The photographs start showing up three months after you disappear. Each envelope contains a stack of thirty-six obscure photos, an entire roll of film. Blurry semi trucks on the highway. An oak leaf floating on the surface of a pond. No people. Especially not pictures of you.
At first I don’t know what this is about. Each envelope’s address is typewritten. It takes four envelopes for me to realize they’re addressed by your vintage Royal typewriter.
When I identify the type, my fingers tingle.
You stand outside Chloe’s apartment, throwing stones at her bedroom window from the sidewalk. It’s noon. You scream her name while the neighbors watch from behind clouded windows. Police sirens sound in the distance. You are stone cold sober. That’s what scares us.
The Nikon camera is from Goodwill. “An absolute gem,” you say. You bring it to a camera store on Congress St., and the attendant says you found a good one.
“See that,” you say. “I told you it was a gem.”
The photographs keep coming. Fat envelope after fat envelope of thirty-six indiscernible photos. I wait too long to tell anyone about them, until eventually, I realize I’ll never tell.
The images are always blurred anyway. What would I tell people? All I have is the Royal typewriter font. Other than that, I can’t prove they’re from you.
I think maybe they’re pictures of Montreal or Quebec. Maybe Madrid. You always wanted to go to those places, but you never left this town.
The more I study the photos, the less exotic they look. I begin to think they’re pictures of the next town over. Maybe they’re of our town.
Chloe files a restraining order against you. You laugh. “Can you believe she did this,” you say.
“Maybe you should cool out for a while.”
“Don’t take that bitch’s side.”
“I’m not.” To prove it, we go out and get so drunk, we both black out.
You don’t have a job, but you’re using your Nikon. You talk about art school. We all love this idea.
You fall in with a girl who converts her bathroom into a dark room.
You are straight up in love.
Your photos become art.
I put the envelopes in a box in the back of my closet. I don’t want anyone to see them. Not Ella or your mother.
By the twenty-first envelope I don’t want to look at anymore of the photographs. I’m sorry. You’re gone, and it feels like you’re playing a joke on me—a game of hide and seek where the clues are so ambiguous there’s no point in seeking.
By all accounts you’re dead. You’d been teetering there for a while.
Some of the theories: you drove to the woods and starved to death. (It’s poetic enough to be true.) Or, you swam toward the islands a mile off Portland and drown. (You’d love a Virginia Woolf end.)
Marc thinks you shot yourself. (Too cliché.)
Ella thinks pills. (Too lazy.)
Chloe, well, Chloe doesn’t talk to us. But she didn’t disappear with you. We’re glad.
The girl who runs a darkroom out of her East End apartment dresses in all black. You follow suit. None of us are scared for you. It’s hipster black. And you seem to connect to the world through your Nikon.
Her name is Sylvia. “Like Plath,” you say.
You and Sylvia have a show in a studio downtown. It’s well attended. Your photos are of homeless people in natural landscapes. Immediately after, you call the show trite. But by the tone in your voice and the way you looked at Sylvia all night, I know you’re in it. Deep.
On the night I open the thirty-sixth envelope—the last to arrive—I wake from a dead sleep to your voice calling my name. Your scream is raw. It comes from the street. I run out in my underwear. I call your name. A neighbor yells for me to shut up. I kneel on the road, shouting your name, waiting.
You only break Chloe’s restraining order once, but it’s bad.
Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you stay at my place?
We never talk about it, as if the silence is our way to subjugate the truth.
You go to the bars and get drunk alone. Not uncommon for you in those days. Instead of crashing at my place or at your mom’s, you break into Chloe’s apartment.
No one ever figures out how you got in without breaking her door or smashing a window.
In the morning, when she wakes up, you’re lying next to her, smiling.
That summer you and Sylvia become Portland’s photography darlings. You have the talent and the edge to be envied.
There are three exhibits in four weeks. One in Portland. One in Rockland. One at Bowdoin.
A piece of yours sells for a thousand dollars.
That freaks you out. You’re a purist. You start talking about burning your photos and breaking your Nikon into a thousand pieces.
A local magazine commissions you to do a shoot at the botanical garden in Boothbay. You bail.
We begin to fear you won’t go to art school. Your mom begs me to help. I tell her I don’t know how.
Thirty-six envelopes in thirty-six days. 1,296 photographs. I scour them desperately for anything I can recognize. The closest they come to conveying any signs of life is the one that features an unfocused hand reaching out the window of a moving truck. I can’t decide if the hand is yours.
I don’t sleep deeply after I hear your voice from the street. I wake up and pore over the photos, trying to make out anything. I hear overtones of your voice in the night sounds and look out the window to see a fox scurry through the shadows.
Everyday I check the mailbox, hoping for more photos. But that’s it, thirty-six.
You make true on your promise to break your camera. You and I get drunk off Jim Beam at my place, and you tell me to follow you. We walk across town to the West End, where we climb to the top of the new parking garage.
“People have been jumping off this thing at a magnificent rate since they built it,” you say.
I’m worried. But I’m drunk, so I laugh.
You launch the camera over the edge to the street below. It shatters without a sound.
Your mom gives up searching for you after Christmas. In January she plans your funeral. We know there’s no body.
She kept prints of your photographs, and the service is more of an art exhibit of your work than it is a funeral. She asks us all to say something, but before I’m supposed to speak, I slip out. I had planned to come clean about the thirty-six envelopes you sent me the previous fall, but I can’t do it.
So while one of your cousins talks about your aesthetic grace with a camera, I ease one of your pieces off the wall of the funeral home and leave.
At home, I hang the piece in my bedroom. It’s of a hobo on a dock looking out at an ocean sunset.
All of this was years ago. That time before you disappeared is an opaque dream. I take down the photograph of the hobo on the dock a few months after I steal it from your funeral. It makes me uneasy. That would please you. You love to make people uneasy.
After a year, I start going days without thinking of you. Days become weeks. Weeks become months. Until you only snap into my thoughts when I pass that studio downtown where you did that first exhibit, or when I walk by Chloe’s old apartment.
But last week, I was packing up my place. (My own life’s been a broken highway since you left. I made plans to go back to school. I want to be a counselor.) While I’m packing, I think of the thirty-six envelopes in the back of my closet. I look for them. They’re gone. Who would take them? Everything else is here. Even the matted and framed hobo photograph.
I search everywhere. Nothing. No one knows about them except you and me. If someone found them they wouldn’t understood. The photographs don’t look like your style. That was your code.
I see you everywhere now: darting around corners on the street, or two cars behind me when I’m stuck in traffic, even in line at the coffee shop.
I hear you calling my name at night. Not urgent like you did three years ago when I stood in the street in my underwear. It’s faint, but it’s you.
What are you trying to tell me?
I keep waiting for you to walk into my apartment with the box of photos, sit down across the room from me, and say, “That was something, wasn’t it?”