In art class, the students were astonishing: a quiet woman who made prints of disfigured mice, a woman who photographed her roommate wrapped in toilet paper, a woman who often had a bottle of wine and wanted to make books with no ink. She wiped down the teeth of the typewriter and pressed the keys over and over until words sank into her paper. If any ink grayed a page, she would throw it out.
I helped the woman with the mice prints to write accompanying text. Are these about expectations? I asked. Yes, she said.
Sometimes, I gathered discarded prints from the recycling. When I was a child, my mother, a photographer, told me the story of Georgia O’Keefe tossing her early paintings into the street, how she saw them as beautiful for the first time, flying off and being ruined. I wanted to go back and seize each one from her hands.
I have a white paper pinned to my wall with little white words pressed into it: absence is a thing itself. The top of the final letter, an f, is dark, and by contrast appears to be a hole in the sheet.
You called the last poem I wrote about you excoriating. Excoriating? my friend asks when I repeat the comment to him. Yeah, like rubbing off your skin, I say. God, he says.
I was terrified of the acid room. Maybe it wasn’t called that—it was a dark room but not photographic, and the printmakers would disappear into it for long enough that they startled me by reappearing.
A printmaker friend helped me prepare my plate. She said, watch out, you’ll ruin it with the oil from your fingers. What if I already have? I asked. How can I un-ruin it?
On the phone, you asked me if I knew any good stories about loss. Your students are all going to write about breakups, whatever you assign them, I said. You laughed. And then I said something clever, and you said it would be a great title. A few hours later, I asked you what it was. No good in the field of loss, you said, but that didn’t feel right. I kept thinking about what it could have been until the missing words became more real to me than the ones I have written down.
I told you I didn’t believe in loss. Writing about loss is writing about a thing in its absence. It’s perspective plus subject, not the subject itself, I said. A love story is still a love story, whatever tense it’s in.
One of the men in art class hadn’t bought any materials. He would ask for paper or use the ink left on the table. He appeared less and less during class hours, then not at all. I saw him late one night in the studio with his lover. He was cleaning up. She perched on the counter as he poured too much turpentine onto a paper towel. She looked at him as if he could never make a mistake that would matter to her.
On the night before our final critique, the man appeared in the studio wild-eyed and alone. No one would give him supplies to bind his project. The next day, he had a book-sized hole in the back of his shirt where he had cut out cloth for the cover. During his critique, he asked us to follow him to the bathroom. He spoke in a stage-magician voice. When the class had all entered the men’s room, he held his book up to the mirror. He had neglected to reverse the images on his plates, and had printed the whole thing backwards. Behold! he said. The muscles in his back tensed and stretched as he turned the pages.
I know I’ve messed up, you told me. I’ve messed the whole thing up. I kept saying, No, you didn’t, though I thought you did. But I wanted the power to be at fault.
Process redeems the poverty of our intention, my art teacher said. I’m writing about loss, I say to people, by which I mean I’m writing about nothing.
You bought me a book for my birthday about a woman trying to say what she means. I thought of you, of course, you said.
I look through a box of my mother’s old prints, proofs with notes on the back: mask, dodge or burn times, filter number, tone, paper. There are a dozen copies of a portrait of my grandmother. Each photograph seems perfect until I compare it to the next. By contrast, I can see where one is too cyan or too yellow. My grandmother disappears into a study of pigment and light.
My mother photographs me in the attic. A fan pulls hot air out through the roof, its motor so loud we can’t speak. Georgia O’Keefe, I think, looking at the photographs I’ve tacked to the walls. But I know I’m wrong when I take them down, peel tape off their backs, and tidy them into their boxes.
I can see loss with the images of your grandmother, a friend tells me as she looks at the photographs, loss as in death. And the one of you with in your bra, ok, loss of innocence. But what are the other losses?
Of course the piece is about losing you. It was about losing you before I had lost you, by which I mean, it was a story about two people in the present tense.
You and I are on the phone, it used to say. I tell you I don’t believe in loss, it used to say. We both laugh.
You can’t lose someone you never had, my friend says. It’s a waste, that’s what it is.
I watch my friend write a poem. She types a line, reshapes it, then moves to the next. She finishes a stanza and plays with its order. I can’t write like that. I need to tell the whole story first, then erase it, piece by piece, until I have a poem.
You’re not really writing that I called your poem excoriating, you say. It was a joke.
We’re talking again, so I must not have lost you. Or I’m willing to waste more time. Or we haven’t yet exhausted each other into the image that will rest.
A print is finished when it’s repeatable, the professor said. When you know what you’ve done to get here, and now you can do it again.
Skin cells regenerate every few weeks. Like the face scored with sand from a day at the beach. Not like a smooth spot on a forearm where the hand slipped and acid splashed over the gloves.
I thought photographs were better with people in them; you disagreed. When I asked you, after months of arguing, to tell me what your perfect photograph looked like, you said it had a trace of human presence, though no one appeared. I said we agreed more than I’d realized, and you said you’d been listening to me.
The shadow of a sleeve, for example, the sleeve of a long and patterned dress, leaving a doorframe. Sheets of a bed left where the bodies had moved them. A knife still slick with butter.
I realize, now, you like photographs about loss. We like the same photographs in a different tense.
People are unpredictable, that’s why you don’t want them in photos. We’re on the phone and I’m angry again. You’re scared of risk. But a person isn’t a risk if they’ve already left the image. And that’s what you want, isn’t it?
I’m terrified of what you think of me, you say. I must like you. I keep picking up the phone for some reason.
Early on, before I knew you wanted me, before I knew you didn’t want me enough, you would get this look on your face. Your mouth couldn’t stop moving. You looked like you expected some stronger feeling to arrive in a moment and decide your expression. I didn’t know if it would be laughter, or scorn, or if you were going to kiss me.
The woman who made prints of disfigured mice wrote a fairytale. A princess can’t leave the tower where she lives amongst spinning wheels and thimbles. A prince tries to rescue her, but he grows tired; her hair reaches only a few feet out the window. He finds someone nice who lives closer to the ground and walks away.
Across every page is an etching of a mouse, each limp and broken in different places, as if taken from a variety of traps.
Every little girl read fairytales, the artist said when I asked how she came up with her story. Fairytales are about expectations and control. She paused. So are mousetraps. Sometimes an idea is as simple as it needs to be.
You don’t have a single photograph of me, you said one night on the phone.
In a story, the ending is there all along, expectation and its success or thwarting.
The man who sets a mousetrap will catch the mouse or he won’t.
By mouse I mean woman, or princess, or anyone trapped in a room full of thimbles.
Georgia O’Keefe leans out her window and drops her paintings
into the street. Let’s say it’s evening, she’s turned down the lights,
and isn’t there a man in this story, standing behind her, watching?
The wind-hung canvases like, in her later paintings, bones,
twisting, twisted, and then it’s over, the paintings on the ground,
and the woman turns from the window. She isn’t going to be rescued;
she never wanted rescue. Fairytales are about expectations and control.
So are mousetraps. Sometimes an idea is as simple as it needs to be.
I made an awful joke once: I said I would try to seduce you
but would end up your best friend by mistake. Process redeems
the poverty of our intention. Before you kissed me,
before I ran my fingers down your back, you got this look on your face,
your mouth couldn’t stop moving—it was no good, I’ll admit that now.
The words I was looking for weren’t any more elegant.
The woman turns from the window, laughing.
A love story is still a love story, whatever tense it’s in.
The man will discover he isn’t willing to fall from the tower
and land like trash on the street. Behold,
says the artist as he shows us his great mistake. It’s a story told backwards,
where the man and the woman lose each other, then, little by little, they meet.
Hello, I tell you, and hold out my hand. Hello, you whisper back.