At the bottom of the claw-foot tub, facedown, under an inch or two of water, lies the photograph. I say lies meaning “rests,” but the word is full of unrest, too, for in telling the truth the picture has captured falsehood.
Contradictions, irony – they’ve become part of my life.
It is cold in the room, the chill of the tile floor coming through the throw rug between tub and toilet, the rug that slips into corners or curls at one end, a canvas of sorts, to trace our footsteps. The tub is slippery, too, with a stain the color of fall leaves that runs in a ragged path to the drain. I kneel beside it, not caring that the edge is wet and my sleeves are damp. I kneel and see the reflection from the safelight break into pieces as I run my hand through the water, making waves to capsize the future.
I could keep this to myself, I know. I could confine my inspection to the back of the picture, the blank, white nothingness that in the semi-darkness merges with the white of the tub. I could write the future on that, and live a lie.
But reality beckons.
There’s an image on the other side, an image crudely printed, all blacks and whites, no middle tones, for I took and printed it under extraordinary conditions, technique not a concern. No finesse, just a mechanical clicking of the shutter that has mimicked my actions since.
I pull the stopper in the tub, beaded chain clinking, and watch the water as it flows out, slowly, slowly, quicker, picking up speed until the final gurgle. I stand, wipe my hands on my jeans, pad over to the light switch, flip it on. The room grows black for a moment, then resolves into its narrow range of color – gray wallpaper, white floor, off-white curtains. Spots of developer dot the tiles by the sink, the only real color, besides the stain, in the room. I gaze into the tub at the thin piece of paper, the reality that obscures all the images, filtered through mind or camera, that came before. I reach into the water to turn the paper over, to see the true image, the one that lies.
My wife sits on the park bench, leaning into the man, excluding all others. They are not just friends. He has a hand on her knee, his touch light, familiar. It’s a cold, overcast day, and the sky in the picture is bleached into nothingness. Their faces, too, are washed out, ghostly, for in printing them I spared the light. I don’t need to see the expressions. I saw. Following them, crouching behind a bush, my curiosity making me the outsider, I saw more than I wanted to. In the picture, the bench and the stubby grass of winter are dark, too dark. Shadow abruptly meets glare, no room for subtlety.
The photo lies limply in my hands a few inches above the tub. Letting it fall lifeless to the bottom, I turn off the overhead light and shine the light of the enlarger through the negative. I play with focus, blurring the picture until it could be a surrealistic painting, man and woman indistinct, representing a perfect love with no power to hurt.
But love and lies have power. I sharpen the focus, make another print, slip it into the developer. I agitate the liquid until falsehood again swims into view. I’ve printed carefully now, so specifics appear – my wife’s high cheekbones, the stripe in the man’s tie. The image is clear in its meaning. It’s time to remove the photo from the developer, slip it into the fixer, wash away the last traces of silver. But instead I switch on the overhead light, exposing the actions of my wife and her lover. When I look at the print again, no details remain. It has faded to black.
Two of my stories most recently appear in TL;DR Press’ Women’s Anthology: Carrying Fire. My fiction and poetry have also been published by North Carolina Literary Review, Prime Number Magazine, Fictive Dream, and Jersey Devil Press, among others.