Some time ago, I asked a couple of friends to give me some of their photos and I would write a story around them. I tried to get them published in literary journals, but, alas, no luck there. I still feel like these are interesting stories, and the photos are beautiful. Here's the piece that I wrote around the beautiful work of Alana Morosky. Also...please note...she is not the woman in this story. Alana's one of the warmest and nicest people on the planet.
The Absence of Me
Written by Tanya Eby
Photography by Alana Morosky
I didn’t really understand how Elena thought about me until I saw the pictures.
Looking at it now, a tightening happens in my chest. There’s something hopeful about the piece, the way the sun bounces off the yellow sculpture, hits the van, and then blinds the viewer. There’s the coolness of the shadows at the bottom of the picture, and the bright blue sky. There’s something weightless in here, but there’s also an emptiness. It’s the emptiness I notice the most. The absence. I am not in this picture.
“Go stand over there,” she said. We were tooling around Portland. She said she wanted to take some pictures and I could help her. I’d be her mule. She’d laughed when I said I’d make a great mule and I picked up her bag of gear. It was heavy and I pretended it wasn’t. “Go stand over there,” she said, and I did. Awkwardly. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. My arms felt impossibly long. I crossed my legs, wondered if that would make me look like I had to pee. I uncrossed them. The wind ruffled my hair. I heard the camera’s shutter blink. “Move a little that way,” she said and pointed. I shifted. “A little more,” she said. I smiled into the sun and couldn’t see Elena fully. She was just a dark shadow in front of me, focused on the pictures she was taking. I stood tall. Brave. I spoke my feelings with my expression, with the tilt of my head.
I am not in this picture. She wasn’t taking a picture of me at all. She had wanted me out of the light.
Cue the sad love songs. Cue the heartache, the bottle of gin that later will make me throw up and wish I’d had more control. Cue the long hours of realizing I never mattered to her at all.
There are more pictures. Of course there are. She was an artist. I liked books. We dated for nearly a year. I thought it was turning into something real, but really, I was just filling space for her. I was a warm hand on her thigh my fingers inching slowly upward. I was a kiss on the back of her neck, when her hair was in a haphazard ponytail, exposing her gentle slope. I was someone who sometimes made her shiver, but maybe more from her own effort than mine.
We spent the day in my truck, me driving, following her instructions. “Take that exit,” she said and laughed.
“Do you even know where we’re going?”
“I know where we’ve been,” she said and I thought she was clever. We were going on gut instinct, she’d said. We’d find art and beauty in the most unlikely of places.
We stopped at an empty road. It was dirty and brown and dull. I was hungry—for lunch, and for Elena. I was tired of being a mule, but I couldn’t let her know I’d grown bored. It was a road. Just a road. What could she possibly see in a road? She had me pull off to the side. “Stop!” she’d cried, as if she’d just spotted a unicorn. I don’t know. Maybe she had. I pulled over. I saw dullness. She saw this:
I can’t stop staring at it. At the time, I saw this in sepia, but not the cool images you see on blogs and Facebook. I saw a road that was dirty. She saw history. She saw questions. She saw wind and a trail that leads somewhere and draws you to the top of the hill. Pulls you to want to see what’s around the bend, but you can’t see it, because you’re not part of this place. You’re just an observer. She saw contrast and possibility and hope and pain and the wistfulness of clouds. I saw a need for a sandwich and some sex. Her smooth thighs. Her laugh. Her kiss.
I don’t know why it took me so long to see the truth of things. You never know what you need to know until you’re ready.
All the pictures from that day break my heart. There is an absence of me in every one. I carried her gear, I drove her around, but in the end, I was just a vehicle. A week later, over Thai food, she would look at me and she would say “It just isn’t working”. She would hold her hands up in the air for a moment and I would see our relationship as smoke and watch it dissipate before me. I should have been more interesting. I should have had more to say. I should have been meaner, maybe.
She sent me the pictures. “Thanks for your help,” she said. There’d be a small show in the gallery. I could come, if I wanted. There’d be cheap wine and bad appetizers and she knew I was a sucker for both. “Mini-sandwiches,” she said in her email. “Bring a date.”
Maybe I’ll go. Maybe I’ll go and I’ll stand by the final photo. I’ll stand by the empty house at the end of the day, at the beginning of night, with the flowers dying around it. As passersby look at the picture, I’ll point to it with my hand holding a plastic glass filled with red wine. I’ll say, “Look. In that window? The bottom right? That person who looks like they’re trying to get out? That’s me. I’m there.” To everyone who passes I’ll say I’m in that picture, it’s me, until someone believes it’s true.