A good photograph tells the truth, but slant, a trick of light and shadow, at times telling what could be or, could have been.
Cory scuffled at the envelope, his thick fingers unable to release the simple tabs tucked into the slots, until he gave up and ripped it open. Once a professional photographer, he knew the power of photographs, and still in his suit jacket and dress shirt sat down at his kitchen table, anxious to see what was on these photos.
Did his son Ethan take the pictures? Maybe, when he was younger, before…
Or his wife, Trish as a joke? Although she has not been in a mood for jokes for a long time. He looked at his Montblanc on his wrist. 6PM, Trish could be home soon.
At his kitchen table the last of the evening sun gleamed off the white table, reflecting to the pristine all white room around him. He pulled out the glossy photos, thrilled to see what could be on them. When he found this camera again, this Pentax k1000, after putting it away over 5 years ago he had thought he took only one or two photos. Shocked to find the counter up to 24, the whole roll used, he rushed the film to the local pharmacy to get it developed.
His phone buzzed on the table. God damn Jason, again. He reached out, but he paused, his hand hovering over the phone. He let it go to voicemail, for once. Cory watched his hand shake before he pulled it back to remove the photos from the envelope.
Cory did not want to hear from his once friend, now boss, Jason, COO at VitalHealth. Their last conversation had ended in yelling, Jason threatened his job again. And Cory’s entire marketing team was rebelling about Jason's new, strict work requirements. These surprise photos, even if only a glimpse of his son again, or a smile from his wife would be the best thing to happen to him in a long time.
The first picture was of himself, smiling, holding a cute black dog, coming out of a house, with a yard. Cory’s face dropped, confused.
Cory did not live in a house, his apartment did not have a yard, and he did not have a dog. Cory’s fingers froze. The silence in his kitchen became louder, the light brighter. How does this photograph exist?
He tossed it on the table, ignoring it to deal with later, a common response to all his problems.
He saw his son Ethan, from some years ago, in the next picture and he looked so young! Cory blinked away the sudden tears, and his face cracked a smile. A warm tingle crossed the back of his shoulders. His thumb rubbed the photo, trying to touch him just one more time through the glossy print. He squinted, moved closer. The photo was wrong, Ethan has his headphones on, and he was sitting at a drum kit?
Cory’s mouth dropped open. When did he start playing again? Ethan had loved playing the drums, but something about the move to LA had interrupted his passion. Maybe it was the delay in finding a new drum teacher, or not having a good place to play. And then after he broke his hand skateboarding, he never went back. Cory put the photo to the table.
Next it was of the three of them, at night in downtown San Jose. Cory recognized the restaurant, One of Trish’s favorites. Her easy grin tugged at his heart. Ethan slightly older, had long hair, though Ethan never had long hair, and they haven't been back to Downtown San Jose since they moved to LA.
This night never happened. Cory’s sense of balance tilted, the chair seemed to slide underneath him. Falling, he pushed his feet into the floor to settle himself, and squeezed the photos in his hand. He shuffled to the next photo.
Ethan on a mountain bike, with another bike leaning against a wooden fence, his own he guessed. He recognized this as a photo he would take, it was how he would have framed it, catching the shadow of the fence, Ethan looking away from the camera.
But Cory knew he didn't take this picture, could not have taken this picture. They had brought the bikes to LA, but they never had a chance to ride them. Cory shook his head, staring at his son, a new picture of the face that he hasn't seen in so many years. He flipped through the photos fast, more photos of Ethan, some by himself, some close with Trish. Ethan growing older, taller, more beautiful. A picture of Trish smiling with the older Ethan on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, their faces sunburnt and relaxed. The tears make the photos blurry. He wiped his face with his sleeve and kept going.
A photo of himself, walking somewhere, with the dog again. He recognized the chubby man in the picture as himself, but something was different about his face. Cory tilted the photo to pinpoint the difference.
With shock he saw his jaw was not clenched, the forehead not creased with lines. The face in the mirror every day has not had that look, a look of peace, in a long time.
When did this begin, this alternate reality, this fat and happy version of himself? Next was Trish and the other Cory walking a little fluffy black dog, a cute little bit of a thing.
The phone buzzed again, breaking his attention, multiple texts from Jason, and from Paul on his team. He cleared the messages to look at the time, now almost 7. He should get started on making dinner, just in case Trish was still hungry when she came home. Cory moved onto the last photo.
Finally, one he remembered, Trish in their garage, going through storage boxes of her life from before they met, before she changed his life forever and he learned what epic love was.
Cory looked at the camera next to him on the table, Trish’s Pentak k1000 camera, and the box of ISO 400 film he had just purchased.
She had found her old camera in a box in the garage and had given it to him that day. An old film camera from the 70’s, famous for its rugged construction and simple controls.
Back then he had been a professional photographer, but had not used a film camera in decades. Trish had given him some lessons, but he wanted to play with himself. He remembered Trish helping him load the film, and then he took her picture, this picture. Yes! To use this simple camera thrilled him. Just a few buttons instead of the elaborate settings on his digital cameras. A click, and then hope for the best, not seeing the results until he had the film developed. But Cory had put the camera back in a box and forgot about it. Forgot it until he was going through the storage boxes just the other day.
Cory squeezed his eyes closed. What happened that day- oh, could it be the same day? Yes, it was. The day he got the Call. He was holding this camera, he remembered, standing in the garage when he got the phone call from Jason, the offer to take on the Marketing Director job at his start up.
He had put the camera back in the box and listened to Jason’s offer. Cory would have to shut down his small business to be part of a startup, but he could get in at the ground floor of a huge opportunity.
Cory agonized over the decision. It meant they had to move to LA, he had to go back into the corporate world. But the position was perfect for him, and if the startup went public, well then he had the stock options for generational wealth.
Cory still had those stock options, and the company's IPO was only a few weeks away. The success of the IPO hinged on the upcoming product launch, and that Cory still needed to build the marketing plan for. His stomach tightened into a ball, a lighting bolt cracked across his sciatic nerve. He breathed in and then out. Cory had made a decision that fateful day and he could not look back.
A decision that impacted both Trish and Ethan. Would Ethan still be alive if they didn’t move to LA? Cory has been down that path before. Through therapy he knew that Ethan could have gotten into that car accident in any city, on any street.
“I made the right decision.” Cory said, out loud, his voice catching, turning into a loud sob before he caught himself, deep breathing, like his therapist taught him. He looked at his watch again. 8:20 PM.
It was dumb to hope, every day like he does, watching the clock.
She was not coming home. She had not stepped in this apartment in over a year, and would not be coming home tonight. She had made her own choice and it was not with him, stagnant and lost in the past.
He put his head down on his folded arms, on top of the smiling photos of a family he did not recognize. His body shook with the sobs.
The phone rang in his pocket, Cory pulled it out to look at the caller ID. After moving boxes all morning, an excuse for a break was welcome. He put down the Pentak k1000 into a nearby box.
“I need to get this.” He said to Trish, waving the cell phone.
Cory stopped, and then without understanding why, picked the camera back up. He walked outside the garage, leaving Trish alone with her storage boxes. “Hey Jason, what’s up? Let me get to my desk.”
After the long conversation, Cory hung up the phone, and then just stared at it. The offer was too good to be true, except he would have to move, and have to go back into the corporate world.
He sat at his desk and absentmindedly pulled up the photos he was editing for a client. He clicked through a few, and then stopped himself. Looking around the darkened room he saw the Pentak camera that Trish had just found and given him, reminding him of her.
“No, I’m not working today.” He said to himself. He brought the camera as he went back through the garage but Trish she wasn’t there. He found her on the porch, two drinks next to her.
The first sip of the margarita eased down his back, settling him into the top step of the porch, relaxing the sore muscles of his back and shoulders. It felt so good to use his body, even if it was nothing more than moving boxes and bins from one place to another.
“So are all the boxes moved?” Cory smiled.
“All you did was look through my old stuff. But yes, all the boxes are out of the way and dealt with." Trish said.
“What do you think about moving again?” Cory said. “I got a call from Jason today, and an offer. An amazing company, and he wants me to be director of Marketing. A huge opportunity, but we would have to move.” Cory said, and then further explained everything involved.
“What do you think we should do?” Trish said.
“The money would solve a lot of problems.” Cory frowned, looking into the margarita for the answer. “It is great being on my own, with my business. But it is hard, and to not worry about money…” Cory looked out to the early afternoon light filtering through the trees along the street. He twisted the camera in his hand.
Cory was a professional photographer. He had found his niche in boudoir, taking glamorous photos of women, men, or lately couples, in lingerie or even au naturel. Cory had multiple digital cameras, lights, reflectors, digital meters, and a small studio to keep them in. He loved photography, loved the technical side of it, but that was not why his business, Amorous Artistry was successful. Cory could get regular people to feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Unaware of how special his ability was, he discounted it. He focused on what he had to work on, the technical side of photography.
“Photography is changing,” Cory started, not sure how to put into his words his latest concerns. “The photographer will get pushed aside, the technology taking over. Everyone will just use their phone cameras , and I don’t know, maybe it is time to get out, try something else.”
Amorous Artistry paid the bills, but was not like the money he dreamed about, not the authority and prestige his ambition pushed him toward, that so many of his friends had achieved.
“It’s time to get back to a steady paycheck.” Cory took another drink of the margarita.
“Didn’t you hate it, corporate work?” Trish said. The front door opened behind Cory.
“Well this would be different. Of course, I wish I didn’t have to work at all.” Cory said.
“Of course we all do,” Ethan said, stepping out of the house and sliding a black, logoed polo shirt for Handlebar Coffee over his slim frame.
“- Wish we don’t have to work.” He repeated
“What are you talking about, work?” Cory turned to look at his son, just sixteen. “ You have had a job for like a week-”
“Oh, a week is enough.” Ethan put both his hands in his jeans.
“In Econ class this week we were talking about taxation policy.” He continued, “work is like a tax to live, everyone has to contribute a little bit. It is a - happiness tax. Can’t only have happiness, doing just whatever all day. There has to be something else, a purpose, a reason to be. My reason is music. Your reason is uh- taking pictures?” Ethan tilted his head.
Cory’s mouth fell open, and he looked at Trish. Her eyes went wide but didn’t say anything. Cory turned even further, still on the top step to look at Ethan.
“What about climbing the corporate ladder, winning the rat race, keeping up with the Jones’ next door?” Cory joked.
Ethan shook his head. “What are you talking about, rats on ladders? Work is my contribution to society. You told me that. But it is not everything, it’s just putting in your 8 hours.”
“I thought you only worked a 6 hour shift today?” Cory tried to calculate when dinner should be ready when Ethan got home.
“I was just making a point. See you all later.” Ethan went down the steps to the backyard. Though it was only 20 feet to his bike, it took 5 minutes before he finally appeared, pedaling slowly out onto the street.
Cory could not remember being lackadaisical about work, about not fighting to get promoted at the corporate jobs he held, or to grow his business when he started on his own. He didn’t think about time off, only about growth, to make money, to make a name. Was chasing money his purpose?
“What are you going to do?” Trish watched Ethan ride away.
“About Ethan? I think he is more level-headed than me.” Cory said.
“Yes, he is. That kid is pretty smart. But I was asking about Jason.” Trish turned to look at Cory.
“I'm tired of being broke, scrambling for clients and working on my own. I think I am going to take the job.” Cory stood up to go inside. He should call Jason back.
“Why are you so interested in that old camera?” Trish nodded to the camera in his hand
Cory, looked up, something about the question stopped him. He held the small black metal camera up to look at it.
“With a camera I am trying to capture an idea, a vibe, maybe is what Ethan would say." Cory paused, uncertain.
"If I get the light right, frame the composition, with the correct focus, well then I can hint at it.” Cory looked over at Trish.
“Though whatever ‘it’ is, it cannot be captured on film or on any computer memory card.” Cory fidgeted with the simple controls on the old camera.
“By using this simpler camera, maybe I can get closer to it, the thing that I am trying to capture. I am not the best photographer, I do not have any special skill- it took me a long time to figure that out,” Cory smiled and held up the camera. “This thing is not changing anyone’s life.” He laughed.
“But I do know what is special to me and I love capturing that and sharing it. Maybe it will be special to someone else as well.”
Trish gave a soft smile. “This is your decision, but I think you should do- that, what you just said.”
Cory looked around. Maybe it was the margaritas, or sitting with his family, but suddenly he felt grateful for everything he had, and he should hold on to it with both hands.
"Let me take your picture."
Cory put the viewfinder to his eye and looked through it to the most beautiful person in the world. The truth was there right in front of him.
He pressed the shutter release, and heard the soft 'click'.