Like A Camera

I was a few miles from the airport before I decided what to do about the car lot cashier. It took another ten minutes to decide to do it now, rather than risk not being able to locate her later. I went back. She was still there.

"F'get somethin'?" she said. Her smile was a bit pinched, as if to hide the ugly tooth. It was too far forward to hide.

"I want to give you my card. I'm a photographer. I'd like to photograph you."

She looked at the card. "I can't afford a professional photographer," she said politely, trying to hand it back.

"No cost. I want you to model for me."

Her station turned her so that her right side, the broken one, faced the window. She maintained a three-quarters profile by turning the chair forty-five degrees, as if to lessen the effect of the tooth, the collapsed cheekbone, to assert that it wasn't all of her. I wondered if I was imagining that kind of self-consciousness and vanity. Perhaps I was. Now she turned her head and I saw, again, full-on, that her face was truly asymmetrical, two halves. One of them, almost perfect, could be Eleanor's sister.

"Y'kiddin'," she said flatly. Not accusative or astonished, just an observation.

"No." There was a car behind me. A family, waiting patiently. "The phone number is my studio. Call me." As I started to pull away, I added, "Fifty bucks an hour. I'm serious."

If she hadn't called, I'm not sure I'd have tried to find her. I flew to Chicago twice more in the next two weeks, without seeing her on the return. I considered going back at the same day and time that I'd first seen her, Sunday at 8 pm. Then she called. Janet put her through after asking if I wanted to speak to her.

"This is Marie Anne Foligno," she said, as if it were a question. "You gave me a card. At the airport?" Each sentence ended with a upward, querulous lift. I suppose shrinks would write it off to insecurity. She waited for me to remember. That, I think, was a test.

"Great," I said. "I'm glad you called. When can you come in?"

"Look, Mr. Edwardson, if this is some kinda scam, you're wasting your time. I can't afford it, and— It's too much money."

"Miss Foligno, the deal is you model for me, and I pay you. No tricks."

"You're talking with clothes on?" I wondered, then, if her body was damaged somehow as well. Who not?

"I shoot ads for magazines, family portraits. Come by; if you don't like what you see, forget it and no harm done. I'm not a pornographer."

"Yeah, but no 'art' either." She was silent. Then she said, "Why?"

"Interesting face."

"Interesting? Yeah, right! I never heard ugly called 'interesting' before."

"I'm not interested in ugly/not ugly. You have two faces. I want to try to separate them."

"Yeah, ugly and not ugly. Hunh. How much do you pay? Non-professionals, I mean."

"I start at fifty an hour."

She giggled. "That's a day's pay in an hour. Well, almost. What a deal." She paused again. "Daytime, at your studio, while that woman—your receptionist?—is there?"

"Of course. Actually, she's my assistant. All above board. You'll see."

"Yeah, I know, you're a professional." There was no irony in her tone. "I don't work Thursdays. Is that Ok?"

For a second I thought she meant she couldn't come on Thursday, tomorrow. Then I decided not. "If you could come in Thursday afternoon, that would be great. Two hours. And it won't feel like work at all. Really. Three o'clock?"

"Two hours, a hundred dollars. What a deal. I'll be there."

And she was. I had Janet get the releases signed, and she explained to Marie Anne (Of course she'd have two names) that the makeup would have to go. She'd "dolled up," reasonably well otherwise. Janet knew I wanted skin and bones, not pancake. She was careful not to criticize or correct. Janet was great at putting people at ease. They came in together, chatting about the movie across the street.

For that first shoot, I concentrated on separating the faces. The right side was, well, a mess. One tooth—not even a canine, but a lumpish premolar—was extravagantly out of alignment, as if it had been laid on the gum as an afterthought. It bulged under her upper lip, twisting her mouth unsubtly, like a wad of gum. Her cheek was slightly collapsed. Some bone was missing. There were no scars, or I'd have guessed she'd been in some sort of accident. I thought of it that way, Eleanor's face after a dreadful accident. Her eyes were darker, more blue than green, and the right was pinched at the outer corner, almost squinting.

I circled her; she blushed a bit under my scrutiny.

"Don't worry. I'm just getting ideas, what to do."

"Plastic surgery."

"I'm looking for something. Give me a minute." I turned her head, getting a three-quarters profile, then a bit less, then tipping her head a bit away from me. "There. Don't move." I moved back to the camera. "Don't move; look at the camera—" she started to turn, involuntarily, and I snapped, "Don't move. Sorry. Just look without moving."

I snapped the sidelong look, then again, moving a bit to her right.

"Don't let him fluster you, Marie Anne. He's all bark." Janet was pushing a curl of hair off the girl's forehead. "Don't nod," she added quickly, glancing melodramatically at me, "or he'll fire us both!"

A good shoot is a ballet. I play music on a multiple-disc CD, randomized: bluegrass, rock, jazz, ethnic things with unambiguous peasant rhythms. I move constantly, looking for opportunities and accidents of light. Janet slips in, like a Bunraku puppeteer, to adjust a drape or vagrant hair, to push gently on a bone to move her arm, her chin. "There, sweetie," she murmured as she lifted Marie Anne's chin with a fingertip. "There. And smile, just a little. Relax," she prattled quietly, laying the snow of her own calm over Marie Anne's nervousness. Janet had done some modelling when she was younger and still, now, when the shoot called for an older model. She was not a knockout, but lovely in her way, aging well, like Sophia Loren.

"Say 'melody'," she told Marie Anne. As she repeated the word, I got two more. Watching through the viewfinder, I said, "Talk to the light, that one, behind me."

"The light?" She grinned. "Hey, light. What's happenin'?" She shot a glance at me, not moving her head, then looked back at the light, a spot off to my left. "You're not much of a conversationalist."

"Sorry. I'm thinking," I said without looking up.

"Not you. The light,"

"Oh. Right." I shot a roll of film, popped it, rearranged the lighting, changing the shadows, and shot another. Then I did the other side, bracketing shots in harsh, unfiltered spots. I had three rolls of film, and we were done.

"That's it?"

"That's enough for now." It was 4:30. "Janet leaves at five. Come back next week?"

"Do I get to see them?"

"If you want to. They'll be ready. Janet has your check."

"That was only an hour and a half."

"It's Ok. Come back next week. Thursday."

"Free money." She looked for a reaction. I was putting the camera away, taking down a couple of the lights. "I don't mean to sound so ... harsh. This is weird."

"I do it all the time. It's just bodies."

"Yeah. Well." She shrugged, got up from the posing stool. "I'll see you next week, huh?"

Her attitude changed the next Thursday, when she saw the results.

She separated the pictures, as if unconsciously, into left side and right side."She's beautiful," she said, looking through the pile of pictures of her unmarred left side. She was right about the isolations; they were perfect. She didn't comment on the others; I'm not sure she saw what I had done there. Before Marie Anne arrived, Janet had chosen a few of her favorites; she commented that they were exhibition quality. Possibly.

Marie Anne had bought a blouse for the second shoot; at least it looked new. She was dressed up, in her own way. She had a good sense of color, if her tastes were a bit florid. The blouse was acrylic, a gaudy South Seas print, greens and yellows and too much blue. Janet made a fuss over it, admiring the colors. I got a kimono from the costume rack and draped that over her shoulder, arranging the folds, covering the blouse. The colors were similar, and even the fabric. Eleanor had left it behind, with other gifts. I used it as a prop sometimes, memento mori.

"It's gorgeous," she breathed, stroking the fabric. Janet moved it a bit higher on her neck.

"It looks great on you," Janet said. "And it goes with the blouse!" she added, as if this were a discovery.

"Picks up your skin tones," I said, returning to the camera. I studied the effect. Her hair was almost the color of her tanned skin, dark blonde oak. "No, it doesn't work." I adjusted the kimono again, then began to take pictures. I let my body language communicate dissatisfaction. I circled her, rejecting setups. After a few minutes she said, "Maybe I could try it on." She glanced at the dressing room.

"That might work."

Without the blouse under it, it hung more naturally. I finished a roll. While I reloaded the camera, she and Janet browsed in the rack, gossiping and exclaiming. They found a white poet's shirt, huge, with balloon sleeves, a remnant of my college days. She was small, maybe five three, and it would be big as a tent on her. "Try it," I said. She and Janet retired to the dressing room. When she came back, it hung to her knees. Janet had snugged the sleeves with rubber bands. Still, they nearly covered her hands. We worked on poses, angles, until a few minutes to five.

After she left, Janet came back into the studio and helped me pick up. "She thinks it was a birth injury," she said.

"She told you that?"

"Uh-hunh. While she was changing"

"You mean, like a forceps thing?"

"She's vague. It's what her mother told her. I don't see how it could be. Did you notice her hand? Her nails are really short on her right hand, and her pinkie barely has a tip. I don't see how a birth injury could do that. And one—"

I waited. "What?"

"Never mind."


"Girl stuff. Never mind, Ok?"

We shut down the shop and left together. Janet drives a Porsche. Her husband sells something financial, stocks or something. I went home.

My pictures of Eleanor are all gone. I burned them, the night she told me she was leaving. In the back yard, under the moon, while she slept inside, I chain smoked good cigars and burned all of them, dozens, in the barbecue. She asked me, next morning, what I was burning, and I told her. She packed and moved out that weekend. We slept together till the end, not even avoiding each other in bed. Then she was gone. Ghost images of a gone time.

"It looks silly with jeans," Marie Anne said, the next week. She had put the white shirt on immediately when she arrived. She'd shown up in jeans, a tee-shirt and running shoes, a purse big as luggage on one shoulder. The shirt was a pullover with a drawstring front, open to her sternum. She had left the ties loose; the tee-shirt was gone, or course. When I made no comment, she went back to the dressing room, returned without the jeans, barefoot. "Ok?" she asked, and I nodded. From the fall of the blouse, she was still wearing her bra. She had good legs, muscular and tan, nicely toned, like her arms.

"You work out. Aerobics?"

"Some. But I ride my bicycle a lot," she said, watching us arrange the lights.

We spent an hour working with the shirt. Later, during a break,she looked through some pictures I'd shot for a spread in Utah Holiday. I went to the darkroom, giving her a chance to relax. After a few minutes, I heard her exclaim, "This is you!"

"Yes," Janet answered.

"Did he take it?"

"Uh-hunh. Out by the lake. Phew! Paul, you're not going to need me late tonight, honey?"

"No," I answered, timing the last wash. "I'll just be a minute."

The phone rang. When I came out, Janet was gone; I could hear her voice, a wordless melody, at the phone in front.

Marie Anne said, "Doesn't it bother your wife, you spending all this time with beautiful women?"

"I live alone," I said. She was holding a picture of a model in the same white poet's shirt. She did not look up.

"You like the picture of Janet?" I said.

"You made her even more beautiful."

"Cameras bring out what's inside. They isolate things."

"Isolations," she said. She twisted unself-consciously, raising one arm like a tentative wing then letting it float down.

"They also lie, of course. It's all in how you look at it. Some people would say I made her look younger. Maybe she was younger, in front of the camera."

"She's really pretty." Marie Anne was, at most, thirty. I wondered how old Janet seemed to her.

"Of course," I said. "But we usually don't look like pictures. You have to wonder why that is. Maybe the camera sees what people can't see, or maybe it creates something that isn't there." I shrugged. When the camera was set up and loaded, I went to the coffee table by the door. Janet was still on the phone, taking a long time, if it was a client. I picked up a book on the couch and brought it to Marie Anne. I flipped quickly to the middle.

"That's Janet," I said. "And this."

She studied the pictures. They were Brett Westons, a shot of Janet's back, another of her naked body on the Carmel Beach, as if asleep in the brilliant light. They were nearly thirty years old.

Marie Anne sighed. "She's gorgeous."

"That's right. Maybe that is still in there, waiting for the right camera. Meantime, we should be so lucky, to hit fifty looking that great."

"Annie," Janet cried from behind the drapes, "is he telling my secrets?" She stepped half through, her hand over the phone's mouthpiece. "Roger locked his keys in the car. He's having a pet on his cell. I gotta run, the poor baby. He's all hot. Can you shut up?"

"Yeah, sure. Just a minute," I said to Marie Anne, and I joined Janet out front, letting her out and locking up. When I came back, Marie Anne was looking at the Westons.

"What do you want?" she said, without looking up.

"Surprise me," I said, returning to the camera.

"I can dance," she said. When I did not reply, she added, "I took jazz in high school." It was nearly five.

"Like what?" I said. "Miles Davis? Cassandra Wilson? Kenny G?"

She looked over at the CD player. The music was Mediterranean, Albanian folk music, I think. She looked dubious. I was not sure I could control the illusions while she was moving.

"Next time," I said. "Bring some CDs, if you like. Something you like." I put a pile of clothing on the floor, sat her in it. I turned her and pulled her, posing her like a mannequin. Her arms were firm and muscular. Janet was right about her hand. I put it on her bare thigh, palm up. "Fist," I said.

She was beginning to understand how to hold a pose. I took one ankle, stretched her leg, then pushed it back, so her knee rose. Her skin was warm. It was early autumn, and the studio was warm from the lights. I put my fingertips on her left cheekbone, pushing as gently as a dancer's lead, and she tilted her head, watching me from the corner of her eye.

"I never..." she said, and left the thought incomplete.

"Never thought you'd be doing this."

She laughed. "Not that, but no." She was getting the hang of it. It took less adjusting to get only what I wanted the camera to see. But I wondered if I could do it with her moving.

She was late, the next week, and we shot for a half hour before she pulled a couple of CDs from her purse. I chose one to play. Her nerve escaped her, and she sat listening. Finally Janet began to dance, off camera, off to one side. Then she stepped forward and put out a hand to Marie Anne. "Come on!" They danced together, improvising. I stood aside, letting them play. They danced together, laughing like girls in a high school gym, spinning and tossing their hair, for ten minutes, two or three cuts, and then Janet danced away, so that they were separated by a few yards. Marie Anne danced on, and I began to take pictures. At first, I tried futilely to get only what I wanted, the left profiles, then I decided to just shoot and cull from the negatives. Janet continued behind us and I circled Marie Anne, aware of the beat but focused on the viewfinder.

The CD ended and both women collapsed, simultaneously, as if they'd rehearsed it, gasping.

"Well, this has been fun, guys," Janet said, still catching her breath, "but I gotta get home and fix Roger his coq au vin and mashed potatoes, or he'll turn into a pumpkin." Janet got up gingerly and limped out, one hand on the small of her back, waggling fingers of the other over her shoulder as she departed. I wished her a hot bath, and returned to the camera.

I draped Marie Anne in shawls, deep green, red, and an indigo print with splotches of black. Her face was glittery with sweat. I got a towel from the dressing room and wiped it dry. She pulled a shawl around her face, then peeked through, smiling shily. She was still breathing deeply.

I restarted the CD.

"Hold still," I said. I adjusted the lamps, bringing a flood in closer. I took the shawl away from her face, combed a curl away from her ear and shot from behind her, catching the curve of cheekbone, a bit of eyebrow. Then I put the green shawl around her head again, the way she'd had it before, and walked away, ten feet, and turned.

"You don't need the blouse," I said.

"I don't want to," she said.

"It's Ok." She wore a sober, considering look. I waited.

"All right," she said. So like a woman: she went to the dressing room to remove it. She returned with the dark shawl wrapped around her like a mantilla. She was wearing cotton panties, white ones with a red flower on one flank. I let her choose her poses, keeping my distance, and she turned languidly, as if listening to the music in slow motion.

"Your back," I said, and she rotated, facing away from me. We'd been taking pictures for nearly a half hour. I suppose she was thinking of the Weston, Janet's wonderful terrain of muscle and spine. I restarted the CD and she let the shawl drop till it hung from one elbow, covering only the panties, her bare back muscular and symmetrical, striped with a white bra line. Her hair touched her shoulders. I had her lift it and I shot her back like landscapes, asking for shifts of muscle and leverage, never touching her. The camera glided over her like a lover's hands.

When I was done, she kept the shawl across her breasts as she rotated to face me. Her cheeks were flushed; she was breathing through her mouth. She raised one corner of the shawl, supporting it with her forearm so it hid her face, like a little curtain. She made an odd sideways move with her neck, revealing the good half of her face, then concealing and revealing it again. The bottom of the shawl draped itself across the small shelf of her breasts, covering all but the hint of cleavage. The rest of the fabric made a thin curtain clear to her belly button. She smiled with the exposed side of her face, watching me expectantly.

"Here," I said, and I pulled the side of the shawl down until her left nipple and the globular pendant of the breast were exposed. It was small, apple-round, her breast, with an aqueous sag to it. When she smiled, it was shy, uncertain, so unlike the casual nonchalance of Eleanor's tough, confident grin. I stepped away. When I lifted the camera, the smile faded. "I could be a cat," she said suddenly.

"Sure," I said, snapping the next shot.

"I mean...." She sighed through her nose. Then she began to move in time with the music, swaying, her shoulders riding the undulations of her spine.

That night, after she was gone, I went to the strip bars on the south side and picked up a whore. She was practiced and thorough, a model of efficiency. I chose her for black hair and big breasts. She mumbled endearments, sighed, smiled, and took my money. I drove home thinking of things lost.

It had been, I thought the next Thursday morning, like approaching a deer, the weeks it had taken to open her up to the camera. Avoid eye contact. Move obliquely, putting things between you, leaving outlets, escape routes. Marie Anne didn't come in till nearly four thirty that afternoon. She was usually prompt.

"I got stuck in traffic," she said before I asked. She was wearing a dress and nylons.

"Would you like to do some commercial shots?" I said. "I need a couple of things for a Nordstrom's ad. I think you'd be fine." I expected refusal, reluctance, but she nodded agreement, not even pausing for a "Me?" She took the dresses away, returned in one, and posed, one and then the next, for nearly an hour. By six we had shot all three dresses. Janet was busy and we had worked alone. At five, Janet had called goodbye and then was gone. We continued past six, finishing the roll.

"Now what?" she said, standing in front of the grey backcloth. "What do you want?"

We had accessorized the last dress, a deep maroon Laura Ashley, with a string of faux pearls. I pulled four more strands from the prop box. As I put them around her neck, I said, "Just the pearls?" as if it were the easiest thing in the world. And for me, it was. For her, a moment she had imagined, I think, but never expected, until recently perhaps. She hesitated. She touched the pearls.

"I wish they were real," she murmured, running her hand across them. I stood in front of her, and her eyes met mine. There was nothing sidelong in this look. One eye smaller, slightly lower in her face, her tentative smile with lips closed, not exposing the terrible teeth. She was nakedly herself for that moment, in the Ashley, nylons, pumps, the fake pearls. I waited for it to pass. She was looking for something in my face. It wasn't there; I am sure of that.

She stripped in front of me, down to the pearls. It was businesslike, as if she was alone, preparing for a shower, except for a quick appraising glance at my face from the floor as she looked up from peeling away the pantyhose. Then she was naked, without even the drape of a shawl, and I saw for the first time that her breasts, even her breasts, were off balance, one slightly higher and, unless I imagined it, smaller. Her mons was a dark triangle below the fishskin white of her untanned loins. The pearls were more pink than that skin. Her thighs were slightly indented at the hip socket, her waist on a shelf of hipbone, her ribs a scallop above her belly.

"What do you want?" she said when she was naked, and I posed her for an hour, first in chaste nude formalities of curve and shadow, then in more open, sensuous abandonments she resisted gently until, as if a threshhold were passed, her inhibitions left her and she began move like a creature with a warm core of desire.

The camera does this. There was a man who made a hobby of stopping women on the streets of New York and offering to photograph them nude. An astonishing number of them agreed and, stripped of clothes, slipped into a primitive self they hardly knew, regreting much later the images they had given him. He would take them to cheap hotel rooms and they would posture lewdly, willingly, inventing obscenities for the camera's eye. The camera draws the whore from the female soul, just as it turns a man into a machine of observation. They acquiesce in their objectification. Under its gaze, women sink into a place as private as a warm, oily bath, steaming with fragrances and kneading them with firm fingers of warm water. Sometimes it's called freedom. So it was with Marie Anne.

Naked, she discovered pantomimes of desire, offeratory postures, gestures instinctive and unambiguous. I played her music and she touched herself in places she had only thought of touching, in ways perhaps she only imagined before; she gave the camera secrets of her lonely bed and the camera took them, recorded them. She gave the lens every intimacy of her body. I think I could have told her I had no film, and it wouldn't have stopped her. I imagine that if anonymous men had intruded on us, she would have accomodated them and felt neither shamed nor violated by their attention.

We had sex in the studio as the evening waned, almost an anticlimax but inevitable. Perversely, at one point I touched the misplaced tooth with my tongue. I took her on her knees and then she tasted herself on me. I imagined another day, perhaps next week, when I would set the camera remotely and capture the swell of her cheeks around me, my juices like lotion on her face, the unbroken left side of her face.

"You should take her to dinner," Janet said the next morning, "if you're going to work her that late."

"What do you mean?"

"Roger and I drove by at seven. Her car was still outside. Hmm?"

"We worked late," I said, taking the mail to the back.

I worked on and off, all day, culling the pictures. Around three, Marie Anne called.

"Can I come talk to you? I don't get off till six."

"Sure. I'll leave the door unlocked."

When she arrived, Janet was gone. Of the seventy-four pictures, I printed and kept about a dozen. In the best, she lay under a gauzy fabric that put mist all over her. She looked asleep, sated and sleeping. The others I had selected were good as well, sensuous without vulgarity. I was pleased to find so much gold in the dross. When she arrived, I was arranging them on the coffee table.

She looked down at them. "You printed them. All of them?"

"Only the good ones."

"Has Janet seen them?"


"What did you do with the rest?"

"Here," I said, offering her a folder. Inside were the negatives. I had sliced the keepers out of the strips. The rest were there. "Sixty-three, I think. You can have them, or I can burn them."

"You aren't going to keep them?"

"They're no good for anything."

"This is all of them."

"Yes. Count them. Eleven prints, sixty-three negatives. It's all there."

She looked through the prints. "How do I know it's all of them?"

I went to the desk and brought back two contact prints. "Here. You can cross-check them if you want to."

She flared angrily. "You were going to keep these!"

"No, I've already destroyed the ones I printed and didn't like. Over there," I added, gesturing at a shredder mounted on a wastebasket. "I was afraid you might want to see the whole shoot, so I kept the contacts. The contact prints are useless without the negatives. I'll destroy them now." I put out my hand.

She examined the contact prints.

"You don't want— " I said. Then I shrugged. I brought her a loupe and went to my desk while she scrutinized them. I sat with my back to her, working on some bills. Once she inhaled deeply. Finally she was done. I heard her walking, turned.

"In here?" she said, holding them above the shredder. I nodded and she dropped them. The machine whined angrily. She watched the paper disappear.

"Confetti," I said.

"I don't want to do that again," she said.

"I know. Those are good pictures," I added, meaning the ones I'd kept.

"It doesn't matter."

"I know."

We looked at each other for some time.

"What do you want?" I said finally. She was silent. She turned and left. She did not come back. I didn't go looking for her. There were no questions to answer.

A few weeks later, I found the framed studio photograph Eleanor had given me, in our first few months. I was sure I'd discarded everything. This, I had hidden on a bookshelf and then, in the general purge, missed. And then forgotten. I removed the picture and threw it away. No more theatrics. Holding the empty frame, I wondered what it would be like, to bite down on the glass, to sliver it in my teeth and feel the stabs in my gums and palate, to feel the sculpting shards working their way down my throat, to coat them with the futile juices of digestion.

Diseases of the Heart: Table of Contents Princess Phone: It's already happened; you can't take it back. Windigo Heart

Where Stories Come from
"Like a Camera" has a "companion story" you might like. A few years ago, a friend challenged me to rewrite the story "happier" without changing what actually happens. All I was allowed to change was the narrator. I happen to like this story, for all its sad cruelty, but it is the "negative" for a better version: "Negative/Print."

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