The morning was turning out to be a bust. The first client wanted to pay with a personal check, which I’ve learned to not accept. She had no cash, credit card, or ID. The second client had cash but turned out to be a thirteen-year-old kid who wanted a “really sexy picture” for her boyfriend. No way: session cancelled. The third client was late.
“The electric bill is overdue,” Carol said conversationally. She rearranged her table of cosmetics, hair extensions, and earrings, none of which needed rearranging. Carol was easily bored. I was easily panicked. Not a good business combination, and Glamorous You was barely hanging on. In Boston even the rent for a small, third-floor walk-up is expensive.
Carol riffled idly through the hanging rack of negligees, gowns, and filmy scarves for clients that don’t bring their own stuff. Glamorous You doesn’t do cheesecake: no nude, bra-and-panties, or implied-masturbation shots. The costumes are fun but not raunchy; the negligees are opaque. I’m good with lighting, and Carol is a whiz at make-up and hair. We make our customers look more desirable than they’ll ever look in real life, but still decent. That’s why the electric bill was overdue.
“What’s this client’s name again?” I said.
Carol consulted her booking calendar, which featured a lot of white space. “Anna Somebody — here she comes now.” The door opened.
“Hello,” the client said. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
I blinked. We get a lot of older women, although not usually this old. Maybe fifty, fifty-five, she had a brown pageboy considerably darker than her gray eyebrows, twenty extra pounds, and a sagging neck. But that wasn’t it. She just wasn’t a Glamorous You type. Brown slacks, baggy white blouse, brown tweed blazer, all worn with gumball-pink lipstick and small pearl earrings. She looked like she should be heading up a grant-writing committee somewhere.
“Anna O’Connor,” she said, holding out her hand. “Are you Ben Preston?”
“Yes. Nice to meet you. My assistant, Carol.”
She had a nice smile. Looking closer, I could see the regular features under the wrinkles, the good cheekbones, the nice teeth. This woman had been attractive once, in a bland girl-next-door way. Didn’t she realize how much time had passed?
She did. “Let me tell you what I’m after here, Ben. I’m not young or gorgeous, and I don’t want to pretend I am. I just want to look as good as a fifty-seven-year-old can without looking like beef dressed as veal. Or sending your camera into mechanical heart failure.” She laughed, light and self-mocking, without strain. I liked her.
“I think we can do that, Anna — may I call you Anna?”
“We offer three settings: a bed, arm chair, or wind machine against an outdoor backdrop. Which would you prefer?”
“The armchair, please.”
No surprise there. While I set up the shot, Carol did prep and they picked out a costume. When Anna emerged from the dressing room, I was agreeably surprised. Carol had darkened Anna’s eyebrows, shadowed her eyes, exchanged the kiddie-pink lipstick for a rich brown-red. Her hair had lost its helmet look and had some volume and swing. Anna had chosen not the Victorian gown I’d expected but rather a floor-length, emerald-green robe that skimmed over waist and hips but revealed her still-good cleavage. She looked terrific. Not like a model, of course, nor youthful, but still feminine and appealing.
“You look great,” I said, glad to mean it for once.
“I think that’s mostly due to Carol,” Anna said, with that same light self-mockery. She seemed at ease in her own ageing skin. No rings on her hand, and I wondered whom the negligee photo was intended for.
“All right, if you’ll just sit in or stand by the arm chair . . . however you feel comfortable. You just — hold it!”
She was a natural. All her poses were sexy without being parodies, and her refusal to take herself seriously came through in her body language. The result was sensuality as light-hearted fun. As I shot her from several different angles, I enjoyed myself more than I had photographing younger, prettier women. We bantered and laughed. When the shoot was done and Anna had changed back into her own clothes — but had not, I was glad to see, washed off Carol’s make-up — I broke my own rule and asked her.
“And the picture will be for . . .”
“Boyfriend,” she said, embarrassed. “That’s such a silly word at my age, but all the other words are even sillier. Beau? Main squeeze? Gentleman caller?” She pantomimed an Edwardian curtsey and laughed.
“Well, he’s a lucky guy,” I said. Carol stared at me. I never got personal with clients — too much chance for misinterpretation. But Anna was old enough to be my mother, for Chrissake. “Will he come with you to choose the shot? Or is the photo a surprise?”
“A surprise. Besides, he lives in Montana. We met on-line.”
My good mood collapsed. I’d wanted this to be something positive. But she was just one more older woman being strung along by some Internet Lothario getting his rocks off by feeding on attention from lonely and desperate women. Best case scenario: He hadn’t asked her for money. Yet.
“Ben, it’s not like that,” Anna said, looking at my face. “I’ve met him in person. He’s visited here twice. You’re sweet to be concerned, but I can take care of myself.”
“Right,” I said. “So you’ll come back Thursday to see the proofs.”
“See you then.”
When she’d paid me and left, Carol said, “Lighten up, Ben. Not every woman is as stupid as Laurie was.”
I turned away. Since we had no more clients booked for today, Carol left. I went into the darkroom and developed Anna’s pictures.
And just like that, reality fell apart.
* * *
Film is not digital. There’s no chance to lose bytes in the bowels of a computer, to merge files, to have information corrupted by malfunctions or cosmic rays or viruses. Film is physically contained on a discrete roll. The images may be blurry, overexposed, underexposed, red-eyed, unflattering, partial, or missing, but there’s no way they can be of someone else entirely.
Anna’s twenty-four pictures included three women about her own age, ten children, two teenage boys, and nine shots of the same older man. He was gray-haired, lean, and handsome, a brown-eyed Paul Newman.
I stared at the photos in baffled shock. What the hell had happened? I had never seen any of these people before, had no idea how they had turned up in my camera. Nothing made sense.
Fear slid down my spine, viscous and greasy as oil.
* * *
In the end I hid the photos, called Anna, and told both her and Carol that I’d screwed up and ruined the shoot. Carol ragged on me without mercy. Anna agreed to another session, no extra charge, a week from Saturday morning.
In between, I shot a trashy-looking woman — teased red hair, black leather bustier — who was a happily married mother of two, and a patrician blonde beauty who, I suspected, was a hooker. I shot two giggly eighteen-year-olds who said they wanted to be models and who hadn’t the remotest chance of succeeding. I shot a pretty, sad-eyed young woman who wanted a glamorous picture to send to her soldier husband deployed in Afghanistan.
A hundred times I pulled out the Anna-photos-with-no-Anna, and never came close to solving the mystery or mentioning it to anyone. What was I going to say? “Your pictures seem to be of several other people — are you a multiple personality? A witch? A mirage?” Give me a break.
When Anna arrived for her second shoot, she seemed subdued. The shots in the green negligee still looked good through my lens, but they lacked the fresh zest of the first session. That’s the difference between professional models and amateurs: The pros can fake freshness. Off camera, that’s not always a desirable quality.
I wasn’t as light-hearted, either. In fact, I could barely keep my mind on the raw shots, so tense I was about what they might develop into. After Anna and Carol left, I went straight to the darkroom.
Twelve shots of the older man, eight children, two pictures each of one of the teenage boys and one of the middle-aged women. Some of the children were seated at a table, drawing with crayons. The teenager scowled ferociously. All the backgrounds were out of focus. No shots of Anna.
I stared at the negatives until I couldn’t see anything at all.
* * *
I followed her. Her phone number was on the client-contact sheet. I fed it into an on-line reverse directory and turned up an address in Framingham, one of those peculiar Boston suburbs that’s upper-middle-class along bodies of water and working class everywhere else. Anna lived in a modest, well-kept bungalow on a maple-shaded street. Saturday afternoon she spent at a local community center. Saturday night she met two women — not those in the pictures — for dinner and a movie. Sunday she took the MTA into Boston and viewed an exhibit of art deco jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts. Monday she went to work at the Framingham Public Library. I photographed her parking her car, entering the restaurant, leaving the movie theater, buying a ticket at the museum, even standing behind the reference desk helping an after-school gaggle of noisy teenagers. Each time I developed the pictures right away. None of them were of Anna.
Increasingly, the settings weren’t even there. Her house was blurry, and so was the restaurant. The theater marquee was a blur. The museum had become a vague outline, and the library picture showed only the faint suggestion of the reference desk, behind which stood the scowling teenage boy. Each subsequent set of photos showed increasing haze, a pearly incandescent glow, although the people recurred sharply. If anything, they were too sharp, as if over time they were taking on knife-edged properties, almost able to slice right through the photographic paper. Yet at the same time, parts of their bodies — a shoulder, a back, the top of a head — seemed weirdly obscured, as if receding into deep and inexplicable shadow.
None of it made any sense. All of it scared me.
It finally occurred to me to Google™ Anna, who had a surprisingly large on-line presence without actually posting anything herself. She turned up in other people’s blogs, in small-town newspaper articles over two decades, in the proceedings of ALA conferences, in the Alumni Notes of her college. She ran childrens’ programs at the community center. She organized disaster-relief drives. A show of her paintings had hung on the walls of a local bank. She was the person that friends turned to in times of trouble. Why had such a woman — gregarious, kind, pretty, bright — never married, never had kids? One blogger wrote: Dinner last night with Anna O’Connor. If she can’t find the right guy, what hope is there for the rest of us? To which someone had added the comment: Some people are just too picky. Deluded overage romantics, still hoping for a soulmate.
Bitch. But correct? I could see in Anna the outlines of a life both brave and sad: filled with useful activities but still feeling itself somehow displaced. Not a skilled enough painter for a commercial art gallery. More intelligent than most people — she’d graduated magna cum laude from Northwestern — but not ambitious enough for big-time academe or for a corporate career. Lots of friends but with no one really close, and thus lonely underneath. I knew many people like that, including me.
Until she met this Montana guy on-line, who turned her into the hopeful, sexy woman who’d come to be photographed at Glamorous You.
I gazed again at the baffling, terrifying photos that couldn’t exist, and then I drove back out to Framingham.
* * *
“Ben! What are you doing here — did you come to bring me the replacement pictures? You didn’t have to do that.”
She came down the stone steps of the library, the last person to leave. Eight o’clock on a warm September night and sunset was long over. In the bright floodlights from the library, Anna looked both tired and tense, like a person who’d spent the day carrying loads of bricks up flimsy ladders. She wore another librarian outfit, brown pantsuit and sensible shoes, and her pink lipstick had been mostly chewed off.
“No, I didn’t bring the proofs. I have to talk to you about them. Will you come have a drink with me?”
“I don’t think that would . . . Oh, why not. Is something wrong? Do you need to talk?”
“No. Yes. Is there a bar close by?”
She didn’t know. Not a party girl. I found a fake Irish pub on Route 9, called her on my cell, and she joined me in a booth in the back. I’d already downed a double Scotch on the rocks. Another sat waiting for Anna. She took a sip and made the face of someone used to white wine. In the gloom of the pub, she looked old and strained.
“Okay, Ben, what’s this about?”
How do you blurt out that existing photographs – tangible, physical objects – can’t possibly exist? I was going to sound like a psychotic. Or a fraud. Can’t take flattering pictures of a client? Pretend she’s not there.
I said, “The pictures of you are coming out . . . odd.”
She flushed. “I know I’m not very photogenic –”
“No, it’s not that.” She had absolutely no inkling. I would have bet my eyes on it.
“Then what is it?’
“The photos are . . . blurry.”
“Yes.” I couldn’t do it, I just couldn’t. “Very blurry. It’s my fault. I’m here to refund your deposit.”
“But . . . you have a terrific reputation as a photographer. I checked.”
I shrugged. Her mouth tightened. “Oh, I see. I look ridiculous, don’t I? A woman in her fifties posing for a glamour shot. And you don’t want to embarrass me by saying so.”
“No, it’s not that at all. I just –”
“Anything else here?” the waitress said. She wore a silly white apron with green shamrocks on it. I ordered more doubles. When mine came, I seized the glass as if it were a tree in a tsunami.
We sat in a heavy, unpleasant silence that stretched on and on. And on. Anna finished her first drink and made strong inroads on the second. Nothing I could think of to say seemed right, or even possible. Finally Anna made a sudden movement. I thought she was getting up to leave, but instead she said, “How much do you think a person should change herself for love?”
My answer was instantaneous and violent. “Not at all! Nothing!”
She peered at me, eyes a little unfocused, and I realized that Anna O’Connor could not hold her liquor. But if her inhibitions were in decline, her perceptiveness wasn’t.
“Who was she, Ben? Your wife?”
If it had been anyone else in the world, I wouldn’t mention Laurie. I hated to talk about her, even with Carol, although Carol knows the whole story because she and Laurie were friends. But I was desperate to keep Anna talking until I heard something — anything! — that would make sense out of those photos. And I don’t hold my liquor all that well, either.
“Tell me,” Anna said.
Pain always turned me angry. “Not much to tell. My wife and I had some problems. Nothing big, or so I thought. Then she met a guy in a chat room. She had an affair, she left me, and he left her. She wanted to come back to our marriage, and I said no way. It was good and she broke it. The pity-me note she mailed me said she was tired of trying to be somebody she couldn’t. Well, I can’t be somebody I’m not, either. I couldn’t ever trust her again. End of story.”
“I’m so sorry.” From Anna it didn’t sound perfunctory or condescending or phony. “You said ‘It was good’ but your marriage must have been troubled before she even met the other man.”
Laurie had always said it was troubled; I’d thought it was mostly fine. She said I was “never emotionally present,” but didn’t all women say that? All the ones I’d known said it. I feel like I’m always pursuing you, Ben, and never the other way around, and I don’t like it. I scowled at Anna and tried to push away all memories of Laurie. As usual, it didn’t work.
Anna said gently, “Why didn’t you let her come back? It looks to me like you still love her.”
I snorted. “I told you, I won’t change who I am. And I don’t take sloppy seconds.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say, Ben! She’s not a whore, just somebody who made a mistake. Maybe somebody who needs you.”
“I’m not the Salvation Army, Anna.” I knew how my comments sounded. I also knew how much I needed to sound that way, especially to myself. Tough. Beyond caring.
Anna said, “My guess is that maybe you need her, too.”
“You don’t know anything about either of us!”
“No, I don’t. I’m sorry to pry.”
I thought she’d leave then. Instead she said, “What really happened to my photos?”
I stared across the table. The original set of proofs were in my messenger bag. Pissed at her now, I took them out.
The weird thing was that after the first shock, she didn’t seem surprised, or at least not surprised enough. Her forehead crinkled like a topographical map but her eyes didn’t register all that much disbelief. She studied the kids, the teenagers, the adults, the handsome older man. I saw that she knew them.
“That’s him, isn’t it?” I said. “Your boyfriend.”
“How did he –”
“I don’t know. I was thinking about him, about all of them . . . I don’t know.”
“Are you saying that I shot a picture of what was in your mind instead of –”
“I don’t know!”
She stood, so quickly that she knocked into her second empty glass, sending it skidding across the table. She didn’t pick it up. “It’s late I have to go to work tomorrow thanks for the drink don’t worry about the –”
“You can’t drive, Anna. You’re drunk.” Apparently that didn’t take much.
She made a despairing little noise and lurched toward the Ladies’. When she returned, her face was wet and a cab waited outside.
That was the last time I ever spoke to her.
But I went on shooting her, whenever I could get away from Glamorous You. I photographed Anna outside her house, outside the library, with friends, on the playground at the community center. Maybe she saw me, maybe not. Certainly she never acknowledged me.
Anna hurrying across the street to her parked car — but the negative showed another woman, younger and in tears.
Anna blinking in sunlight on the library steps — but it became the graying older man and the library was a dark blur.
Anna on her porch, both porch and house a swirl of black, Anna replaced by three small children.
I studied the photographs in my darkroom, in the kitchenette of my unkempt condo, in the middle of the night. Let it go, Laurie used to say, about so many things. But I couldn’t let this go. I kept looking for clues, trying to put it all together, shooting yet more film. I spent time — a lot of time — on line, delving into Anna’s public life, looking for photos. I found them.
Then Anna disappeared.
* * *
I don’t know when he told her the truth, no more than I know anything else that transpired between them. The first chat-room encounter, the first emails, the first phone calls. Probably he told her how isolated he felt in Montana. Probably he told her how isolated he felt in this world, and at first she had no idea that the hackneyed phrase could have a double meaning. Maybe he told her why he was in Montana, of all places. Or not.
And she told him about her own version of loneliness, because that’s what all lovers tell each other. Just as all lovers say that finding each other is a miracle, an unlooked-for gift from what maybe isn’t such an indifferent universe after all. They each say that they would give up so very much to be with the other. Cheat on a marriage, leave a spouse, then regret bitterly their own stupid actions and promise the moon and stars for another chance.
How much do you think a person should change for love? The answer in all the self-help books is: Don’t. The lover is supposed to accept you just the way you are, unconditionally. But when Anna asked me that, she didn’t yet know the full truth. She suspected something, that was clear not only from the anxiety and tension on her face, but from the photographs themselves. In each set of shots, the people got sharper. I found most of those people in jpg files, in blurry newspaper photos, in blog postings, in yearbook shots. The teenage boys were her troubled nephews; Anna had gotten one an after-school job at the library. The women were her newly widowed younger sister plus two of Anna’s friends. One had been laid off from her job but was now rehired. The other had broken her leg. The children were all from the community center, disadvantaged kids for whom Anna volunteered her time. Only Montana Man had no on-line photos.
What was he? Why was he alone in Montana, without others of his kind? By choice, or as the result of some unimaginable catastrophe? I would never know. The only image I would ever have of him was from Anna’s mind, as he somehow changed her from the inside out, changed her fundamental relationship to the world as I understood it. While she let him do it.
The pictures tell the story — but not the pictures of the people. It’s actually the backgrounds that matter. In the first one, my studio is only slightly blurred. With each subsequent shoot, the backgrounds — how Anna saw this world – got hazier, became nothing but shadows. Then the shadows turned into black miasma, as Anna struggled with her decision. The last several roles of film are like that.
Except for the very last photograph.
She saw me, that time. It was early morning. Dressed in the dreary brown pantsuit, she came out of her house, stood on her porch, and smiled at me where I waited in my car, camera raised. She even posed a little, as she had done that first day in the studio. Her smile was luminous, suffused with joy. Then she went back inside and closed the door.
The developed shot shows a woman dressed in some sort of gauzy robe, wings spread wide from her shoulders, skin lit from within. Her tiny silver horns catch the dawn light. Her tail wraps loosely around her body. She is beautiful.
But, then, she always was. What makes me unable to stop looking at the picture, what makes me so glad for her, is not her beauty. It is that, finally, the images in Anna’s mind are not of all those other people she can help but of herself, happy. He did that for her. He — whatever the hell he really is — gave her herself. That’s what Anna wanted me to see, on her porch that last day: What can happen when you change for someone else.
“Can” happen. Not “will.” No guarantees.
I frame the photo but I never hang it. I redouble my efforts to pick up clients, which makes both Carol and the electric company happy. I spend too much time at the fake Irish pub, sipping and thinking, and then thinking some more.
And eventually I pick up the phone and call Laurie.