Thursday, August 20, 2009
Love After All?
Three years had passed since the last time I had seen Erik. This would be interesting, I thought, as I finished drawing the black eyeliner on my upper lids.
I slid into a just-tight-enough pair of black pants and declared the matching violet sweater set winner of the “I want to look good, but not too good” contest. My bed was made for the first time in weeks, its inviting purple and red chenille covers setting a serene and sensual mood.
It was time to present myself as the successful baby photographer. Time to show that I was a together 26 year-old woman, someone who learned from her mistakes, someone willing to take responsibility for her actions. Time to apologize for all of the crap I put on Erik when we broke up.
I gathered the clothes that were habitually flung across the room and piled them in my closet. Out of sight, out of mind.
I had just gotten out of a rather rocky relationship with someone Erik had never met, and I was ashamed of it, ashamed of telling Erik that I had been with someone who was so emotionally dysfunctional. I lifted the bangs out of my eyes with a crystal butterfly clip. Nothing like having dinner with damaged goods.
The doorbell rang and I ran down the stairs, more nervous than I had expected to be.
Sure, Erik and I had once been engaged, but it had been three years since I had seen him. I figured it was about time we finally became friends.
“Coming,” I yelled. I re-adjusted my push-up bra and downed the last drops of Merlot in my glass. Shit, shit. OK, everything’s fine, no big deal, calm down, check yourself in the mirror. Better yet, check yourself in. 6:58pm. Good old Erik. Right on time.
“Hi,” I said, as I opened the door. “Come in.”
“It’s great to see you. How are you?” Erik asked with an open smile. Deep brown eyes, small glasses, clean cut black hair speckled with hints of gray, defined jaw with the beginning of a five o’clock shadow, fitted black wool sweater and loose jeans. He reached to give me a hug and it seemed a natural thing to do. I wanted to hug him, but I couldn't believe how hard my heart was struggling to get out of my chest.
“Guess this is what happens when you don’t plan,” I mumbled. I had no idea I would be this attracted to him. Seeing Erik in a romantic way again had seemed impossible, a closed chapter in my book.
“What?” he asked, as he closed his arms around me.
We held each other for the first time in three years, his face nestled in my neck.
“Never mind,” I whispered. I felt his back with my hands, rubbed it slowly, letting him know this was exactly where I wanted to be. His shoulders were strong under his soft black wool, more filled out, more like a man than a young college student. I was comforted by his smell—a clean subtle scent—something I didn’t know I had missed.
We severed our perfect alignment after what seemed like a ten minute embrace. Three years was longer than I had thought. So much had happened. So many difficult experiences, all holding secrets I had not been privy to when Erik and I were a couple.
I brought him into the living room and pointed to the wall. “These are my friends.”
Erik studied the black and white photographs, all women, all nude.
“Well, most of them are my friends, some are me.” I giggled uncomfortably.
“You took these. They’re unbelievable,” He sounded impressed and genuinely interested.
“Yeah. Except for the ones of me. That one and that one.” I stopped my foot from tapping and pointed to the photo of me sprawled out, face down, on a large rock. Just me and that rock on a cold, rainy February day. My first time bare in front of a camera. “Pretty extreme from shooting babies.”
“They’re amazing. Incredible works of art.” Erik engaged each photograph with his full attention. “They’re more than amazing. I don’t even know how to articulate how beautiful they are. This one.”
He pointed to the photo of my pregnant friend dancing on the beach. “The contrast of the cliff next to her curvaceous body. And the way her hands are up, still in motion. What a way to document a pregnancy.”
I had forgotten how supportive he was of my passions. He wanted to be so helpful when I first started my business and I resented him for it.
“It’s a really intense experience,” I said, hoping I sounded more relaxed than I felt. “None of these women have ever been photographed nude. They all have to go through their own thing, feeling fat, not feeling free. There’s this thing in all of us that makes us think we should some how pose or suck in. I try to relax them enough on our hike down to the beach and figure out what’s going on in their lives, you know, where they’re at, what they’re ready for, what they need to work through. I like to think of the shoots as a sort of rite of passage, at least they have been for me.”
Our eyes fixed on each other for an extended moment. Were we both thinking the same things? He stepped closer to me so he could get a better look at a photograph of my friend lying on her back in the sand. Her face was shadowed, her right nipple stroked by the light. He seemed drawn to this one. I was aroused by his appreciation and his smell.
“You’ve always had this way of putting people at ease,” he said. “I remember watching you photograph that little girl when you first started your business. That little blond two-year-old who wouldn’t take her thumb out of her mouth.
“I remember. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.”
“You had her fooled. She came in all shy. It didn’t look like you were going to get any good shots. And I’m thinking, how the hell is Hyla going to pull this off? She wouldn’t even get in front of the lights. And the little girl started crying—a sure sign that you were going to have to re-shoot her, as far as I was concerned. Then you pulled out this multi-colored bubble gun, and that was it. You started blowing bubbles over the backdrop, popping them with your nose. She was intrigued just enough to walk in front of the lights.”
Erik removed his titanium rimmed glasses, looked at me, and then put the glasses back over his dark, sincere eyes. “I imagine you’re one of the few people I know who has the ability to make a woman feel comfortable enough to run around naked on the beach. That requires tremendous trust.”
“Oh, that picture there . . . see that big rock to the right? That’s Tennessee Valley beach. Remember when we went there when we first came to California? I’ve always had such a connection with that place. I go there all the time.”
“I wasn’t in the best mindset then.” Erik put his hands in his jeans pockets and looked down at the carpet. “I feel badly about the way things ended with us. I just want to say that, while I have this opportunity.”
“I do, too. I’m sorry it got so ugly.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, what I did wrong. Over three years. I didn’t want to break up. I should have left our apartment way before I did. I was freaked out about having moved across the country. I felt alone. I just want to say that I am really sorry about any destructive part I played in our break-up. ”
I thought about our drive across country together, just after graduation from Florida State University. Erik was good to me and I pushed him away. And here he was now, being so vulnerable and open.
I walked toward my plush, green velvet couch. “Let’s sit down for a minute.”
We sat at opposite ends of the couch, our knees facing each other. I was tempted to move closer.
“It was a lot to just pick up and move across country," I said. "Not having any family out here. I appreciate you being so open about it—the world would be a better place if everyone were as open as you—but I’m the one who made it really hard. That, I know now. I mean, I know it takes two. I know our dynamic was off there for a while, but it was so easy for me to blame you for everything. I was just dumping all my insecurities on you. I wasn’t ready to be loved the way you loved me. I had so many things to prove to myself.”
I recalled my mindset when we moved to California. I had all of these issues. Feeling unstable, unworthy of success, undeserving of happiness. I wanted to blame everyone but myself.
Erik stretched his left arm towards me and rested it along the back of the couch. "Some of the ways I tried to help you weren't the best."
“I still can’t believe you didn’t move back to Miami,” I said.
“When we first broke up, I sort of flipped out. I put all my stuff in storage and drove back to Miami. I was only there for two weeks, when I realized that Miami wasn’t home anymore. I got back in my car, drove back across the country, and I’ve been here ever since. Where else can you find mountains like this? The views are spectacular. The people have something to say. And the city . . . there is so much to do in San Francisco. I’m not going anywhere. This is my home. I love California.”
I had been completely wrapped up in my own little world since Erik and I parted. Wouldn’t have cared where he was. I didn’t even return his phone calls after I met the last train wreck relationship. But, in that moment, I knew that I wanted to see him again. I was relieved to hear him claim Northern California as his home.
“Me too,” I told him. “It’s taken me a long time to make a name for myself as a good baby photographer out here. It’s expensive, but it’s worth it.”
“How come there are no baby pictures on this wall?”
I laughed. “Somehow I don’t see Hyla Molander, Marin County’s premier child pornographer, as a title that’s going to boost my portrait business. I tell only a select few, very cool clients that my living room wall is smothered with nudes of their baby photographer and friends. Most people don't see the art in tasteful nude photography. Besides, I try to keep work and home separate.”
“So, where are you shooting now?” he asked.
“God, this is so weird. I’ve had a studio now for like two years and you’ve never even seen it.”
“Really? I guess I should have known, but I’d love to see it. Your talent already more than impresses me. You started your business, what, like three weeks after you learned how to load a camera, and now your name is all over the place. I’ve seen some of your hand-tinted pictures at that photo shop in San Rafael. I never doubted you, but what can I say? I am filled with pride when I look around and see how your work has developed. You are a talented woman.”
“And I hear you’re working for Industrial Light and Magic. That is so cool.”
“It’s an amazing place. I’m fortunate that I love my job. I get to be a part of all the special effects in the movies. I just got my first credit line. I think that’s the first time I actually sat through all the credits. The words came rolling up, “Erik Grieve . . . Computer Production Support.”
“I am so proud of you. I always knew you were a computer genius.”
Erik and I were quiet for a moment and I remembered how it was when we had sex—somehow different every time. Making love with Erik was like exploring new parts of my self. I could be who ever I needed to be, feel whatever I wanted to feel. Erik was the only man I had ever been with who could get another hard-on within 2 minutes of ejaculation.
Erik nodded towards the coffee table, at a photograph of my grandparents.
Watching his face while he studied them, I thought about a future with Erik. Was I really having these feelings? He was so sweet and sensitive and I was attracted to him after all this time. Could we possibly be right for each other now?
I picked up the gold frame. “I took that picture in the Bahamas, on their 55th wedding anniversary. Sweet, huh?”
“I’ve thought about your grandparents quite a bit over the past three years. Lamby and Granddad, what a couple. They adore you—not that they have any reason not to. Remember our trip to New York, when we went to stay with them, and your Granddad gave us his map so we could find our way around Manhattan. And then he waited for the train with us to make sure we got off safely. They made me feel like part of the family. And they really cared about me, just because you cared about me. I had the best conversations with your Granddad about his inventions. To have that many scientific accomplishments and be such an open, loving man. I could spend weeks talking to him.”
I was reminded of Erik as a little boy, running for help, when his father died on Miami Beach. “They really liked you.” I gently caressed the glass of the frame, over my Grandparents’ faces.
I could finally tell by the way he kept putting his finger on his chin, that he was as nervous as me.