His final project. A labour of love and commitment and a path towards letting go. He had accepted the inevitable, long before she did, that he would be going, leaving, departing. She refused to discuss it, would walk out of the room and stay quiet for hours if he even attempted to begin the conversation. And he finally decided that was okay, she was a doctor after all; trained to save life, destroy death or at the very least hold it at bay as though it were a dragon of olde.
He told her as much once.
“Is there a semester’s course, a secret medical school offering, wherein you are taught that death is something to be conquered? Death as the enemy? The religious, the agnostic, the philosophical all seated in a darkened lecture hall while the irrefutable fact of non-existence is exposed as fallacy, a wrong-headed approach, a mis-step in the mechanics of thought? Death as mystery to be solved?”
She just looked at him, one eybrow cocked at the facetious rant. Her beautiful face stripped of emotion but her eyes sad, the bow of her mouth quivering the smallest amount. She shook her head.
“It’s okay to simply walk into that dark night, Sara. Really.”
“No, not for me. Not for you.”
“It feels like defeat to you.” He said this with accusation but something in her falling shoulders broke his heart and he pulled her into his arms and forgave her.
So, he worked on the project diligently but in secret. Photographs. He knew Alex was visual. Visual to an extreme and he played upon that.
He also knew that Alex remembered the frantic couplings in Sona, a sordid collection of fierce embraces and rabid moments that could be counted on one hand but it was those nights that had led Michael to where he now stood. By some unspoken agreement, those nights were not discussed, alluded to, or even allowed to surface in gazes between them. But that was okay, too. He had crossed rivers and valleys to find himself in a place of acceptance. Acceptance of how other human beings were wired, how they chose to live their lives, how they allowed themselves to be joined or not joined to one another. How choices were made and paths diverged and trod with bleeding feet. How a thing can look one way from the outside and completely different from the inside. How forgiveness could be earned and respect fill the place of uneasy friendship. How one person could be lover but not friend. How forgiving was not the same as forgetting.
The birth of his son had somehow in some way given him this gift of standing still, the proverbial eye of the storm wailing around him.
But yet. There was still a need to manipulate in this case, to tooth the gears, to set things in motion.
Michael knew he had to find a way to fasten a hinge to Sara’s life and Alex’s life, bending them towards one another.
It was a thick-ish manila envelope and unopened it looked innocuous but the sight of it had set his heart to trip-hammering fury and he had to sit down on a kitchen chair and look back into the front hallway. The envelope lay where he had dropped it beneath the table in the foyer. He knew it spelled a kind of undoing for him and once he brought his pulse back to manageable beats he considered burning it, shredding it, burying it in the trash compactor beneath the morning coffee grounds. He had instantly recognized Michael’s handwriting and the heft of the thing was both a threat and a promise. He had dropped it before he could fling it.
He walked back out, picked up the envelope, no return address of course. Michael was, after all, dead. He was mildly surprised that Felicia had left it in the mail basket there for him with the electricity bill and the cellular bill and the outrageous cable bill. It was ominous in its anonymity and wasn’t she trained to discern that? He scowled and locked himself in the downstairs half bath and sat on the unopened commode and deftly fed the tip of his pocketknife under the flap and snicked the end of the envelope open. And waited. Breathing through the anticipation.
“Get a grip, buddy,” he muttered. But he knew this would be a kind of key that would open a door he hadn’t even been aware was locked. He was going to have to step through and leave something behind.
He tipped the envelope up and dropped the slab of 8x10’s between finger and thumb and they fanned out and he found himself shocked by what they were. Looking at the top image, studying the nude form of her, the arch in her back, the undeniable erotic motion of her body as she had been caught by the camera, joined in ecstasy with her husband, he thought he knew what the pictures were.
But he was wrong. They were more. They had to be so much more because they were from Michael. From Michael beyond the grave if one could stomach the poetry of that.
And he was right. They were a key to a door which opened to the rest of his life. The last and final part of his life. Fulfilling his life and her life in the way that Michael could not.
The last days she changed, altered, softened. Allowed him to talk about the inevitabilities. The end that marked a beginning. Goodbyes.
“I don’t see how I could possibly….ever…No. I don’t think it will happen.”
“You can’t conceive it now. But you’re young.”
“I feel ancient.”
“Why are you even asking such a thing?”
“To tell you it’s alright. I think you should. Don’t build walls. Stay open.” He paused, running his knuckles down her ribs, across the broken stretched skin of her taut-again belly. “Have another child. Or three.”
“I want you to. I want this.”
“You don’t always get what you want. I know I haven’t.”
He smiled at her, lifting his hand now to wipe her eyes dry. “This I want. For you. For you to want again. You deserve love. To be worshiped. To be kept safe. To mother more children. You’re good at that, you know.”
He nodded. And pulled her to him. The rented hospital bed was narrow, but he fit her beneath his arm, beside the long length of him, fingers laced with hers on his chest, and gently rocked her into troubled sleep.
He knew that it was a strange and predictable thing that he had become obsessed with the photographs. How his mind had seized upon the possibility that they offered. This can be yours, yours, yours. And he knew that Michael had known he would and that made the manipulation feel less forced and more a natural progression. Theirs had been a relationship unlike any forged before or after. It was almost alchemical, predestined, preordained. He cherished it. The photographs were a continuation of it and any frustration he would normally feel about being communicated with from the grave faded in the technicolour reality that part of this was very much about the living.
The images of Sara and Michael were both erotic and deeply cerebral. The fact that they were clancularly captured, Sara unaware, but Michael’s gaze hot and steady on the hidden camera, spoke volumes to Alex. The pictures actually spoke inside his mind, in Michael’s steady deep voice, in Sara’s soft and questioning tone. He could hear them and they were speaking to him and he knew that was exactly as intended. And he allowed himself to be talked into the obsession with Sara’s body, with the idea of making love to her, of her vulnerability that needed the type of protection he was uniquely suited to give. The pictures of the two of them spoke volumes to the fact that she was now alone. In her bed, in her home, in her life.
The male part of him wanted desperately to answer to the female calling in her, in Sara. And slowly, over days and weeks, his relationship with Felicia began to wear thin, the tentative strings that held him to her, worn away by the images, the memory, the intent that Michael had sent with them.
But it was the other photographs that finally set it all in motion, made it the brass ring that Alex desperately wanted to grab for, reach out for, pull hard on and win the prize. These were images of Sara giving birth, outstretched hands reaching for her child, the joy on her face. There was a single photograph of Sara stretched long and exhausted in bed, nude and reposed in a soft light cast from another room, and the babe was nursing and his eyes were closed and his mother’s hand was fast and reassuring on his small back and her face was beautiful and her gaze direct and into the lens and Alex knew that he must go to her and father this fatherless child and love his mother and usher new life into the world through this newly opened doorway.
And it was all an inevitable gift. And only he and Michael held the memories of the night in Sona, breathing hard into one another’s mouth, wanting something from each other that would prove to be impossible. Unreachable. Unattainable. Not theirs. And later Michael had finally cried for Sara, her death, her life that he had twisted, and he had told Alex that he would have done anything to make her feel safe and loved and desperately valuable.
That year, the anniversary, he booked the ticket. One way this time, no return. And he packed lightly, wanting to take nothing but himself, the skin he occupied.
The pictures he left on the bed like a book open to a page marking a passage. A passage that had changed his life.