Written for the 2008 Royal Academy of Bards VD (you know what I mean!) Invitational.
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This Morning, The Bosporus
It has never occurred to me to keep a personal diary or journal of any kind. I’ve spend a good deal of my life immersed in reading and writing other people’s words, the vast majority of it significantly more profound than my own life and its accompanying mundane clutter, that my thoughts seem fairly trivial, not worth a written record. Lately, however, I find myself wanting to write down the dreams I have at night, because they dissolve in the aperture of morning, and as the day fills with activity they’re gone, soon forgotten. They are vivid—at least I want to believe they are vivid. Otherwise I’m uncertain of why this compulsion has settled into me.
We’ve been traveling so much I forget at times where I am—another thing that abets the loss of the dreams is that as I wake I start wondering where we are. What city? Where are we headed?
This morning, however, I know exactly where we are: The Bosporus is outside the bedroom window. The Golden Horn, to be more precise, looking not so much golden as thickened with a gray mist that reminds me of London and hides the pearl of the Seraglio Point in generous folds of fog. And on the nightstand is something that wasn’t there last night when I went to bed—a sleek, black beauty, perfectly rectangular, crowned by a cheap pink bow: A Leica camera.
It must be my birthday—better yet, it must mean that she remembered my birthday.
The gravitas of the camera’s satisfying weight in my hand convinces me I could rival Cartier-Bresson as both an artist and a recorder of the human condition, and yes, I am still in some state of sleepy euphoria. Ignoring the bulky instruction manual (which serves as a humble ceremonial pillow for the camera on the nightstand)—not to mention my own rigid tendencies to properly research anything before undertaking it (sex, tennis, beef Bourguignon)—I explore, greedily. The lens cap pops like a champagne cork and the tip of my finger, careful not to smudge, runs a cautious lap around the rim of the lens. The ridges of the shutter dial and the rewinding knob nip my skin. The pebbled black body fits into my palm as I gaze through the viewfinder, touch another button, and commit to posterity the very first picture taken with my beloved new camera, a startling and intimate portrait of my bony ankle.
She’s in the doorway now, laughing at me—“You like it?”—hands in pockets, foot nervously bumping against the wood door frame, smiling with cocky shyness. And I wish this was the very first photo I’d taken.
Happy Birthday, Leica. It’s your day too.
Within the Circle of Memory
After two days of photographing everything in sight she has lost patience with me, as the world of Istanbul is documented in my own mercurial way—alleys, bridges, mosques, men at coffee shops, women behind store counters, baskets of figs, mirrors in the marketplace, a cloud blurred in the reflection of a puddle (my artistic pretensions still exceeding my technical grasp at this point). I suspect, however, that lavishing the Leica’s attention for several long minutes on a scrawny, surly alley cat was the last straw—and so she decides to turn the tables: “Give me the camera. I want to take a picture of you.”
My grip tightens possessively around the Leica. “You already have plenty of photos of me.”
“Those old photos? You’re always dressed up and have some sort of ape-man on your arm. No,” she continues, “I want something recent, where you look like you. Where you’re smiling.”
I’m usually on the opposite side of the camera, albeit not by choice. Smile! Say cheese! Pretend you’re happy to be clinging to that tuxedoed baboon’s arm, at least! In these photos I’m as graven as a life mask. She’s right, I never look like me in these pictures, and so I surrender.
The camera suddenly appropriated, she fumbles with it. The cigarette in her mouth darts up, down, side to side, as if an antenna seeking guidance from a distant satellite on the proper f-stop, and the burning ash a prism jockeying for the perfect angle of light. When the cigarette juts up in a classic FDR fashion, her jaw line tenses with disappointment and I want to kiss that angry, soft fault line right here in this very public street.
If I can resist the temptation to kiss, I cannot resist the temptation to meddle: “Let me.”
“I can do it.”
“I know. Just let me fix the settings for you.”
“If you’d give me a goddamn minute—”
I give her a goddamn minute, and more. Many more. Despite the anxious flutter of my stomach, I say nothing even when it becomes painfully obvious that she thinks the rewind knob will adjust the viewfinder. How on earth did she ever get the film into the camera before she gave it to me? She must have bribed the shop owner! Finally, I can take no more and hold out my hand: “Here.”
She relents, but not without a growl of “oh, fuck it.”
“You’d think it was trigonometry, from the way you’re going on about it. Honestly.” But perhaps there is a kind of trigonometry at work—calculating the triad of relationships among the photographer, the subject, the camera itself. The beloved, the lover, the conduit. But where does the perfect sphere of memory, embodied in the photograph itself—an elegant proof of love—intersect all this? I almost begin blathering this aloud, but I look up and she is scowling at me. She never takes well to teasing about her intelligence.
We reach a détente when I return the Leica to her. “Go on, then.”
Her expression softens into contrition; she looks at the camera with a new wonder, as if thinking, Yes, why was it so complicated? “Okay now.” She clears her throat, aims the Leica. “Smile…”
I smile fraudulently.
My face twitches anxiously.
“…‘fuck you, asshole.’”
I don’t. But I laugh, and that is precisely what she wants.
Where a Perfect Climate is to be Obtained
It all started with the postcards that, for a time, crossed my doorstep more regularly than my father did. If it sounds as if I blame him for something—well, that is how the truth slants, I suppose, but if not for his absences I wouldn’t have had a scrapbook of postcards from around the world. My favorite had been the one he sent back from Cairo, of the Nile saturated in vermillion sunset with one long, low skiff gliding along the river. “Spend this winter in Egypt,” the card proclaimed, “where a perfect climate is to be obtained.” On the back my father had written: We’re “holed up” in Cairo for longer than expected—Ralph has dysentery. Bad last week but he’s getting better and we should be off in a few days. Darling I hope you’re being a good girl and studying hard. I’ve grown a frightening beard and you wouldn’t recognize me!
In college, that postcard had been tacked up over my desk and whenever I tired of books and boys I would seek it out like a talisman—even if I were not in my own rooms at the time, I would see it clearly in my mind—to remind me I would not be in school forever, that perhaps like my father, I would travel, I would get away. Not from any place specifically, mind you, but from myself. I would get away from being me.
We are not in Egypt yet. Soon, she says. This one word from her encompasses in meaning any time period from a couple of hours to a couple of months. Days. Years. I’m not quite sure it matters, because I have achieved my freedom.
At Istanbul’s city wall a crumbling tower catches my eye and once again the Leica is in front of my face like a boxy Venetian mask. (“Oh Christ, here we go again,” she moans.)
I can hide behind the camera. It thrills me.
Within the rangefinder are the framelines’ decorous scars, a constant reminder of what will be severed from any given photo, of the seemingly simple fact that taking a picture is not merely about the image but also, its presentation. About what is not there.
So I swerve—pivoting the lens and panning away from the castle across a landscape of ruinous stone and moss, slowly, as if I am directing a film, rehearsing a shot. Like a director seeking out his leading lady, von Sternberg looking for his Dietrich.
And there she is. Instinctively her eyes narrow and her lips tighten into grim beauty before she realizes I will not move away, and she relaxes into herself. The change is almost imperceptible, and the elegant proof of love almost incalculable, but it is there—plainly visible as I commit to the shutter release, which whispers the softest kiss I have ever heard.