Fovea Centralis, 1975

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“For me the noise of Time is not sad”

Roland Barthes

 

Gail and her best friend Judy pushed open the screen door and stood for a moment as the neighbor families lined up on the lawn to take their picture. The gray house with the tower had not yet been converted into separate units. On this prom night, the lawns were still green. Paint was just starting to crack and peel and we still picked up the MacDonald’s bags and soda cans in the park for allowance money. This was our city, with its modern apartment buildings and crumbling mills and the view from the top of Beacon and Sixth, where you could look down and see the smog billowing from the factories and instead of the actual sun, you saw the word “SUN” in green letters that lit up at night on the top of the newspaper’s high rise. There was talk of selling while you could, of building privacy fences, of drugs, of kids who stole and girls having babies, but I did not know what it all meant, not then.

Gail and Judy stood in front of the white rhododendrons and the fathers snapped image after image: Gail alone, Judy alone, Gail and Judy near the split-rail fence, in front of the rock wall, leaning on Judy’s father’s station wagon. Later, each dad would place the milky pastel images into the family album because there was no longer a reason to look at them.  Someday, no one would remember who those girls had been, not even the girls themselves.

 

Gail was an only child, and sometimes she babysat my brother and me. She had taught me ballet steps and played the flute for us when we couldn’t sleep. Gail smelled like pine needles and candle wax, a scent that reminded me of church and stained glass windows and Mary, weeping but glorious. It was really just Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo, the green kind that came in a bottle with a picture of a woman bathing naked in a mountain stream, but I did not know that yet.

My father snaps away and I watch as Gail and Judy pose. My mother is inside, upstairs; I do not know that she has just had dental surgery to remove a row of rotted teeth and is recovering, her gums purple with stitches and lips dry. The shades are drawn. Below, on the lawn, Gail looks away from the camera, her hands delicate and folded like the Mona Lisa’s. Judy seems to be saying something to her. You can see Judy’s nipples through the polyester fabric. The girls step into the car and wave out the windows like a bride and groom leaving for a honeymoon, and we say goodbye, even though Gail will be back in a few hours. We wave until Judy’s car turns a corner and disappears from view.

Someday my daughter will open the photo albums and come upon the pictures of Gail and Judy. There is nothing written on the back, no context to guide her. Who are these girls in the dowdy dresses? I picture her scanning through each detail: Judy’s middle-parted hair, the white rhododendrons just starting to brown and die, Gail’s hands. My daughter cannot see my father behind the camera, with his sideburns and his denim jacket, aiming his Leica to catch the last patches of spring light. She cannot see the other fathers and the brothers and sisters on Gail’s lawn before the fences went up, back when the neighborhood had only just begun to fade away, when the sun was a word that would shine even when it was cloudy, even when it was night. She cannot see me reach out for something that dissolves the moment I grasp it, as I gaze on the Mona Lisa in her prom dress as though she were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen or ever would see again, but I am there, and I know it. I know it.

 

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