This is from my new book “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” to be published in January.
The image is of Rebecca. Everyone called her Becks, and it would be hard to find someone who didn’t like her. Though the image is almost 30 years old, the feelings it engenders are as real and as powerful as the day it was made.
A few months ago, I recovered many negatives from my early days in New York. Some were water damaged and in pretty rough shape; others were near pristine. How they went missing is another story, but to have them back was the closest thing to a miracle I have ever experienced.
Some damage doesn’t bother me. It’s part of the story of an image and the process used to make it. This image was in a sheet of negatives that had never had a contact sheet printed. I could see it was the subway (most of my pictures back then were), and as I squinted at the negative for more detail, I recognized Rebecca’s face. Even in a negative, I recognized her.
The neg needed some work, and it took close to an hour in Photoshop to make it whole again. As I was restoring the image, it felt like she was right there in front of me. I found myself in a one-way conversation with her; Much like the ones we have over unfinished business, usually while falling asleep. You know, the things that you should have said if you had thought of them back when it might have mattered. Our one-way conversation reminded me that certain decisions we make while doing the right thing will never feel that way.
I had lunch with Rebecca’s sister Jenny last week. I found her using Google after finding nothing about Rebecca other than a marriage announcement.
We met at Pete’s Tavern in Gramercy Park, where we used to go for drinks when the drinking age was still 18. At that time, Jenny was only 16, but she had no problems getting served with her fake I.D. and how she carried herself.
Jenny looked great. That family had the magic DNA, but I think Jenny’s was supercharged. At 16 years old, she looked like a supermodel. The years had been kind, and she had done well for herself.
Living up in Darien after a career as a model and another doing commercials, she led volunteer work for a hospital. She had two daughters going to Cornell, and from the picture, she showed me, the magic DNA had made the leap to the next generation with no problem.
We did the chit chat, the summing up of a lifetime of jobs, marriages, and children. What do you do when you haven’t seen someone for 20 years or so. We talked about her parents, both gone now, and how their divorce was pretty much the end of the “good times,” when we hung out at her apartment. And we looked at pictures. I had spent so much time at Rebecca and Jenny’s house I had hundreds of images from back then.
Jenny and I poked at our salads and drank martinis. Pete’s always made the best martinis. The first picture we looked at was Louis, Rebecca, and me, and we were all laughing at something. She asked me when the last time I spoke with Louis was.
“I haven’t seen or talked to him in more than 25 years. Things didn’t end well with us. That whole familiarity breeds contempt thing. I do have dreams about him often though. Too much unsettled business I think… like a troubled spirit who sticks around.”
Louis and I met while both of us were attending The School of Visual Arts. He was in several of my classes. We would nod at each other when passing, but that was about it. One day he noticed my camera, a Nikon F2, still a relatively new model, and he asked how I liked it. Since we were heading to the same class, I handed it to him.
Louis was a Nikon expert but had never played with the F2. I handed my camera to him, and then he gave me his Nikon F with a motor drive and a 105mm lens to hold while he examined mine.
My camera didn’t have a light meter finder, just a simple pentaprism. There was a 50mm lens on my camera, and I hated the thing. Holding Louis’s rig, I realized the photography that I wanted to do would never require a motor drive. It did not, however, stop me from lusting after it.
We started hanging out around school together, and one day we started walking uptown taking pictures. We talked a lot and took a lot of pictures. I thought he was funny and brilliant…at least he seemed to know a lot about many things. He seemed fascinated with my tales of hitchhiking and working on an oil rig.
Usually, around 42nd Street, I would say goodbye and head West to the Port Authority and a bus back to New Jersey. But one Friday, after our usual walk, he asked me if I would like to come into the city that weekend to hang out and take some snaps. He would introduce me to his girlfriend and some other friends of his. Of course, I said yes, I would have done anything for a foothold on some kind of social life in New York City.
So the following day, Saturday, I took the bus back into the city, only this time I was heading uptown to 90th and Broadway. Louis greeted me at the door of his Upper West Side pre-war apartment, and it was huge.
He showed me into his studio, where he had just about every piece of Nikon gear laid out on a table. He told me he was cleaning it, but I thought he was just showing off. I saw a 500mm mirror telephoto lens and said, “Wow that’s a really nice penis err… I mean lens you have there.” He laughed.
I asked him what he had planned for the day. “I thought we could walk around the park,” he said, and like an idiot, I had to ask him if he meant Central Park. We were supposed to meet his girlfriend at the Sailboat Pond, and we were already late. “Rebecca was Louis’s girlfriend, and she appeared to be a bit young to me. Regardless, she was drop-dead gorgeous and acted and spoke in a way that I had not encountered before. I learned something about Upper East Side, privileged private school girls that day. They are far more sophisticated than their sisters in the suburbs.
On that very first day, we met; however, I could tell she was mad about something, and I had the distinct feeling it was me. From what I could overhear, Louis was supposed to have spent the afternoon with Rebecca, and she had no idea he was bringing me. I sensed an impending meltdown, so I told them I would walk over to the Bethesda Fountain.
Walking away, I had two thoughts, and they were: How did this guy get the beautiful and sophisticated girlfriend, and how could I get one too? It was a half-hour before I saw the two of them again. They were all smiles and unable to keep their hands off of each other. So began the first day of almost three years of us being involved in each other’s lives on an almost daily basis. After several hours, we walked Rebecca home. She insisted on having us come upstairs and say hello to her parents. She wanted to introduce me, and she had her arm through my arm and was friendlier than I thought was appropriate.
When Louis declined the invite, she made a little girl pout, kissed Louis, gave me a short little kiss on the lips, and said, “Teach him some manners, would you please?” And she was off.
Louis and I would twice-weekly walk from 23rd street on the East Side to 90th and Broadway on the Upper West Side. It was a great way to develop my eye for street photography and get comfortable in the city.
Louis was different from most of the people I knew. He never raised his voice, he never swore, didn’t smoke anything, and never got angry. Louis liked beer though I never once saw him drunk. He had a great sense of humor, and it was easy to make him laugh. He was also brilliant.
After a while, I did meet Rebecca’s parents and, like Louis, was asked to stay for dinner, usually twice a week. We were over there a lot. Her parents were lovely and apparently took no issue with Louis being several years older than their daughter. The following summer, they even took Louis and me on vacation.
One afternoon I sat in the kitchen chatting up Jenny and her mother. At the same time, Louis was with Rebecca on the other side of the apartment. That apartment was huge and had more square footage than any house I have ever lived in. A staircase went up to the second floor, and I had never seen any apartment like that.
Looking at my watch, I saw it was time to head back to the Port Authority and catch my bus back to Jersey. I went upstairs to Rebecca’s bedroom to say goodbye.
I found Rebecca alone in her room, and she had obviously been crying. When I asked if everything was alright, she told me that Louis had gotten angry with her and had stormed off. She asked me if I would sit with her.
So I listened to the insensitive thing that Louis had done or said and tried to make sense of it for her, but I realized I should just shut up. All she wanted was me to listen to her and that I could do.
Rebecca explained to me about Louis. He had started out as a nice sweet guy. Still, when things became emotional, like during a pregnancy scare they had just had, Louis would turn monosyllabic. She became angry with him because he would shut down emotionally. He also found it difficult to apologize. And instead of working things out, Louis would bolt.
The dynamic between Rebecca and I changed after that. When I would be over at Louis’s place, and she would call, I would usually end up on the phone with her. One day she asked me if I wanted to go to the Tut exhibition at the Met because Louis had crapped out on her. I really wanted to see the exhibit, and tickets were impossible to get. The idea of spending the afternoon with Rebecca was intriguing. I ran it by Louis, and he had no objection at all.
It was a great afternoon. We talked for hours, wandering around the Met. At some point, we ended up holding hands. Neither one of us wanted it to end. I asked her if she would mind my calling her, and we exchanged numbers. We spoke almost every day after that.
Whenever the three of us were together, there was a conversation that we were having. Then there was the conversation Rebecca and I was having.
I was always the gentleman, yet I felt like I was disrespecting my friend. I rationalized it by telling myself that he didn’t seem to care and that nothing untoward had happened. It didn’t stop me from how I was feeling about her, though.
As time went on, I got closer to Rebecca and learned more about Louis. I knew Rebecca loved Louis, and I assumed he had been her first love. But, I learned how poorly he treated her. Not overtly, but more like he was missing a part of his core and didn’t know he was doing it. It was passive-aggressive rudeness, constantly being late or missing things that were important to her. He never discussed with me any facet of his relationship with Rebecca. But I was very open about how often she called me and how often we got together for lunch or a walk.
Sometimes it just got too weird. Rebecca would hold both Louis’s hand and mine at the same time. She always made a deal out of my arrival and departure. Whether at Louis’s place or at hers, she frequently walked around in her underwear…and it never bothered Louis, and I never gave him any reason to let it.
It was always great fun hanging out with Louis. Some of his friends were now my friends, and I had a city social life. He let me use his darkroom whenever I wanted, and he even gave me a key to his place. I was grateful for all of it. There was no way that I would screw up the foothold on life in the city I now had. But, I thought about Rebecca all the time, and I would catch myself thinking that maybe Louis didn’t deserve her.
My feelings for her had grown through words spoken during late-night phone calls in intimate tones reserved for people lying next to each other. There was a constant ache in my chest from wanting her and not wanting to hurt my friend. I began to wonder how long I could go on like that.
On a late summer day, with rain pouring down and both of us soaked, we stood under the awning at the Delacorte Theater in the park. We were meeting Louis and grabbing a burger at Jackson Hole, and there wasn’t a dry spot on either of us. This was the weather to be with your lover if you had one, drinking wine and lying in bed just listening to the raindrops hitting the windows.
I was shivering, and Rebecca’s teeth were chattering. I thought I should hold her close and keep her warm, and she was thinking it too. Right then, she asked me to hold her because she was so cold. It was awkward at first; I wasn’t really sure where I should put my hands.
Standing so close, her scent, the smell of her skin and hair, caused any sense of awkwardness I was feeling to disappear.
Without thinking and with some force, I pulled her tightly to me. I moved to kiss her lips and then hesitated. She was looking at me like she didn’t understand, and then she made a slight smile and tilted her head to one side. I knew that between us right now that this was OK, and it was this perfect romantic moment. We held each other so tightly as if one of us might float away and kissed with a deep and frantic purpose. The longer we held each other, the more passionate our embrace became.
She pressed her body against me, and there was nothing ambiguous; there was no hesitation. It went on as long as it did, and all the while, I thought that I didn’t want it to stop ever; I could die right now, please. And the dull ache in my chest became the searing pain of desire I had for this incredible girl I was already in love with.
And it was over just a few moments before Louis came around the corner of the theater’s ticket booth and into our line of sight. I wanted to tell Rebecca something, anything, to make the moment last a few seconds longer. Before I could, she had turned around and headed down the walk towards Louis.
Rebecca told Louis how we had just run from the Met when the rain started. At least that would explain why we both looked flushed. I smiled and gave Louis the weakest greeting, and off we went to Jackson Hole.
I felt overwhelmed by the torrent of emotion that I had just experienced; it was the worst lunch I think I ever had. Louis had to know that something was up. I excused myself, saying that I wasn’t feeling well, and headed home.
I called Rebecca that night, but she didn’t call back. We didn’t speak to each other for a week. When I couldn’t take it any longer, I went to her apartment and waited outside. Seeing her, I was filled with dread. Because I knew that whatever was going to happen next would not make me happy at all.
We sat in the lobby of her building, and she apologized for not calling me back. “I just needed some time to think,” she said. I figured as much.
Then “I could never hurt you intentionally and I am so sorry if I have made you uncomfortable in any way.” I said. “You didn’t, I wanted to and you were…” and her words drifted off.
“I love Louis,” she said. “And I love the time that we have spent together. But if I don’t stop this now I’m afraid I won’t be able to at all.”
“Why do things have to change?” I asked. “Because I can’t hurt him, so I have to hurt you. It’s killing me because I don’t know what I want anymore.”
She then stood up and said, “If you care for me, please let’s forget the park ever happened.” “OK,” I said, “But how do you expect me to be able to forget that?”
“I don’t,” she replied, then turned and walked towards the elevator.
It was a while before I went over there again and only with Louis. The memory, both painful and beautiful, faded eventually. Rebecca went off to college, and Louis and I remained friends until we weren’t. They both haunt my dreams now. It wasn’t until I saw that picture of Rebecca looking at me that it all came rushing back.
When I showed Jenny the picture, she said, “Becks really liked you. She used to worry about you missing your bus. And she really didn’t like it when you started driving a cab.” “Oh,” I said and felt my stomach tighten. “Jenny, I was so in love with her. Almost from the moment we met I think.”
Jenny said, “She stuck it out with Louis till he stuck it in Barbara.” We both laughed that the one time Louis actually stepped out of his shell and did something wrong, he got caught in flagrante.
“She used to say that she wished Louis was more like you. She said you were sensitive and she could talk to you about anything and she missed that in him.”
That ache in my chest came back with such force it was hard to speak for a few moments. That feeling like you will scream or cry, but you don’t know which and can’t anyway. So I took a long sip of water instead and started feeling incredibly sad.
“I really miss her,” Jenny said. “I miss her too. Timing is everything.” I said weakly, unable to even look up at her. She touched my face, then leaned over and gave me a soft kiss where a tear had been on my cheek.
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
― Omar Khayyam, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
I think of what might have been and what I could have done differently with Rebecca. I know that it is fruitless to wonder about these things. Still, I connect with those eyes in that image across the years. It feels almost as real and as urgent as that kiss in the park did. Almost.
On September 11th., Rebecca had gone to the State Department Office at the World Trade Center to clear up an issue with her passport and never came home. She left a husband and two sons. She had been a pediatrician and was living near Jenny in Darien, Connecticut.
So, this picture taken almost a month after our kiss so long ago is all there is. Jenny said the look on Rebecca’s face, the way she was looking at me, it seemed like she wanted to tell you something.”
Falling asleep, I take that memory and close my eyes, and I see her. I think of her and holding hands, walking in the Met. If you believe that is sad or pathetic for an old man to do, you would be wrong.
Looking at that image makes me think about how sad it is that when we are so young and vulnerable, we don’t know how beautiful we truly are.