Saturday, December 23, 2006

the photographer

She lids her eyes seductively and watches him twist the lens a hair. He's squinting and his woolly curls half-obscure his face. The camera hides the other half. Irene fills in the blanks in her mind's eye. Mexican with a broad face and small passive eyes, a scar on his cheek, Raoul's face tells more stories than her own ever could.

"Good," he says with his slight accent. She watches the muscles of his arms and tries not to let her expression change, though her mouth wants to edge up into a smile. "Go ahead," Raoul adds and his white teeth reveal themselves generously beneath the camera. Irene likes that he can see that in her, likes how observant he is despite everything.

The flash goes off and Irene, experienced, doesn't blink, just watches the sunspot on her retina. It goes off twice more, and then he lowers the camera and she's rewarded with his face, just as she'd imagined it. Except there's sunspots covering bits of it, thanks to his camera.

"You think you can use those?" she asks, and wishes she smoked. How chic, how impressive it would be, just now, to light a cigarette and inhale like a girl from 1955.

"At least one of them should work. You did ver' well today. The company will like these shots." Raoul pours them both glasses of water; she sips at hers, thinking what an inadequate substitute it is for that rush of nicotine she's so often imagined (worried about blemishing her sharp, straight, white teeth, she's never even touched tobacco). She looks at the water, swirling, distorting, but she can feel his beady, watchful eyes on her and tries to curve like the gorgeous woman she knows she is. This is the first time she's worked for Raoul, and she likes him. He makes her feel appreciated. Her friend Ky told her once, knowledgeably, that women always like photographers and cosmetologists, because they make them feel beautiful. But she's never liked a photographer as much as Raoul, and Irene has been a model for two and a half years now, gone through a lot of people.

"You make me look good," she says, untying her kimono top and hanging it over her chair, and her canines, abnormally pointed, glint.

"You appeal to the market," he replies. "Good-looking, excellent cheekbones, the shadows fall ver' well-- it is less work for me. And there will need to be ver' little photomanipulation. You will sell many pairs of pants by yourself." He smiles at her again and gulps down water, throwing it down his throat like vodka. Idly, she wonders what kind of drunk he is. She wonders, too, how he is in bed. Gasping and hardworking, maybe, like the other round-faced Mexican she once slept with, a cute, honest painter with an easy smile and crinkly eyes. Irene decides she finds Raoul attractive, thinks maybe she'll give him a try. What's his last name again? Probably Gonzalez. They're all named Gonzalez.

"How long have you been taking pictures?" she asks, more out of politeness than real interest.

"I got my first real camera when I was sixteen. I went around taking pictures of everything I could see. And I never stopped, not even now. When I worked, I saved my money for better cameras, not for cars or clothes. Always the camera." She enjoys his soft slurred tones. She thinks that she needs to meet more immigrants. They're not as smart as real Americans, but they're good, humble people. That or desperate, dirty thieves and killers, of course. It goes one way or the other. Irene's maternal grandparents were Russian, and her father's father was black. It makes her beautiful, and because she was born in America, there are no negative side effects: she's just as quick, as fluent, as anyone.

"That's really dedicated of you," with just the right amount of earnestness in her tone. Raoul doesn't catch it, of course; Irene intends it to be too subtle for him. But he gets the undercurrents, and his thick eyebrows draw together furrily. He gulps down water like a man who can't get used to having enough, and thinks.

Finally his small eyes meet hers. "And how long have you been modeling, Irene?"

"Oh, a couple of years." She waves it off like it's nothing, making sure he notices the perfect shapeliness of her arm, the fine bones of her wrist. Her fingers are long and graceful. Her dappled body, in this light, is flawless, and she knows it, uses it shamelessly to her advantage.

Raoul knows it too. He drains his cup, sets it down on the table, stands and shakes her hand. His grasp is warm and dry, her own a little clammy from moisturizers and lotions. "Thank you for working with me, Irene," he says and pats her hand. "I hope to see you again sometime." And he starts to walk away.

She watches his rounded buttocks in his scuffed, big-pocketed jeans move as he walks away from her. His back to her. Confused, she starts to ask him, don't you want to stay, but she stops in time. All that comes out is, "Don't you--"

He turns and looks at her again. That broad, calculating, scarred face. Those little eyes, seeing everything. "Did you say something?"

She shakes her head, feeling her vixen hair whip coolly around her long graceful neck. "Goodbye."

He shuts the door quietly behind him, and she stays seated in her jeans and silk bra, hand still curved around her cup of water, speechless, not knowing what to think. For the first time in a long time, Irene feels stood up.

And by a Mexican, no less.

Marten's Birthday

We were celebrating Marten's birthday when the phone rang. It was right after we'd all sung to him, and he was opening presents, ripping with the enthusiasm of a newly thirteen-year-old boy. I'd always thought he was an unlikely kid, my cousin; the name Marten calls up visions of a towheaded Swede, but he is dark-haired and half-Filipino. Go figure.

Anyway, we'd all been exclaiming over a video game when the phone started to ring. "Go get it," Aunt Emily said to my dad, her brother. Dad went to get it-- he's that kind of guy, does what people tell him.

We watched Marten unwrap my present, a book. Eragon, some new hit fantasy novel all the middle-schoolers liked; the movie had just come out. "Thanks, Franny!" He came over to give me a hug. I hugged him back. He's a nice kid, my cousin. Unlikely, but nice.

"Happy birthday," I said.

Dad came out of the office holding the cordless phone away from him. I didn't notice at the time, but he looked kind of shocked. "Emily, you better take this one," he said, and something in his eyes made Aunt Emily take it.


Marten moved on, tearing the paper off of a present some friend of his had given him-- he'd had a social party at the bowling alley the day before and saved the presents to open with us. I watched him. Until Aunt Emily said, "I'm sorry, what?" and something in her tone was so awful that all of us-- Dad, Mom, Rocky, Christopher, Uncle Ira, Aunt Libby, even Harry-- turned to look.

"Are you sure it's him?" she asked. Behind her tone was a quickly rising wave of horror and panic and loss. My heartbeat started throbbing in my throat. I was kind of terrified. I snuck a look at Rocky, grabbed his hand. He squeezed back.

"Okay," Aunt Emily said. "Okay. Okay. Thank you, um, thank you for calling. Yes. Thank you. Goodbye." She clicked off and looked out over us, her eyes darker than they'd ever been, and unfathomable. Shit, shit, shit, what's going on? I thought desperately, and fidgeted, and played with my big brother's sailing-tanned fingers.

"Well?" said Aunt Libby finally, tensely.

Aunt Emily gave Marten a darting glance. He was looking up at her, utterly lost, the gift from his friend forgotten. The room had a waiting feeling; all of us were holding our breath. We knew the news was bad, but we didn't know what it was. Was it some stalker of Aunt Emily's, having seen her in that brief modeling stint six years ago, violating a deserved restraining order? Had Great-Uncle Rocco (Rocky's namesake) been hospitalized again? Had Grandpa Jack died, or been diagnosed with cancer? Somehow this seemed even worse than those, worse than we could imagine.

Aunt Emily took a deep breath. It hitched in her throat and so did mine. I was nervous as anything. I thought irrationally of my crush, Dylan. That made me scareder.

"Tim's been killed," she said calmly. "Timmy's died."

Oh my God, I thought. Tim was her older son, my eldest cousin at twenty-four. He'd enlisted in the Army three years ago. Been sent to Afghanistan eight months ago. We'd all sort of assumed he'd come back, knowing it was impossible to live scared that he would be killed every day. Without talking about it, we accepted it, and set Timmy aside in our minds as someone we'd see when he got leave again, hopefully before a Democrat was elected.

And now he was dead?

Marten ran to his mother and buried his face in her chest. Pandemonium erupted quietly, in the middle of his pile of presents. The magic in them was gone, reduced now to unimpressive, inanimate things. We all drifted toward Aunt Emily, comfort vaguely in our minds, penetrating the fog of shock and disbelief. "It must be a mistake," I heard my mom mutter. "Some bureaucrat thing. It can't be, not our Timmy."

I tried to picture him in my head. It was hard; I hadn't seen him in about eight months. My mental image was grainy but clear enough: a dashing young guy, thick arched dark eyebrows, a closely-shaved head, strong chin, good smile. A little heavyset, a little shorter than average, a little singler than most of his friends, but hell, Timmy was a great guy. Really lovable, funny, smart. We'd been getting e-mails from him when he had the chance to send them, and it was always a treat to read his thoughts.

No more e-mails from Tim now.

I looked at Marten. His thin shoulders were shaking in his new red snowcoat. Aunt Emily was caressing him, her hands touching his hair absently. She still looked out over us all, like she was an actress who'd been told not to look the audience in the eyes. No one knew what to do. Bad timing, I thought. Poor Marten. And his father, of course, had left ten years before. I wondered if Uncle Nick would even find out about his son's death-- Timmy's death, oh God, death. I imagined my cousin in a big army tank, patchily armored because the army was so underbudgeted despite the cost of the war, and some insurgent throwing a bomb out into the street, the explosion, Timmy in the driver's seat, his head blown off, the blood and brains painting the tank. I was still clutching Rocky's hand like a security blanket. I shut my eyes, and it was only when I felt the wetness on my lashes that I realized I'd been crying.

Harry started wailing, a thin baby cry. He wasn't even two yet. Aunt Libby picked him up gratefully, Uncle Ira cooing over him as well, trying to distract themselves. I heard Mom ask Aunt Emily in a low voice, "Do you want us to stay?" I peeked out to see Aunt Emily nodding vigorously. Poor woman. And Marten, his teen-birthday ruined, Jesus. I couldn't quite grasp it still. I kept picturing Timmy's brains plastering the window of the tank. He'd told me he was driving one two months before.

"Afghanistan," muttered Rocky. "You'd think it would be safer than Iraq."

Not for Timmy, I thought, and I remembered how when he'd graduated high school he'd told everyone to stop calling him Timmy, only Tim, and of course none of us ever remembered because we were family. I remembered when he'd phoned us and asked for a ride because he'd gotten too drunk to drive; the time when he'd come over and talked me through a bout of bad depression because a boy had made fun of me; the way we had used to talk on the phone, how he called me Francine, always, tenderly, in a cousin way. Oh, Timmy. I felt Rocky's hand on my head, felt my tears getting the dark wiry hair on his arm wet. I couldn't help it anymore; I started sobbing, for real, the way Marten was. The birthday party had turned to a party of mourning.

We stayed for hours, until it got too late and there weren't enough beds in the house. Aunt Emily apologized profusely, and thanked us for staying. Uncle Ira had taken care of all the calls to the other relatives. We didn't let ourselves think about Timmy's friends.

When we got in the van to go home-- Rocky, Christopher, my parents and me-- Dad drove shakily, erratically. Mom was tense next to him, barking reprimands for leaving his high beams on, for forgetting his blink signals. Finally Dad snapped, "For Christ's sake, Wendy, my nephew was just killed!" After that we were all very quiet. All three of us were in the back, Christopher in the middle, my little brother, and he had taken our hands and we sat in a chain and tried not to think of Timmy's life spraying all over his shattered windshield.

"Some birthday for Marten," Dad said as we pulled in to our driveway.

We all went to bed, and I couldn't sleep that night. I stayed up, wanting to call Dylan and tell him, have him comfort me, but I never called Dylan and we weren't really friends. Wanting to call Kylie, but she went to bed early. Wanting to call someone, anyone, but it was actually almost twelve and it was a school night. I couldn't face school and I knew it. More than anyone I wanted to call Timmy, who'd never minded the late-night calls. Timmy could tell me the truth, that he was alive and fine, what a fantastic birthday gift for Marten, a living brother after all!

But in Afghanistan, he was unreachable. And in Heaven (if there was such a thing), well, maybe he could hear me, but I couldn't hear him back.

I crept out of bed, padded my way to the computer, a desperately hopeless idea in my mind. Christopher was sitting there, the glow of the screen lighting up his face. He turned to me guiltily. "You should be sleeping," I said hypocritically, unable to think of anything else to say.

"Sorry, Franny. I..."

I looked at his screen. He was writing an email. "Who're you writing?"

"Timmy," he mumbled, not looking at me.

I put my hand on his shoulder. He was Marten's age, had turned thirteen in July. I wanted to tell him I had had the same idea, but I couldn't get the words out of my mouth. They sat there, heavy, below my tongue. I couldn't even spit out a simple "good night."

I went back to bed, curled up in fetal position under my covers, and shut my eyes. And for the first time in years I really prayed. Not the hopeful, shallow prayers I always offered up in church (God, get Dylan to like me; Jesus, make the pimple on my chin go away), but real prayer, the spiritual kind. My eyes were squeezed shut and I called up my pictures of God and His Son, like a good Episcopalian.

And in my imagination, Jesus Christ looked like Timmy.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Shit. What have I done? My hands are strange(rs) to me.