Faces in the Crowd (Part 2)

The story continues now:

In Philadelphia, three years earlier, for a joint venture she had found a similar kinship. The event had been entitled, ‘How we fit together.’ Its focus had been on couples ranging from two or three years together, to forty and fifty. Many of the spectators had found the mix of flash photography and visual media engaging. Yet, for Mrs. Petrovich a newlywed who had never spent more than a few days apart from her husband, Michael a month had been draining.

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Their union seemed to require constant attention. Phone calls and emails did little to erode the space that was mounting between them, and in the end Mrs. Petrovich felt responsible for the way things were turning out. Her two packs a day habit – after a week – had escalated to three and she began to fiddle with her wedding band.

Forgetting the ring, Mrs. Petrovich snapped Yanni, a fifty year old water polo instructor who trained at least six days a week. Then she turned and captured Ian, a stay at home dad whose only daughter had gone to the Middle East as a peace keeper. Ryan and Quincy were next. Veterinary graduates from Sheffield, they had ventured to Rome to avoid meeting livestock.

Going around the room, Mrs. Petrovich searched for expressive single shots. She signaled DeeDee to have them move. On the periphery of a rectangular stage, Mrs. Petrovich spied Kenta, a manga artist from Okinawa who owned his own bookstore. There, he drew caricatures reminiscent of the Meiji era which also included prince Hirohito. Impressed with the scope of his portfolio, Mrs. Petrovich had viewed every NHK dvd she could find. Her conversational Japanese skills, however, remained fixed at introductions.

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Wiping her brow, she remembered the extent of last night’s sauna and hoped that a cold shower would relieve residual tension. Forced to sleep in her underwear, she had bummed two cigarettes off a waiter before DeeDee had intervened. There would be no waiting tonight, no easy hoop to jump through to save her from signing and returning the papers.

Mrs. Petrovich took a minute to catch her breath as she peered at Christie, a slim Caucasian woman, who reminded her of a high school friend she’d often travel with and although Mrs. Petrovich hadn’t seen her in years she still recalled her features. Descending a medium-sized ladder, she watched the pattern of lights on the ground that resembled her mother’s floral apron.

Holding onto the sides of the ladder, Mrs. Petrovich braced herself as the ground wavered and her mother’s stern countenance appeared.

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Ten years had passed since they had last spoken. Yet, she remembered the firm upper lip and brooding eyes. Her mother was one of ten children to survive childbirth and she prided herself on raising four children who had all gone to college. But Mrs. Petrovich didn’t feel accomplished.

She wiped sweat from her face and recalled brown pupils that seemed to see into her soul. With unknown accuracy her mother, the seamstress would uncover delinquents. She had caught Mrs. Petrovich’s twin, Mina syphoning alcohol from her father’s secret stash and Mrs. Petrovich (Mona) necking on the swings. Shaken by these revelations, Mrs. Petrovich tried to focus. But her mother’s doubts about her continued to trouble her as she imagined her younger sister pushing out her fifth child.

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Easing out of it, Mrs. Petrovich snapped Paul, a rebel who had failed to mention a similar trip taken two years earlier with his dying partner, Eugene who now slept in an urn on his bureau. Behind polite smiles, he hid insurmountable defeat, as that morning he had shredded the failed adoption papers. Although they had waited almost seven years, crossed excessive hurdles and bypassed mounds of red tape, the baby in China would never be theirs. Smiling, he tried to suppress the hurt and remember better days because in California all that remained for him was a quiet house and an empty bed.

Next, she snapped Joshua, an insecure designer whose self-doubts plagued his work. This trip was a much needed reprieve from his girlfriend who had recently revealed that she was pregnant. Now Joshua struggled to suppress memories of a father, whose penchant for sharing licks matched his propensity for collecting sea shells. And as she snapped Mrs. Petrovich tried to get a better picture of the people she was seeing.

But when Mrs. Petrovich stood, she was like a deer trapped in headlights as her sister’s crumpled body returned. “Take five,” she said, seeing it in front of them.

“You’re doing great,” DeeDee said, giving her shoulder a light squeeze. Mrs. Petrovich nodded, her body tense.

She followed the retreating figure with her eyes. It was three and she desperately needed something to take off the edge. Ejecting the full memory card, she inserted another, and wondered how things had gotten so bad between her and Michael when they had hoped for babies in the beginning. But Michael’s job as a hand model and part time actor wasn’t lucrative enough, even though he spent nights at the agency and schmoozed with prospective clients.

She pulled a water bottle from her bag and took a sip, envying DeeDee her less complicated life. She admired how DeeDee took care of herself. The few times they had gone out together DeeDee had paid for everything: a bottle of wine, an entree with lobster and dessert. Mrs. Petrovich had tried to refuse but DeeDee was obstinate. It was the only time they had disagreed and Mrs. Petrovich wondered if her current change was inconvenient and selfish.

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On the night of her sister’s death, she had wanted something to happen because Mina had stolen her prom date. Looking back now, she wondered if she would have done anything differently to save her. She remembered brushing back strands as guilt riddled her body. Minutes earlier she had said, “I hate you,” and rushed across the guard rail, leaving her inebriated sister to fend for herself. But the real shock had come when the ambulance doors opened and the paramedics told her parents that her sister was DOA, dead on arrival.

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The camera spun around and around in her hand. These lives also hung in the balance; lives that only she could direct.

Sitting on the ground, she remembered her nephew, Jordan being weighed. She had taken pictures at his bat mitzvah, a week earlier and visited Mina’s grave. Reaching into her pocket for a pack of cigarettes that weren’t there, she wondered what had confused her most about churches. Whether it was the silence after the people had gone or the solemn hymns. She had dropped dirt on Mina’s casket. But the event had left her hollow.

In her life, Michael had been the only sure thing. Michael and photography.

“Are we going to start?” DeeDee asked, looking at her disheveled appearance.

“Yes,” Mrs. Petrovich said, fastening a clip to her hair. She watched as a thin gold chain dropped onto DeeDee’s neck and her breath caught as she observed a flower pendant identical to the one her sister had worn on that night.

“Do you need to get some air?” DeeDee asked, fingering the pendant Mrs. Petrovich had given her in Marseilles where they had roomed together.

Mrs. Petrovich smiled and shook her head, wondering if she had been too forward in their discussions about marriage and Michael.

Before college there had only been two guys: Bobby, the asthmatic who picked flowers and Darryl, the drag racer who collected tickets. Neither relationship had amounted to anything and Mrs. Petrovich had lost hope until she’d discovered Michael in the men’s room at a wedding.

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But the thing that had amazed her about those earlier relationships was the fortitude with which her mother had conducted her interrogations. Her proddings were hostile and distinct. And yet her, ‘What’s your intention with my daughter?’ was delivered with the same sincerity as ‘Would like some milk with your cookies?’

Mrs. Petrovich always stood back, amazed at the way her mother had been able to control her men. Her father’s erratic spending was brought under control with two visits to the butcher’s. Her brother’s infidelity cured after five visits to the confessional and six to a bordello. It seemed as if there was nothing that her mother couldn’t do.

And from her position near the wall, Mrs. Petrovich watched DeeDee use the same halting precision as she got the participants to line up for the next round of shots. Mrs. Petrovich could forget the hand me down sweaters and pants because her mother’s intricate style had transformed them. But there was nothing she could do about Michael.

And in fact this was why she liked DeeDee. Everything was straight, she never minced words. Throwing water on Michael in the restaurant was something her mother would have done, had she been given the chance. But Mrs. Petrovich had never invited her to the wedding and Michael’s uncle had stood in for her father.

Now, camera in hand, Mrs. Petrovich continued to snap, as she had done many times on the streets of New York. Starting to feel a singularity of purpose, she remembered her first paying gig at her cousin Eve’s christening, where her uncle, Akim had promised her an easy two hundred and free drinks for the night.

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Now, she realized the advantage of having backlights because back then there had been none. The absence of her parents had been another bonus. But she was thankful for those first few shots because without them nothing else would have mattered. And Akim’s smile after she presented him with the album had given her the courage to continue, even when landlords came knocking in search of overdue rent. Because the struggle of the migrant worker or pregnant woman and teacher mirrored those of her parents.

With photography, Mrs. Petrovich had discovered a new calling. Throughout college she subsisted on ramen and cheap take out. But at night, the darkroom was her muse. There she used stop baths and she learned the art of dodge and burn before software like Photoshop made her skills obsolete. She even remembered the face of the female professor who had given her charge over her first Pentax and Nikon. Her first assignment had been black and white shots she had taken of a cathedral in Canarsie. At first they had seemed ‘hopeful’ before becoming ‘more promising’ and then much later there was Photography II.

And thanks to Fine Arts 101, she could name the important parts of a church: the nave, apse and transept. Mrs. Petrovich remembered the small church in lower Manhattan where Mina’s final service had been conducted. It was her second home, the only place she had allowed herself to be married in. Looking up at the light falling through the ceiling she felt that it was indeed over. She would give Michael his wish because after so many false starts it was time to start over.

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And one by one the images of her assistants flashed before her eyes. There was Petra, the girl who lived on her parents’ street in Canarsie. They had only lasted three months before the young woman decided to have a kid. Then there was Sandra, who had stayed about a year and a half before moving to the Midwest. Or Josh, the only guy who shared her passion for cigarettes and film. They had been together for six months before his son was slain in the East village after a brawl. Two months of therapy would help him straighten out his life but he was never the same. They had parted as friends and then the following night she had met DeeDee.

In the end, it would take a movie, dinner and a discussion of their mothers to get them going. DeeDee’s mother was a shut in who accepted monthly visits and deliveries. While Mrs. Petrovich’s mother continued to sew and raise a dozen grandkids. With the backlight fading, Mrs. Petrovich wondered if Michelangelo had ever felt intimidated with his task as his contemporaries jostled for position. She knew that after the following night the divorce would be final. Eventually, she would close up the studio and get on with her life.

Silencing the camera, Mrs. Petrovich watched as nations of people collided in a room that had accommodated billions.

She wondered how her parents had been so lucky to have travelled from the city of Omsk in Russia to American and found each other. And if maybe some time in the future she would be able to get another chance.

Then she remembered meeting Michael at a wedding and being too drink to think about making all the right moves. And how they had just gone with the flow. How a month later in college, she had been able to pick out his face in a crowd during a football game on the quad. Now looking at DeeDee, she felt that same familiar pull as she changed the f-stop and manually focused. Maybe now like then, she was only seeing the possibilities that were available to her. Maybe like these brave experimenters, who had come to Rome on something that resembled a whim, she was hoping for these decisions to matter. Even if, like them, she was only just another face in the crowd.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed the story, and do come again.

Thank you.

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