by Carol Jones
The cool hypnotic hum and gentle oblivion is what I seek. Not all galleries are equal to the task, and I have my favorites. In a slow, meditative shuffle, I move beneath classical notes, almost drowned out by industrial air conditioners. Photograph after photograph, only edging into my consciousness, until the next black framed image looks me right in the eye.
In a wide white mat, the grayscale portrait stares, slightly larger than life. I know this face. I stop dead, placing him immediately. A slap across my face would have surprised me less.
He is young, an Englishman, with a fine accent that attracted my interests eons ago. His eyes. Blue, like the sea he sailed.
Here, confined in this frame, his eyes are pale gray. His dark curly hair, unruly. He has an unusually strong and straight nose, above a square jaw. His wide shirt collar is dated. At my age, nothing should surprise. But I wouldn’t have remembered his existence, had his face not just reappeared, eye to eye, exactly as he looked during our brief affair.
What year, I wonder. The eighties? Of course not; by then I was a grown woman. The wild side mostly tamed. The seventies. The decade that defined me. And he, barely a fleeting moment from that period, one domino in a long line of failed escapes. Adventures, drugs, men. Each so enveloping, no matter how brief, to lose the yoke of family and history, so that I could emerge anew later on down the line. I give myself this undeserved excuse, as if my recklessness was a well thought out plan.
The adjoining label is slightly larger than a business card. I am hoping for his name but it reads, Father as a Young Man, 1976. Was that the year? It could have been. It doesn’t matter. It is the face I stared at on board a luxury cruise, in the officer’s quarters, far from the stateroom where I belonged.
This flood of nostalgia, long buried under a whole life, has complicated my day. I hadn’t planned to spend so much time in this gallery. But I take a seat on the sleek leather bench, more for show than comfort. Sitting mid point in the center of the exhibition, I review the photos I’d barely observed earlier. Snapshots of a girl, growing up in the English countryside, reprinted in a large format, bleached of color. They have tremendous sentimentality, evoking the ubiquitous instamatic cameras of the era, where actual rolls of film were developed weeks, even months after the shots, revealing captured moments.
She lingers in the doorframe of a cottage, sits on a bicycle down a lane, blurs in amorphous material, probably a costume for a play, where she may have been practicing a part. Before I reached Father as a Young Man, they appeared the work of a proud father, in love with his child. A father who took more snapshots than he could ever have used, who carried them with him, while his little girl grew taller, more mature, with each home-coming.
But instead, they are attributed to the daughter, not the father. The large typography on the gallery window reads, Elizabeth James, a life remembered in grays, 1975 – 1999. She is an accomplished photographer, telling me the story of her father, from snapshots he took of Elizabeth, and she of him. She’s enlarged them, removed the color, cropped, filtered, and framed them identically, to create her exhibition. Each image made more precious by his unexpected loss nearly two decades ago. He must have barely reached fifty, if I can still calculate. And now I see myself as an infinitesimal speck on the wall somewhere between the images from 1976 to 1977, so small a presence, a fly could hide me.
My mind rewinds to the era, the week, the cruise I didn’t want any part of, with parents I had no use for, at a time when I thought life may have been an unnecessary option.
I stood at the ship’s rail, in a red-violet satin gown, required by a formal dress-code for the evening’s festivities, the captain’s dinner. The passengers were the privileged few, and fewer yet were teenagers my age. I watched the churning sea spewing out from under propellers large enough to propel a ship the size of a small city. How insufferable we must have been.
I had been contemplating jumping. I wouldn’t have done it. But I certainly enjoyed thinking it through, imagining the smack of the salt water, the violent current pulling me under, and apart, when a hand out of nowhere touched my arm. I felt a low voltage thrill and jumped from the rail, turning.
And it was that face, the one on the wall, that looked into my eyes and said, “Good evening, Miss.” He stood close, dressed in an officer’s uniform. He had that elegant Britishness that my generation had been programmed to swoon over, and his hair, short for the times, had a tousled carelessness that suggested he might be one of ‘us’, a free spirit under those dress whites. I couldn’t guess his age but he appeared both mischievously young and gravely old at the same time.
“Hi,” I said, feeling a smile spread across my face. I wondered if he was going to rescue or chastise, as if he had read my jumping thoughts. He looked me over with those eyes. I felt them through the gown.
“Are you enjoying your holiday?” he asked, me swooning completely. I wanted to dispense with the formalities, because I knew what he wanted, and I wanted it even more. Not just the sex, the escape. My only fear was that I might scare him off. He couldn’t imagine how dangerous I was, not in the evening gown and heels, with the gold threaded shawl draped across my thin shoulders. I had braided my hair to tame it, securing it with a rhinestone barrette. I borrowed the red lipstick my mother wore, and her chandelier earrings. My appearance that evening must have added years to my age. He probably thought I was closer to twenty. I realized he was awaiting a response.
“Not yet. This isn’t exactly my thing,” I said.
“What is ‘your thing’,” he asked, taking a step even closer.
“Sex and drugs and rock and roll.” The lyrics of a popular English tune climbing the charts. It was hard not to be familiar with this reference. When his eyes widened along with his smile, I knew I had pleasantly shocked him.
“Bloody good song!” he said, the pretense of his uniform disappearing.
I smiled and changed the subject. “Are you the first mate, or something?” He wasn’t the captain, as the captain had made the rounds of all the tables that evening, welcoming the passengers. My father had invited him to have dessert with our table. He had equivocated. After being briefed on our identity he hurried back for the Baked Alaska at my father’s side. Other passengers took note. I’d excused myself early, before ending up on deck, staring into the frothy water with plunging thoughts.
“Third Officer, meaning there are two ranks between me and the captain,” he said, looking very clever. “May I offer you something more along the lines of ‘your thing’ below deck?” His mischievous eyes twinkled. He extended a handsome arm, and we strolled back inside to an elevator bank. We descended gently into the innards of the ship. For a moment, I was the glamorous lady, he James Bond, as we secretly crept down the corridor to his cabin.
I remember telling my mother I had met some teenagers my age and we had found plenty to do dancing and staying up late, and she needn’t worry about me. She was oblivious to my sins, back then, and pleased that I was socializing. I spent the next four nights in the Third Officer’s cabin indulging in ‘my thing’ which had been his thing as well. He had hashish, a tape deck, and a double bed with a porthole where I could see the lights of whatever port we were in. It was romantically clandestine, as fraternizing with passengers was strictly forbidden, but the times encouraged a disregard for rules. I was quite adept.
At some point, I don’t remember when, we found ourselves sharing intimate details of our lives. He told me he had a little girl he rarely saw. He was estranged from the child’s mum and he missed the girl all the time. In fact, he didn’t think he would keep the job past his contract, which had a year left on it. He may have produced a photo then, from a wallet. But I can’t swear it.
I told him I was fed-up with my clueless East Coast boarding school and longed to escape into San Francisco, where I wanted nothing more than to become a punk-rock star. I fancied myself a singer. But I was stifled by my father’s new political intentions. He was running for governor and the presidency was on his mind. There were few business challenges left, having amassed a fortune in oil operations. A wayward daughter was not in his best interest and I had bitterly disappointed him thus far.
The Third Officer seemed more surprised by my story than I was by his. In fact, that may have been my last night with him. The fact that he was a family man had diminished him a little. My youth had scared him back into his officer’s duties.
During the farewell dinner, again in gown and heels, I spotted him in the receiving line with his fellow officers, as if their uniforms served more as nautical decorations. The captain greeted me, and I asked him if he could spare his Third Officer, since I had no dance partner that evening. The captain looked surprised, glanced at my father, but agreed to lend him for ‘just one’. My father must have nodded over my shoulder.
I approached the Third Officer when the music started and he escorted me to the dance floor. He really had no choice, and looked undone. I simply smiled and took a ballroom stance as the orchestra began to play.
“You should have told me how young you are,” he said as we found our footing. I was grateful that he omitted any discussion of my father. Anyone could be underage.
“You didn’t bother to mention you were married,” I said as we waltzed the parquet floor. “Anyway, this is our last night, so we should make the best of it. Tomorrow a new passenger roster will be arriving. Lucky you.” I tried a conspiratorial wink.
“It isn’t like that,” he said. He sounded hurt by the implication. I rolled my eyes. For a moment I pretended that we had something real between us. We had chemistry. In another life, we would have had some sort of future. It was the same kind of fantasy as jumping overboard. It wasn’t going to happen, but one could dream.
Alone in the center of the gallery, I return to my surroundings. A few others wander the space, escaping a brutally hot summer afternoon.
I shake off the chilling feel, the depression that I fought for so many years. Through my father’s governorship and the nightmare rehab years. Through the failed presidential primary. Through my father’s stroke and the years of his decline. The surprise death of my mother, followed by my father. Instead, I consider my current middle age, where I collect art, and donate large sums to good causes. I have embraced life on the philanthropic side.
I routinely haunt these galleries. The staff knows me, and lets me sit quietly. I never could have expected this encounter with my past. A reward for perseverance, maybe. An extraordinarily sharp memory of a forgotten week with Father as a Young Man.
A woman in tight black pants glides across the floor, papers in one hand, cell in another. She smiles, “May I get you a coffee, Evelyn? Anything?” They know I like to be informal. They are extremely accommodating.
“Yes, dear,” I say, in a well-practiced condescending tone. “Please put that piece on my account and have it sent to the apartment as soon as the exhibition is down. I am quite fond of it.”
“Lovely. The artist will be here this evening for the reception. She will be thrilled. Would you like to meet her?” I have to think for a moment, what would I say? I run several scenarios. Each more ghastly than the last. “No, dear. I’m not one for receptions. But do tell her I like her work very much. I wish her the best.”
Why can’t I remember his first name?
“Yes, ma’am.” She places a little red dot on the label. I will put it in my study. It will haunt me, no doubt. It will ask me why I never took off, ran away, lived a life. I had no children to pull me back across oceans. I never had ties. But I took the family mantle after all. Reparations for what I cost my father, I suppose. Look at me, a middle-aged woman with perfect posture. What I would give to have someone honor me with such heartfelt work as this. I wonder what took his life so early. I imagine I will live to 104.
“Darling,” I call out. I have no idea what her name is, though I should. “What time do you expect the artist?”
“She should be here in an hour or so. May I get you something to drink now, Evelyn?”
“Yes, dear. A glass of juice if you have something. I think I would enjoy meeting this artist after all. I have a funny story to tell her.” I attempt a conspiratorial wink at the portrait.
My gaze shifts back to meet his. Back I go, to his blue eyes, the ocean spray, the deck, the churning waters. Back I go.
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Carol Jones is a branding identity professional with over thirty years in the field. Currently, she is also a writing and reading tutor at a community college. In her spare time, she writes short stories. She has earned two Masters, raised two young women, and dreams of retiring to write full-time.