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.

Faces in the Crowd (Part 1)

Hello everyone! Melissa, here. Welcome, welcome! I’m so glad that you’ve stuck around this long. Do accept my apologies for not writing sooner, but I’ve been somewhat busy with work, family life and some medical issues. All things considered though, I am always happy to read your work, and share whatever inspiration I can.

So today I am offering you a treat. As many of you who have read Austin Kleon would know, it is always good to Show (in this case I would say share) your work. Today I will share with you a short story I wrote, say about three years ago, that I wasn’t able to publish in a literary magazine.

This of course is part one and on Friday I will upload part 2.

Anyway it is time for me to fade into the background, and leave you with just one thing, as all writers, poets, authors will know, I leave behind the work. I hope you like it, and thanks for hanging in there. I wish you all, all the best with your work.

Here’s to a fruitful and productive 2018!

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Without much ado, here’s Faces in the Crowd (Part 1)

Faces in the Crowd

At the front of a narrow hallway Mrs. Petrovich adjusted a pair of bulky spectacles and waited for the last participant to file in. Rocked by allegations of scandal and impropriety, the Vatican had hired her, an impartial New York photographer, to bolster their image. From where she stood, Mrs. Petrovich observed her assistant, DeeDee as she sauntered into the room. Then, Mrs. Petrovich went to her gear bag and retrieved a Nikon.

It was a warm May morning and heat poured into the room through the ceiling. The participants were citizens from various parts of the globe who had agreed to come to Venice as part of an experiment. Ordinarily, Mrs. Petrovich would not have chosen a church for such an ambitious endeavor, but ten minutes after hearing the Cardinal’s offer, DeeDee had smiled. Now Mrs. Petrovich surveyed the room and wondered why no one from the city had entered. However, after a little while, the thought dissipated and she allowed the Basilica’s ambiance to fill her.

In the front she focused on Gene, a tall dark man from America who reminded her of her ex, Michael, and that memory carried her back five years to the start of her relationship with DeeDee. At the time, Mrs. Petrovich had been on a lunch date with friends while DeeDee, an incensed waitress, had doused a customer for grabbing her ass. Grateful, nevertheless for prompt service, Mrs. Petrovich had paid extra and left her business card.

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Now, five years later, she searched for the right place to set up a tripod as the men positioned themselves. After all, these photos would be made available to everyone so proper positioning was important.

“Free downloads,” the Cardinal had called them, as if it was a customary thing like uploading a youtube video. She balked at how easily these people had signed away their right on something she considered a financial whim. Mrs. Petrovich stopped. Then she opened the tripod and fastened the plate to the camera.

“They’re all yours,” DeeDee said, moving to the side of the room.
Removing the lens cap Mrs. Petrovich snapped two shots of DeeDee for posterity, before fastening the camera to the tripod. At five foot seven with a slim figure, DeeDee was lithe. At a young age she had shown a proficiency for ballet but due to her mother’s unsound financial investments they were often strapped. In other ways though DeeDee remained efficient.

Mrs. Petrovich took a group shot before focusing on Lily, the second woman from the left. She was a junior high school teacher from Japan and although her smile did not extend to the corners of her lips, Mrs. Petrovich continued to snap. Extra shots always came in handy. Panning right she snapped Martha, a Jamaican medical student who had completing her residency in New Jersey. At twenty eight, she yearned to return home to her family.

Mrs. Petrovich was thirty five, with peppered black hair. Currently single, she refused to reproduce even though her mother had assured her that she still possessed childbearing hips. At six feet two, she stood out in crowds but frequented sushi bars that brought in all kinds. Today, she wore black pants and a cream blouse. Both accentuated by a string of pearls DeeDee had picked out.

“Pretend you’re on the beach and you’re having fun,” Mrs. Petrovich said as she settled on a short Slovenian man she had pegged as Atlas. He smiled. Stopped. And then smiled again. Mrs. Petrovich exhaled and imagined herself rising to the surface.

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“Do you want me to dim the overhead lights?” DeeDee asked from the doorway, her fingers hovering above the switch. “To create more atmosphere.”

Mrs. Petrovich shook her head. “No,” she said, slowly. “Move them around.” After four days of trying to get things right, she had memorized most of their names. She watched Nefertiti in a dashiki change places with Sita in a shalwar. The colors were vibrant: radiant yellows merged with burnt orange, browns and greens. They moved like earthen vessels. DeeDee watched as her features softened and Mrs. Petrovich said, “That’s better.”

DeeDee smiled, removed a bolero jacket and waited for the breeze. Some days she envied buildings their ability to retain heat. Today though, she glared at fresnels and observed shoes. Mrs. Petrovich’s combat boots seemed dated. A replacement would be needed shortly, she thought, watching Jamie, a chef from Brussels recoil. Perhaps tomorrow, before they left the city.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Petrovich watched Dominique, a travel writer execute a flawless turn. The woman was a product of a union between France and Germany, who enjoyed cooking and hiking. Looking at her supple figure, the photographer wondered if she had omitted having a Spanish lineage from her consent form.

Mrs. Petrovich glanced at her watch and noticed that it was already noon. “Take five,” she said, watching them go. Scanning the shots, she wondered, where all the time had gone. This was their final shoot. Mrs. Petrovich wiped sweaty palms on her pants and recalled various excursions: a detour that had led her to the Spanish steps, a rendezvous at the catacombs and a party near the Piazza Navona. Rome was indeed breathtaking, she thought. She only wished that Michael could have been there.

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She watched Wendi, a Korean-American dentist scamper towards the door surrounded by admirers. Unlike them, Mrs. Petrovich questioned her easy-going smile.

DeeDee reached for her purse and headed towards the door. “Do you need anything?”

“A coffee. Some smokes.” Mrs. Petrovich put away the camera and reached for her arm.

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“Just coffee,” she said, thrusting a few bills into DeeDee’s open palm.

“Sure.” DeeDee pocketed the money and waited, wondering how to breech the topic of last night. She was almost certain that the habit would be broken with time. But she was concerned about today.

“I’ll be fine,” Mrs. Petrovich assured her, smoothening the collar of her shirt. When she was gone, Mrs. Petrovich did a few stretches. In another life, she thought, we could have been sisters. Sita pointed out biblical scenes to Gene, in the other room, while others trailed behind them. Mrs. Petrovich turned off the overhead lights and watched as Sita returned alone a few minutes later. She appraised the scene as only another artist could, and removed a small note pad from her pocket that she filled with sketches.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Petrovich tried to remember what had appealed to her about Sita’s consent form. But nothing surfaced.

A hand brushed against her arm and she opened her fingers to receive the cup DeeDee offered; her thin lips suspended in greeting. DeeDee wore a fashionable navy skirt and white shirt. She was a petite woman whose penchant for water rivaled Mrs. Petrovich’s taste for cigarettes. The few times they had drank together, Mrs. Petrovich had been amazed at her ability to retain liquor.

“After this,” DeeDee asked, “Are you going back to the States?”

Mrs. Petrovich sipped her coffee and nodded. “There’s an opening at the Met.”

DeeDee cringed. “But, don’t you hate art?”

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Mrs. Petrovich laughed and gulped down the rest of the warm liquid. “Like you,” she said, “I do what I must.” she said. Meeting the young woman’s frown, she averted her eyes. “Do you like it here?”

“Yes, it has its charms.” DeeDee exhaled. “I was thinking of buying a camera and taking some shots.”

Mrs. Petrovich embraced her. “Like my mother always used to say, it’s never too late to start.”

Hearing footsteps, DeeDee eased out of the embrace and feigned a smile. “How’s the coffee?”

“Great,” Mrs. Petrovich lied, smoothening a rumpled sleeve, already missing her.

DeeDee focused on the tripod and pushed back a lock of hair. Taking good pictures, she had always assumed, was about finding moments of control and exploiting them. DeeDee watched Mrs. Petrovich already knowing before she did that she was about to move.

“Places everyone.” Mrs. Petrovich handed DeeDee the empty cup and extracted another camera, tethered to her neck by a chord. Removing the tripod, Mrs. Petrovich pointed where she wanted them to go and they made shapes. First she experimented with a crescent and then a pyramid.

By the door DeeDee adjusted the lights as Mrs. Petrovich locked eyes with Trevor, a plumber from the UK with an appetite for chewing gum. Stifling a reprimand, Mrs. Petrovich bit her lower lip.

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The experiment was supposed to promote multiculturalism and diversity. Words the Cardinal had insisted upon as he stressed its pro bono appeal. But Mrs. Petrovich wasn’t like their regular photographers who possessed deep pockets and often worked with more upscale designers. In the end, her mediocre savings could barely cover the cost of transporting her equipment, so other arrangements had to be made for DeeDee. Thank goodness for her prodigious portfolio which had been enough to convince them, even if it couldn’t assuage the feud with her mother.

As she continued Mrs. Petrovich felt the space between them diminish until she caught sight of an open palm, a tilted head and a jilted lover. That abstraction of bodies reminded her of a Rothke painting she had seen at the Four Seasons restaurant of the Seagram Building. Now standing on a ladder, she observed layers of texture. For the first time since her arrival in Italy, she could see beyond the ordinary exterior so that when arching hands embraced taunt shoulders, she discovered a community.

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Check back on Friday, for part 2 of Faces in the Crowd.

And like always, thanks for reading and supporting!