The only bit of smooth flesh on her face was at its center, as if her head were once a pond and the tip of her nose was where a stone dropped in. She was finishing her story. Her eyes were somewhere near the water in Manhattan during a summer a half a lifetime ago, but her nose was here with her in North Carolina in the dead of winter, a weak winter, and as she talked smoke escaped her nostrils like her body had an endless supply of it.
They’d been to a show, her and him on their third date, and then taken a cab down to Battery Park to watch the wind make the water hit the rocks. It was his favorite thing, he said, “Because no ocean never bowed to nobody.”
He’d been home from Korea for a month when his mother and her father had the two of them meet at a little café three blocks north of where she was born. They had lasagna. She nearly died of thirst, she remembered, could barely even talk through her dry lips, on account of her unsteady hand avoiding the water. He had no problem drinking. Never did. He always noted, after his fourth or so bourbon, that a man earns the right to drink once he sees other men “come apart.” She giggled the first time he said it, the first of many times he mentioned men cracking, because she imagined a puzzle being shooed off a table, dripping into individual pieces, but her smile faded, his brow a crimped hose to her happy flow.
A ship sat on the horizon and its lights vanished when the statue floated before it.
She could smell the motor oil beneath his nails when he pushed her hair behind her ears and from that moment forward she’d prefer the smell of garage floors to flowers. She’d look for it, the sweet iron scent, many years later in the air between perfume and booze when he’d come in with the sun. It was always a different perfume, which she thought might be better, and always her digging at the air, prospecting for hope or something to cling to.
The fireworks began just before nine out above the torch. He was standing behind her with his forearms across her chest, holding his own elbows tight. A storm couldn’t break them apart, she thought, because as strong as he was he was no match for her.
The crowd had grown with the noise in the sky and somewhere in the wash of people beneath the bright booming a mother scolded her son. The kid showed his mom a penny he found but she fancied him a peeper. Beside them a little girl was sitting atop her father’s shoulders pulling his hair, paying little regard to the decorated sky. The smell of boiled hot dogs sulked in the dark nearby. He released her to light a cigarette.
When the fireworks died he crushed what remained of his smoke beneath his toe and extended his elbow and she took it. He led her to the park and they sat on a bench.
“Your dad wants you to have this,” he said, passing her a box.
Her grandmother’s ring contained the slightest sparkle centered atop a gold band, the band wider than what gleaned, and inscribed on the inside was BELIEVE. She’d memorized all the details long ago when she came across the little blue capsule in her mother’s attic. The little box was in a big box with a baseball glove and a handful of yellow-paged books. The whole parcel smelled like melon rinds.
“’Well, do you want me to have it?’ I asked him,” she said. “Only I asked a little sweeter than that. He crossed his legs tight and pulled a smoke from the breast pocket of his blazer and lit it. There was a haze over the water like all the light from the celebrating hadn’t yet left. I told him I wanted it before he said anything else.”
I was sitting in the rocking chair that cried when it rocked. She was in her chair, where she’d been since I could remember, telling us about the night she and Papa decided on forever.
“Told the guy he should never forget our anniversary, both the time we got engaged and, a year from then, married, since it’s the noisiest night of the year. I would sit there all day most years and we would go to picnics and get the kids dressed in colors and then night would come and when the fireworks banged for the first time his brow would jump. ‘Oh hell,’ he’d think, and then kiss me real quick and tell me something was in the mail.”
A lady walked over and balanced a plate of cheese and crackers in her hand as she bent down to kiss Grandma on the forehead. Another stranger did the same. A man was standing behind the kitchen table carving a ham and all I could think was that all the old folks here could never eat as much ham as he was piling, but he didn’t stop and I don’t think he stopped the whole time he was there. Later, after everyone left and they let us kids change our clothes, mom was stuffing Tupperware containers with ordered stacks of groomed meat for the whole duration of the nightly news.
I didn’t know Papa as well as the rest of the people. I figured the man with the knife by the ham would’ve been a good friend of his. Papa would’ve liked his dedication, would’ve said something about “wherewithal.” But I saw in Grandma’s eyes earlier that morning when mom and her sister colored Grandma’s hair that she missed him the most of everybody. More than the ladies I didn’t know and more than the carver. Think that’s why the smoke kept leaving through her nose. She didn’t have enough heart left to conjure a blow.
“And from him I got you,” she said toward me, the tips of her fingers moving on the arm of her chair as the other hand lifted the cigarette to her mouth. She took a long pull and shoved out a fractured smile. For the rest of the day she sat in that chair, the tan one with a pocket for remotes by the lever, pulling on long, skinny cigarettes, trying to replenish what smoldered at her core.
In “Six Degrees of Copenhagen,” photographer Jen Juuls entered the lives of strangers and took pictures. (Note: Not all safe for work viewing. Some nipples.) I saw one of his photos on The Atlantic’s In Focus blog when a colleague suggested we pick a photo and write about it. Then, to me, it was just Photo #6, an old lady with a smoke. The above is invented context for the picture.
View Photo #6, the picture that brought about this lengthy lie, and more 2013 Sony World Photography Award winners, on The Atlantic’s In Focus blog here.