My mother, Boo, and I had our final photography class before the holidays the last Saturday before Christmas. We'd just finished developing what our instructor, Matthew, called our “people series,” in which we were supposed to use a portrait to convey our relationship to someone else. My mother had posed my father in front of the window in his study, with all his diplomas and various certificates behind him. He looked uncomfortable, his smiled forced, hands uneasily stuffed in his pockets, like an executive posing for the company newsletter. My mother, however, was just proud to have gotten his whole head in. Boo's picture was of her and Stewart. They'd put the camera on a table, set the timer, and then bent over, heads down, for a full minute, yanking themselves up just before the shutter clicked. The result was striking: the two of them, hair wildly sticking up, eyes sparkling and smiling hugely while the blood rushed out of their faces. It captured the closeness and eccentricity about them that I loved two people, so alike, caught in a crazy moment of their own making.
My picture was of Rogerson. He hadn't wanted me to shoot him, but since the winter banquet he'd been sweet and gentle with me, on his best behavior. I'd carried my camera around with me for over a week, trying to catch him at the perfect time, and taken a few shots here and there, none of them outstanding. Then, one day, we were walking down the steps of Corinna's when I called out his name and he turned around. In the picture, Rogerson is not smiling. He is looking steadily at the camera, a trace of irritation on his face, his car keys dangling from one hand under his jacket sleeve. Behind him you can see all the bare winter trees against the light gray sky. The sun is barely bright, and farther down the driveway, at the very end, you can see Dave's yellow Lab, Mingus, sitting by the mailbox, looking out at the road. Roger-?son takes up most of the picture, the landscape behind him stark and cold as if there is some part of him that belongs there. Matthew, wearing a red wool sweater and now sporting sideburns, called my mother's picture “promising” (knowing to appreciate a subject with a full head) and Boo's “startling and emotional.” When he got to mine, he just stood there, looking down at it for a long time. Then he said, “It's clear you know this subject very well.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. For some reason, I always blushed like crazy when Matthew talked to me. He wasn't that much older than me maybe four yearsand had such a sweet, gentle disposition, always placing a hand on your shoulder or back to make a point. Boo said he was full of positive aura. “Well, he's my boyfriend.” Matthew nodded, his eyes still on the photograph. “It looks,” he said in a lower voice, just to me, “like you know him a little better than he'd like you to.” I looked back down at the picture, at Rogerson's eyes, remembering again how dark, almost black, they'd seemed the night he hit me.
“Yeah,” I said, keeping my eye on the picture. “I guess I do.” When class was over, I walked outside with my mother and Boo, who were headed off to do some final Christmas shopping. Rogerson was picking me up, but it was so cold in the parking lot, and sleeting, that I went back into the lobby of the Arts Center to wait. There was an Irish dancing class going on down the hallway, with music all jaunty and fast, and I stood listening and watching the Christmas lights strung over the front windows as they blinked on and off. Outside, the traffic was thick with last-?minute shoppers, angrily beeping at each other at the stoplight. I wondered what Cass was doing for Christmas: if she had put up lights, bought a tree, hung stockings over a mantel. “Caitlin?” I turned around to see Matthew, standing there in a lime-?green windbreaker, a backpack slung over his shoulder. “Hi,” I said. “You miss your ride or something?” he asked, glancing around the small lobby. Down the hall the Irish music stopped, suddenly, and there was a smattering of applause and laughter. “Nah,” I said. “He's just late.” He nodded, pulling up his windbreaker hood. “I can wait with you, if you want.”
“Oh, no,” I said quickly, as the Irish music began again, followed by the sound of feet clomping across a hard floor. “I'm fine.”
“Okay,” he said, putting one hand on the door and beginning to push it open. Then he stopped and said, “You have a real talent for faces, Caitlin. I've been very impressed with your work.”
“Oh, thanks,” I said, embarrassed. “I just mess around, mostly.”
“You're very good. That one we looked at today, of your boyfriend ... it's very moving. There's something striking there, and you caught it. Very well done.” He stood there, as if he knew something and was just waiting for me to confirm it. Instead, I realized I was blushing, clutching my folder with the picture in it so tightly I was bending the edges. “Thanks,” I said again. “Really.” He nodded, smiling, and reached into his windbreaker pocket to pull out a pair of red knit mittens.
“Have a good holiday.”
“You, too,” I said, as Rogerson pulled in to the far side of the parking lot. “Merry Christmas, Matthew.” He smiled, then reached forward and took my hand, squeezing it tightly between the warm wool of his mittens. They felt scratchy yet comfortable, like the kind Cass and I both had as kids, clipped to our jackets so we wouldn't lose them. “Merry Christmas,” he said. There was something so nice about standing there with him, under all those blinking lights, his mittens closed tightly over my fingers. I felt safe with him, strangely, with this person I hardly knewsafer than I'd felt in a long time, as if some part of me that had been churned up and crazy had finally come to a stop. We couldn't have stood there like that for more than five seconds before Rogerson pulled up in front of the window and beeped the horn. “Well,” I said, and he dropped my hand. “There's my ride.”
“Right,” Matthew said. “See you later.” We walked out the door together, and Rogerson leaned over to unlock my door, keeping his eyes on Matthew as I climbed inside. “Who's that?” he asked as I put my seat belt on. “He teaches my class,” I said. “Where've you been?” He just shook his head as he put the car in gear, gunning across the parking lot. “Dave said he could get us a good deal on this ounce, but the guy never showed. Waited for an hour.”
“Oh, man,” I said. “You must have been really mad.” He didn't say anything, instead looking past me out my window to the sidewalk beside us. When I turned my head, I saw Matthew walking, his backpack over both shoulders and hands in his pockets, head ducked against the falling sleet. I was about to change the subject, but something felt strange to me, an unsteady feeling like before lightning strikes. Rogerson still had his eyes on Matthew, even as he disappeared around a corner, and I thought again of the picture I held in my lap, the irritation in his eyes, the stark trees, with barely a sun at all in the sky behind him. He didn't say a word the whole way home. But when we pulled up in front of my mailbox, he cut the engine and just sat there, looking straight ahead. I slid my fingers down to my door handle, telling myself he was just in a bad mood, not my fault. Dave had made him wait, and then he'd seenor had he?Matthew holding my hand. I could slip out, he'd go burn off steam, and then later everything would be okay. It would. If I could just “So,” he said suddenly, and I felt that crackling electricity again, a whooshing in my ears, “what's going on with you and that guy, Caitlin?”