Love in the Multiverse
She tells him to go out, to take his camera, to do some work. He’d been still on the couch all morning watching a show as she readied for work. The windows behind him blare reflected light. Frost crystals curl in the corners. He turns and squints. These clear January days are painfully cold. The temperature has one digit and when the wind comes down across the big lake that digit gains a negative. He knows what she will say if he hesitates; he knows she is right. His body resists. His mug is empty and cold. He pushes into motion.
She gathers her bag and lunch then bundles herself warmly. He helps her clear the car. As the windshield warms, they make plans for the evening. When their lips touch in the cold air they are senseless, it isn’t clear to either of them if they actually made contact. Their hands dumbly press against thick down coats. I love you; I love you too.
Ritual, he thinks. The photographer tries to surprise her, to resist ritual and routine. Once this is what drew her to him but now she needs reassurance, little signs, words, and gestures. These changes over the years do not make him unhappy. Sand and ash and salt dirty the snow on the streets. Crust covers the cars. Exhaust billows from the tailpipe as she slips into traffic, steam rises from a manhole cover. Facing the sun, he takes a photo of all the light caught bouncing off the ice and snow to be caught in the clouds trailing cars. He takes another. One catches the traffic light at the next corner lit red and the other green.
He wants to walk to the coffee shop and read. When they had moved in together she had said she would pay the rent if he treated his photography like a job. He did not hesitate to make a commitment to work on his passion. It worked, he was busy, he had clients, he had gallery shows, he was making money. Sometimes surprisingly good money. The cold and holidays slow work every January and he doesn’t have many paid projects on the calendar yet. The anxiety over when work will pick up always lingers.
It’s a snow day for the local schools so he heads to the city park to see what the kids free of their obligations do. Even if most parents resist turning them into the cold some will show up to ice skate, build snowmen, and throw snowballs at each other. He sets off across town on foot. He takes a deep breath and releases it slowly to float in the air before him. The only smells are cold and traffic.
As a rule he always asks the parents before he takes any photos. He gives them his card and shares the photos with them for free. He carefully deals with permission to print or share. He meets a nice couple and talks with them for a while as their daughter scoots around on the lagoon using an upside down trash bin for support. On the other end of the ice a man in his sixties shoots a puck at an empty hockey net. The photographer’s short beard collects ice. His gloves fold over his fingertips, but his fingers still ache and burn after being exposed to the air. Nearby another kid with no parents in sight slams large rocks from the landscaping onto the ice to listen to the sound. The echo under the ice is strange and deep he imagines a giant tuning fork. The rock only dents the surface.
The photographer positions himself with the sun behind him, it lights the girl’s face beautifully. Her hair pokes out from under her hat. Her nose and cheeks shine red. She grows confident enough to discard the bin. Do I want kids? This is a question he asks himself all the time. He wonders what will happen to his work. He wonders what will happen in ten years, if his work will bring him the same fulfillment. The other boy has disappeared. He gets a few great shots of the hockey player, but when he asks if he can take some shots from the other side of the net, the man says he is not interested.
Beyond the small lagoon is the lakeshore and the beaches that draw everyone here in the summer. The swings hang still, but they creak when the wind blows. Snow wisps off the end of the tall metal slide. Beyond the beach is the great lake.
The photographer loves the lake in the winter. The boundaries between land and water grow unclear below the ice. Fierce waves shape the ice into cones. Ice takes the shape of pancakes or full blown icebergs. At a place where a stream flows into the lake white-winged scoters and common goldeneyes dive below the ice and come up chewing. One of the bird’s feet seem to be frozen to the ice. He cannot reach the bird. He cannot find a stick long enough. The ice is not thick enough here to support his weight. He thinks about taking the bird’s photo, but he cannot.
On his walk back he strays out onto ice, farther than she would let him if she were there. He climbs to the crest of the ice and sees another figure just downshore peeking over the same ridge. Together but a few hundred years apart they each stare into the wind and watch the waves slam into the ice. As the photographer puts his lens cap on and turns to head back to solid ground he sees the other do the same.
It is the boy from the lagoon, he realizes. He watches him, then scans the shore for parents or other kids. There is no one. The boy slips and slides down toward the water. He catches himself, but is now being sprayed with water as large waves come in regular succession. The photographer picks his way quickly towards the boy. He says hold on because he cannot think of anything else to say. Other voices come from farther up the beach. It is two men from the coast guard station. They cover the ice quickly, he hears the sound of metal cleats grabbing the surface of the ice. Soon they come closer to the boy than the photographer. His heart races, he feels some relief. Caught up in the drama, his hand goes towards his camera.
There is one version of this where the photographer stops this urge and climbs down the wall of ice at the same time as the two rescuers. The battered front of ice comes apart under the weight of the three adults and the photographer finds himself on the same side as the boy. He grabs the boy’s shoulder and slides him away from the dark water. He lays on top of him distributing their weight and calming the boy. It is an odd moment. Intimate and unscripted. He tells the boy his name and the boy is named Patrick. With great difficulty the rescuers regain the crest of the ice above the pair and he hands the boy up to them. Perhaps the next wave tips him into the water. Electric cold with a kick to the heart he gasps as his clothes grow heavy. Maybe they are able to pass him a rope and pull him out of the water.
In the other version the focus on the faces of the rescuers is remarkable. When the photos are printed in the newspaper the story gains national attention. A shot of the two men stumbling as the shelf of ice breaks and the boy becomes impossible to reach becomes a cover photo. The last shot in the sequence, of Patrick in the water grabbing at the ice is the one that the photographer cannot look at. This photo also earns the biggest payment, an award and the recognition that gets him a job where he never has to photograph a wedding again.
And how does she react? In each version she can’t know that the other was a possibility. Does she leave work to meet him at the hospital where they treat him briefly for hypothermia and enjoy his fifteen minutes of fleeting and localized fame. Is she patient as he replaces the camera and expensive winter clothes that were ruined. Do they marry? Are they happy? Is his limited success enough? Do they have children?
Does she manage the sales and help him take advantage of the new interest in his work? Does she enjoy the equal footing, the lessening of pressure on her and her work? Are things warm or cold between them now? Do they feel each others lips? Just as his success drives attraction, the memory of the moment works at a cross purpose. Who deals with social media?
Her face among others in the dark audience. The room smells of a fresh coat of white paint. On stage, the projector scrolls through his work. Glamorous fashion shoots. Refugee camps. A Presidential Inauguration. He is older, but not tired. He says it took him a long time to be able to look at or talk about this image. He thought it was to be a picture of a rescue. Could I have made a difference? I believe I could have, but I didn’t. Because I made the choice I did, I am here today. I don’t mean in the way that Patrick isn’t. I am in this gallery, I drive the car I drive, wear the clothes I wear, have the house I live in, because I took this picture. Would I have been successful without it? No.
She watches all of the best photos he has taken since that day. Each represents weeks spent apart. She doesn’t see any more boy in him. The fine lines on his face, the edge of his jaw, and his salt and pepper hair. Then for a moment, a quiver but his voice holds. She smiles. He tells the story of the Syrian family he met in Greece finding them again in Germany, tracking them down in Windsor, Canada and then their new home in Toledo, Ohio. They have a boy and a girl. He sends them gifts. The first photo shows them huddled around a burning trash pile with other kids. Dirty, mismatched clothes, trash everywhere. The little girl blows into her hands as she looks into his lens. Everything is slick with rain. The landscape looks ruined. Juxtaposed next to this photo is a more recent one. The boy stares away from the camera, an intense look on his face, a video game controller in his hand. The girl brushes the tail of a toy horse. They each wear coordinated pajama sets. Their faces are bright and clean. Their eyes are bright and clean.
Retrospective, she thinks. All of these photos for Unicef, World Relief, whoever. The audience gasps at photos from his trip to Nigeria and she can only think of him being held hostage. He doesn’t tell that story today. Another set of photos and she remembers the time his Malaria prevention drugs lapsed, the shivering and pain. He said he felt so cold as she stood in the hospital he had been moved to in Marrakech and all she could feel was the unbearable heat. She pressed her lips to his forehead, but he didn’t seem to notice. I thought it was just the flu he said. Photos of hospitals. Someone in the room has a coughing fit. She shifts her legs, one on the floor the other crossed. She thinks of leaving, arranging the show has taken a lot of energy. Choosing some of the most intense photos to be printed on massive canvases. His work had become her part-time job, yet she had never left the firm. Her career has blossomed right along with his. He says the risks he’s taken have been about saving people. She stands, excuses herself with a whisper as she walks to the back of the room.
She doesn’t know I’m sharing this one, he says. The next slide is a portrait of her, one she loves, but she blushes all the same as all the eyes in the room search for her. He thanks her publically. She takes a drink from the bar and raises it to him in silence. The woman behind the bar asks her if they have kids. Hating the question, she walks away without responding and without tipping. It seems an hour of painful small talk before he joins her again. They link arms and step out of the gallery into the cold air. From inside the gallery you can see them talking but not hear what is said. She places her head sweetly on his shoulder, but only for a moment.
Charles Malone grew up in rural Ohio. He travels broadly and has recently returned to his home state after time out west and up north. His recent work can be found in the Great Lakes Review, The Dunes Review, SaltFront, Sugar House Review, and Matter Journal with Wolverine Farm Publishing, where Malone also edited the anthology A Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park.