Photos of the Dead
Dark pregnant belly of a sky, in the north. Westward a jagged light blue streak, lined with improbable white, like the bars on a junco's wings.
Someone posted a photo of me on the New School site. From the New School reunion, at Michael G's house in Seattle. Circa 1990, I suppose. Just a couple years after that party in New Haven. I keep pausing over it. Partly just vanity: I didn't know I ever looked that good. But mostly it's the strangeness. I don't know that man. Who is he, and what does he have to do with me? All my pasts have a hallucinatory quality to them now: vivid, but unbelievable. Should I live another seventeen years, and see a picture of myself at my present age of forty-nine, I'll probably have the same response: who is that? What does he have to do with me?
After all the life's work of constructing myself, and examining myself, it seems unfair that a camera should look up briefly and see an entirely different and unknown person. Where is the anxiety, the hunger, the need? The question of "what does this person have to do with me?" is gradually subsumed into a larger question: "what does this person have to do with anything?"
The frightening thing about death, said some 19th Century American (Melville? Hawthorne?) is not how great a rent it tears in the fabric of others' lives, but how small a rent, and how easily mended. This man has vanished, and no one misses him, least of all me. He was as real as I am, once, flesh and bone, blood and sweat, struggling with fear and desire, as I am, like a fish on a line. And just gone, now, with only this carelessly-kept photo as a memorial.
Lost time. Wasted effort. Why did he work so hard, fear so much, want so desperately? So that I could be here, stout and nearly fifty, look at him quizzically, and repudiate him?
There's a photo I don't have, a photo of the death mask my artist-friend, whom I haven't met yet, will make a couple decades from now. She will keep it, at first partly because of her connection with me, but mostly, and increasingly, because of her connection with her work, because of the artistic intention with which she oiled my cold face and spread the plaster over it.
Looking it over carefully, I see the exagerations and softenings of death, how the jowls are thickened by the slackened muscles, how the subsiding eyes have lost their Germanic protrusion, how the nose -- larger, as old men's noses are -- is slightly flattened down.
Was it at that very reunion that someone told Michael G. that your nose and your ears keep growing all your life? Michael, who was very handsome and a little vain of it, was horrified by the thought. He needn't have worried. Within five years AIDS had carried him home, the delicate proportions of his nose and ears quite intact.