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08 May 2012

The photograph

I’ve since lost it, but I can still remember every detail from when I first saw it.  They are grouped together like DaVinci’s ‘Last Supper,’ which is to say that they are all posing and looking forward, grouped together on one side of the table so that every face can be seen, even the face of the one playing this group’s Judas.  Every group has one. It’s a cheap Polaroid, the left corner of the bottom white strip creased and yellowing, a photo taken in the summer of 1992 outside of a café in Barcelona.  I’m not sure if it is taken during or after the Olympics, because I cannot see any of the waiters in this shot.  Once the Olympics had departed that summer, leaving the city with a hangover of success, overworked prostitutes, and vastly improved infrastructure, I remember the stone shoulders of all of the waiters, at least all of the waiters serving in restaurants along the Ramblas, softening and gradually sloping down, like an armada of sails dipping over a horizon illuminated with the summer sun. Let us imagine that the Olympics are over when this picture is taken so as not to get sidetracked with the actions of that one titanic son of a bitch who ruined a few lives forever.  We will assume this is taken after the initial actions of the titanic son of a bitch, but not before everyone fully realizes the consequences of those actions.  The scribbles on the back of the photo overlap in a frenetic mess, though a few words of French are legible.  Identifying the people in the Polaroid is straightforward.  They are, from left to right, B. Thomas, Javier Marías, R. Shea, Maria Iniesta, E.N. Swildon, and Lord Rymer. 

B. Thomas is Blake Thomas, an American jazz trumpeter and occasional philanderer more well known for the fictional biography of him written by one of his friends than for any of his music, or any of his philandering, for that matter.  He is sitting on the edge of his bistro chair, all legs and nose and elbows, leaning in and angling his inside ear toward the ground.  That is the ear he will go deaf in a short time later, and he has developed the habit by this time (I’m sure it is after the Olympics now) of leaning toward his friends during conversations and gatherings.  His brown hair is cut short, and his cheeks are red with the hint of razor burn.  He’s the most casually dressed of the group, in blue jeans and a plain white tee shirt that reminds one of James Dean, had James Dean lived a few more years.  The photograph cuts off his feet, but he only brought a pair of gray running shoes to Europe that summer.  He’s not looking at the camera, but across at Maria Iniesta, a woman he knows through friends, and not very well.  Then why is he looking at her?  He’s looking at her cleavage, or at her tits, as he would say if forced to give an answer.  His usual smile is absent.

Javier Marías is the famous Spanish writer, of course, though he has had the fortune to be less famous in this photograph and to grow more famous as time has passed.  This sometimes happens in reverse, resulting in the fading light of once bright stars, in the creation of hacks out of poets.  Marías is well known for his philandering, which is ironic because he is not in any substantial way that sort of man.  His characters in his novels sleep with women, but only because Marías is an honest writer.  He is leaning back in his chair, his right arm brought up, his hand poking out of his shirtsleeve and supporting his chin.  He is looking at the camera, and his gaze is so direct that one feels he is looking past it, past the photographer, past the photograph, and at you.  Another honest writer, Sebald, once included an image of Javier Marías’s eyes precisely because of this directness:  

They are Latin eyes, with none of the actual look of almonds, but with the hint of that look, and so, other than being direct, the writer’s eyes are a cliché or a trope.  His left arm is pressed across his chest, giving the right arm a base on which to rest.  His left hand is grabbing tight to the right side of his shirt, just below the armpit (his knuckles look drained of blood), but he appears relaxed.  He has a slight smile, almost always there, which most people take for smugness, an assumption he takes no pains to correct.  He is wearing dark slacks, though the round of the bistro table cuts off all but a portion of his right leg from the viewer.

Next is R. Shea, a hack writer, a sycophant, chubby and growing fatter by the moment, tall, hair like a willow tree after a storm (he is the only male with long hair at the table). Shea is perhaps amused with the knowledge that he is in the process of ruining lives, of becoming this group’s Judas, this group’s titanic son of a bitch. It is possible that he is internally amused, but he doesn’t show it here.  He wears a perpetual frown, developed in childhood, and his brow is furled as if he has come to the crux of an unsettling and intellectually demanding problem, though as often as not he is thinking about nothing.  The rest of him is unremarkable, so much so that I cannot even recall his first name.  He is wearing a white cotton shirt with starched collar and the long sleeves rolled up haphazard, part of his own particular mixture of dandy and slob.  The table hides his legs, but smart money says he is wearing khaki shorts and dark leather sandals.  Besides Blake, he is the only American in the group.  He is leaning toward Blake, though not looking at him, forming an invisible link between the two countrymen that Marías appears to be avoiding by leaning back and away from the conversation.  It looks to be a conversation, too, and perhaps Shea has just said something, something about the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of gawking at Maria’s breasts in the middle of a café on the Ramblas while someone is taking a photograph, and Blake is straining to process the words he did hear, taking the ones he didn’t to be unintelligible instead of having to contemplate any sort of hearing loss, and of course still gawking with the thin veil of discretion.  Shea, chastisement offered, is looking off into the distance, at nothing, at no one, like always.

Maria Iniesta, a South American expat, is the Christ, the center of the photograph, a hinge around which all of the other people are rotating, even if they appear to be ignoring her completely.  She is looking down at the table, at the piece of bread and her petite wine glass, the body and the blood, and her shoulders are sloping, but not out of relief or success like those of the waiters no longer burdened with Olympic tourists and burnt out hookers.  The lines of responsibility and guilt are beginning to line Maria’s dark face, though she is rather young, the youngest of them all.  She is wearing a white blouse, or perhaps it is faded peach, with lace straps across the shoulders, the left side hanging lower, the tip of the white scar that runs across her chest just peeking out.  If you look very closely, and if you know where to look, if you have looked at that scar myriad times when she was naked on top of you, making love to you in the frenetic way she did, her eyes closed, tears falling across her smile, then you can see the beginnings of that scar very well.  Her black hair is tangled, each long strand like a jewel in a crown of thorns around her forehead, cascading down her back.  Her downcast eyes remind one of the stones set in the eyes of a statue.  Her right hand is reaching for the sharp knife near the bread.  Her left is under the table, though probably nowhere near Swildon.

E. N. Swildon, the British classicist, sits like a god upon his throne.  His chest stretches the silk of his blue dress shirt.  His tie is tastefully unfastened and hanging around his neck, equal in length on either side down to his shirt pocket.  His chin tilts up, and his mouth hangs open in the midst of a roar of laughter, the laughter of a lion at play.  His eyes are closed, so the viewer cannot see that they are the color of sherry, or the color of sherry in a decanter, and that those eyes shimmer whenever Swildon looks at you, as he waits the extra few seconds for you to feel compelled to speak, as he weathers silences.  This photograph is the only other time I have seen his eyes closed, and like when I saw them closed 15 years later as Swildon’s body occupied his coffin, I have the urge to wait with the patience Swildon used upon his friends until those eyes opened again. 

Lord Rymer finishes the group portrait.  The fat man, fatter than Shea, he is known in Oxford as the flask.  Marías used him as a character once, and Rymer has never forgotten it, states that he is eternally in the Spaniard's debt.  Rymer is a writer in his own right, the author of ‘The Book of Dead Novelists’ and ‘Eça de Quieros as a figure of Jest,’ which won some prestigious award in Oxford and nothing but biter condemnation from the intelligentsia of Portugal.  His beady eyes are fixed on the food, and his tongue darts out of his thick lips in spasms.  He is paying for this meal, and the photograph is nothing more than a speed bump on the way to his gastronomical satisfaction

I would like to wind back the clock on them all, to take them out of this group photograph, to get them all away from the titanic son of a bitch and safeguard the secrets he has already begun to tell about them to complete strangers for nothing more than his own amusement.  But dare I?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent snapshot of a snapshot, and promising start of a longer work. Get busy!