The waitress looks unreal. This is my first impression of the Soho Grand. She is wearing something artistic, but misshapen about the waist, and I can only guess at the credentials of the first person who went out on a limb to label it high fashion. She has a tattoo on her arm – words in another language. What is the point?
She brings us drinks. I have a gin and tonic, which arrives in the usual Tom Collins glass. Someone has stuck a black straw in it.
Samantha is drinking Pinot Grigio, even though she’s just eighteen. She looks sophisticated enough, but it’s all drawing on me now, because I am sitting next to her in the lounge of the Soho Grand, wearing scuffed steel toes, black Levi’s, and a blue short-sleeve Henley I bought at Old Navy for five and some change.
She talks about a breakup she went through a year ago in this same hotel, in this same lounge. She asks me about my photography. What I would want to shoot if I had a hotel room at my disposal.
I google images by Yonehara Yasumasa, and show her a pinwheel of female legs.
Something like this.
She says it would be easy. Maybe something about Terry Richardson. But I can’t remember. Time is slow, but still too fast for me. And I am drinking, draining my glass of gin and tonic, until it’s just ice and a slice of lime, until it’s lying heavy on my brain and I feel odd as I walk to the restroom.
We make conversation, but it’s far from an art. The lounge is filled with loud techno music. It bludgeons its way into the space between us and obstructs conversation. Our words float on alcohol and careen through space, and if there is anything left when it finally reaches her ears, it is anyone’s guess.
“We should lay on the floor in the room and cry,” she says, coming through the wall of sound.
“In this room,” I bellow, beckoning to the general periphery of the lounge. “Or another room, upstairs?”
Upstairs. Tonight. I have work in the morning, late, a mid shift working in a dirty warehouse, crunching receipt numbers and tracing dates, clearing out old orders and moving merchandise back to stock.
We go to the front desk, and book a room. My ID is invalid. We put it on her card. And then we go up to our room.
It seems cramped, but it has something of a view, a dock for my iPhone, a sprawling bed, and there’s a fridge full of booze.
She pours an Amstel into a glass as I calibrate my camera.
Then we snort something Samantha calls Dex. What it is, I don’t know. But she crushes it up and forms one beautiful white line with my MetroCard. I roll a twenty and we’re on our way.
Her top comes off, and she’s leaning against the window, drinking Amstel. And I am reflected there, in the window behind her, slightly hunched over, the misshapen fool, face obscured by a giant black camera. I have no face, no persona, but what’s found in the traces of her portrait, in the light and shadow playing over her background.
Eclipsed and dark, I am a man on the moon.
And here goes nothing.
I photograph her on the window sill, on the bed, leaning seductively forward , leaning back staring at the ceiling. Every movement is fluid, like flood waters sweeping the walls of a verdant valley, uprooting everything, and obliterating all life, and filling some primordial void.
She is part of this. My vision is slightly blurry but I am staring through the viewfinder working heavy, working overtime, tripping my shutter over and over and over and over, drinking this in, and the photographs look clear before I take them, but they’re coming out blurred and obscure. My eyes are all wrong. None of this is actually happening; I am fantasizing and synthesizing the whole ordeal.
I don’t know if that is true. The pendulum swings back as I feel an electric charge in the air of our enclosed space, our asteroid with a window. There is someone here with me, someone pointed, leaning in towards the camera as I take pictures, as the alcohol numbs me below the waist, as the drugs erect barricades and wage bloody war inside my head. She is swimming towards me like a fish, a serpent, a mermaid. Or a goddess. Venus incarnate, her lips forming noiseless incantations, speaking volumes to my soul, or maybe about it. Something fills me up, destroying my insides and reconstructing my genetic makeup.
I know nothing. I am nothing. But what I produce, and what I do. And I have become someone else, something else entirely. We are out of control. But we are also pinnacles of beauty. Pursuing whims, preserving posterity, living on the edge of sanity. Given in to every impulse.
She’s wearing turquoise-with-white-stars Joe Boxer boy shorts I bought her. I am drinking a coke, she is drinking a second Amstel. Meanwhile, her iPod is playing a Lana Del Rey remix. I have to rein in this train of self-destruction. I become aware – I am saying the same thing over and over again.
“You’re perfect,” I say. “You’re perfect. You’re perfect.”
I sound like a speed freak, but that is someone else. The other person I am in this room, but not the real me. I have fissured into two separate entities. I have to murder my other self.
We go into the bathroom. She sits on the toilet, with her ass on the tank lid, her back against the wall. Some dipshit put birds all over the walls here, making some stupid and misplaced “artistic” statement. But I am not buying it. I demand she put her hand on the metal rack above the sink. And then I proceed to skirt the dangerous. I follow through, photographing her from every angle.
“Are you photographing my feet?!” She is incredulous, but I am speeding towards my convictions, and their ramifications.
I have to photograph
She might be laughing. I tell her to put one hand inside her shorts. And it’s all a mystery if it does indeed take two to tango, as I have heard people say, or if I am the worst kind of person, as I have personally felt.
I convince her to take a bath and draw the water while she takes off the shorts. Then I go out of the room, to drink a beer. She’s telling me it’s a bubble bath now, and she’s sipping some white wine from a large goblet. There are bubbles everywhere. She is languishing in the tub, moving in patterns of pure bliss. I am moving closer and skittering farther away, a human spider or crab. Something ugly, something of a lower order, praying up to this presence, this personal deity. And my camera is going, going, gone, taking pictures now whether I mean to or not. My brain is frying now, boiling over in my skull, and I tell her so, and add “You’re perfect.”
She smiles, milking the camera, lifting her legs and doing bicycle kicks, rolling in the warm water and contorting her body in all ways imaginable.
I stay focused. I know my vision has been screwed since I bumped that mystery line. So I pray my lens and camera are in good shape, and I shovel all my trust into the power of Japanese engineering. I move my focusing ring back and forth, waiting for the Nikon’s rangefinder to kick in and tell me enough is enough. And then I press and hold and it’s on to the next one.
I must keep a level head. The slope is slippery, and fraught with certain danger.
I must take photographs, too.
And I must live a crazy life.
I must live a crazy life, full of crazy moments with people who are crazy like me. And we’ll build a new world, and offer it to people like us, who are just too damn deranged to be themselves in the normal everyday world.
My eyes stray in the act, but what they see is lost on the rest of me. I am without any means to act. I am merely a machine, designed by fate or chance to record only what is happening, steering it with my voice, but separated by a wall of integrity, or cowardice, or decency, or indecency.
In this way we take many photographs. And when we’re done with the bath, I hand her a towel and a robe and step out of the bathroom.
I need to look out the window at the city. I need to pull the train into a station and slow her down a little bit. When Samantha comes out of the bathroom, we put on our clothes and go downstairs. We smoke cigarettes, walk the street in front of the hotel, and come back upstairs for coffee. It is close to four in the morning and she is upset and texting her boyfriend. We’re sitting on the bed. She’s naked and I am fully clothed. Just sitting there. She is telling me how much she loves him, and she is texting him.
Time elapses. How much time, I don’t know. But the world outside of our room, somewhere, is turning. People are going places, and their footfalls compound and mount the general rotation, until the earth groans on its axis, and clocks begin to move. Cars speed by outside. People roam the streets like animals and animals seek shelter like people.
We’re holed up in our hotel room. While I calculate her rate based on the fuzzy timetable in my head, she is doing something. But I am too muddled to know what the situation is, or where it’s going.
She is crying, she’s upset, she’s texting her boyfriend.
Did I do this?
She feels like she has betrayed him, she knows he wouldn’t approve. Even though we’re creating art. She feels guilty.
I feel guilty too. There is no worse sound in this life than that of a woman crying. It can drive you to madness, or suicide.
Just suspecting you might be responsible for causing such a sound, can lead you to the bowels of Hell.
And there I am, and I can see it all clearly now. Me being a creep, and a homewrecker, and some joke of a photographer, trying to cut all the corners and beat the natural order, no credentials and no unpaid internships anywhere. Even without business cards.
And here I am corrupting a beautiful girl and making her cry so I can pretend I am something I am not.
“You can keep photographing me if you want. While I’m crying. It’s like no one wants to photograph things like that, but they should because it’s important.”
She’s right. And I know what she means. I took those kind of photographs in college, and with my girlfriends. And I think every one hated the images afterward.
So I take a photo of her crying, with tears streaming down her perfect face, and then I put down my camera. I don’t feel like taking photographs right then.
I feel two things. I feel like jumping out the window.
And I feel like putting my arm around her.
I don’t want to be a creep, but I want to stop the noise. The sound of her voice catching in her throat only guts me. It leaves an icy sensation in my stomach. My throat becomes dry, so I pour us some water.
I want to comfort Samantha. No one should have to cry this way, ever.
No one should have to feel this sad. And I don’t want to feel sick, but maybe I am sick.
And so the second thought leads back to the first, and I am staring out the window again.
I wake up in the morning and Samantha asks if we can leave. I ask for one more hour of sleep, knowing I will want it later in the day.
She tells me she feels guilty about the whole thing. Even though nothing has happened. And I know nothing happened, but I feel guilty too.
So we get up, and I take a shower. Clean up the room a little bit. Grab our effects. Pop a Red Bull in my jacket to help wake me up, and then we’re gone.
The hotel room is closed off now. People will come in and clean it up. More people will come in and reside there, spend some time there, only to be replaced by other people spending other time.
We settle at the desk where I give them my MasterCard. And then we walk through Soho, working out a plan. Jump on a train to Park Slope where I’ll pay her. Then go our separate ways. She is worrying about the fallout with her boyfriend and I am dissecting myself, trying to root out the part of me that is awful.
We don’t go to Park Slope together. We make it to Whitehall and have to go up to the streets over planned service changes. So we go to a Starbucks where she tells me she does feel guilty, and not all the images are artistic, and she feels like she betrayed her boyfriend.
She says I am good at comforting people, but not a ten.
We drink some coffee, and I go to a bank and give her money. And then we go to Bowling Green and take separate trains to separate places.
But she’s still on my mind. And I feel horrible and blessed, and I feel like a good photographer, but a bad person. And all these things are bleeding into one another, and running around, until there is no shape or definition to this thing about me, but an incorporeal weight.
Now I am standing in the subway, trying to figure out what has happened. Nothing happened, really. I know as much. We did some drugs, drank some alcohol, and took some photos. We didn’t touch each other. I didn’t say anything to her. I didn’t even think anything sexual.
The train shudders in its passage beneath Manhattan, bulleting on toward Brooklyn. My body moves with the train. I can no longer resist anything. My limbs move out of sync, and my head is bobbing with the motion of the car. My eyes find other people, but soon drift out of focus. I don’t care. I have lost the mental capacity to care, or even understand.
I just ride the 2 Train and wait. Wait for the place where I will finally stop.
At Flatbush, I leave the subway and climb the stairs to the street. Blinding white daylight floods the stairs as I fall in with the multitude. And like one giant, seething organism, we rise from the dark, and disappear into the city.