reflex. noun. 1. Reflection; bending or bouncing back. 2. A reproduction or further development of a thing. 3. An automatic response. From Latin re ‘back’ plus flexus, past participle of flectere, ‘bend, flex’.
Here it is, the one picture of Jacob in all these albums. He can look at himself. And still not see himself. If you didn’t know what Jacob looked like, after looking at this picture you still wouldn’t. Most prominent in the photo is the camera, a Pentax 67, a medium-format camera, an overinflated SLR. His right hand grips the side and the shutter; his left hand holds the lens to support the five-pound heft of it all. Over one corner of the camera body you barely see his left eye, but it is not squinting, as photographers so often do; it is looking almost at you. Then there is a forehead, and a lush head of hair most often managed (if at all) with fingers. And below the camera is the bottom of his chin, and his neck, and his bare shoulders. And behind him, reflected obliquely in the mirror, is the bathroom door, open, and part of a mirror in the hall.
Mirrors of mirrors and mirrors. An SLR is a single-lens reflex camera. You see through the taking lens; there is a mirror, hence reflex: it reflects light up to the view screen, and from there it can be sorted out and redirected by the pentaprism on top and come out to your eye looking correct. When you press the shutter, the mirror flips up, the shutter fires, and the mirror flips back down, all by a reflex faster and more complex than most your body can make.
This is a recent photo, just a couple of years ago, shortly after Kate came back into his life. This camera is no longer around; he traded it for something else. Kate is also no longer around; he traded her for nothing else, for reflections.
You won’t see pictures of her in this album. Ground rule number one: No pictures. “Put down your camera and talk to me. Walk with me and hike with me and lie with me. In person, in three dimensions. Take me that way or you don’t get me at all.”
OK, I suppose ground rule number one might have been “I don’t do married.” After he reconnected with her on Facebook and they met up at a Mexican restaurant with mason-jar margaritas and sawdust on the floor, she wanted to make that much plain, because it was bothering her how much she liked him now.
“My wife does married,” he replied. “She’s been doing a friend of ours for several years.” He didn’t mention who and what else he had done, then and before. “I go days without seeing her.” This was true. The house was empty and lonely: the boys were moved out, Pam was mostly a dry toothbrush in the medicine cabinet and a closet crowded with out-of-fashion clothes, and the ghosts of her in the chairs, tables, plates, silverware, wedding crystal. He had already hired Trina as his assistant but she only came to assignments on location.
“She doesn’t want a divorce. I don’t know why. Right now I’m worth more to her dead than alive. Divorce me and cash in sooner.”
Kate wasn’t easily convinced, but she was easily intrigued.
After two margaritas, Jacob said, “How about you come over some time and I’ll take some pictures of you.”
“How about I come over and you don’t take any pictures of me. Ever.”
“I’ve taken pictures of you before.”
“That was a long time ago and I almost threw a rock at you once for doing it.”
She used to keep pebbles in her pocket. Bouncing them off someone was an efficient way of making the person reflect on his or her annoyingness. Usually all she had to do was reach into the pocket for effect.
“Would you throw a rock at me now?”
“I have better things to do.”
So she came over. She verified his story. They walked and hiked. They sat. They talked. They drank. They took their clothes off and did things. She came over again. And again. She threw out Pam’s toothbrush. She got comfortable. She’s a candid person, and she likes the candid state: clothed only in air and light. She liked the remoteness of his house, which let her be free from prying eyes. Heaven help him if he should even think about photographing her then. He had to resist his natural photographic reflex.
There is one photo, though. The photo of the cut glass tumbler. The one that has sold so well for him. The one that is framed on the wall there. There’s a story, and when Jacob realizes he is dead there will be only one person left who knows the story: the other person who was there.
Sometimes Jacob had a hankering to shoot a sheet or two of large-format film with the Linhof. Negatives so big you can contact-print them, so detailed you can enlarge them to wall-size and they’ll still reveal small details. A view camera gives a direct view to the world, seen upside-down on the ground glass screen. Then you close the shutter and replace the glass with a film holder so you can burn the view into the film: pull out the dark slide, cock and fire the shutter, replace the dark slide, take the holder out. As much a form of meditation as photography. This time, his Bourbon glass sat on the kitchen table, recently emptied, and it caught the light of a hazy afternoon sun. He was in the kitchen futzing around with the camera when Kate came in the front door. She glanced in the kitchen, went away, came back without clothes. She stood in the doorway just near the table, opposite the window, every square millimetre of her skin reflecting a slight soft glow onto the table. He had been waiting for this.
“If you’re not coming, I’m going,” she said.
He pressed the cable release. The shutter said a soft cliclick. He quickly slid the dark slide back into the film holder and went with her.
Nobody knew about how he got the lighting perfect. Nobody is going to know, except you and me and Kate. But the photo sold very well. Do you believe in subliminal effects?
Not the subliminal effect of the albedo of Kate’s skin. Something else. Something I don’t know how many people have noticed about this photo. But Kate finally noticed. She was looking out the picture window and Jacob walked up with his third full tumbler of whiskey. She turned away and stepped away and started to look at the photo on the wall. “I don’t think,” she said, not looking at him, and then she stopped. And leaned closer. And her breath twitched a slight intake, and she put her right forearm over her breasts and her left hand over her crotch.
In the tumbler, almost in focus, small and pale and distorted, but there so you can’t unsee it once you’ve seen it: a reflection of Kate, nude, one hand on the door frame.
She turned at Jacob and burned her eyes into him. And left the room. Ninety seconds later she came back with her clothes on and carrying her bag. She opened her mouth to say something, closed it again. Exhaled through her nose. Looked at the picture. Looked at Jacob, looked at the glass he was holding, the same one, its whiskey now half swallowed. “That will be your death.”
She walked with big strides to the door, out the door, to her truck. Jacob heard the “chunk” of its door, the “churm” of the engine. And the sound of gravel stones spitting from the rear tires and spraying onto his front porch.
The irony is that he had only wanted her glow for that photo. He wasn’t trying to get a reflected image. Not like in this picture here in the album.
He takes off his glasses and looks at it closely. Not his own face. The mirror. The hall mirror reflected in the bathroom mirror. And in that mirror, in profile: Kate. Out of focus, not looking at the camera, but there. He took the picture (the camera said “flabdblap”) and then set the camera down in the washroom and came out. Kate, around the corner and with no reason to suspect she was in the shot, said, “Can’t take a piss without taking a picture.” Busted. “No more. Your eyes only now. And your skin.”
But that was early on. And she never saw this photo. Or she would have left much sooner.
“Well,” Jacob thinks now as he drinks the last of his glass, “I’m not dead yet.”
He’s wrong, of course. He’ll find out soon.
If Kate were here right now he wouldn’t be dead. But she isn’t. He took a picture; another domino fell. Every moment, every picture we’ve seen, has been another domino. Maybe you can stop them as they go. But not once the last domino has been hit. Not when the last reflex has reflected.
Jacob could refill his glass. But that would require unbending his knees and getting up, slowly, stiffly, letting the blood get back into circulation. Let’s finish looking at these pictures first.