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SHE MAKES IT LOOK EASY
By MARYBETH WHALEN
David C. CookCopyright © 2011 Marybeth Whalen
All rights reserved.
I pulled the photo proofs out of the envelope, fanning them out on the granite countertop in my client's McMansion with a flourish. I loved how the word client sounded, and I threw it around whenever I could.
"I have a meeting with a client."
"My clients are so demanding. They all want their proofs back yesterday."
"This client had some very particular ideas about what she wants."
After years of snapping candids of my own children, I took my photography professional after someone with connections noticed that I was good at catching the little moments of life that most of us walk right by—the furrow of a tiny brow, the contentment of one lone spit bubble on a sleeping baby's pursed bow of a mouth, even the personality of a flailing, screaming two-year-old. "Someday," went my pitch, "you'll appreciate the reality of the photos. Not just the posed smiles but the whole package. The mess and the mess-ups. You'll look back and see pictures that reflect your life as it really was." If they wanted Sears Portrait Studio, they were welcome to go to Sears Portrait Studio. But if they wanted art, that's what I created. Few things pleased me more than seeing a portrait I shot gracing one of my clients' walls, surrounded by a heavy, impressive mat and frame. I aimed to create pictures that caused others to stop and stare, frozen in the awe of how something so simple could be so beautiful. Sometimes I found myself staring too.
I leaned over the proofs on the black and gray flecked counter, watching Candace Nelson's face as she looked at the photos we'd taken just a week before. I suppressed the urge to talk to her about them, to point out my favorites or ask her what she thought. I had learned the value in waiting quietly. It was as true in art as it was in marriage: The compliments meant more when they were unsolicited.
She looked up at me, her eyes misty with tears. "You totally got it," she said, pulling me into a hug. Candace Nelson and I had never met before I came to her house to photograph her children, one of whom was born prematurely and had defied the odds, home just a few days from the hospital. Candace had cried happy tears the whole time I snapped, the rhythmic clicking of my camera at times the only sound in the room. Her older two children, I noticed, had a kind of reverence for the baby. It was in the way they had held him and talked to him and even looked at him. Their reverence had hung in the air around them, an invisible force that transferred through the lens onto paper.
"These are just lovely," Candace went on. "They're ... priceless."
I nodded my assent, honored to have been a part of remembering the early days of her new son's life. I had been inspired to start my business when I found old 8x10s of my sister shoved into a faded envelope with the words "Your Priceless Memories" stamped in tacky green and gold on the outside. My mother had apparently stuck the envelope in a trunk and forgotten all about it. I unearthed the photos like a time capsule, Ginny in her patchwork dress and me in a pea green turtleneck that clashed with her dress. My hair needed brushing, and neither of us was smiling. So much for priceless. So much for memories. I longed to give my kids—and other families—so much more.
Candace held up the price sheet I had handed her with the proofs. "Can I keep this?" she asked. "Talk over the order with my husband?" She giggled like a teenager ogling her prom pictures. "I know he's going to want them all." She paused, a somber expression washing over her face. "There was a time when we didn't think we'd even get to take him home, much less take snapshots." She pressed her palms onto the counter on either side of the spread of photos. "I can't thank you enough."
I thought, but did not say, A big fat order would be plenty thanks.
My cell phone buzzed in my pocket. I looked down at it briefly but didn't reach for it. "Oh, you can get it," Candace said, dismissing me with a wave as she buried her nose back in the photos.
"Yes?" I asked hesitantly into the phone, not sure if I wanted to know. I had left David and the boys supposedly packing up our house for our impending move to the home of our dreams. Three more days and we'd be movin' on up. It didn't take much for me to break into the theme song from The Jeffersons in those days before the move, the boys clapping their hands over their ears whenever I did.
"Uh, honey?" David asked. "A guy just called and said he's got the moving van you rented ready and they're about to close? He said one of us needs to come pick it up ASAP."
My heart began to pound in that way it does when I've screwed up. I vaguely remembered the conversation from a few days earlier. The man had said if we wanted to go ahead and start packing the van, we'd better get it sooner rather than later. I told him we'd be there by Saturday at noon. I looked at my watch. It was Saturday at 11:45. I backed away a few steps from Candace and smiled as she looked up at me. "Okay," I said sweetly. "I'll be there right away. I'm just finishing up here."
David started to argue about how there was no way we'd make it, but I hung up before he could say more. Another lecture from David about organization was the last thing I needed. Candace looked at me again. "Everything okay?" she asked.
"Oh sure," I said, gathering up my things. "We're moving and there's just some stuff I need to go take care of. You know how it is."
She nodded as the corners of her mouth turned down. "We moved here five years ago," she said, gesturing to the palatial digs she called home sweet home. "And I never intend to leave. I told people, 'Write this address down in ink, because we are staying put.'" The corners of her mouth turned up again.
I offered a polite laugh and began backing toward the door, wondering how I could possibly get to the van on time. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and nodded without really listening as she threw different dates out that we could get together to place the order. "How about I just call you?" I asked. I gave her another hug and backed out the door and across her front porch. I almost backed right down the imposing set of front steps, but Candace reached out and grabbed me.
"We don't want you hurting yourself," she said, pretending not to be dismayed at my less-than-graceful exit.
"Just what I need, a broken leg," I said with a rueful chuckle. I looked away, toward my car parked in her driveway, a minivan with more mileage than I thought possible. "It still runs," David always said when I complained.
"Where did you say you're moving to?" Candace asked.
My eyes shone a bit brighter as I answered. Thanks to my photography business picking up and my husband's new job, we were moving to an address I could finally be proud of. "Essex Falls," I told her. It wasn't as upscale as her neighborhood, but it was nice.
"Oh, I love Essex Falls!" she exclaimed. "I've got tons of friends there. I'll tell them all to call you for appointments." Clearly resigned to my hurry, she waved the folder with the proofs in it for emphasis. If I'd had more time, I would've dug into my backpack and given her a stack of business cards. All the business books I read said not to let a chance to market yourself pass by. But the business-book authors didn't have miffed husbands at home waiting for them to not come through. Once again I wished that David had just let us hire movers instead of doing it all ourselves.
"That would be fabulous!" I replied. Fabulous was not a word I usually threw around. "Tell your friends I'm already booking for fall. The outdoor leaf shots are to die for." Another phrase I didn't typically use.
I held on to the wrought-iron railing, descended the steps, said good-bye, and boarded my van. David was waiting for me, and while I might be good at taking pictures, I wasn't so hot at keeping up with the needs of my home and family. I drove away thinking that after the move, I would buy a new calendar or read a book on time management or ... something. I would figure out a way to get on top of things. Especially if Candace Nelson was going to be telling all her friends about me. It sounded like I was going to be busier than ever.
* * *
I pulled into the driveway of our home to find the moving van parked there and a little pickup truck idling by the curb. A skinny little man sat in the truck with his hand out the window, smoke curling from a cigarette clamped between his fingers. I wrinkled my nose at the smell. The boys were outside playing in the backyard. "Hey, Mom," I heard. I blew quick kisses to my sons before ducking into the kitchen. I heard voices coming from the den and followed the sound, stopping just short of the doorway so I could listen without being detected, curious as to what might be said.
"Thanks a lot for this. You really saved the day," I heard David say.
A gruff voice answered. "Eh, no problem." The accent was distinctly Northeastern, which stuck out in our North Carolina suburb. I remembered it from the other day on the phone. The man laughed. "I got a wife, kids. I know how crazy it can get."
"Yeah," David said with a chuckle, using his polite voice, the one he reserved for strangers. "And my wife is ... exceptional." He exhaled loudly. He was being sarcastic.
The other man laughed, and I could hear him patting David on the back. "We all think that. That's why we marry 'em."
"Exactly," David said in a near groan. "She's this really talented photographer. And now she's building an incredible business. Which is great, right?" He paused. "I mean ... she sees things no one else would notice but walks right by things no one else would miss. Like this. She knows we're moving in three days, knows she reserved the truck, but ... forgets."
I heard the man offer something between a grunt and an affirmation. Why was my husband practically pouring out his heart to the moving-van guy? The answer came to me in an instant: because he couldn't say it to me.
David went on. "The thing is, I took this new job and she's going to be doing a lot of stuff on her own. Because I'm going to be traveling. I just worry about her." Another pause. I could almost hear the moving-van guy shifting uncomfortably. "I mean, what if I wasn't here to bail her out? I'm not always going to be there like she's used to."
I didn't stay to hear the man's answer. Instead I slipped away, heart pounding, back toward the kitchen where I came from. I collected myself and then made a show of opening the door loudly, calling out, "I'm home," so that he would never know I heard him trash me to a stranger with a Brooklyn accent. The moving-van guy came into the kitchen first and avoided looking me in the eyes as he shook hands with David and slipped out the door.
"I see you got the moving van," I said after the door closed.
Did David look guilty? "Yeah, he offered to bring it over. Said he was closed Monday and knew we'd be behind the eight ball if we didn't get it today."
"Well, I'm glad he saved the day." I wanted to tell him about the big order I felt certain Candace Nelson was going to place, to somehow justify my gaffe, but I was too thrown off by his secret confessions. Instead I said no more. A few seconds of silence passed between us before David began packing up a kitchen box.
I turned to look out the large picture window just above the kitchen sink, watching the boys chase each other around, intent on injuring each other in some new way. We had brought each one of them home from the hospital to this house, my arms filled with their little bundled-up selves. A wave of nostalgia rolled over me. I looked over to David, who was concentrating a little too hard on wrapping glasses in hand towels. Now wasn't the time to share my reflections with him. I looked out the window again and smiled at the boys. It was at this sink that I had once scrubbed my hands with antibacterial soap, scared to death of passing on harmful germs. I remembered feeding the boys strained squash in this small kitchen and making bottles at this kitchen counter. I was not sad to be moving, but I also had to admit what we were leaving behind.
The unlikely spring heat radiated off the glass as I pressed my fingers to it. Knowing my housekeeping ability, the fingerprint whorls would still be on the window when we left, a piece of me lingering even as the new owners—a sweet young couple who would someday bring their children home here—unpacked their wedding gifts from the boxes they came wrapped in just as David and I had done years ago.
I turned away from the window and poured water for the boys so they didn't get dehydrated. It was just my luck we were moving as record temperatures were making headlines. I didn't relish the thought of doing the work ourselves, but I wasn't going to win that tired argument. My husband valued saving a buck more than making me happy sometimes. David turned and left the room without another word. I heard him open the attic, the creaking hinges loudly pronouncing that our move was under way.
Once we were settled into the new home, I planned to create a different kind of life for us, one where I kept up with things better, made better decisions, and disappointed David less. I couldn't afford to disappoint him. Only negative things could come of that. I sighed deeply and went to see what David thought I should do first.
* * *
"Boys. Look over here," I repeated on our last day in the house. "Please. Just one more time." My oldest son, Donovan, rolled his eyes. He looked exactly like David when he did that. He looked exactly like David, period: the same thick ebony hair, same green eyes, same self-possessed demeanor. He came out of the womb looking at me with an expression that was so David I laughed out loud. From that moment to this, I marveled at how little of me was in the child. I was just the incubator.
Donovan and Dylan, my second son, looked over at me, while Duncan continued playing with the bubble wrap, trying hard to pop the bubbles like his brothers had taught him. He grew frustrated and started to cry. Donovan and Dylan looked back at Duncan, their faces concerned over their baby brother's tears. I started snapping more shots as they bent their heads toward him, a study in genetics—black, red, and blonde hair all touching. Duncan forgot his tears as Donovan and Dylan began jumping on the bubble wrap, the bubbles popping in rapid-fire stereo. I was grateful we had crated our dog, Lucky, outside or he would've joined in by barking. As it was, the noise was so deafening David came running into the room. His shirt was soaked with sweat from moving heavy furniture. He glanced over at me with my camera and shook his head.
"I see you're getting a lot of packing done here." He and some friends were taking down the beds and loading them in our rented van piece by piece. His lips were pressed into a thin, patient smile.
I held up the camera. "Just taking some shots of the boys playing in the box. It was too cute," I said. "I thought I'd send it out with our moving announcement. You know, write something like 'We're all packed up and ready to go.'"
He crossed his arms across his chest. "You know I love your photos, but I really need your help."
I smiled at him. "Let me just finish first."
He laughed in spite of himself, never one to curtail my photography hobby. "Boys," he said, turning his attention to them. None of them looked at him. "No more jumping on that bubble wrap. You just about gave me a heart attack."
Duncan, age four, looked at him wide-eyed. "What's a heart attack?"
"Ask your mother," he said as he began to walk away. "Apparently she's got all the time in the world."
I was about to make a crack about how we should've hired a mover when I heard the front door open and went to see who it was instead. Arguing any further about the moving situation wasn't going to get us anywhere except into a fight. I rounded the corner to see Kristy, my across-the-street neighbor, standing there with a mopey look on her face. I smiled at her and held out my arms. "It's not that far," I said.
She walked into my embrace. "I've always hated good-byes," she said. We hugged for a minute, and I tried hard to feel the same amount of sadness she did. I think the person getting left behind always feels worse than the person doing the leaving.
"Just remember," I said into her hair. "I'll be twenty minutes away. And always just a phone call."
She pulled her head back to look me in the eyes. "But who will I go to when I can't get Kailey to stop crying? Who will I come ask for random stuff I need to borrow? Who will I complain to when Josh is being a jerk?" I shook my head. I didn't have an easy answer for her. "I'm not leaving town, just the neighborhood."
Excerpted from SHE MAKES IT LOOK EASY by MARYBETH WHALEN. Copyright © 2011 Marybeth Whalen. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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