Text Message Exchange on December 20th:
I think I found an actual photo of Finn cheating
on you in June. Maya follows Finn on Instagram, it was
not hard to figure this out once you told me her name.
Sent you a link to her handle.
Whoa. It’s from her perspective—so when I look at the photo, I’m
literally looking through the eyes of the woman f*cking my
boyfriend. I’m looking at him gazing back at her.
I would say it’s through the perspective of
the woman your boyfriend is f*cking.
Right. He’s taking a photo, too. I guess he wants to
remember the moment. It feels tender or intimate.
I feel dizzy.
“If photography is to be discussed on a serious level it must be described in relation to death.”—Roland Barthes, Interview
1. I Caption It, “Lover Photographing Lover Photographing.”
In this photo, they are in Topanga & I am in Berlin. After 6 weeks of travel, I’m eagerly counting down the last days of June, my return to Finn & his son. I am 3 days away. I’ve started packing, my passport taken out of its hiding spot & placed on the bureau so as not to forget. In this photo, I am not in this photo.
I remember Finn texting me how excited he was that I’m finally returning. Now I imagine him texting Maya at the same time, how excited he is to meet her in Topanga, first.
First, his shirt is off. Of course, he is comfortable with Maya, his ex. His shirt off reminds me of this. Ansel Adams writes, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” From the angle at which Maya stands, the corner ridge of the concrete slab joins the mountain chain behind it. Where she stands, you cannot see the scars on his chest from his heart surgeries. But the scars have been there since he was born: the white line like a flash of lightning & two puckered scars on his abdomen like moon craters. From where you stand, you cannot see all of our trips to the hospital.
I like to acknowledge his scars, because they are apart of him. When we lie naked in bed I run my finger over the longest one. Scars grow with the body, so the scar running down the center of Finn’s chest is now as long as his entire body was when he had the operation as an infant. He has a scar as long as an infant. Fresher scars slice across his chest, over his pacemaker, like the seam of a pocket. He tells me when he was younger, he used to swim with a tee shirt on & when he had to play “skins” in basketball, his hand would reflexively hover above his scars, more like a distraction than a guard.
There is a two-week window between realizing Finn cheated on me & discovering this public photo on Instagram. Before I viewed this photo, I ask Finn what that weekend was like for him. He’s fresh out of a recent hospital stay and we’re curled on two big blue chairs facing each other in my living room. Finn tells me something inside him broke. That the horror of what he was doing unfolded before him. He tells me that he could never behave this way again because all he wants to do is heal that heavy sense of brokenness in himself, in what he did to our relationship. In this telling, I picture him going through with a pre-arranged plan that makes him deeply regretful in the moment. I picture him struggling to act like he’s enjoying the Airbnb, the view, the hot tub, counting down the days for the trip to be over as I am counting down the days of my return. Ansel Adams writes, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” In this photo on Instagam, the sun is sharp. It unifies his chest in one glowing color. Finn & Maya face each other, the sun between them or, illuminating them. From these blue chairs, the winter dusk tucks the light away & I turn the lamp on so I can search his face for something to trust.
In “The Wine-Dark Sea,” the poet Mathias Svalina writes, “So many suns / clanking / & for each, also, an inner noise.” There are three suns: the sun circling Finn’s description to me; the sun above Finn & Maya on Instagram; & my sun outside this photograph, which has already set in Berlin. Each has its own inner noise.
2. I Caption It, “A History of Looking.”
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag quips, “All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.” Can a caption, limited in word count, ever explain anything? Maybe it can explain enough. What is enough? Context, I suppose. But the incompleteness of it seems inherently false. Maybe false is too harsh: cursory, deficient, insufficient.
Maya captions her photo, “Summit of Santa Monica ‘mountains.’” I suppose this is a casual explanation to her spectators, her followers. They took a day trip from Topanga to Santa Monica & she calls out the falseness of the concrete mountain with quotation marks. The “mountain” Finn stands atop, looking down from the summit, through his camera, at her. The caption is not false, but insufficient. Unlike the readership of a newspaper, no one on Instagram expects a photograph to be followed by a contextual article.
Am I writing that article? I do not think photographs “wait” for anything.
On Instagram, 10 people I don’t know “like” this photo.
Because Finn points his camera at the photographer, it is impossible to look at it & only see him. It is impossible not to think about the woman behind the camera. I re-caption this photo, “Intimacy.” I re-caption it, “A Science of Desirable or Detestable Bodies.” I re-caption it, “You Told Me You Were at the Studio Without Cell Service.” I re-caption it, “This Is Not The Reality I Believed In.” I re-caption it, “The Return of the Dead.”
Before this photo, Topanga wasn’t the location of an affair. It was memories I had with Finn when we spent a weekend there earlier that spring. Topanga was the first time Finn spoke to my dad, when I called him on speakerphone & we described the landscape together. It was the place where Finn asked me if I wanted more kids in addition to the son he already had. The place we banged in the sink & in the shower. Where we ate fresh fish overlooking Matador Beach. Where I took a photo of him next to a giant boulder in the water so he could send it to his son. Where we went to a thrift store for elderly people & tried on layers of heavy sweaters & mumus to imagine ourselves growing old together. Where Finn had an arrhythmia while we were banging & we lay down in the bed until his heart eventually returned to 80BPM. In Topanga, we learned we could giddily embrace a full weekend adventure together & that his heart condition would travel with us.
3. I Caption It, “Confirmation of Revelation.”
I look at this photograph & ask myself, “Where do I exist?” My body is not in the landscape & my being is not in Finn’s mind. I gather Finn is not thinking of me while he photograph’s Maya as she photographs him. I gather she does not know I exist or she would not have posted this photo on Instagram. This photo is for public viewing.
While Finn does not “like” this photo on Maya’s Instagram, I realize he must have seen it. I wonder if it caused him anxiety (the threat of being exposed) or the dark pleasure from a public secret (secret from me, public to spectators on Instagram).
Finn keeps his photograph, the one he takes at the same time, for private consumption. It is like the other half of a locket hidden in a jewelry box. The one of her face looking up, at the bottom of the “mountain.” I feel stuck forever staring into the face of a man I loved who is staring into the face of someone else. If I could see Finn’s version (his locket), would it break this terrible spell?
Sontag writes, “Something becomes real—to those who are elsewhere, following it as ‘news’—by being photographed. But a catastrophe that is experienced will often seem eerily like its representation.” What Sontag gets at here is the simple notation that photographs make real the events (atrocities, traumas) we otherwise cannot experience from a distance, but conversely, that sometimes experiencing trauma can feel otherwordly, like being in a film, something we have previously only come close to through other media.
For all of Maya’s followers who view & “like” the photograph, the news is that Finn & Maya climbed a “mountain.” For me, what becomes real is a betrayal of intimacy, that I witness the intimacy between them. That my perceived intimacy with Finn is erased. Can the experience of a catastrophic simulacrum also “seem eerily like its representation”? I do have a moment where I feel like I am the protagonist of some terrible TV drama. All the scenes of a woman clicking through email, opening a hidden computer file, or listening to a revealing voicemail flash through my mind. “I am this tired cliché,” I think.
But more than the gut punch of feeling like I’m enacting a cinematic cliché, the most eerie sensation is the sense of my own personal narrative collapsing. I’m radically disoriented: my memories are caving in as they’re replaced by a series of new, unfamiliar moments. It feels like I’m crouched in a dark basement, watching a flickering film projected on the wall that I think will jog my memory, remind me of my own life, & instead, a different plot unfolds. Suddenly I watch Finn texting someone else, buying tickets to see someone else. The split screen—where I am in Berlin & he is in Chicago & we go about our days equally caring for each other despite the distance—dissolves.
The betrayal is that I thought I was getting as much back as I was giving: false reciprocity. Instead, I am being taken advantage of by the person who is supposed to care for me the most. The betrayal is that he asked for my trust, yet thought his pleasure was worth the risk of undoing my perception of the past. That I am the one, now, tasked with the labor of pulling myself out of an eerie representation & merging the split screens into cohesive events.
When I discover Maya’s photograph, I have already fled the city where Finn & I both live. I’m visiting my parents. I’ve been lying on a lounge chair on their terrace for a week, which is the same length & width as the hospital cots Finn & I were so familiar with. Occasionally my parents check on me: one day they suggest I talk with a local therapist, another they encourage me to liberate my body from the lounge chair & take a long walk. I numbly follow their recommendations. Today, with Instagram open on my computer screen for the first time, my mother asks me to get a manicure with her. We have never gotten manicures, but I understand that this is a kind attempt at distraction & a misguided attempt at self-care. The last thing I want is to be touched by a stranger, to pay someone for what I sloppily do myself in the privacy of my own couch. But I can’t speak so I nod my head yes, knowing this will make my mother happy.
I sit across from the manicurist. I have never tried harder in my entire life not to cry. Ansel Adams writes, “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” I say nothing & feel the pressure of the polish coating my fingernails. I tilt my head up, look at the ceiling, willing the tears to reabsorb back into my eyes.
4. I Caption It, “Of that Reality.”
Here is the section where I tell you why I think Finn cheated on me. Here is where my friends who read this draft tell me I am making it too much about Finn. Here is where I say, no, it’s not about him, it’s about the hours, the full days, I spent trying to understanding my own situation in relation to a person who severely impacted it. It’s also about trying to understand this “news” on Instagram, this new reality. To de-fuzz the concept behind their sharp image. I want to be honest about time spent re-learning the past reality of our relationship & grappling with the damaged vision of my future. When we let shame or embarrassment silence us, we shouldn’t be content.
There is not a single photograph that could capture this experience, so I will use the inner noise of my sun to make news of the emotional & intellectual effort. I collect news wearily, unsure whether they’re thorns or petals. The second stanza of Svalina’s poem continues, “The writing / never stops / descending / into its own hole.” But I don’t want to descend. I want to excavate myself.
In an interview, Roland Barthes writes, “If photography is to be discussed on a serious level it must be described in relation to death.” Finn has a terminal heart condition & maybe what undoes him, what undoes us, is that Finn believes he must always be described in relation to death.
When we’re in the hospital, if Finn believes he looks too unwell, he won’t Skype his son for fear of scaring him. Those evenings Finn cries, surrounded by white blankets. All he wants to do is hold his son. All he wants to do is not die, not leave his son alone.
Sometimes I rub Finn’s back & say nothing. Sometimes I say, “He’s with his mom & feeling loved & he’ll get to see you by the end of the week.” Every night in the hospital ends the same way: I crawl into Finn’s single bed. There’s a couch in the corner where guests are supposed to sleep. But we are always touching, always under the same covers- I on Finn’s right side, careful of his wounded body, his prodded heart. We watch The Great British Bake Off, guessing at who will win this round & who will be sent home. We watch a contestant drop a cake on the floor & gasp. Will the contestant get eliminated or does she have a backup cake cooling on the counter, ready to be frosted? When the episode ends, I shut the computer, take Finn’s glasses off & kiss the sides of his eyes.
Mornings vary: Some mornings we meet with doctors immediately. Some mornings we browse houses to buy together, looking at three bedrooms for a growing family. Occasionally, when he’s feeling particularly despondent, Finn will ask me if we should just be friends who live near each other, like he’s trying to protect me.
I’m trying to figure out if Finn could become a healthy person, a healthy partner to me. Up until now, I felt like it was us against the consequences of his heart condition: working together during hospital visits to understand nuances of new diagnoses. Us against the countdown to a heart transplant: rallying to make the best of the time we have, taking as many road trips as possible, running through wild flower fields & napping on the hood of our car.
I don’t know who is against who or what anymore. “Against” is now too simple of a concept. Finn seems like he’s battling himself & I’m collateral: maybe this affair was an act of self-sabotage via guilt. Was he trying to spare me, relieve me of the “burden” he felt himself to be? Or, relieve himself of the burden he felt because of our relationship & his condition? Maybe he’s just like so many other men, filling insecurity & desire for attention with sexual validation. Maybe Finn hasn’t yet learned how to address his insecurities & turn inward for the validation he’s seeking, or at least turn toward me, his partner.
What is dead in this photograph? What did Maya kill as the photographer? What died inside me as the spectator? These questions congeal into a deep unease that is more than a concern for who Finn really is & who he can grow to be: I had trusted myself to find someone who respected my sense of reality. I had felt confident that the years I spent sifting through why I was drawn to certain qualities had brought me to a place where I sought out healthy ones. That I had filled a sieve with moss & collected the cool water. What terrifies me most is the possibility that I am still somehow working against myself, accepting captions without question.
I want to know not what has died but what can come back to life.
Here is where my friends also say, “Change can happen but it takes a long time.” They say, “He’s working so hard at facing himself, it’s so encouraging.”
They say, “He has to learn to trust you with the shame he carries, but he also has to undo where the shame comes from.”
They say, “There is so much about him to love.”
They say, “There are so many things conspiring against trust.”
They say sentences with words like: pattern, ingrained, empathy, forgiveness, selfishness, intimacy, self-awareness, trust.
Sontag writes that photography can be “both objective record & personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality & an interpretation of that reality.” Here, Sontag applies the word “faithful” differently than how I have been thinking of it.
5. I Caption It, “In Relation to Death.”
In this photo, I am not in this photo. Where do I exist? Outside of the frame, I’m in Berlin & have not had sex in 5 weeks. I’ve fingerbanged myself once, around week 3, but otherwise abstained because I wanted to feel totally sex crazed when I finally return to Finn.
In the 6 months between cheating & discovering the cheating, I’ve learned how to put his son to bed.
Outside of the frame, my oldest friend visits me in Berlin & maybe we’re watching families play ping-pong in the park. Or maybe we’re wandering around a flea market looking at German children’s books. Or drinking wine under a linden tree.
In the 6 months between cheating & discovering the cheating, I take charge of picking out Finn’s son’s birthday & Christmas presents.
Outside of the frame, maybe I’m trying to Skype Finn & he’s not picking up.
In the 6 months between cheating & discovering the cheating, we have spent 8 nights together in the hospital monitoring Finn’s heart condition. 6 nights recovering from surgeries.
Outside of the frame, maybe I’m working on a draft of my next manuscript. Or writing a book review. Or sending a postcard to my parents.
In the 6 months between cheating & discovering the cheating, I call my friends weeping from a hospital hallway, barely able to explain that Finn may need a heart transplant in less than a year.
Outside of the frame, maybe I am eating my favorite hazelnut yogurt. Or pinning a blue silk scarf into my hair. 3 days after Maya takes this photo in Santa Monica, I take my passport off the bureau & return from Berlin to Finn & his son. We have 6 more months in which I feel totally & fully confident in my love. In that time Finn posts a single photo of us on Instagram with the caption, “Swallowed by Sun.” Which sun? We are sitting on a bench in a forest preserve with our faces touching, the brightness of the day eclipsing the divide of our cheeks. After I discover the cheating, I picture the sun gulping us down into a brightness no shadow can enter.
We are gone. The caption does not need to change.
Mathias Svalina asks, “What is the opposite of a hole? / The sun? / Photographs?” I don’t know the difference between these anymore. Svalina answers his own question, though, in the final line of the poem, “I think it is astonishment.” Astonishment can mean either wonder or consternation, each with its own inner noise. I want to hear the kind of astonishment that exists on the fragile precipice of intimacy. The sound of a locket opening.
Ansel Adams claims, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer & the viewer.” When I first read this years ago, I loved the idea of how a viewer becomes a part of the photograph, has entered it somehow. Embedded in the premise of the photograph is an invitation to enter. Maya is unaware she has sent me an invitation. In this photo, there are two photographers & three people.