Fiction by Kaitlin Ruether
The first camera I picked up had a flashbulb that popped when you pressed the button. My first picture had Mom in a blue floral dress as she straightened the records on a maple shelf, her mousy hair pulled tight.
The first camera I picked up had a flashbulb that popped when you pressed the button. My first picture had Mom in a blue floral dress as she straightened the records on a maple shelf, her mousy hair pulled tight. The California morning light illuminated dust on the air. She spun when she heard me, but not in anger.
“Oh, Cecilia. You scared me.”
The camera, Mom told me, had been my father’s. I wanted to play more, but she took it and replaced it on the cabinet. His memory preserved.
Mom kept the books with photographs of my father on the high shelves. More so they wouldn’t get ruined than because she didn’t want me to know him. She’d told me he died. I don’t remember a time I didn’t understand that. We never listened to his music, but we listened to the songs his bandmates created in their new group, The Brackets. Dark, industrial synth-pop soaked into my childhood.
In 1989 I found the hidden photographs on my own. I was restless then. We all were. It was George H. W. Bush’s first year as president, and my ninth year of life. I pulled a chair from the kitchen, stretched myself lean until my fingers slid against the spines, and accidentally toppled two volumes to the floor. The upper one fell open to a picture of Bryan, cigarette between lips, coat collar high around his ears, gaze unaware of the photographer. I stared at the fuzzy photo and recognized that despite my hesitance to call him Dad, he was unavoidably my father. The similarities were clear though his dark hair had been gelled into greasiness and mine hung limp, unbrushed. Bryan made Dogpatch look almost cool.
It wasn’t the first picture I had seen of him, but it was the first I kept for myself.
Obsession struck me with the low rumble of an earthquake that quietly takes down buildings and bridges. On my thirteenth birthday, Mom presented me with my first camera, a Polaroid Captiva, in a cardboard box with black ribbons. Her face had been proud, orb-like.
She invited the girls from my class to the party, but only Jenny showed up. She thrust a daisy she had plucked from Mom’s garden towards me in lieu of a gift. We became best friends that day. The members of The Brackets sat around our threadbare living room; they always showed up for the milestones.
Dan, the frontman after Bryan, clapped a hand to my shoulder. “You’re a teenager now. Ready to have your heart broken and everything.” Mom glared. Andy, a fidgety, anxious drummer, whispered to her that I looked like him. I pretended not to hear. The backup singer, Tammy, gave me black satin-and-velvet scrunchies. Dan and Andy handed over Radiohead’s Pablo Honey, and the bass player, Tim — who Mom dated for two years in the late 80s — offered me film for the camera.
At first I took pictures of everything. Dan, short blond hair catching golden light as he put my new record under the needle, his eyes hooded in concentrated shadow. Tim gripping my mother’s hands as she looked off. In profile, the odd up-turn of his nose captured handsomely. Andy and Tammy, both round faced and glowing, cuddled on the couch, but I shook and the photo came out blurry. Then items in the room. An ashtray of Mom’s, overflowing. The texture of our beige shag carpet. A bit of thread on the coffee table that Andy picked off the couch in his inability to sit still. The rafters no one looked at. Eventually I learned that the images with balance of light and dark, of shape and position, meant more than those snapped at random. My personal preference was for the overexposed, ultra contrasted images that seemed to create their own meaning, like the inkblots used by shrinks to determine sanity.
On clear evenings Jenny and I snuck into the schoolyard. The crunch of the gravel beneath our shoes and the chalky smell of the dust excited us. On the swings, she would lean back, stretch her legs to the low orange sun, and wail with joy. I snapped a photo before I joined her. When she shouted, her voice caught in her upside-down throat. My hair, two feet longer than her curt bob, trailed the ground. I shrieked, a piercing sound that reverberated off the metal play equipment. We conversed this way.
“HOW OLD DO YOU THINK THE SCHOOL IS?”
“MY DAD WENT HERE,” she wailed. “SO PRETTY OLD, I GUESS.”
“HOW OLD IS YOUR DAD?”
“LET’S TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE.”
“CECILIA CLARK,” I called. “CECILIAAA!”
“JENNIFER ABBOT! JENNYYYY!”
We howled until the meaning was lost and our sounds just syllables strung together.
At fourteen, I found the note in an empty, anonymous record sleeve. Thin paper yellowed and blotted with tears, whether his or Mom’s I didn’t know. There were specifics here: listed incidents too straightforward to be lyrics, talk of the woman he had an affair with — an Emily who he “never had real feelings for, only the aftershocks of my love for you” — apologies to my mother.
The last line read, “Kiss Cecilia for me.”
I put the note back in the sleeve, the sleeve behind the records, and closed the cabinet doors. The mahogany cabinet, a wedding gift from Bryan’s deceased aunt, made significantly more appearances in my candid photography: dented legs from being shifted around with redecoration attempts, dust gathered around the base of the flower-less vase Mom kept on top. Then from afar, when the sun reflected off the varnished surface and created shadows from every imperfection.
I met Joshua at a party in 1995. As always, I was invited for my name and family connections. That year The Brackets reached number three in the pop charts — Lord knows I wasn’t social enough on my own to warrant the whispered “fifty-five Oak Street. ten o’clock” tagline. But that night I felt bored and out of sorts. I threw on a leather jacket and tight grey jeans, mussed my hair, and left without a word to Mom. By fifteen she let me stay out late. I didn’t go out often enough for her to be on my case.
Stuck in the corner of a smoke-filled, furniture-less living room, I watched bodies tilt and sway to the music. They placed paper corners blotted with acid on their tongues. The lights sparkled and flickered. While I stared down a too-thin girl I knew supplied the drugs that could sort out my anxiety, he moved towards me, hair teased forward over thick eyebrows, not dancing, but not walking either. A sort of saunter without ego. Shy, hurried strides.
“Fancy a dance?”
“Fair enough. Some acid, then?”
Joshua and I fit together like LSD and party lights, both of which we revelled in that night. He danced the way he walked, but I moved no smoother. Head bobbing, arms clung to each other, skin-on skin. We looked like angry giraffes stuck in too small a space.
“You’re really pretty,” he said when we sat on the curb outside the house. I pushed road dust into little piles.
“I like your hair,” I said.
“Yeah? I was going for a Morrissey thing.” “Do you sing?”
“Nah. I wish. Wanna make-out?”
Fifteen years old, but I thought I found it. Love coursed through my blood and down into my sense of self. It crept into my photos. For him, my life seemed like a celebrity-filled mystery and a relationship was the invitation. This occurred to me by the second month, but I didn’t care. We whispered late into the night of top records and earliest memories and the revitalization of the post-punk dream. He wanted to open a nightclub, I would promote for him. No fantasy could have made me happier.
When I introduced Joshua to The Brackets he couldn’t speak. We sat in Mom’s living room. Old wood, glass record cabinet, orangey couches from the 70s. The garlic-and-butter aroma of home cooking made me anxious. Mom served tea in the good blue china and Joshua didn’t touch it. His hands shook. In 1996, I felt convinced my future lay in those hands and decided that my family, blood-or-otherwise, should meet the man I loved. Dan raised a blond eyebrow at the open- mouthed silence.
“Josh is a fan.” “Ah.”
“Take care of our girl, Joshua,” Andy said in the most fatherly voice he could muster, which amounted to a baritoned murmur. Tammy kicked his foot from her spot beside him and he flicked his dark hair to cover the wince. I thought Andy and Tammy might have kids some day, but Tammy never wanted anything to interrupt her music career.
I took a photo of everyone together. Posed and unnatural. Smiles on a couch. After, Dan told me that the band approved.
Joshua threw the only parties I felt comfortable at. He loaded up on substances both legal and otherwise while I lounged in his basement with the bong he bought me as a one-year anniversary gift. I made momentary friends to fend off loneliness. For his eighteenth birthday he crowded sixty people into his parents’ house. April 23rd, 1997. Stoned out of my mind, I floated upstairs to Joshua’s bedroom. The purple walls of the basement crowded me;, the stairs offered a challenge. Plus, I was starving. But then I heard it — the moans from the hall. I remember them as though they are etched in grooves that play across my senses. Still, I entered his room.
If life is shaped by purpose and contained by death, then purposeful death is at the center of what it means to be alive, right? Like an underground cellar in the middle of a corn maze. You aren’t meant to go down, only to traverse the labyrinth, turn around, and find your way out. Still, that door in the ground is there. Dark wood heavy with mystery. Even Jenny has that cellar door within her, despite her pleased squeaks as she fucked my boyfriend, turned her head, and grinned.
I slammed the door, bolted for the stairs. I heard, distantly, the sound of my name. Rain or tears or both smudged makeup trails down my nose and cheeks, when I brushed the water away, my fingertips blackened. The pavement shone and I breathed in sulfur and mud. I screamed.
I mourned, then I cut my hair and promised myself that my sadness left with the shorn strands in the dustpan. A new, chin-length style highlighted the dark circles I drew around my eyes. My first self-portrait, in black and white, looked almost gothic. Pale skin and black features. When Mom saw the image two weeks later she cried and swore I was a replica of Bryan. I started to smoke.
My name allowed me a table in a London art show. With pictures printed on glossy buck-a- piece paper under my arm, I walked to where CECILIA CLARK dripped fresh, watery black paint down a plastic sign and thumb tacked my high-contrast images to a cardboard trifold. I stood, chatted, waited. Ten minutes before closing a man in a long, tawny jacket stood before me.
“You took these?”
“Would you be interested in travelling to Los Angeles?”
“I manage a band. Couple of guys. Grunge-type stuff. We’d want images like that.” He pointed to a blurred-out street, black and white smudges, but you could make out a streetlamp and a puddle. My street.
“That’s right. We could talk payment. You’d want to meet the guys, I’m sure. Think about it.” He handed me a business card, like out of a film. I rang him that night.
We lived out of an Airstream RV, but called it The Van. It carried me, a spiky-haired guitar player named Brent, Brent’s girlfriend Sue, and Anthony, who sang. The manager sometimes rode with us, but more often drove his Honda Civic. The Van, an investment of Brent’s, shone yellow inside with tobacco stained plastic. The upholstery looked brown, but the orange that it once was peaked out between the seams. Our vehicle creaked down the freeway and freedom took hold of my lungs. I took pictures: Brent polishing his shiny red Fender. Anthony shaving ginger stubble from his cheek. Candid, mostly. The band, Negative Shot, performed at bars with small stages, but I perfected the art of wide-angle shots for the advertisements.
In close quarters, I bonded with Anthony. My first impression was that he looked like a weasel, but with time the big eyes and small mouth grew endearing. He rolled those eyes when Brent and Sue made out in the back. I looked away. Our solitude bound us. Somewhere between Lost Hills and Buttonwillow, I kissed him. He grabbed my face in his hands as yellow lines flew past and we inhaled each other instead of the musk of motor oil and tobacco smoke. He wrapped his arm around my neck until we arrived at the gig — a bar in a bad Pasadena neighbourhood. I caught a hint of smile on film that night when he growled the lyrics, “fuck the living for carrying on”.
One of the best things about Anthony was that he didn’t care about The Brackets. He knew about them, even spoke once of respect for Bryan, but he showed no interest in meeting the band. My mother, on the other hand, fascinated him. When Negative Shot returned to San Francisco, I introduced them. Mom smiled, shook hands, tilted her head in a discreet attempt to see the gauge earrings that stretched his earlobes. For Anthony, Mom represented a tenacity he couldn’t grasp. A survival instinct he himself lacked. Anthony feared the darkness of his mind because he didn’t know it.
“You don’t want to die, do you?” I asked that first night home. He lay beside me in my childhood bed. A double with a duvet striped in red and black. On the bookshelf across the room were stuffed animals, sea shells, diaries, all that was left of my youth. I felt thirteen, not twenty.
“Not really,” he answered. “Maybe in an accident. Sorta hoped Y2K would be it, you know?”
“No,” I said.
“I think grunge is dead,” he whispered to the ceiling.
“I think it died a while back,” I answered.
Negative Shot fell apart in 2001. When grunge failed, they become metal, punk, then indie, but no genre brought the fame they craved. I moved home, reorganized my bedroom, and stared at old photos. Anthony rented a flat in LA but I couldn’t leave San Francisco, couldn’t leave Mom. We spoke on the phone every day and met up every weekend. But when a month passed without a word, I decided the trouble was more than the reward.
“You’re still young,” Mom cooed. “Someone out there is waiting for you to find them. Someone worth the mess.”
Photography felt meaningless without an audience, and the audience did not come without subjects. I picked at Mom’s dinner of roast beef, potatoes, and string beans.
“You don’t like it?” she asked.
“You haven’t tried the beans.”
“You’ve been scaring me lately,” she said, offhand to hide her anxiety.
“Did Bryan love what he did?”
“Oh,” she exhaled. “I think he did. He seemed to.”
“Why did he do it?” I saw her prepare to once again explain the stigma, the illness. She stopped.
“I don’t know,” she said instead. “I don’t know.”
Mom once told me that whatever Bryan did, he did entirely. Some days he woke up fully decided that he wanted to be a father, and on those days he took me to the park, carried me around town, cuddled me and loved me more than he had loved anything in his life. Other days, he woke a poet and wrote lyrics until he passed out. He could be a musician, a singer, the frontman of a band. His band was lucky if they had a gig on one of these days. Bryan’s moods dictated themselves.
Sometimes this is how I am. I see light and shadow in new ways and feel compelled to my camera. Other days I can’t move. That’s when I feel like I know him best. I miss him — or the idea of him. In some afterlife, would he talk to me? Would he hug me, kiss my forehead? Recognize me? And what would I even say back?
Mom didn’t talk to the members of The Brackets much in the new millennium. They traveled on the fame of nostalgia — their fans clung to a time when the clubs were intimate, the synths cosmic and the drums electric. Most of the crowd re-lived their youth. A new generation had already taken over the same bars and dance halls the last one opened. Critics and fans agreed that the new albums were shit, but it didn’t stop arenas from selling out. In 2005, it occurred to me that I had lived a possible quarter of my life and had nothing original to show for it. I locked myself away in the name of creativity, but the spark had left.
San Francisco bored me. Not for the constant fog, nor the chill — you adjust to what you grow up with — but for the encroaching wealth, the pushing out of anything interesting. New money. And then there were my own routines. Mom cooked elaborate meals twice a day. I smoked. The postman passed around noon. I smoked. Cars pulled into driveways and then out again. Neighbors emerged with children, dogs, briefcases and purses. I smoked some more. My photographs were not the only part of me in black and white. So when the white, metal mailbox held a letter with my name hand scrawled across the front, some bit of vibrant red lit inside and I tore it open on the street. The shake of my fingers I blamed on the November chill, the buried sun.
Haven’t heard from you in some time. We’re performing a homecoming show in March. Ticket enclosed. The band decided we wanted a local photographer. If you’re interested, we’ll upgrade that ticket to something a little flashier. Sorry I couldn’t give this to you in person.
Love from Brazil,
Dan (with Andy, Tim, and Tammy)’.
Pantyhose, slashed at the shins, torn at the knees. A white houndstooth skirt. Black tank top. Trench coat for the rain. Post-post-punk in 2006. I stood in the line behind a gaggle of teenagers, drunk already. How could they know what this show meant? They heard dance music, raised by electronica, synthetic pop beats and computer sounds. Water fell from the roof in fat globs, leftover rain from the downpour of a few hours before. I lit a cigarette.
The line curved around the arena and I felt the MDMA in the blood of the man behind me. His eyes were hungry, mine raccooned. He tapped my shoulder and I swivelled. He was older than me by at least twenty years. Dark circles under his own eyes betrayed a life of drug use.
“Last time I saw these guys was in ’81 at a small club. Before the first singer offed himself. Can you imagine?” He turned away again and I focused on the rasp of his voice, the gap in his teeth, the age lines across his cheekbones. All the things that kept his words from me like oil on water. It’s a wonder they didn’t catch fire.
When I presented my ticket, stamped with the word “photographer”, a gruff man in a blue blazer led me led me backstage to where Dan sat on a spare amp, waiting. I smelled him before I saw him. Sweat, adrenaline, tobacco.
“I wanted to see you. Thought you might leave without saying hello. You’re doing well?”
“I should set up,” I said.
We both turned towards the click of heels on tile. Tammy, wrapped in a long black skirt and loose t-shirt. Her russet hair hung in wet strands, chin length, shorter than last time. New crow’s feet, too.
“We’ve missed you. Oh, it’s so good to see you. Haven’t seen you in ages. You excited?” I nodded and promised I’d try to find them after the show. I hadn’t planned for this. Dan reached out a hand, wanting to say something, but I turned away before he figured out what it was going to be.
The same blue-blazered man led me to a fenced off area that dipped from stage left to the apron, the space between audience and band. The Brackets began with a burst of light and the sound of 1988, my breath caught somewhere between my ribs, not pleasantly, but like I was suffocating. The audience whooped and pumped their fists. I took a break from the camera to close my eyes, sway a little. The hits created a swell in the crowd, the newer songs offered a chance to regroup, re-energize for the next collective recognition of a riff, beat, or lyric. Synthesizers whirred on stage and the band, though no longer young, performed like this was the last chance they’d get to feel alive. Homecoming.
I stood at the edge of the stage, held the camera tight. My love for these songs had waned over the years. What I wanted was to see the same tiredness I felt reflected in them. I raised the camera a final time, captured Andy as he looked at Tammy over his drum kit, caught her as she shimmied and sang back-up to Dan’s strutting lead. I loved them, but they weren’t my family, they were Bryan’s.
The show ended with a song Bryan had written, a tribute to his memory and to the San Fran crowd who’d loved The Brackets from the start. Dan whined the lyrics into silence: “Life is only endless; we revolve, we create, we continue.” The crowd went wild. I packed my camera in its bag, left before it was over. I would email the files to Dan.
In dreams, Bryan slings an arm across my shoulders, kisses the top of my head. Behind him Anthony, in a black Negative Shot T-shirt, digs a hole in the ground that will be a grave. I admire his biceps. Someone coughs and it’s Joshua, who holds a cigarette out to me. From here, the dream splits. Sometimes Bryan takes it, and when he inhales, his eyes flutter shut, and his weight falls against me. Sometimes I reach for it, but I lose my balance and fall backwards into the grave. Most often, I lift the cigarette to my lips but before I inhale Bryan takes it from me, drops it into the grave, and we watch the wisp of smoke rise. I wake disappointed.
The employment centre chairs creaked and the white tiled floors seemed coated in grubby mop residue. A poster hung across from me “YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO WORK”. I tapped my heel, filled out papers, allowed myself to be lead into an office where a thin, blonde woman with ink-smudged palms shook my hand.
“You put down photography skills?” She asked.
“I travelled with a band, took their promotional pictures.”
“Uh-huh. What about typing?”
“We can put you in a medical office. A secretary. How would you like that?” I came for a job, and she offered me one. What else could I say?
The Parks Family Health Center sat west of Market Street in Twin Peaks. A thirty minute commute from home in Ashbury Heights. Everything inside was tiled. The floors, the walls, the ceiling. Dr. Sandy Tamas, a pointed, but kind OB/GYN, took me under her wing, waited as I learned the terms. I became familiar with the pregnant women who routinely visited the office. They chatted about their excitement and their fear. The promise of new life exhilarated me. When the women brought their newborns, I stared at the tiny fingers, eyes, and noses, at the curls of their ears and the wisps of hair.
“You’re good with them,” Dr. Tamas said. “I need a technician. It would pay better. At least double.” She started to sneak flyers onto my desk.
I enrolled in night classes that would teach me to work the ultrasound machine. A two- year program offered at the hospital, and all you needed was a high school diploma. Dr. Tamas boasted about how proud she was and as a graduation gift, she offered me the job.
Children look alien before birth, and after, really. But in the early images the heads are disproportionate, the bodies curled and blobby. A thick line at the back of the skull, another along the spinal cord. Shaded in as though with a white pencil on black matte paper. I read the details, a foreign language.
Ultrasound works through sound waves and echoes, and I captured those sounds, collected them into images, printed the photos and handed them to parents. Black and white contrast. Sharp lines. Beautiful subjects. An overwhelming, emotional audience.
I quit smoking.
The first camera I picked up had a flashbulb that popped when you pressed the button. My father’s. When Mom developed the film, she presented me with an image of her in blue. I remembered that morning, the beginning of a passion. I had the picture framed and set it up on my new desk, where I kept my appointment reminders and the ultrasound photos ready to be delivered.
Kaitlin Ruether is an MFA candidate at the University of Guelph in Toronto and a contributor to the Canadian music publications Exclaim! and Grayowl Point. Her fiction has appeared in FreeFall and This Side of West, the University of Victoria’s Undergraduate Literary Magazine.