Ariel I saw her years later in the grocery store near my house. I had to look twice to be sure it was her. She had lost weight, a lot of weight. Her collar bones jutted out from the neckline of her shirt like the framework of a building. When she spoke to the young woman accompanying her, her neck muscles pushed against her skin as though they were straining to break free. I thought of all our morning walks together and had to stop myself from approaching to congratulate her. She always did want to be thinner.
Her hair wasn’t blonde anymore. It was the exact color of my second son’s hair, a mahogany red that I clearly remembered her exclaiming over as she stood in my kitchen shortly after we met. “I love this hair,” she had said, wrapping a single curl around her finger as my son squirmed and grimaced. “Do you know how much I’d have to pay to get hair this color?” she had said.
“But your hair’s a beautiful blonde,” I had offered. My own hair was auburn. I’d always wanted to be blonde.
She had shrugged, rolled her eyes. “Do you know how much I had to pay for hair this color?” she had said, laughing. And I, as always, had laughed with her.
Now, standing at a distance, it took me a moment to determine that the young woman with her was actually her older daughter. It appeared that the weight she had lost, her daughter had found. She slouched along beside her mom, a permanent sulk on her face, wearing skinny jeans that were not made for her figure and a T-shirt that read “I Didn’t Do It.” An unappealing white roll of flesh poked out between the jeans and the shirt. Her hair was no longer the blonde airy curls I remembered from back then, perennially clipped into ponytails with matching ribbons. Instead it was a dishwater blonde I imagined closely matched her mother’s real color, hanging dank and stringy around her acne-spotted face. I closed my eyes to block the longing I felt at the image of her at eight years old, radiating light and happiness. The girl I was looking at was not the same person. Yet she was.
I found myself tailing the two of them, watching her just like I used to when she was my neighbor, and I was fascinated—too fascinated—by her. Once, I had wanted to be just like her. Once, I would’ve done anything to be like her. As she pulled microwave popcorn and diet sodas from the shelf, I thought about the time when I knew her. Or, when I thought I knew her. There was still a part of me that wanted to talk to her, to ask the questions I never could get her to answer, just in case I might finally understand what drove her to do what she did. I wondered if I looked into her eyes if I would see a flicker of the person I once knew, or if I would just see blankness. I imagined a gaping absence that was always there, even when I chose not to see it.
I pulled the photo proofs out of the envelope, fanning them out on the granite countertop in my client’s McMansion with a flourish. I loved how the word client sounded, and I threw it around whenever
“I have a meeting with a client.”
“My clients are so demanding. They all want their proofs back yesterday.”
“This client had some very particular ideas about what she wants.” After years of snapping candids of my own children, I took my photography professional after someone with connections noticed that I was good at catching the little moments of life that most of us walk right by—the furrow of a tiny brow, the contentment of one lone spit bubble on a sleeping baby’s pursed bow of a mouth, even the personality of a flailing, screaming two-year-old. “Someday,” went my pitch, “you’ll appreciate the reality of the photos. Not just the posed smiles but the whole package. The mess and the mess-ups. You’ll look back and see pictures that reflect your life as it really was.” If they wanted Sears Portrait Studio, they were welcome to go to Sears Portrait Studio. But if they wanted art, that’s what I created. Few things pleased me more than seeing a portrait I shot gracing one of my clients’ walls, surrounded by a heavy, impressive mat and frame. I aimed to create pictures that caused others to stop and stare, frozen in the awe of how something so simple could be so beautiful. Sometimes I found myself staring too.
I leaned over the proofs on the black and gray flecked counter, watching Candace Nelson’s face as she looked at the photos we’d taken just a week before. I suppressed the urge to talk to her about them, to point out my favorites or ask her what she thought. I had learned the value in waiting quietly. It was as true in art as it was in marriage: The compliments meant more when they were unsolicited.
She looked up at me, her eyes misty with tears. “You totally got it,” she said, pulling me into a hug. Candace Nelson and I had never met before I came to her house to photograph her children, one of whom was born prematurely and had defied the odds, home just a few days from the hospital. Candace had cried happy tears the whole time I snapped, the rhythmic clicking of my camera at times the only sound in the room. Her older two children, I noticed, had a kind of reverence for the baby. It was in the way they had held him and talked to him and even looked at him. Their reverence had hung in the air around them, an invisible force that transferred through the lens onto paper.
“These are just lovely,” Candace went on. “They’re … priceless.”
I nodded my assent, honored to have been a part of remembering the early days of her new son’s life. I had been inspired to start my business when I found old 8x10s of my sister shoved into a faded envelope with the words “Your Priceless Memories” stamped in tacky green and gold on the outside. My mother had apparently stuck the envelope in a trunk and forgotten all about it. I unearthed the photos like a time capsule, Ginny in her patchwork dress and me in a pea green turtleneck that clashed with her dress. My hair needed brushing, and neither of us was smiling. So much for priceless. So much for memories. I longed to give my kids—and other families—so much more.
Candace held up the price sheet I had handed her with the proofs. “Can I keep this?” she asked. “Talk over the order with my husband?” She giggled like a teenager ogling her prom pictures. “I know he’s going to want them all.” She paused, a somber expression washing over her face. “There was a time when we didn’t think we’d even get to take him home, much less take snapshots.” She pressed her palms onto the counter on either side of the spread of photos. “I can’t thank you enough.”
I thought, but did not say, A big fat order would be plenty thanks. My cell phone buzzed in my pocket. I looked down at it briefly but didn’t reach for it. “Oh, you can get it,” Candace said, dismissing me with a wave as she buried her nose back in the photos.
“Yes?” I asked hesitantly into the phone, not sure if I wanted to know. I had left David and the boys supposedly packing up our house for our impending move to the home of our dreams. Three more days and we’d be movin’ on up. It didn’t take much for me to break into the theme song from The Jeffersons in those days before the move, the boys clapping their hands over their ears whenever I did.
“Uh, honey?” David asked. “A guy just called and said he’s got the moving van you rented ready and they’re about to close? He said one of us needs to come pick it up ASAP.”
My heart began to pound in that way it does when I’ve screwed up. I vaguely remembered the conversation from a few days earlier. The man had said if we wanted to go ahead and start packing the van, we’d better get it sooner rather than later. I told him we’d be there by Saturday at noon. I looked at my watch. It was Saturday at 11:45. I backed away a few steps from Candace and smiled as she looked up at me. “Okay,” I said sweetly. “I’ll be there right away. I’m just finishing up here.”
David started to argue about how there was no way we’d make it, but I hung up before he could say more. Another lecture from David about organization was the last thing I needed. Candace looked at me again. “Everything okay?” she asked.
“Oh sure,” I said, gathering up my things. “We’re moving and there’s just some stuff I need to go take care of. You know how it is.”
She nodded as the corners of her mouth turned down. “We moved here five years ago,” she said, gesturing to the palatial digs she called home sweet home. “And I never intend to leave. I told people, ‘Write this address down in ink, because we are staying put.’” The corners of her mouth turned up again.