired up the big engine, gave it more gas to increase its’ emboldened roar.

Hellie fully lowered the rifle so as not to appear as threatening but she gritted her teeth. His arrogance made her blood boil. “Get out. Don’t came back any time, in any future.”

Jamie hit the steering wheel twice with the palm of his hand, sharp laughter spiraling out his open window. “What a waste of time. And it was you who caught my attention, a crazy one,” he said, shaking his head. “Impressive–if sadly irrelevant!”

And then he stomped on the gas pedal so the lean, moonshot car spun around in the gravel driveway; it righted itself, sped away. It took all of Hellie’s resolve to not to run after it, give it a terrible beating with the butt of the rifle. But, no, she couldn’t do such a thing. She aimed at him a last time in case he was looking back; he wasn’t coming here again if she could help it. Her heart still drummed heavy beats in her ears, then minute by minute slowed.

Talia was at her elbow trying not to laugh or cry, she couldn’t decide which she wanted to do, then put an arm about her waist. They were both breathless. Hellie felt hot and cold, sorry and disgusted with them all. And relieved.

“You alright, Tal?” She ran her hand gently over Talia’s glossy head, calming them both.

“I guess so, I got scared, he’s way too much, I mean I said ‘enough’ but he just squashed me and…”

“He wolfed down my stew, started in with lame jokes then actually ogled me–I knew for sure right then he spelled trouble. I should have kept you with me, thrown him out…”

“Well, I’m not exactly a kid. I just didn’t see it until we were on the porch. But he sure said some powerful good things.”

“Oh, Talia, you have to know how that goes by now. Just another  charmer with little else going,  some money and looks, neither of which counts that much in the end.”

“Seemed like plenty. Guess I’m kinda slow.” They started back to the house. “Would you have really fired the rifle?”

Hellie sighed as she touched the outline of two bullets in her front jeans pocket. Just in case. “It wasn’t loaded. But I ought to think at least twice, sometimes. I just don’t–” She stopped and looked up at the sky, all those stars flaring, making eternity more perfect. “I just don’t want anything bad to ever happen to you. I know–you’ll have to figure out more. Me, too, by the way.”

“Yeah, I get understand. But I need to be more like you–watchful.”

“Well, that’s only part of who I am. As you well know. Just pay attention to your intuition.” She have a small yank to her sister’s lustrous ponytail. “But, boy oh boy, I sure did love that car, I could not have taken a serious shot at it! Maybe him–but not a Jaguar F-type Coupe! How did it ride?”

“Fantastic! It was like gliding right into another world! I never knew they could do that. How do you know about cars?” She paused.”I have to say it still steams me, sometimes–he said he was more interested in you than me. He barely even talked with you. I mean, I always wonder why guys just take to you, fish to water.”

“Huh, coming from him, that’s sorta scary, isn’t it?” They walked slowly, arms about each other’s waists and up the creaking front steps. Hellie looked out over the empty yard as they settled on the top one. “Anyway, I’m not sure that’s the case but don’t give it another thought. I don’t.”

But she did think about it, as it was weirdly true. And she wondered when and where she’d ever meet someone she wanted to spend real time with, someone with whom she could reciprocate the admiration. It was slow going, the love business, almost starting and then surprise stops or the wrong scenarios.

“I won’t tell Dad, Hellie.”

“No stopping that Jamie; I’m sure he’ll hear about it before I have a chance to talk about it. I’m not worried, just glad you’re alright.” She patted Talia’s narrow back, then walked around the corner to grab the other rifle. She lay them on a small table.

“Two, Helen–uh, Hellie–really?” She slapped her a little on the forearm.

She did’t reply. She was surprised to hear her real name spoken by Talia but liked it.

Crickets chirruped and from a treetop the crow called once, twice, three times then fell silent, as if waiting for Hellie to try to add one more thing. After awhile, her little sister slipped indoors, worn out. But she sat there with rifles on the stool beside her. She recalled the few times her father had taken her deer hunting, a thing that wasn’t easy. She was a good shot but shot past the bucks, never at them. She got up, took it downstairs and secured it.

Hellie leaned against the locker with eyes shut, knowing they had had a couple of too-close calls. She also knew she’d be on the lookout for any other trouble until her sister left for college. Probably until they both got old, even when Talia was famous or at least meeting her own destiny. It was her job; it was just her way.

Come to Me, My Shining Time

Williim Eggleston
Photo by William Eggleston

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.

“Lily Rossiter?”

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.

 

Beauty as a Verb (and State of Being)

 

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This just in: science is postulating that cellulite may finally be able to be banished!

I found this news in a credible magazine more often purchased by those who have the requisite cash to refresh and recreate their bodies. (I am not part of that demographic; I read a variety of publications as familiar readers know.) Apparently, dermatologists with top credentials note that this is changing dimpled thighs considerably. It involves loosening and breaking up fibrous bands that underlay the skin, smoothing the visible layer, cellulite seeming to vanish. I picture a giant rolling pin running over buttocks and thighs, then I wonder for what purpose those fibrous bands exist. It seems to me legs and probably derrieres need these to be intact or they wouldn’t be there. But women who are thrilled with this development will seek all promised results. They are intent on changing the human landscape in warmer climes at least. And in their private lives, it may well matter more than I can ever know.

Imagine those who heretofore felt unfit to appear in a bathing suit strolling about world beaches with aplomb. The troops of made-to-order bodies will experience a manifold increase. And I am wondering if anyone will actually scrutinize and calculate the loss of dimpled skin other than those whose worries arise from such issues. Summer is not so far away for U.S. residents. I am certain there are droves who will breathe sighs of relief once they discern fewer to zero tiny hillocks and valleys between hips and knees.

Rather, try this: imagine those who populate any street or beach or office, barely a thought used up on outward impressions made once leaving their abodes. Instead, they are busy playing, strolling with friends, working like the dickens, exercising, eating and drinking or reading a book. Singing a song. Dancing across grass. These women are gazing into the distance, full of hopes, worries, plans, disappointments. Or they may be mesmerized by a turquoise sea at high tide, or the sound of tree branches of shiny leaves whispering in the wind, or the sharp clean scent of snow as it makes a dizzying descent to chilled faces. They dream of things. Practice love. Thigh perfection is not an urgent issue.

Still, I understand both points of view. I am in my sixth decade; what was in good place in my third decade gradually drooped an inch when I wasn’t even looking. I expected as much so there is little to no shock involved. But I was surprised today when I tried on a fun sleeveless dress and noted upper arms no longer sport the biceps I had thought were still there. They used to be admirable due to weight training…back in my forties…and very useful. Instead, they appear to be loosening, too, despite my being active and feeling strong. Well, I have sweaters. I may not think of it again, as I don’t much think of the streaks of white mingling with the old golden brown hair.

Who am I bothering with my aging? Not myself, certainly not enough to lose sleep over. Do the young see their own futures and want to avoid it as long as possible? Other women who are self-consciousness of their own gradual loss of suppleness, those lines about the eyes–are they weirdly embarrassed for me when they could be smiling at and laughing with me? Or men (with middle-aged paunch and thinning hair, their own lines subdividing foreheads) who avert their eyes as they spot a younger version of womanhood? I find it sad that so many people find aging anathema, as if we were truly meant to stay naive children and hormonal teens, just be young forever. Celebrities astound me with their avarice for youth, the need to maintain this illusion. Why, really? Everything in nature springs to life and transforms and breaks down. The cycle is complex and perfect. New human beings take some time revealing themselves, feel awkward as they straddle ages, then become vibrantly mature. Then slow down to a simmer, settling bit by bit. And when ready, we dispense with our physical shells.

I wasn’t born a remarkable beauty so perhaps it is odd I did not often feel as if my visage was not good enough. I fit clothing well enough; my looks were acceptable. I thought the human attributes of soul and intellect were far more interesting, certainly attractive. Bright people were more magnetic to me than superficially lovely ones; soulful people even more so. I thought a sensitive balance was key, a mix of intelligence, heart, strength and grace. Being active was a given for me with endless impulses to move and do. Become more, create more! I still have energy to spare–it can be problematic as I don’t care so much for sleep– despite a few chronic health issues. Activity fuels a responsive state of self empowerment.

Still, I admit to tossing out that old phrase–“putting on my face”. Putting on make up, that is. It refers to readying ourselves for the world, setting in place a removable but protective barrier between myself and unknown social elements. Particularly during teen years, it was an armour or a protest, an experiment with identity and a time for frivolity. It’s an old habit I’ve never apologized for, even during the reign of radical feminism when some women strongly disapproved. (I never burned my bra, either, but I fought and worked along with everyone else for fair and just treatment of females and other human beings.) I have enjoyed the theater of it, the face paint and fashions. I liked being able to morph, one effect for another, and imagined that as an old woman I might still be playing. I do still have a nice collection of Clinique, Cover Girl and Lancome.

And I also recently purchased a new swim suit; I await a good swimming pool so I can dive in with goggles to defend myself from chlorine. I can assure you I wouldn’t have any more interest in swimming if I seriously regretted my physical flaws. I used to adore diving and can’t wait to get at it again.

After all the products used–youth passing and illnesses so far endured and health rebounding–I am still not afraid of aging. I am not afraid beauty will no longer visit me in some way or another.  I know my body will fight with me and also respond to rescue and remediation. Until it will not, anymore. But beauty is not something I feel I must go on a journey to find. It is within my reach in a thousand ways and places. The beauty I adore originates both in the natural world and in our own living. I see it daily. It moves me, informs my thinking, edifies and invigorates me. It lives within and without me, is never static, ever surprising.

My own mother was forty when I was born, with once-auburn hair that was early to grey but soft and wavy. Soon to become much more white. She moved past middle age with minor grumbling, but her eyes, smile and laughter, her firm skin–all this was, of course, unique to her. The geography of her life did leave telltale marks  but she wore little make up–the barest slick of lipstick, a dusting of powder. She said she had little time for it. But her joie de vivre was apparent. Everything she felt rippled across her face. Gesturing hands, inflections of voice spoke of a fascination with and a deep appreciation of others. She was invested in living, not in appearing as someone other or more than who she was. She enjoyed clothes or getting her hair done. Her curiosity about life reflected a penchant for forays into the known and unknown, the sweet secrets of life. My mother gathered her resources for family and others in greater need. There was plenty of struggle but her spirit was a boomerang, coming back again, rising up. She taught me about these things. By living richly, my mother nurtured deep beauty. Even–especially–at sixty, seventy and eighty. 

And I haven’t mentioned how she looked in floor-length gowns she wore to the symphony or opera, even long after I had grown up. Shoulders back, head high. Gleaming white hair may was like a crown. I don’t recall noticing wrinkles; her skin was wonderful with just a dab of Pond’s face cream. She was accessible and funny–people sought her out. I can guarantee she never entertained the idea that anyone’s thighs might be erased of their natural permutations. She stayed around until her nineties and even then had a flair all her own. I loved her vibrant, genuine ways, flaws and all.

The first half of my life felt as if it lacked too often that fine grace I longed to live by. Troubles came like we all get to have, those roadblocks and little deaths that take their toll. I became waif thin; drank too much for my own and others’ good; and tallied failures as much if not more than blessings. I had a great deal to learn despite imagining I knew a fair amount already. But one thing I believed did come true: as I came upon forty, fifty and sixty I arrived a happier person than decades previous. The years have been by turns ridiculous, bruising, ecstatic, enlightening, confounding, and serene. Human.

But beauty yet attends to me; that is, it fills my life with delights, its wisdom and constancy. I gather it around me and take my fill of it, try to share it and create more. What can I do that will improve upon this moment, this time I have here? What will make a difference in the quality of life for my family, for friends, and for those I may never know at all? This is the way of true beauty to me, the daily essentials: each thought and act a chance to care and be kind. To make good use of my soul as well as mind.

There exists in this heartbreaking world a pervasive beauty of countless spirits and manifestations of Divine Spirit. We must see it and claim it. It can reveal itself in ways and places we may not expect. Take the other morning before getting up to embrace another day.

I was coming up from sleep. Floating, not quite conscious of the flesh and bones world. I was moving about in a vast netherworld, an ether of bodylessness. There before me was what I have come to call a Light Being, or an angel or reflection of God that gave me a moment with it. Who knows the exact naming of such things? But to me the Light Beings are part of the spiritual life we inhabit, whether awake, dreaming, or beyond sentience as we know it now.

As they always are, this Light Being was exquisite, blue-white-golden-silvery pulsing energy, radiant and intense. It was transforming into a more human torso, transparent while having a kind of density. Brilliant, expansive as it was suspended within more light, as if treading water but instead treading an energized space. I moved closer and closer, then slipped into the light body, joined this humming, luminous beingness and felt the great joy I always feel, as if I was truly home at long last. I felt Light Beings everywhere. I knew them like I knew the voices of my loved ones or the colors of the sky. Shortly I returned to earthy consciousness, to this home of everyday, multi-layered living.

My life includes make up and fashion forays, cellulite and spider veins. But more than these, it is a lifelong work tempered by heartaches, saved by Love, made sturdy and hopeful by triumphs. It is a weaving of pleasures and prayers. Light Beings. Therein lies the truest beauty for this woman. And when I look at you, my friend, that is what I am seeking and finding in you, too.