When she hears Berks call her name through the kitchen screen door, Alex sweeps the photos she’s arranged across the desk into the drawer and slams it shut. She pauses before the mirror on the wall above the sofa, raking her fingers through her hair and straightening her fitted t-shirt.
She glances at her desk and catches sight of one of her “secret project” photos on the floor beneath it, knocked there in her haste. It’s one of her favorites. In the photo, a girl with limp dark hair and pale skin stares back blankly, her eyes unnaturally large and her mouth clamped around a cherry red pacifier she is years too old to be sucking. Her identical sister leans over her with an elongated arm to pick up a crumpled rag doll. The muted gray-green empty expanse of a grassy lawn stretches behind them.
Martin loves this photo and the others in her most recent series. Her husband thinks they are disturbing and beautiful, pointing to the falseness and vanity of portraiture. He warned her not to show them to Berks. And he’s right. Berks will hate them. Berks objects to the digital manipulation of photographs on principle. But she needs an expert opinion, not praise from her husband.
“Alex,” Berks calls again above Rudy’s barking. “I’m here.”
He’s more than an hour late. She should make him wait. She slips the twins’ photo into the drawer with the others. “Coming,” she calls, and hurries down the hall.
When she enters the kitchen, Berks is crouched next to Rudy, rubbing the dog’s white and tan polka-dotted belly. Before Alex says anything, he throws his arms around her. He smells faintly of sweat and something sweet, maybe shaving cream, though his cheek is rough as it grazes hers. He’s still skinny like he always was and his hug still feels just right. They are both 5’10’’and fit together seamlessly.
Pulling away from the embrace, he holds her arms as he says, “My god, look at you. I forgot how beautiful you are.” She’s disappointed; the compliment is too generic to be genuine. She smiles anyway, tucking a dark curly lock behind her ear.
“You too,” she says. Berks hasn’t aged much in the two years since she last saw him. He is still handsome in a rugged, slightly dangerous way. The scar at his temple has faded, so it’s difficult to see, but the cleft in his chin, acquired after he lost a chunk of skin during an assignment in Chechnya, remains an intriguing marker on the map of his face. The lines on his forehead and around his mouth have deepened and there is still a spark in his blue eyes. He makes people feel included, lucky to be on his team.
“I was worried you were lost,” Alex says.
“I would have called but my cell phone is dead.” He pushes his phone and plug into an open outlet on the counter.
“You must be jetlagged.”
“Yeah, and it didn’t help that I had drinks last night with a reporter who was in Ramallah with me last year and then slept through the alarm.”
He’s late because he’s hung-over. How many times has he ruined their plans or wasted whole days because he was hung-over? The Thanksgiving before her father died is at the top of the list. Then there was her college roommate’s wedding, and finally that last Valentine’s Day. Alex pushes the thoughts away and forces a smile. She doesn’t want to start with a fight. She decides not to ask if the reporter with whom he was drinking was a woman. It’s no longer any of her business. “How was Somalia?”
Berks shrugs. “Depressing, as you’d expect. Brutal—really brutal. I shot some decent stuff, but they ran almost none of it. There’s a new editor. I have to meet with her in person in New York. I don’t think she likes me.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Alex says. The forced nonchalance of Berks’s shrug makes her realize he’s truly upset. “She probably wants to sleep with you,” she adds.
But Berks doesn’t smile. “She told the agency I was more trouble than I was worth.”
“Sounds like she already did sleep with you,” Alex says, finally getting Berks to laugh.
“No,” he protests, “she’s pushing 50 and—” He abruptly closes his mouth, an embarrassed smile tugging at the corners.
“I’m not anywhere near 50.” But at 43, she’s not far from it. And yet, while the lines at the corner of her eyes are multiplying, she has remained youthful. It’s a family trait she shares with both her sisters.
“You are not old,” Berks protests. “This editor, she’s old. Mentally.”
“Give it up.” Alex shakes her head.
“Let’s talk about more important things.” Berks reaches into the black canvas camera bag he’s dropped on the floor and pulls out a small wooden box. Smudged black Arabic letters are stamped on top of a red and gold swirled pattern. The box looks old, as if it has been in the back of a market stall, forgotten, for years.
“Treasure from Somalia?” She leans in and sniffs. The box smells of soil and rotting fruit. She has never been to Somalia, but the scents bring back memories of narrow, twisting market streets in Egypt and Jordan. Dark, crowded shops filled with perfume, briny olives, bright fabric, strange spices, and gold so shiny it looks fake. Inside the box, buried beneath the folds of faded floral fabric, is a pair of earrings. They are made of gold filigree and inlaid with a deep green teardrop-shaped stone. They are so beautiful she can’t speak for a moment.
“You like them?” Berks asks.
“I can’t believe you can still buy such pretty things there.”
“You can’t.” Berks grins, revealing his crooked, yellow teeth, his one serious physical flaw. When they were together, Alex pretended his teeth gave him a more European look. “The box contained tobacco when I bought it in Mogadishu. I got the earrings at the airport in Paris. They’re meant to remind you of the color of the Mediterranean.” He looks at her through eyes half-closed, like a cat after it’s caught a mouse but before it’s killed it.
This was the subject of their first fight, a ridiculously fierce argument about whether the Mediterranean off the coast of Stromboli, where they were staying, was blue or green. It became a reference point over the years for their differences of opinion. Alex holds up the earrings to better admire them. “So sweet of you to remember blue is my favorite color.” His approving laugh is a reward.
As she slips on the earrings, Alex watches Berks survey the kitchen. Is he considering the best compositional angle or establishing an escape route he can rely on if things go terribly wrong? Either way, he does it automatically. His eyes rest on the small appliances on the counter—an oversized juicer (hardly ever used) and a shiny cappuccino maker (often used.)
“I guess Martin is doing all right.” Berks lifts his chin in a gesture meant to refer to the house and its contents.
“Yes. He runs 50 miles a week. The doctor says he has the heart of a 25-year-old.” Berks cocks his head, acknowledging her dodge. But she doesn’t want to discuss her finances with him. Martin has his own law firm. A small inheritance from his parents has helped them through the leaner times, a fact Alex is careful to conceal from Berks and just about everyone else.
“And your mother, the merry widow?”
“Dating.” Alex smiles. “She’s got a few suitors.”
“So she’s mellowing?”
“She’ll never change her mind about you.” Alex shakes her head.
“They were only eggs, for Christ’s sake.”
“That’s right,” Alex says. “Only eggs.” Her parents were visiting them in Jersey City when Berks stormed out of the apartment after a fight over how to properly cook eggs. Her mother had never gotten over it.
“And your sister?”
“Maggie? She’s the same,” Alex says.
“What about the other one? Is Libby still fighting the good fight?”
“I suppose that’s what she calls it.” She shakes her head. “Libby is as elusive as ever but she’s coming for my father’s memorial dinner in a couple of weeks so hopefully I’ll find out more.” All the questions about her family make Alex suspicious. Berks usually skips the niceties others include at the start of conversations.
“How’s your sister?”
He shrugs. “They found another spot, so they’re doing a little more chemo. I’ll go back to Boston to see her in a couple of weeks.” Bridgette, older than Berks by twelve years, practically raised him after his parents died when he was 14. His mother caught pneumonia and never recovered. His father drank himself to death six months later. Alex met Bridgette once. Stout and harried, looking twice her age, she’d shaken Alex’s hand and then been too distracted by her six kids to pay her any more attention.
“Is the cancer spreading?”
“Could be,” Berks answers. “We’ll know more soon.” He studies the framed black and white photos above the kitchen table, pictures of her kids. The photos are nearly abstract. One is of Theo’s back, a white hill against the black sand at the volcanic beach in Maui. Another is of Lucy’s tiny feet juxtaposed next to Martin’s, the lines blurry beneath a couple of inches of Cape Cod pond water. “Pretty,” Berks says. But pretty was never a compliment coming from Berks. Pretty was not something he ever aspired to in his own photos.
He runs a finger across the top of the cream-colored marble kitchen counter. Berks holds up the finger for inspection; there’s a small black smudge on the tip. “Thank God,” he grins. “I was afraid someone had kidnapped the Alex I knew and replaced her with a Stepford wife.”
When Alex laughs, she realizes she’s been holding her breath. Seeing it through his eyes, it is strange. The opulence and the comfort. When she and Martin first moved upstate from Brooklyn, she felt as if she was fooling everyone, posing as a housewife with children. Now it feels normal, and her former life with Berks feels like it belongs to someone else.
“The town is cute too, but it’s so Norman Rockwell. You live in the middle of nowhere.”
“The Hudson Valley isn’t the middle of nowhere,” Alex protests. “I can get to New York in an hour and fifteen minutes, less if there’s no traffic.”
“But it’s a long way from Kigali.”
“Everywhere is a long way from Kigali.” Alex shakes her head. The last time they shot together was in Rwanda. The pictures flicker in front of her in sequence, as if she is remembering scenes from a movie rather than things she saw. The lush green hills, covered with a dense canopy of trees. The dusty road, empty in the blinding morning sun. Hastily abandoned thatched houses, smoking from smoldering fires. The flies, thunderous as they bob on and off the blackened blood stain on the yellow and orange dress of the dead teenage girl. The frightened eyes of the infant beside her, nursing. She shakes the memories away and motions to the stool next to the counter. “Something to drink?”
“I suppose you drink wheatgrass and eat only organic heirloom vegetables?”
“My body is a temple,” Alex replies archly and is immediately conscious of her body. It is not the same body Berks knew, before she had two children. Then, she had the narrow hips of a boy, and with her flat chest and cropped hair, she’d often passed for one while working. She is no longer skinny; motherhood has added curves she never imagined she’d possess. She’d spent a ridiculous amount of time deciding what to wear today, finally settling on jeans that are a little tight across her ass, distracting from the slight bulge above them, and a t-shirt that emphasizes her breasts, now much fuller.
“You probably go to yoga too,” he scoffs.
“Pilates.” He’s uncertain if she’s joking, which pleases her. She’s never gone to a Pilates class. Mostly, she swims. “Would you like me to make you some wheatgrass in the juicer? It does wonders for Irritable Asshole Syndrome.”
He laughs, and as he throws back his head, she feels a sharp pain, a thin slice between two ribs, dangerously close to her lungs. She wants to grab his hair, the dark curls that will be coarse and a little greasy, and wind her fingers through them like she did when she was 23 and first in his thrall.
“Do you know,” Berks says, circling the kitchen, absent-mindedly touching things–an antique straight-backed wooden chair at the table, a bountiful fern filling the window with its cascading fronds, a cast-iron trivet with an intricate geometric pattern–“I’ve known you half your life. Soon, I’ll have known you longer than I’ve not known you.”
He’s off by a couple of years, but she doesn’t correct him. The remarkable thing for Alex is that it’s now been ten years since they broke up—longer, finally, than the decade they were together. “What makes you so sure you know me? Or ever did?” she asks. But of course that was the problem. He had known her. Too well.
“People do change,” Berks says, uncharacteristically grave, which makes her sad.
The last time they saw each other, two years ago, she’d gone to visit him in New York after he’d returned from Iraq. He was sick, shaken and depressed in a way she’d never seen before. His translator’s wife and youngest son had been killed in a bombing at a market in Baghdad. The incident had garnered 250 words in the U.S. papers. She brought soup to his hotel room and sprawled on an oversized sofa where she listened to his stories. He was outraged that the diplomats he’d met in the Green Zone had lived in Iraq for years but had not spoken to a single Iraqi except officials. He recounted the panic among Iraqis after a rumor spread that the British had released man-eating badgers in Basra. And finally, after a couple of hours, she listened to him weep over Sarah, his girlfriend of the last four years, who’d left him. Berks had had a fling in Baghdad with a TV producer, someone he didn’t even like. Sarah had caught him cheating once before and given him a second chance, but she wouldn’t give him a third.
That night, it had been a relief for Alex not to be talking or even thinking about Theo and Lucy. Lucy was two then and managed to consume nearly every waking moment of her days. Berks’s stories, with their chaos, sadness, and instability, had affirmed her choice to drop out of that world. After a while, Alex leaned into Berks on the sofa. He put his arm around her and rested his head against hers. They sat there quietly, listening to the muted car horns and police sirens and watching the light outside the hotel window fade. That moment of closeness represented a reconciliation. She could finally let go of all the anger she’d been carrying around toward him. When she thinks back on that night, it seems like a dream.
Berks stops before the photo of Lucy’s feet. “Where are the kiddies?” The word annoys Alex, but she lets it go. It was always easy to get furious at Berks over little things when she should have been angry with him for the big things.
“A neighbor took them to the local pool.”
“It is hot.” Berks fans his face with a hand. “I see you still can’t stand air conditioning.”
She shrugs. The heat has never bothered her as much as the cold. “I could turn on the fans if you want but they’re so loud.”
Berks shakes his head. “It’s fine.”
“Hair of the dog?” She pulls a bottle of Jameson from a cabinet above the stove and holds it up.
“I thought you’d never ask.” He sinks onto the leather stool and is finally still.
She pours them each a shot. They clink glasses and Berks drains his quickly.
“Now, let’s see the photos.”
“I told you, you’ll hate them,” she warns. She’s only shown them to Martin. “Mesmerizing,” Martin said. It was what she’d needed to hear to continue. But now she’s ready for something stronger, a professional response. “Are you sure you don’t want another drink?” she asks.
“You’re stalling.” Berks stands and walks through the hall toward her office.
Rudy trails after him, and she reluctantly follows behind. In her office, a large room added later to their Victorian house, Berks goes directly to the desk and stares at the photo of the 1-year-old boy on her computer. The boy is smiling at the camera, his striped train conductor hat pulled over soft blond curls and a stuffed lamb tucked beneath his arm. Berks opens his mouth and closes it. Alex has been bracing herself for his criticism, but it still hurts.
“Not that.” She steps in front of him and turns off the monitor. “That’s my paying work.” She opens the desk drawer and pulls out the other photos. She shuffles them into the proper order and hands him the neat folder. The top photo shows the same toddler from the computer but in this image, he is dancing a drunken, new-walker dance with his stuffed horse. His fierce scowl transforms what was an act of joy into a bizarre, frightening ritual. His head is slightly too big, threatening to tip him over. Berks spreads the other four photos across the desk, including the one of the twins. They all capture children at unguarded moments. The digital changes are not obvious, but the shift in proportions gives each picture a sense of ominous disharmony. Or so she hopes. The deadline for the contest is tomorrow and she needs to decide whether to submit them.
She watches Berks study the photos, sometimes picking up the prints with his sun-darkened, chapped hands, and she feels relief. Maggie once asked her how she could live with a man with whom she was always in competition. She had a hard time explaining to her sister—or any of her family—that she liked the competition. As Berks stands there, his left hip jutting out in a familiar, oddly feminine way, she’s glad he is taking the work seriously, even if he doesn’t like the photos.
“Interesting.” Berks uncocks his head and turns to look directly at her. “But of course, I think you are wasting your talent. You don’t need to manipulate photos. You’re talented enough to shoot what’s in front of you.”
“What’s in front of me are children.” Alex nods toward the computer. “But you hate pictures of children.”
“Commercial portraits, of course.”
“Documentary ones too. Sally Mann, what did you call her? A housewife with too much time on her hands?”
Berks laughs. “Did I say that? It’s true.”
“No, it’s not.” Alex tamps down her creeping annoyance. Of course, anger was what had fueled their passion half the time. And remembering that intensity makes her miss it. She wonders what it would be like to be touched again by hands that don’t feel as if they are repeating movements so familiar they could be doing them in their sleep. Hands that don’t expect you to be there tomorrow. She forces herself to take her eyes off of Berks’s hands.
“I like your old work and there were children in those photos,” Berks says crossly. “In fact, your crowning achievement was a photo of a child. But it was a news photo.” Berks turns from the new pictures. “It’s the intent. You know that.”
“And what is the intent you see in these photos?” Alex gestures to the images on the desk, chasing away the voice in the back of her head telling her Berks is right. “Or fail to see in my photos?”
“You know what I’m talking about,” says Berks. “I know your photos. Your photos are raw and real. These—I understand you are trying to talk about hidden wounds or something, but they’re contrived. I can see them hanging on a gallery wall, Alex, but is that what you want? To make arty photos?”
“What’s so terrible about arty photos?”
Berks shakes his head. “You don’t have the slightest regret about selling out?”
“I wouldn’t call it that,” Alex protests.
“Come on. You’ve got this cushy home filled with expensive things. You take pictures of rich people’s kids in contrived settings. And then, later, you add your twisted fantasies. It’s not real. Babies aren’t about this.” He waves a hand at the photos. “Or this.” He points to the computer where the image of the boy was. “Babies are about shitty diapers and screaming and mess.”
“Babies? You’re telling me about babies?” She raises her eyebrows.
“Don’t give me that crap, Alex. People can understand things even if they don’t directly experience them.”
“You have no idea what babies are about.” She folds her arms across her chest.
“And neither do you, Alexandra, outside your upper-class, white, American, suburban life,” Berks is leaning into her face, inches from her nose. He’s using her full name to bait her. She’s always hated its formality. But he doesn’t need to call her that to get her angry—she already is.
“It has nothing to do with class,” Alex growls. “It has to do with feelings.” She’s trying not to shout. “Babies, all babies, are about hunger, love, sadness, joy. Babies are about expressing real feelings, not keeping them buried. Babies are all the existential stuff you espouse but don’t feel because you have to put it away to capitalize on other people’s feelings.”
“That’s a justification.” Berks’s mouth is tight, his lips set in a mean line. “You traded something real for this. This suburban mom thing. You had something important and you gave it away. You shut it up. Is it still in there?” He pushes a finger against her chest and it feels like bone on bone.
Alex shakes her head. She’s flooded with disappointment. “Why can’t you stop thinking about the photo?” The photo, her “crowning achievement,” as Berks always refers to it, is a picture of a mother and a baby. Eight years after the first Gulf War ended, Alex shot it for a magazine story about the effects of the allied bombing in the no-fly zone in Northern Iraq. It won the Foreign Press Association’s highest award the following year. In the photo, a woman bends to place a flower before a makeshift shrine in a cave that had been used as a bomb shelter in the town of Al-Amiriyah. She carries a horribly disfigured baby wrapped in a cloth on her back. The baby’s tiny eyes are sunken slits beneath an oversized forehead. His mouth is open in a scream, a huge circle of black taking up most of his face. Above the clutch of flickering candles is the permanent shadow of several figures, seared to the wall by the heat of the bomb dropped by the U.S. Beside the figures, down low, are a child’s hand prints. The U.S.—allegedly – mistakenly believed the four hundred people inside the cave were part of a military group. Alex’s photos documented the shrine and the hundreds of children living in the no-fly zone who were deformed or dying of leukemia they’d contracted from depleted uranium in the bombs left littering the countryside.
“It was a long time ago, Berks.” Alex forces herself to unclench her teeth. If she closes her eyes and reaches into her memory, she can feel the thrill of taking that photo, of publishing it, of winning the award. But that was a long time ago now, and a lot of other things have happened in her life. And in the world. “No one even remembers it,” she tells him. She turns toward the window and stares at the oak leaves, fracturing the framed glass.
Berks turned down the assignment so he could go to Kosovo, where the war was beginning. He recommended Alex for the job. They never spoke of it directly, but the weight of his decision would always remain between them.
“Jesus, Alex—that doesn’t matter.” Berks steps in front of her, forcing her to look at him. “You uncovered something no one wanted to see. Something no one in America was paying attention to. Thousands of people saw that photo. It forced people to acknowledge what was happening.”
“We’ve been through this, more than once.” Alex purses her lips.
“You wanted to do something in the world, to make it better, and you did.” Berks grabs her shoulders. “You of all people can claim to have done so. That’s why it’s hard to see you doing this now—making happy pictures of rich people’s kids.”
She shakes him off and takes a step back. “People need a little joy in their lives, Berks, a little happiness now and then. Including me,” Alex says wearily. “I’ve told you, I couldn’t take it anymore. It would have consumed me.” She’s repeated this enough times that it sounds like a lie—a line memorized for a play. But it is true.
“That photo was brilliant. I don’t understand how it could make you quit.”
It wasn’t the photo that made her quit. Alex has told him this many times before, but Berks has a way of remembering only what fits his narrative. The photo casts a shadow over everything she did and still does. It defines her. Alex shakes her head. “Sometimes, I wish I had never gone there, never taken any of those photos.”
“I wish to God I had,” Berks replies.
“Me too,” Alex snaps. This isn’t true, but in fights with Berks, her thoughts and words always get twisted up. “If you’d taken the photo, then maybe you wouldn’t still be hustling misery to an American public who doesn’t give a shit, or mistreating a string of girlfriends because you’re impotent to change the world.”
Berks shifts from one foot to the other and stares at her. She returns his glare until he stalks over to the sofa in the office and leans against it, his back to her. She hadn’t meant to say that, but she isn’t going to apologize. She takes a step toward him.
“I’ve made some bad calls,” Berks says, turning to face her. “But I do not think devoting your life, risking your life, to expose the atrocities that American tax dollars are funding is anything to apologize for.”
“No, it’s not,” she agrees. She stares out the window at the street outside her office window. It is as still and quiet as before. It astonishes her how quickly she and Berks can get back to this place, years later. He will always be jealous she won the press association award that year though he’s since won a pile of other prestigious awards.
“I never meant to hurt you,” Berks says quietly. “And I’ve changed, Alex. I have.”
She nods slowly, but doesn’t trust herself to speak. He will hear the disbelief in her voice.
“I don’t envy Martin this.” Berks grins. “You were always good at fighting. You always knew where to aim your blows.”
“Martin and I never fight.” Alex joins him on the sofa. She looks out the side window. The red dahlias in the garden along the fence separating her property from the neighbor’s house bloomed early and now look as if they have exploded, stems drooping toward the ground with their heavy blossoms. Her neighbor recently suggested she stake them, which had never occurred to Alex. She’s always assumed you should let nature take its course.
“So what does he do when you blow up at him?” Berks asks.
“I never blow up at Martin. Only at you.” She tilts her head and smiles. She’s lying and Berks knows it.
The truth is, she does sometimes yell at Martin when they disagree but he never gets mad in return, which she appreciates, though it also makes her even more furious. His calm is unnatural. Berks used to refer to Martin as “the WASP” until she made him stop.
“The few times it’s happened,” Alex concedes, “Martin says something like, ‘Let’s try to figure out what to do about this.’”
“But of course, that drives you crazy.” Berks drops down onto the sofa.
“Yes, it does,” she says as she sits next to him. She feels a twinge of guilt, as if she’s betraying Martin in confessing this.
“We’re soul mates, baby.” Berks grins. “Time doesn’t change that.” He takes her hand in his and spells out the words on her palm with the tip of his finger. It was a mode of communication they’d established when they first met.
She lets her hand rest in his as she thinks about it. Soul mates. She recently shot a photo of two babies, a girl and a boy, lying on their sides, gazing into each other’s eyes. It was for a women’s magazine article about why you shouldn’t marry your soul mate. It was a rare editorial assignment—the mother of one of Theo’s friends had hired her to shoot it. The article insisted people mistakenly identify strong sexual connection as evidence of soul mate connection. Sexual attraction fades, though, according to the article, so the writer recommended finding someone with similar values and interests. Martin had never claimed to be her soul mate—he probably didn’t believe in soul mates, but the fact she didn’t know how he felt bothered her. She pulls her hand away.
“What did you tell Martin about me coming, anyway?” Berks reads her thoughts again.
“I told him you were coming for dinner.”
“You cook now?”
Alex nods her head. “I have two kids to feed.”
“Right,” says Berks. “So will Martin make it? Or will he be unexpectedly delayed?” She had neglected to tell Martin she expected Berks hours before dinner.
“He’ll be here.” But Alex is not sure of that. Martin swears he isn’t jealous but he doesn’t like Berks. At all. And while he has silently tolerated their visits and late night phone calls over the years, he avoids Berks if he can.
“No, he won’t.” Berks grins. “He’ll be working late. You better hope it’s because he hates me and not what it usually means.”
“Martin is not like you,” Alex says. “He’ll be here.”
“Tell him I won’t be. I would have tried to arrange things differently, if I’d known. I can’t stay for dinner.”
“Oh, come on,” Alex says. “Your agent or your editor or your girlfriend— whoever it is—can wait one extra day.”
“Actually,” Berks says, looking uncertain and then gripping her arm so hard, she’s afraid he’s going to tell her he’s dying. “It’s my fiancé. I’m engaged to this amazing woman, Mai, and she’s flying into JFK tonight.”
Alex opens her mouth to say congratulations, but nothing comes out.
“I wanted to tell you in person. I’ve finally found her. The one. I’m truly tired of my old life. I’m ready for this,” Berks says.
“How long have you known her?” Alex asks.
“Almost five months. She’s Moroccan though she grew up in France. She’s fearless. She’s a photographer as well. She’s more reckless and ambitious than me.”
“If she’s so fierce, can’t she handle JFK on her own?” Alex tries to sound light but knows she sounds cranky.
“She’s never been to New York. And I haven’t seen her in three weeks.” Berks gushes like a teenage girl. If they haven’t seen each other in three weeks, that means they’ve only known each other four months, Alex calculates.
“How old is she?” She makes the question sound casual.
“Twenty-three. But she’s an old soul.”
That’s how old Alex was when they first met in Yugoslavia. “She’s twenty-three and ready for marriage?” Alex keeps her tone arch, as if she’s amused. “Marriage isn’t too conventional for her?”
“She says she needs something stable in her life. She comes from a crazy family—her parents are very religious but she’s rejected that life. She has no home, like me. She says I’ll be her touchstone.”
“Touchstone,” Alex murmurs. Not soul mate, but touchstone. Maybe he has changed. For years he’s told her about his girlfriends with a sarcastic, distanced bravado.
“You have to come to the wedding, Alex. You’re my family, my best friend—you should be my best man.”
This surprises her. He has a half-dozen close male friends—mainly fellow photojournalists— but she doesn’t have the energy to question it. She’s sure he’ll reconsider this declaration later. Mai will probably object. Berks’s girlfriends never like her much.
Berks missed her wedding. He was on assignment in the West Bank, covering the Second Intifada. She wasn’t sure if he’d made up the excuse because he didn’t want to come, or if he’d wanted to make it clear what he thought was more important. Probably both. “When are you getting married?” she asks.
“We’re not sure yet. Maybe Christmas. It won’t be anything big. Then I’m moving to Paris. We’re going to live in her apartment.”
Alex smiles, but she wants to scream. She and Berks had always talked of moving to Paris. Instead, they ended up in a dark apartment in Jersey City with peeling linoleum floors and a mildewed bathroom. The neighborhood was dangerous and despite Alex’s wartime toughness, she was scared to go out alone at night. Berks convinced her it was worth the cheap rent since they were both away so much, but she considered it one of the biggest mistakes of their relationship. It isn’t right that Berks has taken their mutual dream and made it his and someone else’s, even if she’s the one who left him, long ago, to make a new life with Martin.
“Does she know what a slob you are?” Alex asks. “Remember the time someone broke into your apartment, and you didn’t realize it for a couple of days because the place was such a mess?”
“This time it’s different,” Berks says. “I know, I know—I’ve had some crazy relationships and they’ve ended badly.”
“They’ve all ended badly.” Alex thinks back over the four or five relationships he’s had since theirs. There have been clothes thrown from windows, drunken rages leading to lamps smashed against walls, and a lot of personal property stolen. “Have you had any relationships where you haven’t cheated?”
“I’m different. She’s different. We’re different together. I can’t wait for you to meet her. You’ll see.” Berks squirms and grins. He’s gleeful. He checks his watch and moves toward the hallway. “I’m driving straight to JFK, so I better get going.”
“I thought you hated picking people up from the airport.” Alex is ashamed to be saying this, but she can’t stop herself. She isn’t ready for him to leave.
“See—I am different,” he says as he turns toward the hall.
Alex looks at the photos spread across her desk, tossed there when Berks was done with them. He hasn’t changed. He spent less time looking at her work than talking about his girlfriend. She gathers the photos into a pile and puts them back in the folder. He’s right, though—she’s imposed emotions on her subjects. The children, she corrects. “Subjects” is what a critic would say.
She follows Berks through the dark hall to the kitchen. He’s standing, waiting for her with his heavy camera bag already over his shoulder. “We’ll have to find a time for dinner in the city when you—you and Martin—can meet Mai.”
“That would be great,” Alex says. “We don’t get to the city as often as we used to. With the kids and Martin’s work… but we’d love to meet her.”
“We have a busy schedule the next few weeks too. Mai’s going to meet with someone at a gallery in Chelsea and she’s hoping to connect with some editors. Her work is amazing, very gritty, urban, documentary-style, but she’s getting totally ignored.”
“Do you want me to call Maggie and see if she’ll look at her portfolio?”
“Would you? I’d appreciate it?” He squeezes her arm.
“Are you sure it’s not too lightweight?” Alex teases. Berks had mercilessly mocked Maggie’s magazine Slice as a silly fashion rag pretending to be a grownup, serious magazine.
Berks throws up his hands. “I know, I know. But Mai loves that magazine. She says it’s prestigious.” He has the grace to look sheepish.
“I’m happy to call her and I can also call Suzy at Mudslinger.” She and Suzy had been at college together and though they seldom spoke, their past was still a bond. Neither Suzy nor her sister would publish the work unless it was good.
“You’re the best.” Berks grins and bends to scratch Rudy behind the ears. “I knew I could count on you. I’ll send you the portfolio link tonight.”
“Happy to help.”
“Mai is making amazing work. She just needs those old dinosaurs who control the purse strings to realize it!”
Berks leans in to kiss her goodbye, planting his mouth on her cheek. His lips are dry on her skin and his stubble is scratchy, like it always was. He sweeps out the door, letting it bang shut behind him. She watches through the screen as he strides confidently to the truck. As it squeals down the driveway and turns down the street, going too fast, she is flooded with relief, something she often feels after their visits but forgets in between. Alex touches her cheek and thinks about his lips next to hers: rough, pink, full, crooked.
The front door opens, interrupting her reverie. “Hello,” Martin calls.
She looks at the clock on the stove. Martin is home an hour earlier than she expected. “Hello,” she calls. She imagines turning to Berks and saying, “Ha! My husband didn’t skip dinner.” She can hear him reply, “Yeah, he’s home early so he can keep an eye on me.”
Martin sticks his head into the kitchen and looks around, but he doesn’t come in all the way. Rudy trots over to him and rubs against his legs. Martin loosens his tie, a yellow one Theo picked out for him on Father’s Day. Next to his blond hair and pink skin, it gives him a bleached, ineffectual appearance. He is so traditionally handsome that it’s almost easy to overlook his good looks. His features are small and even. His glasses hide his most remarkable feature, his bright blue eyes, whose color shifts and moves like a current, as if tied to his thoughts. Martin bends over to stroke Rudy. “I forgot a document I need for work,” he tells her. He goes back down the hall to his office without waiting for her to reply.
She trails after him, leaning in the doorway while he looks through the neat pile of papers on his desk.
“Found it!” Martin smiles as he holds up a folder.
“Great!” She goes to him and wraps her arms around his waist and slowly kisses him along his neck. His skin is damp from the heat, but he smells like soap, like he always does. “It’s nice to have you home early. The kids won’t be back for at least another half hour.”
Martin sighs. “I should go back to the office.”
Alex takes a step back. Her husband has his negotiating face on, a default bland smile he hides behind while thinking about something else. “We had dinner plans tonight, remember?”
“So, what happened?” Martin asks. “Did you have a tiff, or did he leave because he has more important people to see?”
“How did you…?”
“I saw the bottle of Jameson and the shot glasses on the counter. So I figured Berks was here. He came. He drank. He left?”
Alex laughs. “I guess that’s why you’re good at your job.”
“One of the many reasons.” Martin grins.
It was also one of the reasons she fell in love with him. Berks was always too caught up in the excitement of his own life to focus on her, unless it suited him. Martin pays attention. He knows when something is wrong with her. He also knows when she is ready to talk about it and when she needs more time.
“So why did he leave?” Martin asks.
“He had to pick up his fiancée at the airport.”
“That sounds like a reasonable excuse.” Martin’s eyes stray back to the rescued folder in his hands. “I’m sorry, but I do have a lot of work.”
“And if Berks were here? Would you be going back to the office?”
“No,” Martin says. “But since he isn’t…” He looks at her over the tops of his gold wire-rimmed glasses. Martin thinks their old-fashioned style reassures clients, channeling Atticus Finch or at least Gregory Peck.
“You’ll stay for him but not for me?”
Martin snorts. “You got me,” he says and puts the folder on the desk. He wraps his arms around Alex and bends to kiss her but stops when he sees her eyes suddenly pool with tears. “Why are you crying?”
She shakes her head, unable to speak.
“Is this about your photos?”
“That ass.” Martin’s mouth sets in anger.
“He hated them.”
“You knew he would. I can’t stand that he sweeps in here and makes you cry. I don’t understand what you get out of staying friends with him.”
“He’s right. The photos are too emotionally distancing.”
“Does that have to be a bad thing?”
“No, but it is. When I was taking photos before…” Alex hesitates before continuing. “It was thrilling, like being hyper-alive. These photos, they’re the opposite of that.”
“What, deadening?” Martin looks bewildered.
“No, it’s just, I miss that rush. Feeling…I don’t know.”
“You didn’t think the photos were terrible before he saw them.”
“I know, and even worse, he barely looked at them.” Alex shakes her head. “But there’s no point in sending them to the contest. The jury will be filled with people like Berks. Professionals.”
”It’s time for you to cut him off, Alex.” Martin shakes his head.
“What, like cold turkey?” Alex’s eyes widen. “You think I’m addicted to Berks?”
“He’s a bad influence.” His voice is mild but pink is creeping up Martin’s neck, a sign that he’s angry.
“Bad influence? Like I’m some teenager who can’t pick her friends?”
“You were about to finally get these photos out there and then he tells you not to so you don’t.”
“He’s not telling me what to do. He was giving me his opinion.” Fury rises in Alex’s chest. “They are not the same thing.”
“They might as well be. I’ve had it with him.” Martin shakes his head. “I want him out of our lives. Yours and mine.”
“Are you forbidding me from seeing him?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You talked me into moving up here, away from the city, away from my friends and all my professional contacts.”
“Yeah, and now that ‘friend’ has come here and he’s cutting you down. Those photos were fantastic. Stop letting Berks tell you what to do.”
“Berks doesn’t tell me what to do.”
Martin scoops up the folder on his desk. “I’m sorry, but I have to go.” He gives her a peck on the cheek. She stiffens. “I shouldn’t be more than two hours.”
She closes the front door behind him and leans against it. It’s impossible not to compare the two men. Berks was always criticizing her. She knew from the moment she met Martin that he would be her most ardent admirer. But Martin can’t tell her who to talk to any more than Berks can tell her what to do.
She slides into her seat in front of her computer and looks at the photos and the contest application, formatted and ready to be sent. Her finger hovers over the send button; she presses it down.
About the Author
Growing up in a one stoplight town in New Jersey, Eliza Amon longed to explore the wider world she read about in novels. After high school, Eliza travelled to the Soviet Union with a youth peace group, bartended in Paris, hitchhiked throughout Italy and studied Yoruba religion in Nigeria. She received a B.A. from Oberlin College and M.A. in creative writing from City College.