“It’s a mystery to me,” she said as she stood at the bedroom window, the moon on her arms, a shadow from the pane’s leaded tracery laying its dark fingers upon her breast. “I look at all your work, all those beautiful photographs you take, and I ask myself how a man who sees so clearly, so deeply, can be so difficult to understand.”
Their apartment was on the second floor of an old redstone facing a row of other, older redstones whose flat rooftops suggested a simple geometric horizon and an order to the universe that could only be regarded with the most grave mistrust. The building in which they lived was a block from the city park, and sometimes when the nights were hot and the air was particularly still, they would lay awake in the dark watching the moonlight through the branches outside the window and listen to the music drift down from the great white bandshell on the hill. But tonight, the instruments were silent.
“Maybe you’re trying too hard,” he said, putting his thumb between the pages of his book and straightening one leg across the cover of the bed.
She turned away in the darkness and sat down in the armchair near the bookcase. Her face dipped below the angle of the shadow into the light, and she smiled at him, soft and unreal, like something from a painting. “It’s my way to try hard. Don’t you know that by now?”
He leaned across the pillow to the nightstand, to the glass of iced tea she had poured for him, and with a simple gesture that held in reserve a world of thought to which she would never be privy, he took a small drink, returned the glass to the stand, and opened his book again.
“I don’t see how you could shoot the sort of photographs you do, all those marvelous, tender pictures, if you didn’t have a big mushy heart hiding in there somewhere,” she said.
She got up and walked to the bed. She sat down, sighed, and then she got up again and went back to the window. “I wonder if it’s going to rain, tonight?”
“I don’t know.”
“We could use the rain, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” he said. “Rain would be nice.”
“But not too much,” she said, still looking out. “I don’t want it to hurt my impatiens.”
A boisterous couple walked beneath the window and their voices carried up into the darkness of the bedroom. They were laughing. She looked down and watched them pass.
“I think we should get a cat,” she said quietly, her eyes following the couple down the sidewalk. “They have some nice little kitties over at the Humane Society. I could adopt one and have it keep me company when you’re away on assignment.”
He looked up from his book. Her back was turned to him and she was gazing out the window. He could make out the shape of her breast, smooth and round against the silk camisole she wore, and he thought her very beautiful, though he did not say so.
“A cat would be a lot of work, wouldn’t it?”
“Not so much,” she said. “Besides, it would be fun. I’d like to have something I could look after.”
His finger hesitated over the page. He looked down and turned it quietly.
She walked over to the bed again and sat down opposite him, curling her feet beneath her legs. She raised her fingers and brushed back his hair. “You have perfect ears,” she said wistfully. “Did you know that?”
He smiled, still reading, and without looking up, said, “You’re crazy.”
“You’re sweet, too.”
She pushed down his book with the flat of her hand, looked into his eyes and said, “What are you reading?”
“An essay. Something by George Santayana.”
“No one,” he said, closing the book over his thumb.
“Don’t be that way.”
He smiled and laid the book behind him on the covers. “He’s just a guy,” he said. “He taught philosophy at Harvard a long time ago. It’s a piece about aesthetics.”
“Is he good?”
“I don’t know. I’m not very smart when it comes to philosophy.”
“You’re smart about everything. You read all the time.”
“I’m a repository of useless facts,” he said, putting his hand behind her neck, drawing her close to him, and kissing her forehead. “But it’s one thing being a library and another thing all together being a librarian.”
She edged closer and pushed the book off the bed. It fell with a loud clap on the floor in front of the nightstand. She put her head on his chest and laid her hand next to her mouth and looked at something through the open window, and as he felt the warmth of her breath against his skin he drifted away, too, remembering a photograph he had taken once, a shot of a giant snapping turtle swimming underwater like a naked diver, bearing away a glimmering panfish in its jaws, and he tried to see it in the context of Santayana’s words, which also swam in his head like so many dark, murky creatures.
“You’re very special,” she said softly. “You have something that makes you very special.”
“It’s luck. I’m a lucky man.”
“No, it’s more than that.”
“Do you think so?”
“People gravitate toward you. They enjoy being around you. And yet, for some reason I’ve never quite been able to understand, you don’t much like being around them. It’s such a paradox.”
“I like you.”
“I know,” she said, phrasing the words with an unenthusiastic smile.
“You know what I mean. I love you.”
“You love your work,” she said, casually brushing a crease from his shirt.
“I love you and my work.”
She laughed a little and rolled onto her back. “You know that picture you took of those old men in all their fly fishing gear? That one where they’re sitting on the banks of the Wind River, smoking their pipes and laughing?”
“Well, I wish that was us.”
“Those two old guys?”
“Why would you say that?”
“I don’t know.”
He stroked her hair, watching her eyes slip away toward the open window, and felt the room fill up with silence.
“When do you want to get that kitten?”
“Tomorrow, maybe,” she said, looking up at him. “I think I’d like it to be tomorrow.”
# # #
"Photograph" first appeared in Black Dirt.