By Paul Jaussen
…light wraps the photo like a bandage of fire…
This photograph is taken on a New Year’s Eve, during the final hours of 1996. It is not developed until the early summer of 1997. The photographer loses the exposed roll of film for several months; it lies buried in her camera bag, shoved carelessly into a small pocket she rarely uses and often forgets. By the time she finds the roll of film again, she is preoccupied by other development projects that take precedence over a half-remembered set of snapshots. But the photographer always enjoys finding lost film. The dull plastic containers suggest a mystery waiting to be discovered, a long-anticipated novel left deliberately sitting on the desk, as yet unread.
The woman on the right of the frame is wearing a green dress, although of course you cannot tell this by looking at the photograph. Her name is Beth, and she purchases the dress as a Christmas present for her sister, Audrey, who is the other woman in the picture. Beth finds the dress in Nordstrom’s, where she does all of her Christmas shopping, and she decides to try it on. She and Audrey are nearly the same size, as you can tell. The dress fits perfectly, the neck swooped like glamour, the green fabric lush against her skin. “Audrey will love it,” she tells herself in the mirror, and as she drives home from Nordstrom’s she feels happy to have discovered such an ideal gift for her sister. She can picture Audrey’s face as she opens the gift on Christmas afternoon, huddling in the warm circle of their parents’ living room, and how beautiful Audrey looks in the dress. These thoughts remind Beth of other Christmases and other gifts, when she and Audrey are young and they still told each other secrets.
A week later, the dress suddenly abandons its role as a gift for Audrey and becomes the dress Beth will wear to the annual New Year’s Eve party she hosts with her husband. Up until that moment of transubstantiation, Beth has every intention of giving the dress to Audrey. But when she decides the dress is actually hers, instantaneously it never was a gift, and any association between Audrey and the dress vanishes. On Christmas, Audrey receives a basket of small jars of jam from a local restaurant and a gift card to Nordstrom’s. Beth says that she thinks Audrey will enjoy picking out something for herself. Their mother, who insists on taking a picture each time someone opens a gift, makes Audrey hold up the basket and Nordstrom’s card and smile for the camera.
The green dress is not the first gift Beth has kept for herself. Although she will not admit it, Beth repeats this pattern regularly: she buys something with the purest intention of giving it to someone else, only to suddenly decide that the object is actually her own. This switch can happen rather inexplicably, involving objects that Beth cannot possibly want. She has a small collection of these useless not-gifts tucked away in her dresser. In 1993, she purchases a pair of deerskin driving gloves for Tom, her husband. Tom knows nothing of their existence—that year, she ends up giving him a boxed set of Bob Seger CDs for his birthday. Sometimes, when Tom stays late at work, and their sons, Tommy Jr. and William, are watching television in their shared bedroom, Beth takes the gloves from her drawer. She holds them up to her face, smelling the leather and fingering the stiches, so small and precise. She puts them on, although they are too big for her. The gloves have perforations at the bottom knuckle of each finger, and Beth likes the way the portholes of skin peek out from the leather, anonymous strangers of flesh. Unlike the mental wall she constructs between Audrey and the green dress, Beth still associates the deerskin gloves with Tom, almost as if he is the one giving them to her after he has worn them for several years. She imagines his hands inside the gloves, the way they fit snugly against his palms and fingers, not loosely, as they do on her, the leather breaking in over time to eventually acquire a more precise intimacy with his body. She makes a fist with her right hand. Then she takes off the gloves, returning them to the drawer, before Tom comes home.
Tom is the man immediately to the right of Beth in the picture, standing on her left. He is smiling, with a glass in his left hand, probably scotch. His right hand isn’t visible in the photograph, but it is resting on the small of Beth’s back. He is noticing for the first time the rich texture of the fabric in the dress, and reminds himself to compliment her about it later, when they are alone. Tom gives Beth a piece of jewelry for Christmas this year, a thin, delicate chain of white gold with an equally delicate setting for a single pearl. The chain is too fine to appear in the photograph, but you can see the pearl, a tiny dot stuck to the bottom of her throat.
1996 is a big year for Tom. In late June, he is unexpectedly promoted to a senior position, bypassing what would normally be several years of managerial development and grooming. Although Tom doesn’t like to share this detail, the promotion comes after the untimely death of Scott, the man who Tom replaces. Scott is killed in a car accident. He leaves work late, just as a powerful summer storm gathers on the horizon. Scott’s tires lose traction on the interstate, and the car skids at very high speed into a concrete pillar supporting an overpass. Scott dies in the ambulance as it rushes through the rain to the hospital. The official police report attributes the accident to “operator error,” as Scott is driving too fast for the conditions and clearly loses control of the car when it hydroplanes. In fact, one of the brake lines malfunctions, causing Scott’s wheels to lock up unexpectedly. This true cause is never discovered, and Scott’s accident is one of several involving the same defective brake line. Since each of these accidents is attributed to another cause—weather, distraction, alcohol, another driver—the manufacturer remains oblivious to the problem, which is the result of new and poorly regulated supply chains established after the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Jan. 1, 1994.
Tom is close to Scott, and his death shocks him. For the first weeks, Tom often wakes up, panicked, in the middle of the night. He suffers from a recurring dream, where he sees Scott walking toward him, as if through one of the hallways in their office, although Tom does not recognize the place. Tom tries to speak to Scott, asks him a question about some inane problem, but Scott continues walking, as if Tom is invisible or absent, and that is when Tom remembers, in the dream, that Scott is dead. Tom silently cries at Scott’s funeral. Beth puts her hand on his back, and Tom pretends not to notice.
The loss soon gives way to triumph when Tom learns that he is to be promoted to Scott’s position. Everyone assumes that there will be an outside search, that the company will try to steal someone from a competitor, since no current employee is an obvious replacement for Scott. But everyone is wrong, and the job goes to Tom.
Perhaps the rapid succession of unexpected emotions changes something in Tom. Perhaps the flush of power and money obscures the new sense of vulnerability and mortality that haunts him in the immediate aftermath of Scott’s death. Perhaps a realization that the future remains shrouded and uncertain grants him new resolve. Whatever the cause, a few days after the promotion Tom calls Audrey at her home. “I love your sister,” he says, “but I have always wanted you.”
Audrey is standing between two men in the photograph, an arm around each. She is laughing at herself and the men, relishing in the kind of boyish pals’ pose the three are presenting to the photographer. Audrey laughs often. She lives in an apartment full of old furniture and vinyl records. Audrey has collected records since she was a child, and she plays them whenever she is at home, even when she is having sex with Tom. She always picks out the record herself, as she thinks Tom’s taste in music is terrible.
When Audrey hears his voice on the phone, she refuses to evaluate any possible reasons for sleeping with Tom. She is not particularly attracted to him, nor does she feel ill will toward her sister, and so the affair is not what she has called in other contexts “fucking for revenge.” Tom’s confession comes across the line like a summons or a decree, as if some force in the universe is giving her a unique task. She does not imagine cosmic orders arising from Tom himself; she is not the least bit concerned with Tom. In truth, she finds him dull and predictable. And she is, in her own way, loyal to her sister: She agrees to the affair only on the condition that Tom maintain absolute and total secrecy. Beth is never to know.
Only one time in the last six months does Tom come close to revealing their secret to Beth. This happens because Audrey and Beth have identical breasts. Tom is totally unprepared for this particular family resemblance, as the sisters are otherwise quite different in appearance, although they are nearly the same height. Beth’s face is narrower, with rich brown hair, while Audrey’s hair is much lighter, nearly blond. Looking at the photograph, you can only tell they are sisters by staring closely at their faces. It has something to do with the shape of the eyes and a curve in the mouth, a kind of visual echo between the two women. So when Tom first sees Audrey naked, he is taken aback to recognize a body that he already knows so well. Eventually, this similarity is a source of befuddlement, even mystery, that the same swellings of skin and flesh can produce such varied responses, at once predictable and surprising. He does not know why.
Tom never mentions the matching breasts to Audrey, but one evening, after catching a glimpse of Beth naked through the bathroom door, he suddenly imagines himself saying something like, “You know, isn’t it remarkable that you and your sister have the same tits?” The absurdity of the thought causes him to laugh instead, a single incredulous snort that he tries to cover with a feigned cough. Beth walks out of the bathroom, no longer naked, and looks at him quizzically. “It’s nothing,” he assures her.
In late February of 1997, Audrey learns that she has breast cancer. She immediately ends the affair with Tom, treating her illness as if it were a new calling from the universe, replacing the inexplicable mission of sleeping with her sister’s husband. Beth faithfully accompanies Audrey to each of her cancer treatments, each time buying her a small gift: flowers, a book, perhaps a new used record. Beth is secretly proud of herself for actually delivering all of these presents to Audrey.
The man immediately on Audrey’s left in the photograph, standing between the sisters, is James, Audrey’s friend and neighbor. Audrey’s hand hangs down over his left shoulder, her palm flat against his dark blazer. James is half-smiling in the photograph. In fact, he is distracted by the thought of his dog, Billie, who is home alone in James’s apartment. James is hoping, for Billie’s sake, that no one lights firecrackers or, God forbid, fires a gun to bring in the new year.
James finds Billie in the alley behind the apartment building where he and Audrey both live. It is June. James is taking his garbage out to the dumpster when he hears a whine, fragile and plaintive. For a moment, he thinks it is a bird, and then, for another moment, a small child. There is a narrow space between the dumpster and the apartment building, and James peers down to see a dog, wet and muddy from the storm that had raged the night before. She is obviously afraid. He speaks softly to her, holding out his hand, and eventually he hears the thump of her wagging tail against the dumpster.
James takes her up to his apartment and feeds her smoked turkey from a package of lunch meat. He washes her in the bathtub. Her long hair becomes wispy and soft as he rubs her dry with an old bath towel. For the next week, he spends his free time walking her around the neighborhood, putting up posters and asking anyone if they recognize her. But no one knows where she has come from; no one calls. He names her after Billie Holiday, his favorite vocalist.
On the Fourth of July, Audrey invites James and Billie to go to the park and watch the fireworks. They drink beers nested in paper sacks, and James finds Audrey’s laughter particularly vibrant and unrestrained. Billie likes Audrey’s laugh, too. She wags her tail and gives the short, happy bark she saves for her friends. But when the fireworks begin, Billie starts to lunge at the end of her leash, whining incessantly. James is reminded of the first morning that he finds her, after the storm. He reaches down to soothe her and discovers that her body is shaking. She stops pulling at the leash and presses herself into James’s legs, still trembling and whining, her eyes fixed on his face as if asking for an explanation he cannot give.
“I’m sorry,” James says to Audrey, “but I need to take her home.”
“I’ll come with you,” Audrey says, tossing her beer into the trash.
Back in the apartment, the fireworks can no longer be heard. Billie is acting normal again, lying contentedly on the oriental rug in the middle of the floor.
“I guess she is afraid of loud noises,” James says.
“I wonder why?” Audrey asks.
James shrugs his shoulders. “Who knows?”
He often thinks about that night in the coming months and wishes Billie could speak to him about her terror. He wonders where she lived before she came to him, and finds himself making up elaborate stories about her former life. Billie as a firehouse dog. Billie and the postman. Billie and her puppies. For some reason, the lacuna of Billie’s past, this blank space he fills only with his imagination, endears her to him even more.
Tonight, at the party, Audrey introduces James to Tom and Beth. When they meet, James thinks to himself that Tom looks familiar, but he is not sure why. At first he intends to say something to Tom, to ask them if they have met before, but Tom and Beth can’t stay to chat, as more guests are at the door. James never realizes that he has seen Tom on several occasions going into the apartment building while he, James, takes Billie on her evening walk. Now, standing for the photograph, James has forgotten all about Tom. His thoughts are with Billie and her fears. He considers leaving the party early.
Standing on Audrey’s right side, the last person on the left in the photograph, is Marcel, a childhood friend of Audrey and Beth. He is the only person looking directly out from the image, as if he can see you, right there, holding the print and considering its subject. Everyone else is staring slightly off center. Perhaps they aren’t exactly sure where to look, or perhaps they are still in motion when the picture is taken. Marcel’s gaze is perfect, for two reasons.
First, Marcel is a photographer himself, and so he knows to look directly into the lens. Marcel shows his images at various galleries around the city, and some important people (mostly art dealers, one or two journalists, a few academics) know his work. But Marcel is not commercially successful. His subjects—homeless men, vacant buildings, empty cars—exist in an unsettled relationship to the composition, a vague displacement that he deliberately seeks to evoke in his photographs. The effect discourages buyers, the ones with money; at best, people appreciate the images intellectually but don’t want to hang them in their homes. Marcel accepts this situation as an unfortunate consequence of his unwavering commitment to his aesthetic principles. He supplements his income in various ways, most recently by teaching photography classes at one of the community colleges.
The second reason for Marcel’s perfect gaze is Abigail. She is the one taking the photograph and is one of Marcel’s students. Marcel insists that Abigail accompany him to the party after she mentions that she has no plans for New Year’s Eve. Abigail doesn’t really like parties, so she spends most of the evening walking around the room taking photographs. When she develops the roll of film later that summer, most of the prints will be glimpses of time—two people talking in a corner, a half-empty champagne glass, blurry, low-lit dancers in Tom and Beth’s living room. Abigail prefers images of strangers, passing glances that claim intimacy precisely because the subjects appear unaware that they are being transformed. She is only taking this boring, bourgeois snapshot because of Beth, who asks her to take a picture of Beth, Tom, and Audrey. Audrey calls James and Marcel to join the group, wrapping her arms around their shoulders as they stand and smile.
Marcel is secretly in love with Abigail. He doesn’t tell her this because she is one of his students, and he isn’t sure that his department chair will look favorably upon adjuncts dating undergraduates. This is what he tells himself. In fact, Marcel doesn’t know how Abigail feels about him. He thinks she finds him attractive—certain conversations and looks seem warmer, more personal, than the ones he is used to sharing with his students. But now, in this moment, being unexpectedly photographed by her for the first time, he imagines her eyes behind the lens of the camera, and he thinks she is looking at him, him alone, and that by returning her gaze, by staring deep into the lens, through the lens, he can convey to her some of the lurking emotions he has longed to express. He imagines his face, in those thousandths of a second captured in the photograph, as a secret language that only she can understand.
Abigail isn’t thinking about Marcel when she releases the shutter. Just before Beth calls to her, she spots a new guest, a girl dressed extravagantly in a vintage gown, a long string of fake pearls, and a round, tight hat that makes her look like a flapper. The new girl is a secretary from Tom’s office. Abigail makes a mental note to take her picture before the night ends, and she is still thinking of the new girl when she tells everyone to smile. She decides that the girl will look best staring out the tall windows in Tom and Beth’s dining room, even though it is dark and there is nothing to be seen.
Abigail does not love Marcel, but she enjoys being with him. He is an engaging, encouraging teacher. In the coming months, she will particularly value their time in “Darkroom Techniques,” a class with only a few students conducted in the intimacy of a tiny room, really a closet, tucked away in the basement of the community college. Abigail enjoys hearing his voice through the soft red safelight, speaking the chemistry language of acetic acid and ammonium thiosulfate and silver halide. She is surprised by how the process draws her into its patient rhythm, like an incantation or a spell practiced in secret by the few initiates. Sometimes Marcel stands close to her while they work on a print, leaning over the plastic tub of developer, talking softly. And then, the magic, as faces begin to emerge out of the white sheet, like ghosts bearing a message for the living.
Paul Jaussen is an associate professor of literature at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He is the author of Writing in Real Time: Emergent Poetics from Whitman to the Digital (Cambridge UP), as well as numerous essays and reviews in such publications as Chicago Review, Jacket2, Six Feet of Distance and New Literary History. He is currently at work on a second book of criticism, as well as his first novel.
Read next: Mrs. Red Schoendienst Sings the National Anthem by Cal Freeman
Back to the fiction section