Almost any guy can credit at least one woman who influenced the man he is today. I have two. One adores me and the other deserted me. Both have shaped me. And both have made a lasting impact on my photography.
Because of my mom, Sarah, I gave up my aspirations of becoming a photojournalist. It’s not easy for me to admit, but it’s difficult to pursue an assignment through the Associated Press when you can’t bring yourself to snap a photo of a human being suffering. But thanks to my wife, Aimee, opening my eyes to the more idyllic side of humanity, my photography no longer focuses solely on nature and wildlife. It has evolved to include a human element, and has been featured in magazines the likes of Discover and Outside.
Despite the yin and yang effect these two women have had on my life and the trauma that set me on a career path I hadn’t intended to take in my youth, I still arrived at my original destination: that of an award-winning photographer.
As for the women? I love them both.
I remove the last of my photos, this one titled Synchronicity, at the Wendy V. Yee Gallery to make room for my friend Erik Ridley’s upcoming exhibit. The image is of an aloitadore, one of several horse handlers, launching over a sea of wild Galician horses packed into the village’s curro, a small, circular arena. Dusty and sweaty, his arms defined with sinewy muscle, the Spanish horse handler has one goal in mind: land on the horse’s back and manage it to stillness.
I captured the shot last July at the Rapa das bestas, an ancient “shearing of the beasts” ritual that occurs annually in the northwestern region of Spain. Wendy describes the photo to prospective buyers as a riveting example of man in sync with beast. It’s one of many I submitted to National Geographic last month when Erik heard of the magazine’s interest in publishing an article about the Rapa. Erik introduced me to the photo editor, Al Foster, and I’ve just concluded a call with him. Al accepted my proposal. My work will be featured in an upcoming issue, and if I’m lucky, I’ll nab the issue’s cover.
Dream. Come. True.
I fist-pump the air, then lean Synchronicity against the wall with the other photos to be boxed and held in storage during the special exhibit.
“That’s the last of them,” I tell Wendy, making my way over to her desk. Her assistant, Braxton, is still out with the flu so Wendy had called me to help prep the gallery for Erik’s showing by taking down my work and putting up his.
Wendy and I have known each other since our time at Arizona State University when we both realized we weren’t cut out for photojournalism. Wendy discovered she was better at selling photos than developing film, and my inner demons still waged their war. Landscape photography was safe and I was good at it. Besides, a waterfall had yet to lunge at me and smack the equipment from my hands.
Wendy looks up at me from where she leans over her desk. “I have one more for you.” She points her pen at a photo I’d hung on the far side of the gallery, a monochrome in gray of an Indonesian palm forest. Swooping patterns etch numerous acres across the panoramic shot. The design is almost beautiful until you realize forests have been decimated to supply the demand for palm oil, as noted on the placard Wendy had me post alongside the photo. Erik’s work is edgy in his attempt to portray the harsh reality of destruction happening to natural environments from the impact of human consumption. The upcoming exhibit, a photographic retrospective, is daring compared with previous shows Wendy has hosted and exactly what she wanted when I referred Erik to her.
“The show must make an impact. I want visitors to feel the devastation Erik portrays, but we must still strike a balance in its presentation. I’m thinking more color.” Wendy jiggles the computer mouse. The monitor brightens, displaying Erik’s portfolio. She scrolls through his work, chewing her lower lip, her gaze darting over the thumbnail images. “This one.” She clicks on the image, an aerial of a white farmhouse drowning in an expansive cornfield, combines slicing through the rows like an alien invasion. Knowing Erik, I’m sure the corn is genetically modified.
“Do you mind replacing the monochrome with the farm? Switch them for me; then I’m done with you.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I give her a mock salute, find the framed photo in storage, and dash across the gallery in a sudden rush to get out of there. Aimee’s waiting for me at the café. I work with a smile.
“You’re cheerful. What’s gotten into you?”
“I—” I stall, and my grin widens. I point pistol-style at Wendy. “I’ll tell you tomorrow.” I want to share my news with Aimee first. She’ll be thrilled.
As I take down the monochrome, I think about how we should celebrate, and I get an idea: cocktails and dinner at La Fondue. Parfait! It’s been a few months since we’ve had a night out together. Dinner should help us get back to the way things were before June. It’s time we celebrate us, which makes me think about how we’ll celebrate, especially after we put our four-year-old daughter, Sarah Catherine, to bed. My entire body buzzes.
Hmm. Maybe I can convince the in-laws to keep little Caty for the night.
I text my mother-in-law, Catherine Tierney. Caty’s with her now. Hopefully she can stay. I have plans, mature-audience-rated plans, for Aimee and me.
Slipping my phone into my back pocket, I hang up the white farmhouse photo. The scene transports me back to Idaho where I grew up in a similar house. My dad owns the land, which he inherited from his father. But he doesn’t work it, never has. He leases the acreage because he’s rarely home. I don’t think he wanted to be home, at least not while I lived there. As a sports photographer, Stu Collins chased the next great Hail Mary pass.
I finish up, put away the tools, and join Wendy at her desk. I check my tactical wristwatch, a recent birthday gift from Aimee. Erik has a meeting with Wendy and he’s late. I was hoping to catch him before I left.
“What time did Erik say he’s coming in?”
“He’s not going to make it.” Wendy types some notes, her goth-painted nails a stark contrast to the cream linen sheath she wears. They blur across the keyboard. “Mercury News sent him on assignment to cover the damage from the Big Sur wildfires. He called while you were outside on your phone. He says he owes you a beer, and he’s bringing me a bottle of Domaine Chandon.”
“Make sure he does. Don’t let him back out on that.”
She shoots me a look as if she would ever let that happen. She pauses in her typing and pencils a note in a ledger. “As much as I would have loved Erik to hang his own photographs, I prefer you. You have a good eye for placement.” She looks at the farmhouse on the wall. “Much, much better. OK, you can go now, shoo-shoo. I have a sale to make.” She glances over her shoulder.
Behind her in the one corner she keeps reserved for her represented artists, no matter the exhibit, a young couple bickers over an image I shot last year in Canyonlands National Park. Their voices have risen above the instrumental jazz softly playing in the background. The man says the photo is his favorite here. His friend—girlfriend, wife?—objects. The color scheme is wrong. It’s not contemporary enough for their newly furnished living room done in dusky blue.
“Show them Nightscape,” I suggest to Wendy. The photo is a duotone of the San Francisco skyline.
Wendy nods. “I was thinking the same thing.”
I kiss her cheek. “Great working for you today. Next time I’m charging for my time,” I tease.
“You already do. You get a nice payment from me every month.”
She’s right about that. Wendy sells almost every photo I bring to her.
I leave the gallery and walk the two blocks in October’s temperate air to Aimee’s Café. The scent of roasted coffee, cinnamon, and baked goods wafts over me when I open the door. I inhale deeply. God, I love that smell.
I ignore the cursory glances from patrons when the bell above the door alerts them I’m here, and I especially ignore the oil paintings on the wall that butt up against my photography like the person in line who has no concept of personal space. Paintings done by Aimee’s ex-fiancé, James Donato.
I don’t mind they’re up there. They don’t bother me. Not really.
Actually . . .
They do. They really, really do bug me.
Five years into our marriage and she still hasn’t taken them down.
I honestly didn’t care about them and why they were still taking up prime wall real estate until June. After living in a dissociative fugue state, James returned with memories of, and emotions for, my wife still intact. But Aimee made her decision. James needed to understand that. She left him. She moved on. She chose me.
Then I remember that they kissed.
I bite down on my teeth.
I want those paintings out of here even though I’ve held off mentioning that to Aimee. Because James’s artwork seems to make her happy.
Happy wife, happy life.
I force myself to relax, even broaden my smile. I wave at Trish who works behind the counter and go in search of Aimee.
“She’s not here,” Trish calls after me.
I stop and swing around. “Where is she?”
Trish shrugs. “She didn’t tell me. She left a couple of hours ago.”
I rap my knuckles on the wall in thought. I’ll call and tell her to meet me at home.
“Let her know I’m looking for her if she comes back,” I say and leave the café.
On my way to the car, my phone rings. Erik’s mug lights up the screen.
“You owe me,” I answer.
“How does it look?”
“Spectacular. I’m a genius with a hammer and nail. Hanging your sorry-ass photos is exactly what I wanted to do on my afternoon off.”
Erik laughs. “Better you than me.”
I met Erik several years ago at the Photography Expo and Trade Conference. He started out as a photographer with the Associated Press, traveling to war zones and areas of extreme poverty, but the confrontations he witnessed and suffering he documented took their toll. Quitting while he was ahead, and still in possession of his life and sanity, he now freelances. Together we found a means to an end. I respected his photojournalistic skills and Erik has long admired my nature and wildlife imagery. We became mutual mentors and fast friends. Erik’s the guy I call to meet me for beers at the end of the day, or for a round in the ring at the gym when I need to work off the edge.
“Thanks for everything, man. Beers on me when we meet up again,” Erik offers.
“Beers on you for the next month.”
Erik chuckles, a deep rumble. “I suddenly find my calendar full. Not sure when I can see you.”
“Nice try, Ridley.” I glance left and jaywalk across the street. “You still in Big Sur?”
“Nope. Driving home.”
“How was it?”
“Horrible. Lots of burned acreage. Too many homes lost and people displaced. But hey, I got a call from Sierra Explorer. They’re sending me to Yosemite next week. It’s for an online piece about the dangers of hiking along Vernal Fall. Nothing new, but with those kids going over the edge last month, there’s been a brouhaha to restrict the number of hikers and move the fencing for the viewing platform back. Guess who’s writing the piece? Reese Thorne. Have you heard of her?”
I groan before I can think not to.
“Uh-oh, not sure I like the sound of that. She was at ASU same time as you. Something I should know?”
“Do you know her?”
I hesitate. “I know of her. She’s drawn to important stories. Her readers love her and her articles have won awards.”
“But . . .”
I don’t want to tarnish his first impression of Reese, but I feel he needs to know what he’s getting into since his photos will be attached to her article. “Let’s just say in this new age of reporting where readers favor opinion over fact, Reese has thrived.”
“Yeah, that’s what I heard. I just thought you might know a little more about her or had worked with her in the past, back at school or something. We’re spending two days together.”
“I’m a landscape photographer and she’s a journalist. Better chance she’s been on the front lines with you than the backwoods with me.”
Erik laughs. “True. Speaking of landscapes, I’m going to stay a few extra days and take some nature shots for my portfolio. Do you mind looking through them when I get back? I’m sure I could use more pointers. You have a critical eye.”
“Great. What about you? Have you heard from Al about the Rapa piece?”
“I’ll take a rain check on answering that question,” I say, arriving at my car. I tap the key fob, unlocking the door.
“That can only mean one thing, but I’ll hold off the congrats for later. I want details when you’re ready.”
I sink into the driver’s seat. “I’ll bring you up to speed when you buy me that beer.”
“You’re killing me.”
“Gotta get home to the wife, my friend. Chat later.”
I end the call with Erik and speed-dial Aimee. I’m sent straight to voice mail. “Hey, Aims, honey. I’ve got some great news. Call me back.” I text the same message.
When I arrive home, I park the Explorer in the driveway of our one-story 1960s ranch. The house is beyond old and in need of a remodel. But, hey, it’s home. We sold my condo and Aimee’s downtown bungalow to give us just enough of a down payment so our mortgage didn’t slice a jugular in our monthly cash flow.
The investment was worth the life savings, blood, sweat, and signing over the parental rights of our firstborn. Kidding. But we live in the same neighborhood as Aimee’s parents, something we both want for Caty. I don’t have extended family, and what family I do have—a missing mom and estranged dad—is seriously messed up. For Caty to grow up by her grandparents? It means everything to me.
Besides, we aren’t in too bad of a financial situation. Aimee has been scouting locations for a second and possibly third coffee shop because the flagship store has consistently performed well. My photos move fast when on display in brick-and-mortar galleries. Through my online gallery, I’ve acquired international clients with money to burn. Interior designers have sought my work to display in hotels, resorts, and restaurants in five different countries. This National Geographic assignment will be the caramel syrup on top of my portfolio sundae. I’m rocking the photography world.
Cue another fist pump.
I punch the air and let myself into the house and my phone pings with a text from Catherine. She attached a video of Caty dancing with the caption: Caty’s happy dance. We’ll keep her for the night. Have fun!
Great news for Aimee and me. We have all . . . night . . . long to ourselves. My mind dives under the sheets in our master bedroom and I grin.
Thinking of Aimee reminds me: I haven’t heard from her. This isn’t like her. She’s usually quick to respond.
I frown, scratching my jawline. Where is she? She didn’t mention any appointments today. Or did she? I must have checked out of our conversation when she chatted my ear off at four-freaking-thirty this morning. Those crack-of-dawn wake-ups kill me. I don’t know how she does it five days a week. But I start my day with her anyhow. I treasure those intimate moments with her as the darkness of night shifts to the gray of dawn.
I call her again. I go straight into voice mail again. Strange.
I roll my shoulders, loosening the apprehension that wants to settle there. I shower—hot date tonight—and when I don’t find a message or call notification from her afterward, I call her again. Uneasiness break-dances as I wait for her to pick up. I hate that feeling, especially when I land in her voice mail. Again. Damn.
I have good news I’m dying to share.
I want to talk with my wife.
I want to see my wife.
Visions of twisted metal, broken glass, and busy emergency rooms snap in my head like a camera flash on sports mode. I swear at myself, angry my mind even goes there. But the possibility of losing her, whether by accident or by choice, drives my thoughts in that direction. They’ve been taking that route often these last few months.
I call Aimee’s friend Kristen Garner. She could be visiting with her.
“Hi, Ian,” Kristen huffs into the phone. A very pregnant Kristen at nine and a half months. She and Nick are expecting their third child and the squirt is already overdue.
“Is Aimee there?” I ask, shooting past the small talk.
“No, she’s not.”
“Have you heard from her recently?”
“Not since yesterday. Is something wrong?”
“She wasn’t at the café when we were supposed to meet and she’s not answering her phone.”
“When did you last hear from her?”
“This morning before lunch.” I glance at the time. It’s almost six.
“I’m sure she’s fine. She could be shopping or something. Maybe her phone died.”
I should have thought of that. I pace the master bathroom thick with steam, a towel wrapped low on my hips. “You’re probably right.” But unlikely. She doesn’t ignore my calls or let her battery die.
I wipe condensation from the mirror with my forearm. Water beads on my skin. I blot my chest with a hand towel. The bathroom smells of aloe vera soap and the wooded spice of my shampoo.
“Do you want me to call Nadia?” Kristen offers.
“Nah, I’ll buzz her.” After I get dressed. My good news has made me overly anxious. Aimee will call soon enough. She’ll walk through the front door at any moment.
I call La Fondue and sweet-talk the hostess into a reservation. She puts a table for two in my name for eight thirty.
After dressing in dark washed jeans and a fitted black button-down, I try Aimee again. This time the phone rings and rings. I disconnect and bring up the texts I sent earlier. They’ve been read.
I tap the corner of the phone against my forehead, trying not to read into this.
Admit it, Collins. You’re reading into this.
I rely on instinct to deliver the best moments to photograph. That award-winning instant captured in time. Right now, my instincts are telling me something is wrong.
I type out a short text—Are you hurt?—then tap the Back key, editing my message to Are you OK?, else I sound overly dramatic. I don’t want to jump to conclusions. I send the text and immediately three dots appear underneath. Her response comes an instant later. A simple word that has a knot expanding in my throat.
No? That’s it?
I wait for the three dots to jump around on my screen again, hoping for an explanation to arrive. Something more than a cryptic no.
A minute passes and still nothing. My thumbs fly over the keyboard.
Where are you?
Do you need me to come get you?
And before I can think not to, I send the text I’d originally drafted.
Are you hurt?
She doesn’t reply and my damn nerves go haywire. I stare hard at my phone, willing a text from her when it dawns on me.
I launch the Find My Phone app, pushing aside the first thought that pops into my head—stalker—and quickly pinpoint that she’s at her friend Nadia Jacobs’s flat. Has she been there the entire time? Hopefully, I think on a relieved breath.
I call Nadia and she immediately answers.
“Ian.” She sounds relieved to hear from me.
“Put Aimee on. I need to talk with her.”
I hear a muffled noise as though Nadia’s walking into another room. I expect Aimee to get on the phone, but it’s Nadia who speaks. “Aimee—”
“Where is she? Why didn’t you give her the phone?”
“She said she’s leaving shortly. She’ll meet you at home. But, Ian, I’m really worried about her. I haven’t seen her like this in a long time.”
“Like what? I haven’t seen or heard from her since this morning. I’m in the dark here, Nadia. Other than one text, she’s been ignoring my messages and calls. What’s going on? Is she hurt?”
“Physically, no. But James said something to her that’s really upset her. She won’t tell me what, though.”
“Who said something to her?” My voice is as cold as the chill that’s settled in my chest at the mention of his name.
“You didn’t know? James. He’s back.”
© 2018 Kerry Lonsdale Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this page may be reproduced, or stored in retrieval system, or transmitted (i.e., shared and/or forward) without the express written permission of the publisher. Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle.