This is My Photo Finish
illustration by Jamie Kiffel
The plane’s engine rumbled from a full, spinning roar back to a whirr, a hiss, and finally, wheez of depressurization. Before the fasten seatbelt sign went out, seven or eight bleary-eyed and cursing passengers scattered throughout the aluminum diesel monster’s body, stood, and began the tabletray popping of plastic compartments. I looked around my seat, picked up my gray canvas rucksack, untangled my skirts, and began to file out. This had been a red-eye from New York to Iowa, not the most popular route, but a very important one for me. I wasn’t worried about keeping to a schedule. Whatever awaited me in Iowa would not be jingling meter money in a fistful of anticipation. No timers were set on either me, or him.
My meter shut off years ago. It was on a plane, coincidentally, to visit a pretentious, famous artist boyfriend. The relationship was long, dull, and just enough fun to be comfortable. Although I really was young at the time, while I was in this thing, this relationship, I was seeing my friends getting married and becoming more certain that it was already too late for me to start up with anyone new. So I followed him wherever he moved, tried to make it work. Waiting out the six-hour flight to his place, I flipped through the in-flight magazine, reading anything that looked esoteric, hoping to learn something that I could store up to impress him. My thumb stopped the page on a piece about old photographs, and I gasped.
The image was of a young man, faded to ghosts of yellows, with an intensely brown, dark stare and hair focused in a convulsion of artistic drunkenness. Oddly, his arms were folded across his chest, like a mummy. He was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. I couldn’t turn the page. I held it up to my nose, then farther away, trying to see something more in it. His gaze was so strong and serious, I could swear I saw his pupils dilate and his tear ducts glisten. It was like he was trapped in there, waiting to be let loose.
As soon as my flight arrived, I got off the plane, ran a loop through the terminal and picked up the first connecting flight to the town where the spellbinding portrait was being exhibited. The last I heard of my artist boyfriend, he was getting a divorce.
The portrait absorbed me. It never left me. Long after the exhibit closed, I saw his image everywhere: his eyes swirling up in coffee milk clouds, his hair tangled in tree branches, his twisted tie patterned in wallpaper. I rifled through mothy antique shops, fingering Victorian jackets, shirts or cufflinks, feeling for the buzz under my nails that would let me dream they were once his. I sifted through used books and microfilmed papers for stories about him, lapping at my acrid, newsprinted fingertips, trying to get closer to his musty body and into his dark, speaking eyes. He wanted and needed me to let him out. Every day, he called me, begging me to learn how to fit my body between his soft, aged paper and the cold glass that restrained him.
Finally, past morning one late night, as I sat at my old wooden desk, finding his lips curling in a walnut knot, I felt something. A presence. I froze, barely breathing. Cool pressure over the back of my hand. Firm, certain grip over my thin bones. I watched in excitement and terror as my hand slowly rose from the desk, took a pen from my inkwell, and began to write on a scrap of paper. “Dear.” I shuddered. That was the first correspondence.
With practice and patience, the writer’s hand took mine longer and more often. I waited for hours at that desk, sweating stains into the wood, not moving until, my eyes burning and my fingers shivering from days without sleep, he finally took my hand to the inkwell.
And with every word, I loved him more. He was opening to me. With every paragraph we wrote, the man in the picture unfolded his arms a little bit. I let him move me faster, harder, slept less and woke up suddenly when I did drift off for a moment, sweating and ready for the pen to continue. Each penline revealed him a little more. His deep eyes and crazed hair began to rustle, twist and move under my pen’s stare. The more I drew out, the more I felt the tiny prongs of his silvery iodide self, pricked low and heavy in my heart. With every inkblot, I was bringing him back to life. But the more I felt him under my fingertips and getting into my organs, the more I craved real, immediate physical attention.
I began to carry my letters out with me at night. I unrolled the pages, sweet and dusky, and lay them across bodies, reading lines secretly and aloud. The papers were like beautiful, webbed masks under which moaned the substances to lend them vitality. He never minded my taking lovers. He used them too, crawling inside their mouths and gasping in their stomachs and legs, puppeting them to himself, whispering, “This is how it will be when all the glass is shattered and the dead paper is finally burned away.”
Then one day, just as briefly as his exhibited portrait had shuttered out of my life, it flashed back into it. A small gallery in Iowa was assembling a biographical retrospective of his life, including a greater range of personal information on him than was ever previously shown. For weeks, the museum would not discuss the contents of the exhibition, even when I called its desk repeatedly, hoping to reach some poorly-informed volunteer who would reveal a little more than the tight-lipped curator. But no such luck. Finally, a small advertisement was published, revealing the most prized part of the new exhibition: a series of letters written by the photographer, addressee unknown. Panting, ecstatic, I bought a ticket to Iowa, and pen in hand, I prepared to meet my writer in his own script.
But when the plane was delayed, I stayed calm, for I knew he wouldn’t go anywhere.
Half an hour passed. Six or seven other deferred passengers sat sprawled on broken terminal chairs, some sleeping, some reading broken-spined paperbacks. A crackly announcement squawked over the P.A.: “Flight 631 has been delayed an additional 45 minutes. We thank you for your patience.”
I had a ready pile of fine deckle paper, a pair of disposable fountain pens, and anxious time to fill. So I put pen to paper – and watched as the metal nib stuck there, stubborn, motionless, finally drying up and scratching a tiny, blank hole into the paper. I tried to empty my mind and relax my arm, but for the first time in months, he would not come to me.
I glanced around the almost empty terminal. Pop! I jumped. Was there a noise? Bang! I was staring down human retinas. The airport was silent, but inside my head, explosions. I looked away quickly, hoping my mistaken stare went unnoticed and unheard, but I knew that he had seen me when I felt the cold shiver that dribbled through my chest. It was a man. Without daring to move my head, I reviewed his features in my mind. He was dark, possibly slightly lined. His eyes were bright, and something about him – but I hadn’t looked long enough to know what – was very strange. I pulled up my eyes again to look: he was gone. I breathed and tried to relax.
I sat back in my seat. A slight breeze froze my lips, and I raised my head, then jumped. The man was standing right in front of me. I shook, feeling the wind pick up as he sat down beside me, tipping a fedora. The side of my arm was turning blue. With a shock, I realized that the rest of the gate was now empty except for the two of us. All announcements had shut off, I didn’t know how long ago, including even the annoying hum of the old PA, the buzz of the vacuum, and the occasional beep of an airport jitney. My breath shuddered like a freight train in the silence.
I looked back to my correspondence, praying for my pen to move, but it wouldn’t. The creature beside me was still. Again, I considered his face without turning. This time, I recalled extraordinarily dark eyebrows and a thin, deeply lined mouth. But… it was beautiful. It was lined, but deeper, more… lascivious because of that. I needed to look up. So I did.
The man was holding a very good pen in a dark brown case. With it, he appeared to be gesturing, even conducting. He gazed intently at the space in front of him, his expression occasionally shifting as if he were seeing something he recognized, maybe a home movie. He grinned and smirked, as if he was laughing… at someone else. I frowned for thinking such stupid thoughts. Now that I had the opportunity to really examine his face, I realized with a shock that it was not lined at all: in fact, it was young, even attractive. Most surprising were his eyes. They were bright and reflective. In fact, they were almost like mirrors. As I watched, they moved laterally in jerks, as if they were reading something off the air.
Finally, after internally punching myself for feeling scared of this sort of eccentric young man, I asked, “Are you connecting to Iowa?”
His eyes suddenly darkened, his arms dropped and he turned to me. I felt myself gasp. His eyes looked like empty holes. And without warning, his mouth slowly stretched into an impossibly large smile. My arms quivered as I gripped my armrest. “No,” he answered.
And then I felt the strange sensation that something was buzzing and happening all around us, that things were actually processing in the space around our heads. It was like hearing speech out of noise. Louder, buzzier, like everything happening at once – he smiled harder – like everyone screaming the world at my face at one time!
“Do you travel a lot?” I interrupted. He shuffled his cloak to the side, turned his back to me, and the silence struck me again like a bat. I smelled something unbearably sweet and warm, but felt a cold gust.
“Who sent you here?” he asked suddenly. I bolted upright, realizing he was insane and that I’d probably missed my only opportunities to get out while I could. Fitful in my head, I decided the only way out now was to humor him.
“Sorry?” I asked as naively as possible.
“Who let you through that door?” he asked, pointing toward an empty space in the middle of the terminal.
“I… I came alone,” I stammered, immediately regretting revealing my total helplessness. He leaned in toward me. The air was putrid, freezing; an impossible mix with his beautiful face and fine white skin. As terrorized as I was, I envisioned grabbing and clinging to him. As that strange vision sparked in my brain, his eyes suddenly widened, and he jerked away as if stunned. I scrambled back to my chair. He was obviously a maniac. But suddenly, I heard his astonished voice: “You aren’t afraid, are you?”
And then slowly, shakily, he leaned toward me, his eyes dark, still, and fixed on my face. He began to raise his arm toward me. I couldn’t move away. As he leaned in, his lips twitching slightly, my ears closed up and I heard a rushing noise like wind – no, footsteps – running across dry leaves. He leaned closer. Now faster, a racing – wingflaps, wings beating across leaves – my blood pumped loud in my ears now. He leaned closer now, wingbeats, I could feel each one and his skin become quivery around his mouth like thin paper shuffling with the wind – I saw tiny lines in his lips, bigger, darker, not wrinkles but – the spaces between his teeth – I was seeing through his skin!
And now a humming, low, like chanting – as his arm came up, everything near it blew but the sound was huge and rushing in my head got even louder over a chorus of low, urgent voices – “I” – his voice? – “am…”
The air turned cold around us but warm just between us and I found myself leaning in toward him; his eyes were still but soft, dark but warm and I could see his whole grin through his face! And then I saw them: birds, hundreds of them, soaring into me in an enormous flock of tan bones: each was skinless, rushing from his cloak into my body, straight into my chest. And then it felt like nothing, a rush of just nothing, and I felt myself fall forward as the wave of skeletal flyers filled me up and the bone-grinning gentleman floated right into and through me – and then…
I turned around and saw myself, completely white, crumpled on black rags, slumped on the floor of the deserted terminal.
Every part of me felt hollow. I looked over at my body again – it was yellowed around the eyes, which were open; the mouth was slack and completely white, dry, and flaking. The body was like a discarded snake skin: harmless, but so hideous in its uselessness that it was unbearable to see. A chill built up to shiver through me, but then it passed as a cool wind through my mind. And then fingers – no, some warm structure – enfolded my thoughts, like a curling cat’s tail, barely felt but very present. I turned and found my mind turning like a soap bubble. It was very easy, like moving on a breath. And when I turned up and focused on the source of the warmth, saw the most beautiful face I’d ever imagined. Yet his eyes were so sad, dark and empty. His brow turned down, and I realized I was in his hands; he tilted me to the light, and smoothed a thin hand across my face. His hand wiped by, not touching me, before I realized where I was.
“My dear,” came his slow, almost whispered voice. “You made me do it. You do know that, don’t you? If only I hadn’t been so lonely. But what, darling, were you doing lingering at the space between us?”
He raised me to the wall. I felt a pull, then support. “Darling, I couldn’t be without you. Someone must wait at home for me, when everyone else has their mourners, their lovers. Imagine your gentlest touch being met with screams, curses and cries? ‘Don’t take me, don’t touch me!’ screamed the palest, most beautiful ladies, thousands of years of beauty gone to rot. All but you. You, so close to eternity… that you stayed…” I felt his lips brush by my hair, and I almost shivered. “You deserve this showcase, my darling. My angel. My wings under glass. The star of my exhibition.” Cloudy darkness filled my vision… and then as he stepped back, bright dots – millions of tiny points, lights in blackness. I saw him wipe his coal-empty eyes with a bony finger as he slowly backed away. “You shall wait, mourn for me my dear, mourn for me! I can hardly bear eternity without you!”
And so I hang… and I wait… as the angel of death…