Heliographs

Fiction, Prose

Gurney Norman Prize for Fiction: 2nd Place

By then you had already moved on, eager to go out into the sun-spilled city, to see all the spaces across which we’d moved. Trace a psychic map that would make sense to no one but us. Tracking our ghosts here, to this moment of July.

Fiction by Jared Green


July 3, 2004

“Take my picture, then I’ll take yours.”

Your voice giddy as you say this, a flutter of feathers. You look like a saint, a seraph flooded with sunlight. This sudden sense of limitless possibility. More alive than you’ve been in—what?—months, certainly, maybe years. I’d forgotten what that looked like.

You, of all people, you who hate smiling for photos, embarrassed of your crowded, crooked teeth, the crinkled skin at the eyes, smiling now in anticipation of the captured moment. 

I never smile for photos either. Frozen expressions look like fear, not pleasure. But this smile is unforced, incandescent. You couldn’t stop it if you wanted to and I believe in it, too. 

“There’s only one exposure left.” 

Squinting through the viewfinder of the cheap disposable Fuji, bought on a lark at a postcard shop in Montmartre. Then the long walk to the Marais because you said we should document this, this passage from one era to another. I had forgotten the subtle agony of limited film. What we choose to take captive when we can’t record everything without thinking. What we let go free.

“One day we’ll dig them up like fossils,” you said, placing the camera in my hand. “Evidence of life before the Holocene.”

I said nothing, slow to get the reference. Couldn’t remember, and then I did: the new life. By then you had already moved on, eager to go out into the sun-spilled city, to see all the spaces across which we’d moved. Trace a psychic map that would make sense to no one but us. Tracking our ghosts here, to this moment of July.

October 11, 1997

Crossing Pigalle: prostitutes, dilapidated rooms behind chipped green shutters. The buildings at dusk, dark angles in the cloud-mottled sky. A woman’s arm reaches out from a garret window. The hand holds a lit cigarette and the promise of intrigue.

And then: 

“This is where they guillotined Robespierre.”

For perspective.

May 29, 1995

At the Hôtel de Cayre: your sleeping form as I open the thickly leaded windows onto the boulevard.  The half-moon casts a blue light where you lie, nude, in post-coital dreams.  

The question of how we got here. 

“I like that we two are intimate strangers.” This was you today.

“We’re making a moiré.” This was me. 

The question of what we are, will be.

April 10, 1995

“This is maybe the wrong time to say this, Minette. I mean, I don’t know. I just want to say something: I like this, what we’re doing. The way we’re doing it. We don’t have to live together, we don’t have to do anything other than this. I’m okay with ambiguity, but only to a point. I want you to realize that I love you and this fact means that you have one responsibility to me. Only one, and it’s this: If we keep going but you don’t think you love me, then you have to tell me and let me go. Because I don’t want to waste my time. Okay? Promise me? Promise.”

August 5, 2001

“I could peel away this day like an orange and devour you.” 

At twilight, drunk on champagne, you were laughing and it was music. Playing at lives not yet our own. 

May 29, 1995

The striking, unshaven man at the café at Saint-André-des-Arts smokes and flirts with you. His assertive nose, his alarming cheekbones, his tight blue suit and steel-colored eyes. I am invisible to him. Does he suspect that he has wandered into a lesbian love story? Is that what excites him? You speak words in coy rebuff, but you’re in the mood to play with the world. Easy as birdsong. What is the meaning of what you say? It has the form of a joke, but I don’t catch the joke. I’m not good at this language. I try to grin from across the table as the two of you sing along when Dutronc’s “Et moi, et moi, et moi” comes on the radio.  I am a spectator to you as you would be without me. Or is this for me? You glance at me, measuring my dog-dumb jealousy. Your gaze answers a question I hadn’t known I’d posed: There is nothing in America I cannot leave behind.

November 10, 1998

“And if I bite you here, in front of this Manet.  What do you say to that?”

This ritual, biting me on the neck in front of iconic works of art.  Your casual sadism delights me. A libertine loose in the Impressionist galleries. Your teeth leave a little red ring and later I will smile, knowing that it’s there.

June 1, 2001

How do you say lovesick

What is the word for hangover

No one here knows the words for cranberry or chipmunk. I don’t need to know how to get to the airport; I need to know how many words you have for sex. It can’t be more than we have in English. What are the names of the internal organs? How would you translate clusterfuck

And the parts of an engine? 

Who are your birds?

Does anyone say sous anymore? 

How do you say irrational exuberance

How do you say drone strike

How do you say I would prefer not to

When is it that you are no longer a stranger to a language?

July 22, 2000

S’eloigner… a beautiful word for a sad thing.  Like ombre, or déséspoir. L’appel du vide…  French has so many.” 

You say this aloud, although not exactly to me. To the room that happens to include me in much the same way it includes furniture and lamps. You: partly obscured by your novel, something Francophone. From the Maghreb. But I know you aren’t really reading, just screening yourself off from the world, from me. You watch the light rain strike the window, crying again. I am right beside you, a thousand miles away.

September 19, 2002

Living in non-time since the treatments began. Geological time. Since giving your body over with evangelical faith to the Olympian powers of fertility science. You had numbed yourself for the worst, blunted your hope with the unspoken conviction that this could only come to disappointment. You had told yourself, and then me, that this would be it: one more try and then done. And after? You would devote yourself instead to your career, find meaning in other things, tend a garden, finish your thesis. We would consider adoption or just be a couple. We could do that, couldn’t we? People did that, didn’t they? I stand by and say unhelpful things. I am surrounded by an aura of apology. Both of us braced for living with pain in phantom limbs.

January 15, 2003

That song, again. I must have heard it passing through some everyday non-space. The ATM vestibule, the supermarché , the metro station at Oberkampf. Or waiting on hold for the results. And now it has taken up residence again in my skull, so close to the swallow-spun nest where you are permanently lodged.  The song you played all summer long before our last attempt came to nothing. Its relentless joy. Over and over you played it until it passed into me like a second heartbeat. But I never thought to ask—why didn’t I ask?—what was it you were looking for in that song?

July 3, 2004

“Then let’s get someone to take the last one of us both.”

“They’ll just steal the camera. Tell you what, I’ll take two of you. You’ll always know it’s me on the other side of the frame.”

You straighten your back, shift from one buttock to the other on a stoop at this sun-slit corner of the Rue des Rosiers. 

You’re thinking what? Of us? The baby? The forever after? 

To your left, a Lubavitcher recites a prayer in Hebrew, unspooling the scripture from the tefillin that connects his arm to his head. How the outside becomes the inside. Faith’s feedback loop.  Your skin beams bronze and I think of Ingres. 

“Think about what’s coming.”

The intensity of this asymmetrical face, these elements that should not make sense together as beauty, but here they are: the cubist, mismatched facts of this stealthy, startling loveliness. How can it be that the world does not arrest itself in flight to remark on this? But the prayer continues, the recitation, the spooling and unspooling. People and their children, their dogs, their chatter. I pretend to focus, even though there is no focus ring. 

August 30, 2002

First the Antral Follicle Count to count the primordial follicles in reserve in the ovaries. Then injections of Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone Antagonist to suppress spontaneous ovulation. Then 10 days of injections of  exogenous Follicle-Stimulating Hormone analogues to commence ovarian hyperstimulation. Then induction of final oocyte maturation with a shot of Human Chorionic Gonadotropin to act as a luteinising hormone: the “trigger shot”. Then ultrasound-guided transvaginal oocyte retrieval  in 34 to 36 hours just before follicle rupture. Then oocyte selection and intracytoplasmic sperm injection with prepared semen. Then the growth medium to develop the fertilized egg into a cluster of 6 to 8 cells. Then the removal of 2 of those hard-won cells for Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis to analyze trophectoderm cells for genetic abnormality. Then 3 to 5 more days and the blastocysts are evaluated, the viable embryos culled and transferred back via catheter into the uterus. Then progesterone to maximize the success rate of implantation and embryogenesis. 

“Are you getting all this? Do you want to go over it again?” It takes me too many second to realize he is speaking to me. I nod and I do not get it because it is not gettable. 

January 17, 2000

Reclining beside you, half asleep, I’m spent from climax. I watch you knit a sweater for her, for Elodie. “She’s going to be a girl. I can feel it,” you’d said. Elodie, your grandmother’s name. I pronounce it to myself, silently. I watch the sweater assuming shape, think of the cellular knitting-together going on inside of you. With each piece—back panel, sleeve—a bit more of her conjured. This will be the length of her torso and this the span of her back. I imagine the tiny arms that will fill these shapes, think of how they will be at once so small and yet impossibly large for what until now had only been an idea.

“Voilà!”

“It looks like a tea cosy.”

“I can’t knit. I just can’t.” 

Your laughter makes the baby kick.

March 1, 2000

Madame, il faut pas trop insister.

The square-fingered doctor says this in his affectless monotone, his back to us. A medical clinic in an unfamiliar Normandy town. We’d had to go where the imaging technology was after you’d discovered blood spots again this morning. I can tell he doesn’t approve of us, of what he thinks we are.

Madame, you mustn’t insist.

There is an element of scolding in it, an implicit prohibition against further questions. He has told us all that we are going to hear: it—she? he?—is still alive, but will not be for long. 

One mustn’t insist, meaning this: there is no will you can summon, your own or anyone else’s, that will alter this reality. He does not offer you any solace, your body wracked with sobs. American doctors would have been more sympathetic, or would have pretended to be, but you don’t want anyone’s false comfort anyway, not even mine, whose embrace you accept only because it’s too exhausting to push me away.

July 3, 2004

Even now, here, I feel the haunting. That fetal image. How to even think of what it was? Our first child? The one that almost was. We had picked out favorite names, written them several times over in changing orders of preference, listed in a brightly floral notebook, bought just for this purpose. We had daydreamed this person that would grow into the shape of these sounds. We could hear how the names would be pronounced by relatives both French and American and imagined how they would be shortened by her friends, and one day, lovers, partners, children. This was how certain we had been. After this, names would seem dangerous, endowed with sinister magic.

March 1, 2000

I alone see it, see what you do not, should not: the live ultrasound, this spectral creature, turning gently in the amniotic dark. Moving. Alive, in a sense. The screen is tilted away from your line of sight, so I alone bear witness to the articulation of the fingers, the topography of the features. Face, hands, legs, organs, nerves, all going wrong, all connected to a brain that can never turn on. We are that far along but will go no further. Trisomy-18. Three copies of all chromosomes, an impossibility. Take it to term or have the procedure immediately?

“Either way, it ends in anguish.” I cannot recognize your voice as you say this. 

And I say nothing. And nothing again when the ghost turns toward the invading ultrasound wand, and looks out from inside. I know I will never say anything about it. This ghost will haunt me alone.  

February 12, 2001

You had bled all morning, or so it had seemed. I had not thought that there could be so much blood. It began in the shower; I’d run to the bathroom in answer to your cry, saw you doubled over, clutching your abdomen above the bright red plume. You had known you were going to miscarry again. There had been cramping and blood earlier in the week, an ultrasound that showed no growth. You had already felt the despair, but now there was the undeniable stream that flowed out from you across the unforgiving white enamel, eddying down the drain. There will be no speaking after this, for days. What is there to say until the time comes to start saying things again?

December 10, 2002

Beneath the arches at Sacre-Coeur, your somber shape, fern-curled into yourself.  Residues of the morning’s argument; we’ve been silent since. But the sun: the winter sun and this white stone.  Let’s not fight.  Let’s not fight anymore. We’ll try it again. I’m sorry I said I couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. I’m sorry I talked about the money. I’m sorry I am who I am. Let’s just. Let’s—

July 3, 2004

Did you never prepare yourself for anything but bad news? Or just grown accustomed to the doleful work of living as a wraith? A disappointed person. Look at us now: stunned that we will not have to become these diminished people. This whole thwarted life that had stretched interminably ahead of you, of us—evaporated. You will not need to take the depression medication, will not go into CBT to develop coping strategies; there will be no sobbing in the locked bathroom, no unfillable emptiness, no fruitless couples counseling, no slow withering of our partnership beneath this ridged scar tissue. All of this dispersed into dark matter, leaving in its place only this: this moment of spring, this contact with the solidity of the world.

October 8, 2003

Your voice barely a whisper, nearly inaudible below the hospital bustle of nurse bodies and ringing phones and pinging machines. 

“There is a heartbeat. There is. I heard it. I saw it!  Look! Look! We’re going to have a baby. We are. This baby. This baby.” 

Wild-eyed, you hold up a printout from the ultrasound. I squint to discern what I’m supposed to see in the gray haze of the image. It could be of anything. A weather map of an approaching blizzard, a satellite photo of a munitions stockpile. Five days ago, the OB-GYN said that this pregnancy, too, was over. No heartbeat. The measurements showed that the fetus was not where it should have been at five weeks. There would be a procedure to extract the tissue. Dilation and curettage. Again. The doctor had curtly suggested antidepressants.  I wondered if we would have been treated differently if I were a man.

But you, both determined and desperate, switched to a new doctor. The final ultrasound had been ordered, just in case the first doctor’s math had been off; even a day or two meaning the difference between hearing a heartbeat and not. Otherwise, the procedure, the instruments; everything after. 

January 3, 1995

Cold day. Your hand in my jacket pocket to seek out my warmth.  The two of us small and shivering in the sickly winter light. Grisaille of the bleak January sky. Crisp snow, vellum-white, yielding beneath us.  You love the feel of the winter, clear and sharp as shards of glass on your skin. New to each other, we walk down the Quai Malaquais until the Pont des Arts comes into view, arching over the steel-colored water like the skeleton of some deep-dwelling, prehistoric thing. I’ve never loved another woman, been loved by her in return. Never imagined that this would be the shape of love. All of it astonishing.

“I don’t ever want to leave.”

“Then stay,” you say. “Stay right here. Nothing has to change.”

October 8, 2003

Holding the image, I search its illegible surface. In the lower right corner, the whitish blob no larger than a sesame seed. The technician had drawn an arrow to the seedling and typed: Baby

In the congested waiting room, your eyes glistening, feral. The whole thing had been a mistake, a mismeasurement, a who knew what—it hardly matters anymore. Your face, lately unrecognizable, disfigured by the torsion of anguish, now crossed by currents of an inexpressible joy.  There is no happiness I can feel that would be precisely like your happiness at this moment. This is an entirely different narrative now. We embrace fiercely, stand motionless beneath the glare of aseptic light.

Here we go now. Here we go.

July 3, 2004

“Smile.”

Your mouth shyly forms an arc. The crinkled upper lip, the expressionist-angled canines.     

“Did you take it yet?”

“Not yet.  Hold on. I want to get it right. The light’s bad.”

I think of the French phrase à contre-jour. Against the daylight. Backlit. The sun behind the subject, drowning it out. All photographs are records of an interruption. Transitory things, moving briefly into the continuum of light. Nothing more than this passage. This was once; this will have been.

“Sit against the wall. Face the sun.”

You shield your eyes.  I look at you through the tiny viewfinder: your sun-burnished face, eyes gleaming, bright bend of your mouth. I draw back until the whole of you emerges into view. Your enormous belly, round as a gourd. Legs crossed, hands nervous on your knees. You touch your neck, tuck your hair behind your ear.  I think of your scent where the jawbone curves into your neck; the feel of your skin. Then something else: the vertigo of change. Soon. Unalterably. 

I let the camera drift slightly to the side, dividing you at the edge of the frame.  I pan farther, look at the timeworn limestone to your right, then the blurry smears of strangers through the café doors.  Tourists. Passengers. They’re the ones I want to remember. Remember them because I don’t know them, so they can’t change.  I’ll take a picture of them and then I’ll remember this morning, because we’ll have changed and nothing will be the same except for the people I don’t know.      

“Minette?”

We are already changing.  This moment is no longer the moment and I haven’t even taken the picture.  I’m taking a picture and condemning this moment to death. But I want to remember everything, even this space between us.  This space and the people beyond the window. 

“Please.  My legs are falling asleep. And I need to eat.”        

Everything flows, nothing stands still. There is no way to tell you that I am terrified. No way to explain that I’m not ready. But there isn’t any such thing as being prepared, is there? 

“Smile.”

I center the frame on your face again, then drift slightly. Behind you, the window in which a fragmented form, man or woman, hovers above your left ear.  

“Je t’aime!” you shout, impulsively, unaccustomed to such verbal outbursts in public. A slender man in bonewhite linen passes by, laughs, a sound like dry leaves falling: “But Madame, I hardly know you!” His Senegalese accent and your laughter, musical. 

Is this what a happy ending feels like in life: like you’ve found something that was meant for someone else and stolen away with it?

“Smile.”

My finger twitches, remains poised above the camera, anxious as at the trigger of a gun.  Waiting for something. Waiting for the moment when you move your head, the moment when you look away.  Only then will I release the shutter.


Jared Green is an author, screenwriter, experimental literary performer, and professor of English literature at Stonehill College. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Tiny Seed and The Write Launch. He has also published scholarship on modernist literature and early cinema in numerous peer-reviewed journals and anthologies in the US, France, and Canada. His fiction has been recognized by the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing with a 2019 MVICW Fellowship and by the state of Rhode Island with a Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson Fellowship.

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