This is the third chapter of my month-long fiction, album, made of word pictures.
blindside. verb. Hit someone from an angle outside of their field of vision; catch a person unawares; exploit a weakness to attack. From blind plus side; its origin appears to be in American football.
This album is from Jacob’s university days. He took a lot of pictures then, but kept maybe one in 36, and this album is only personal memories – not even meant for anyone else to look at. Here are two young men in porkpie hats, one of them jutting his jaw forward so that a straw sticking out of his mouth points upward, the other making as if to put his tongue in the ear of the one. Now, who in the hell were they? Never mind; it’s a good picture. Personal feelings about subjects of pictures can cloud their pictorial merits. On the other hand, a famous subject can make much of an otherwise unremarkable photo. Here’s the campaign photo he took of the guy who became student union president, all blow-dried and properly lit, with a 21-year-old’s version of gravitas. He’s probably not famous now, but he was a thing on campus then. Shortly after the election, a water balloon launched from a hundred feet away by some engineers hit him in the side of the head and blinded him in one eye. You couldn’t take this picture of him after that, although he actually made for more interesting photos.
Here’s an action scene from a floor lounge in the university student residence. The furniture is purple and green, couches made of tubular metal and cushions. One guy is standing on a couch holding surgical tubing adapted with a pen nib for firing an intense stream of water. It is bellied out like a fed anaconda and it is power-washing someone just half-off the left edge of the photo. At the same time, a lanky lad with an open shirt is swinging a large cushion that is about to connect with the head of hose-guy and send him sprawling. Off on the right side of the photo in the half-shadow background is a young woman with short brown hair who is sitting calmly in a chair and looking directly at the camera with the sort of blankness that dares you to guess what she’s thinking.
Jacob raises and eyebrow and inhales. He knows what he won’t see on the next two pages of the album.
He didn’t know her well, but one day he passed her in a back hallway on campus and she abruptly said “Do you do photo sessions of people?”
“Yes,” he said, and stopped and looked at her and noticed her. She was not very tall and was dressed in a pale blue terry-cloth shirt and some kind of pants, he can’t even remember, probably snug jeans. She had a face you could see without noticing it every day for months, but if once you noticed it it was like you had just pulled a book with a blank cover off the shelf, opened it, and could not stop reading it.
“Could you?” she said.
“Of you?” She nodded. “Certainly. When and where?”
She inhaled quickly. “…My room? Tomorrow afternoon, maybe?”
“What’s your room number?”
“See you then.” And he walked away. And the next day at 3:30 he knocked on her door. He had a bag containing his camera over his shoulder and was holding a large piece of white foamcore to use as a fill reflector. She opened, peeked, saw it was him, and opened the door all the way, standing behind it. She let it close, and the doors in that res always locked on closing, which helped many students learn the hard way to keep their keys with them. He could see from the furniture arrangements that she had one of the coveted single rooms. He turned to look at her and saw that she was wearing a bathrobe. He set down his bag and his foamcore.
“That’s what you’re going to wear? Or you’re doing costume changes?”
“I kind of thought… maybe…” She looked down to her left, considering her words.
“You can wear anything or nothing. They’re your photos.” He was being cool about it. But he was not in fact dispassionate about the different options.
“I forgot to ask,” she said, wrapping her arms around herself. “What do you charge?”
“Nothing. I’ll do it for free. But I’ll just choose a couple of photos to enlarge and give to you, and if you want more you’ll have to pay cost.”
“Okay… Well, let’s start,” she said, and after a very short hesitation undid her bathrobe, shrugged out of it, let it fall, and stepped out of it. She was now wearing nothing at all, and her skin was excellent, a glowing matte texture with slight downy hair showing at the edges when backlit.
He was very much attracted to her now, but he was there as a photographer. He would not do her the disservice of interpreting her artistic choice as a come-on. He would remember the sight of her in this room for this hour for the rest of his life, but he was sure that she would not appreciate any unprofessional behaviour. Besides, he was not the sort of person girls just took obvious likings to. He pulled out his Nikon F2, looked at the overcast afternoon light coming through the window, half-pulled the drapes, set the foamcore on her desk, and asked her to sit at it and face him and tell him about her most difficult course.
Over the course of the hour he talked to her and asked her questions, all in aid of getting her to make good pictures, and he learned many things about her. She was a math major. She sang in an a cappella group. She grew up in a small farming town. She liked combinatorics. She used to swim naked in a pond. She liked photography, especially Edward Weston. Her most annoying professor was Dr. Hevesi. When Jacob asked her to curl up on her bed and say what she thought about when she was curled up in bed, she didn’t say anything. She just looked at him with that overfull blank look, the same one he sees in this floor fight picture in the album.
This picture he sees now must have been taken before the photo session.
When he was finished taking his roll of photos, he said thank you, and she said thank you, and she was still looking at him. She picked up her bathrobe and put it on, open, and paused and seemed to be trying to read him. He wondered if this was an opportunity of some sort. But he didn’t want to presume, and he didn’t want to be unprofessional, and anyway he wouldn’t have had the nerve. He said “Thanks again. I’ll have the pictures developed in a few days.” He started for the door. She did up her robe and went and opened the door for him as she had at first, and he went out.
Three days later he had developed the film and spent some time in a darkroom making enlargements. He chose two: one of her at her desk, sitting like a student, a barely patient look on her face, and one of her curled up on her bed, one eye hidden, the other looking directly at the camera over her arm. Her nude skin glowed, daring the viewer with an erotic power that was for no one but her. He put the eight-by-tens in an unsealed manila envelope and went and knocked on her door, but she wasn’t in, and he wanted to give them to her personally. Perhaps there was more that could be said. But he had to go to a long block of classes and work running late into the evening. So he left the envelope on his desk in his room and went out.
His room? The room he shared with Rick. Not his own room all to himself. Especially not when he was sharing it with Rick. Rick liked to have friends in the room and play music and talk and drink. Rick’s friends were the sorts of guys who, no matter what you were doing on your own, would peek in with crazed amusement and say “What’s that?” and ask a million obnoxious questions and pick up things and pass them around and generally destroy the world.
Even so, what happened blindsided him. Exposed a blind side. Several blind sides, his and many others’.
No one would admit who did it. To this day Jacob doesn’t know if it was Rick or one of his friends. But when Jacob got back to the room the manila envelope was in the garbage and the pictures weren’t in it. He charged out into the floor lounge but there was no one there. On the bulletin board were two sets of pushpins in roughly eight-by-ten rectangles, and two of the pushpins had torn corners of a photo still stuck under them. Corners he recognized well.
He doesn’t know who put them up. He doesn’t know who tore them down. But he stood there, frozen, for part of a minute, and then started to go to Clara’s room to see if she was there, and then couldn’t.
As it turns out, she had already left. She had taken her things and moved out. He did not see her again.
There were many people in the student residence who previously didn’t really talk to Jacob who after this really did not talk to Jacob. He moved out at the end of the semester.
People are shit, generally, with a few highlights, is what Jacob would tell you now. But beautifully highlighted shit can make pretty good photos.
For years he didn’t know what had happened to Clara. But social media has created a social global warming. People and things long trapped in the permafrost of the past are now released by thawing, and each release accelerates the warming. Last year – was it? – he was on Facebook and it showed one of its lists of suggested friends, and there she was, almost 30 years older but a face he still wanted to finish reading.
How does Facebook know to suggest such people? Facebook often knows because the person has recently searched you and looked at your profile. Jacob didn’t send a friend request, and she hadn’t sent one, but he went and looked at her page. She was an accountant in Charlottetown. She had finished her degree at a different university. He couldn’t see much else about her. She had the same last name.
Did she blame him for what had happened? He can’t make himself ask.
He kept his negatives, of course. He kept smaller prints of the two photos for himself, too. He put them in his album, on the next two pages.
He turns the page. He knows they won’t be there. And they aren’t. Somewhere, years ago, between one time he looked at the album and the next, someone – Pam? Carl? Lucian? – had removed them. He never asked. He can still see the photos in his head. But here now he is looking at two blind sides of black album paper, each displaying four corner tabs stuck on it, with no corners using them.
Don’t make anything of it, but I’ll let you in on something: At Jacob’s funeral, if you look at those assembled, if you look from the front to the back right corner, half in the shadows, you will see a face that you can’t read but can’t stop trying to read, looking at the coffin. That will be Clara, who will have learned of the funeral through Facebook and through the photo news websites she reads regularly. And also because someone in the family will have told her.