I turned around. “Mamá told you that?”
I shrugged. I was embarrassed that Mamá had discussed this with Thalia. I wondered how she’d said it. She could unsheathe from her arsenal a mockingly grave way of talking about things she found either portentous or frivolous. She could shrink your aspirations before your very eyes. Markos wants to walk the earth and capture it with his lens.
Thalia sat on the sidewalk and pulled her skirt over her knees. It was a hot day, the sun biting the skin like it had teeth. Hardly anyone was out and about except for an elderly couple trudging stiffly up the street. The husband—Demis something—wore a gray flat cap and a brown tweed jacket that looked too heavy for the season. He had a frozen, wide-eyed look to his face, I remember, the way some old people do, like they are perpetually startled by the monstrous surprise that is old age—it wasn’t until years later, in medical school, that I suspected he had Parkinson’s. They waved as they passed and I waved back. I saw them take notice of Thalia, a momentary pause in their stride, and then they moved on.
“Do you have a camera?” Thalia said.
“Have you ever taken a picture?”
“And you want to be a photographer?”
“You find that strange?”
“So if I said I wanted to be a policeman, you’d think that was strange too? Because I’ve never slapped handcuffs on anyone?”
I could tell from the softening in her eyes that, if she could, she would be smiling. “So you’re a clever ass,” she said. “Word of advice: Don’t mention the camera in my mother’s presence or she’ll buy it for you. She’s very eager to please.” The handkerchief went to the cheek and back. “But I doubt that Odelia would approve. I guess you already know that.”
I was both impressed and a little unsettled by how much she seemed to have grasped in so little time. Maybe it was the mask, I thought, the advantage of cover, the freedom to be watchful, to observe and scrutinize.
“She’d probably make you give it back.”
I sighed. It was true. Mamá would not allow such easy amends, and most certainly not if it involved money.
Thalia rose to her feet and beat the dust from her behind. “Let me ask you, do you have a box at home?”
Madaline was sipping wine with Mamá in the kitchen, and Thalia and I were upstairs, using black markers on a shoe box. The shoe box belonged to Madaline and contained a new pair of lime green leather pumps with high heels, still wrapped in tissue paper.
“Where was she planning on wearing those?” I asked.
I could hear Madaline downstairs, talking about an acting class she had once taken where the instructor had asked her, as an exercise, to pretend she was a lizard sitting motionless on a rock. A swell of laughter—hers—followed.
We finished the second coat, and Thalia said we should put on a third, to make sure we hadn’t missed any spots. The black had to be uniform and flawless.
“That’s all a camera is,” she said, “a black box with a hole to let in the light and something to absorb the light. Give me the needle.”
I passed her a sewing needle of Mamá’s. I was skeptical, to say the least, about the prospects of this homemade camera, of it doing anything at all—a shoe box and a needle? But Thalia had attacked the project with such faith and self-assured confidence that I had to leave room for the unlikely possibility that it just might work. She made me think she knew things I did not.
“I’ve made some calculations,” she said, carefully piercing the box with the needle. “Without a lens, we can’t set the pinhole on the small face, the box is too long. But the width is just about right. The key is to make the correct-sized pinhole. I figure point-six millimeter, roughly. There. Now we need a shutter.”
Downstairs, Madaline’s voice had dropped to a low, urgent murmur. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but I could tell that she was speaking more slowly than before, enunciating well, and I pictured her leaning forward, elbows on knees, making eye contact, not blinking. Over the years, I have come to know this tone of voice intimately. When people speak this way, they’re likely disclosing, revealing, confessing some catastrophe, beseeching the listener. It’s a staple of the military’s casualty notification teams knocking on doors, lawyers touting the merits of plea deals to clients, policemen stopping cars at 3 A.M., cheating husbands. How many times have I used it myself at hospitals here in Kabul? How many times have I guided entire families into a quiet room, asked them to sit, pulled a chair up for myself, gathering the will to give them news, dreading the coming conversation?
“She’s talking about Andreas,” Thalia said evenly. “I bet she is. They had a big fight. Pass me the tape and those scissors.”
“What is he like? Besides being rich, I mean?”
“Who, Andreas? He’s all right. He travels a lot. When he’s home, he always has people over. Important people—ministers, generals, that kind. They have drinks by the fireplace and they talk all night, mostly business and politics. I can hear them from my room. I’m supposed to stay upstairs when Andreas has company. I’m not supposed to come down. But he buys me things. He pays for a tutor to come to the house. And he speaks to me nicely enough.”
She taped a rectangular piece of cardboard, which we’d also colored black, over the pinhole.
Things were quiet downstairs. I choreographed the scene in my head. Madaline weeping without a sound, absently fiddling with a handkerchief like it was a clump of Play-Doh, Mamá not much help, looking on stiffly with a pinch-faced little smile like she’s got something sour melting under her tongue. Mamá can’t stand it when people cry in her presence. She can barely look at their puffy eyes, their open, pleading faces. She sees crying as a sign of weakness, a garish appeal for attention, and she won’t indulge it. She can’t bring herself to console. Growing up, I learned that it was not one of her strong suits. Sorrow ought to be private, she thinks, not flaunted. Once, when I was little, I asked her if she’d cried when my father had fallen to his death.
At the funeral? I mean, the burial?
No, I did not.
Because you weren’t sad?
Because it was nobody’s business if I was.
Would you cry if I died, Mamá?
Let’s hope we never have to find out, she said.
Thalia picked up the box of photographic paper and said, “Get the flashlight.”
We moved into Mamá’s closet, taking care to shut the door and snuff out daylight with towels we stuffed under it. Once we were in pitch-darkness, Thalia asked me to turn on the flashlight, which we had covered with several layers of red cellophane. All I could see of Thalia in the dim glow was her slender fingers as she cut a sheet of photographic paper and taped it to the inside of the shoe box opposite the pinhole. We had bought the paper from Mr. Roussos’s shop the day before. When we walked up to the counter, Mr. Roussos peered at Thalia over his spectacles and said, Is this a robbery? Thalia pointed an index finger at him and cocked her thumb like pulling back the hammer.
Thalia closed the lid on the shoe box, covered the pinhole with the shutter. In the dark she said, “Tomorrow, you shoot the first photo of your career.” I couldn’t tell if she was making fun or not.
We chose the beach. We set the shoe box on a flat rock and secured it firmly with rope—Thalia said we couldn’t have any movement at all when we opened the shutter. She moved in next to me and took a peek over the box as if through a viewfinder.
“It’s a perfect shot,” she said.
“Almost. We need a subject.”
She looked at me, saw what I meant, and said, “No. I won’t do it.”
We argued back and forth and she finally agreed, but on the condition that her face didn’t show. She took off her shoes, walked atop a row of rocks a few feet in front of the camera, using her arms like a tightrope walker on a cable. She lowered herself on one of the rocks facing west in the direction of Syros and Kythnos. She flipped her hair so it covered the bands at the back of her head that held the mask in place. She looked at me over her shoulder.
“Remember,” she shouted, “count to one twenty.”
She turned back to face the sea.
I stooped and peered over the box, looking at Thalia’s back, the constellation of rocks around her, the whips of seaweed entangled between them like dead snakes, a little tugboat bobbing in the distance, the tide rising, mashing the craggy shore and withdrawing. I lifted the shutter from the pinhole and began to count.
One … two … three … four … five …
We’re lying in bed. On the TV screen a pair of accordion players are dueling, but Gianna has turned off the sound. Midday sunlight scissors through the blinds, falling in stripes on the remains of the Margherita pizza we’d ordered for lunch from room service. It was delivered to us by a tall, slim man with impeccable slicked-back hair and a white coat with black tie. On the table he rolled into the room was a flute vase with a red rose in it. He lifted the domed plate cover off the pizza with great flourish, making a sweeping motion with his hand like a magician to his audience after the rabbit has materialized from the top hat.
Scattered around us, among the mussed sheets, are the pictures I have shown Gianna, photos of my trips over the past year and a half. Belfast, Montevideo, Tangier, Marseille, Lima, Tehran. I show her photos of the commune I had joined briefly in Copenhagen, living alongside ripped-T-shirt-and-beanie-hat-wearing Danish beatniks who had built a self-governing community on a former military base.
Where are you? Gianna asks. You are not in the photographs.
I like being behind the lens better, I say. It’s true. I have taken hundreds of pictures, and you won’t find me in any. I always order two sets of prints when I drop off the film. I keep one set, mail the other to Thalia back home.
Gianna asks how I finance my trips and I explain I pay for them with inheritance money. This is partially true, because the inheritance is Thalia’s, not mine. Unlike Madaline, who for obvious reasons was never mentioned in Andreas’s will, Thalia was. She gave me half her money. I am supposed to be putting myself through university with it.
Eight … nine … ten …
Gianna props herself up on her elbows and leans across the bed, over me, her small br**sts brushing my skin. She fetches her pack, lights a cigarette. I’d met her the day before at Piazza di Spagna. I was sitting on the stone steps that connect the square below to the church on the hill. She walked up and said something to me in Italian. She looked like so many of the pretty, seemingly aimless girls I’d seen slinking around Rome’s churches and piazzas. They smoked and talked loudly and laughed a lot. I shook my head and said, Sorry? She smiled, went Ah, and then, in heavily accented English, said, Lighter? Cigarette. I shook my head and told her in my own heavily accented English that I didn’t smoke. She grinned. Her eyes were bright and jumping. The late-morning sun made a nimbus around her diamond-shaped face.
I doze off briefly and wake up to her poking my ribs.
La tua ragazza? she says. She has found the picture of Thalia on the beach, the one I had taken years before with our homemade pinhole camera. Your girlfriend?
No, I say.
La tua cugina? Your cousin, si?
I shake my head.
She studies the photo some more, taking quick drags off her cigarette. No, she says sharply, to my surprise, even angrily. Questa è la tua ragazza! Your girlfriend. I think yes, you are liar! And then, to my disbelief, she flicks her lighter and sets the picture on fire.
Fourteen … fifteen … sixteen … seventeen …
About midway through our trek back to the bus stop, I realize I’ve lost the photo. I tell them I need to go back. There is no choice, I have to go back. Alfonso, a wiry, tight-lipped huaso who is tagging along as our informal Chilean guide, looks questioningly at Gary. Gary is an American. He is the alpha male in our trio. He has dirty-blond hair and acne pits on his cheeks. It’s a face that hints at habitual hard living. Gary is in a foul mood, made worse by hunger, the absence of alcohol, and the nasty rash on his right calf, which he contracted brushing up against a litre shrub the day before. I’d met them both at a crowded bar in Santiago, where, after half a dozen rounds of piscolas, Alfonso had suggested a hike to the waterfall at Salto del Apoquindo, where his father used to take him when he was a boy. We’d made the hike the next day and had camped out at the waterfall for the night. We’d smoked dope, the water roaring in our ears, a wide-open sky crammed with stars above us. We were trudging back now toward San Carlos de Apoquindo to catch the bus.