Volume 8 Issue 1

In This Light

Andrew Wyeth, Hidden

By Rebecca Swathe

Toned silver gelatin print, 16"x20"

Wyeth secretly painted a woman, his neighbor, for over fifteen years. She modeled for him; he just never went public with his drawings or paintings.   Nobody knew about her, not his wife, who was also his manager, not his friends, nobody.   So, Rebecca, my wife, decides to do the same thing.   We were in college then, in our first apartment together, and she figures it'd be a good idea to secretly take pictures of people in our neighborhood.   Most shots were of them outside, cutting lawns, getting mail, that kind of thing. This one here is someone through their bedroom window.   I guess it's a little strange.   Nobody ever knew she was taking them, they weren't expecting it.   One day, I think about two years after the fact, I'm going through some old boxes in the closet and come across a shoebox filled with secret pictures of our neighbors.     

"You could have said anything," she tried to stomp down the spiral staircase, but it shook and she grabbed the railing, slowing down.

"Rebecca, he asked me a specific question," I followed right behind her trying to steady the few sips of wine left in my glass.   "So, I gave him an answer."   We both had to slow down and concentrate on navigating the dangerous curve of the steps.   "All I told him was how you got that picture of old man Ryndak in his boxers."  

This man I could have said anything to had been the first to buy one of her prints that night.   Some of her friends had come out onto the roof to get Rebecca and tell her the good news.   The buyer had followed them up; he wanted to meet the artist first hand.

The gallery was in an old warehouse loft.   The kind that people buy and then have to unfortunately live in until the rest of the neighborhood catches up.   Rebecca had been accepted as part of an exhibition called Slanted Visions: The Architecture of Angles .   She had been taking pictures for as long as I knew her, but this was the first time she had her things on display in anything bigger than a coffee shop.   People stood around with glasses in their hands, studying the pictures on the wall with heads tilted and eyebrows low and tense.   They talked in small circles, trying to come up with better ways to describe the same things.   There was no place for me to go.

She made it to the bottom of the wobbly staircase and turned, blocking me and knocking my elbow.   A few drips popped out of my glass and onto the stairs.  

"Now look what you did."   I held the glass away from my body and smiled at Rebecca.   I tried to make her smile back; it wasn't working.

"We can't leave yet Brian," she said.   Her cheeks were pink from the fancy red drinks her photographer friends had been making her all night and she held her finger up to my face, "and you're not going to embarrass me again."  

I laughed.   "Sure, I'm the embarrassment here."

I'd figured her buyer was spending enough, and was entitled to some kind of honesty.   They'd started talking about art up there on the roof and I was left standing on the edge of the deck, watching the traffic flash by on the expressway and listening to my wife be interested in things I didn't know anything about.   It was getting worse.   I wasn't sure I should keep trying.

"I mean it, don't embarrass me."   She let go of the railing at the bottom of the staircase, inhaled deep and quick through her nose.   "Okay?"   She straightened her dress in the front, tugging at the bottom corners above her knees.   She smiled a concerned little smile at me and felt lightly to make sure no hairs had fallen from the tight twist at the top of her head.

"I can just go out this back way and wait in the car."   I set my glass down on the back porch windowsill.   "I'll sleep."   I started toward the dark stairway leading, I assumed, to the alley.   "I'm not doing you any good here."  

Rebecca scooted in front of me, "Please, Brian."   She blocked my way, again.     "If you can't do this one thing I ask..."

Candid Topography

By, Rebecca Swathe

Black and white, 8"x10"

            This is the oldest one here, I think.   It really doesn't have anything to do with angles.   Well, it could, I guess, have something to do with anywhere.   I was disgusted by it, at first.   I couldn't figure out why anybody would want to look this close up at someone's skin.   I didn't understand how all these pores; all this puckered cellulite could possibly be attractive, or artistic, or even interesting.   She must have developed more than seventy-five of these.   Some woman she worked with at the Walgreen's, Maude or Marlene, another cashier.   She told me how they went out to smoke on their lunch break and she snapped a picture of her leg up on the picnic table.   The sun makes it worse, picks up all the tiny hairs and bumps.   We had versions of this one all over the apartment, on the kitchen table, hanging on the refrigerator; I used to have to scoot them into piles when I tried to pack a lunch in the morning.   That was when she still developed film on a small plastic table in the bathroom next to the sink, taping up black paper over the small glass block window in the shower stall and stuffing a towel under the door.    I had the hardest time remembering to knock.  

Rebecca hopped from foot to foot at the front door, ready first and antsy.   "Hurry up, Bri."   She shook the keys in her hand.   "We have ten minutes and traffic sucks."  

After two years of marriage and a lot huffing, Rebecca convinced me to go to yoga class with her, early on a Friday morning.   They'd switched my days off at the store and I really had no excuses left.   She had started going to yoga after her sister had a baby, said she was scared to have her body change that much, and it was something we could do together, something that was good for both of us.   She figured the stretching and posing would keep things tight, together.

She ran out before me, into the cold morning, her hair wet and hanging in thick strings around her ears.   The car was running by the time I got out there and she sat in the passenger's seat her knees bouncing, hands tapping on top of them, smiling at me, snapping her gum and making tiny bubbles.  

"Okay, ten minutes, I know, but..."

She looked over at me and I lifted an invisible cup to my lips and nodded my head.

"We're not stopping for coffee," she said.

"Becca, there's no way."   I clicked my seat belt and turned around in my seat to reverse out of the spot.   "It's 7:30, in the morning, for Christ's sake."  

"Coffee?"   She looked over at me, one eyebrow raised high above the top of her sunglasses.   "We can't."   She gulped water hard out of a bottle, screwing the top back on after every swig.   "Not before yoga."   She had told me earlier, as I was digging through a box of summer clothes in the closet trying to find shorts, that she had worked hard to get to the point where she could wait until after the class to smoke and drink coffee.   The water helped.

              I pointed the two vents on my side of the dashboard down towards my feet.   "I'll fall asleep if I don't have any."   The heat had never really worked in the old Bonneville and the cool air coming through the vents didn't help any.   "How am I supposed to meditate?"

            She let a short burst of air out through her nose, a little snort, and rolled her window down a little.   It was one of the last days of fall and the tree branches hung naked up and down side streets.   She lifted her face to the air slipping in and pulled her hair back away from her face, tying it back with a rubber band.   "You never take anything seriously, Brian."

            I turned the blower up to high, but as much as I tried to imagine it was, the air wasn't warming up. "I'm freezing."   I opened my mouth in her direction and clicked my teeth together fast and hard.   I wrapped my arms around my shoulders at the red light and rubbed.   "You told me to wear shorts."   

She reached over without looking at me and squeezed my knee.   I watched her hand rub against my skin, the shinny tips of her fingers in my patchy hair.   "I won't let you fall asleep."     

Relentlessly Unproductive:   a memoir

By Rebecca Swathe

Three-color carbo print, 9"x7"

           

I know this one is pretty unique.   I'm not sure exactly why, but I know it took her a hell of a long time to finish it.   One of the oldest ways to make color prints or something, I think that's what she said.    That's actually our house there.   It looks pretty good.   My mother left it to me when she passed away.   Good neighborhood, nice schools.   The next door neighbor's house far enough away that you can't hear what he's watching on TV in the summer.   I'm not sure how a house is supposed to be productive, though.   I put that aluminum soffit up last year; that was something.   I guess I don't really understand much about her art.   We used to go take pictures all the time when we first got engaged.   She'd bring them into the store and stick them up against the meat case.   I'd be in the freezer and she'd set them up so that when I came back out, there'd be landscapes, forest preserves, or statues from that one cemetery down in Lakeview, all lined up behind the pork chops and sirloins.   We had a good time.   Then she started making prints instead of pictures and things got different.        

I still had my freezer jacket on when I walked in that one afternoon and I kept it zipped.    I had almost finished hanging the pork halves when my shift ended.  

Bits of meat and sawdust got stuck way too easily in the treads of my work shoes.   I always slid them off and left them in the hall and that day I remember the cold from the linoleum bothering me through my socks.

I ended up in the bedroom doorway with my freezer gloves still in my pocket and blood on my pants.

She sat on the edge of our bed with her head down; a glass of water in her hand, the shallow angle of the sunlight catching the bottom rim of the glass, burning it orange.

I sat next to her.

She flinched.

The late afternoon sun had just started to hit the front window in a different way, everyday a little lower.   I'd noticed the color of the carpet recently; it didn't really match the walls.   It was too dark.   The end table too, was off color and had chips and nicks in it around the bottom edges.   You could only see these things from certain angles, though, only at certain times of day.

"What's the matter?"    I put a gloved hand on her thigh and felt the pressure of her skin, her temperature, but I couldn't really feel her at all through the thick cotton.   I thought it might have been her family.   She had an aunt she barely knew and a cousin in Nevada, but she kept her eyes down and she didn't really look sad.   She looked scared.  

"I need to tell you something," she went out to the kitchen, and I followed.   Standing at the sink, she ran water into the glass. She had been mixing developer and the sharp smell stuck to her; thick like vinegar, like chemicals, but warm too, like food, the sharpest part of brewed coffee. Her dark hair, cut blunt at her shoulders, shined in the lower slanting light that hit it and all the sharp places on her neck and shoulders were more noticeable.   She was all slants and shadows.  

I stood next to her at the sink. "What?"

She drank from the glass, once, and dumped the rest down the drain.   "I lied about being with him."

I turned slow, staring at the top of her head.   Her hair fell in straight borders around her face.   She kept her eyes down.

The kitchen had absorbed a lot of heat from the day's sun and all I wanted was to take my jacket off.

 

Remedy of Contact

By Rebecca Swathe

Color print, 9"x 11"

            It's strange to see yourself in a picture.   I can't even imagine what it must be like to be in a movie or on TV.   It doesn't even look like me, not really.   This was one of the few times that she ever took a picture of me.   She always said it didn't feel right to use me as a 'subject,' like it was too easy, too planned. I don't know if that was true, but I kind of felt like she was blowing me off.   I'd go and watch, though.   I especially liked when she developed.   I'd sit in the darkroom completely quiet and wait for my eyes to adjust.   Eventually, I could see her bent over the machine, in the red of the safety light, constantly changing the settings and flashing lights.   Her sleeves would be rolled up and her hair messy, but tied back.   She never spoke when she worked.   For this one she set the automatic timer, balanced the camera up on a new tripod and moved us up closer to the lens.   You can't even really tell that that's my hand on her chin, it too close, I think.

We were late for that yoga class by the time we finally found parking, which meant we had to walk in on a bunch of people mid-mediation, stretching their backsides into the air, and had to "excuse me, excuse me," our way to a spot where we could roll out our thin mats and try to catch up.

            Rebecca was no help.   I tried to be funny, make light of the situation.   I made fake motions towards people as we passed them, pretending I was about to trip and fall over, hands stretched out in their direction.   Rebecca motioned for me to stop.   Her eyes got wide and she made a quick little chop with her hand.  

            "Just go here," she whispered, pointing to a spot not really big enough for the two of us, directly in the front row, directly in front of the wall of mirrors.

            "Here?"   I joked and pointed to the rear of the woman next to me.

            Rebecca closed her eyes, her pink lids moist, her eyelashes curled and dark.   She took a deep breath in through her nose and let it out slowly through her mouth.   Yoga.   She grabbed the mat out of my hand, unrolled both hers and mine on the floor next to the woman, and sat down with her legs crossed over themselves, joining the rest of the group in a complicated pretzel position.

            By the time I had my socks off, rolled in a ball, and thrown over in the corner, the group was standing again and the instructor, a thin woman in tights and an old Taste of Chicago T-shirt, was standing with a partner giving the class instructions for a two-person maneuver.  

            Rebecca looked over at me and paused for a long moment.   "Just try to do it normal, ok?"   She wiped her palms on her thighs, rubbing the sweat off on the cotton of her stretch pants, "just watch the instructor," she pulled at her ponytail, readjusting, making it tighter.

            The instructor flipped off the fluorescent overhead lights and in the dim gray coming in from the windows, Rebecca moved towards me and put her right arm around my waist.   I did the same; I slipped my left arm around her and faced forward.   I watched Rebecca, instead of the instructor, in the mirror in front of us.   A tiny strand of black hair fell directly in front of her eyes, and she stuck out her bottom lip and blew it away.   My right hand and her left touched in front of us, like we were praying and when I tried to readjust a little, the dampness of our palms made our skin stick and pull.   I took a deep breath and tried to really concentrate.   She lifted her left leg and placed the bottom of her foot on the inside of her right knee.   She looked like a small, serious flamingo and I watched the corners of my mouth turn in to a full tooth smile while she stood, still as stone, with her eyes closed.   When she opened them, and I tried to pick my leg up fast and get in the right position, but the jolt sent us over and before we hit the mat, I swear I caught her smile.

Tumble Deeds

By Rebecca Swathe

Gallup, NM 2001, dye diffusion print, 8"x10"

We were on our way to L.A. when she took this one, going to find photography schools for her.   She made me stop so she could take this somewhere in New Mexico.   We were driving on this two-lane highway through the desert with the windows down and wet washrags on the back of our necks.   The Honda's transmission was finally giving up and with the air on we couldn't make it through the mountains.    Out of nowhere, she yelled for me to stop, and I pulled over by this chapel set back away from the road with a fence separating it from the highway.   I got out of the car just as she hoped over the short, crooked pickets and looked back at me in that sea of tumbleweeds there.   I made her laugh; I did that Doodle-y doo, wa, wa, wa, cowboy thing.   I remember worrying that the dried sharp edges of those weeds would scrape her bare legs.   She crouched low to the ground to get a good shot, then aimed high up toward the chapel roof.   I watched her work, bending and stretching to get what she needed, what she wanted to see in her frame.   I knew if I let her, she'd leave me.   I leaned over the fence on the empty highway and asked her to marry me.   She said yes, standing right there in that field of thorny stick balls.

I held my hands up in surrender. "Fine," I said, stepping back from the dark stairway in the back of the loft.   "I'll be on my best behavior."   I tucked the edge of my shirt back into the crisp jeans she made me wear to the exhibition and smoothed my hair back as best I could.   "After you."

            "Thank you," she said and opened the door to the gallery.   We moved through the candlelight and jazz music and I grabbed a new glass off the counter, filling it from the first wine bottle I could reach.

"Becca, where were you."   One of the old beneficiaries huddled up close to her and spoke in exaggerated whispers.  

I stood next to the food and watched them kiss each other's cheeks and hold onto each other's hands as if they were long lost sisters reunited after years of separation; such drama.

I moved out of the back room to get away form the smell of the trendy Asian/Mexican cuisine, cold and solidifying in long aluminum trays.   Seafood tacos with Japanese mustard sauce the tag said; fish and cheese, artist food.   I moved back out into the loft area where Rebecca's prints hung along side the rest.   I walked around and looked at our life hanging on the trendy exposed brick wall.   Rebecca stood by the front exit laughing and touching people lightly on their arms.   There was a man I didn't recognize standing next to her.   The way she smiled and stepped closer to him made my mouth dry and I swished around a sip of wine to clear away the thickness.  

They greeted people near the front door, shoulder to shoulder, her body leaning into his, talking, smiling.   I wondered if they would get together after we split up.   I wondered if Rebecca knew that I wanted all these people to see her differently, that I wanted them to see the Rebecca I used to know.   That's why I told that buyer about her crying, about how she covered her face and cried, embarrassed, when I found the shoebox in the closet.    I wanted them to see how all this had changed her.  

They would make great hosts at parties, Rebecca and this guy at the door.   I pictured the two of them standing in the foyer of their ranch style house; big gray stones covering the wall, a sunken living room with a fireplace in the center.   Her nickname would be Babe, his would be Honey, and they would curl up by a fire in the winter, sipping martinis, talking about contrast and negative space.  

I watched as they stood in a round of introductions, Rebecca smiling and welcoming another couple that had just walked in.   The man had his hand on her back, like they were going somewhere, like they were pushing through an open door, the tanned skin of his hand standing out against the white of her back and shoulders.