I step out of the car into dust. Just one step and my flip-flopped
foot is brown with sweat and air and the dust all around us. Off
the vinyl, my knee backs are sticky and help me pretend there's
wind here. Only for a minute, though, and then they dry. Myla steps
out too and she slams the front door and scowls at me. She goes to
help Ruth. She thinks I should be helping too. Instead I roll up
the window slowly and hope they unload before I'm done. Myla says
she knows my tricks and she's right. Even now, even with trees
above us, the sun feels like a huge quilt pressing on my head. Like
the stuff that goes in quilts, the insulation, the waffle part.
Hot, like you can't breathe as deep as you want. Smothering.
Myla slams the hatch shut. I can tell it's her without even looking
because it's her kind of slam: a little angry, but mostly bored and
bossy and knowing what's about to come. She wants credit and thinks
that no matter how hard she tries, she won't get it. She helps and
I stand here. Then Ruth's voice comes, bright bells across the hot
hot day: "Pru, come carry." I close my door softly and walk around
to the back of the car. Myla already has one of the coolers that
Ruth has rigged up for carrying film. Myla's also trying to put the
backpack on when Ruth says, "There's no way you can carry the
backpack like that while we're hiking. Give it to Pru." So Myla
puts it on my back and I smile at her over my shoulder. Ruth says,
"Keys?" and Myla holds up her right hand and jingles them in the
air. "Okay," says Ruth. "Good to go." And she hoists the tripod
onto one shoulder and takes off, out of the parking area and into
the grass. The dust billows up, brown coughing air, and we walk
into it. Myla goes last. She pushes me into place in front of
The river air cools us when we walk, but I still feel hot all over
until we stop for a drink. Then I get shivery. I move out on the
rock to the break in the trees. I lie in the sun and it warms me.
Myla comes and sits next to me and sloshes the canteen in the air.
She's whistling, quiet, humming too, and then Ruth says, "I know
we've been to this part of the river a million times, but I want to
take you guys in a little farther, if you're up for a bit of a
hike. It's only about half a mile." She's making her voice sound
excited so we'll get excited, even though it means carrying
everything for a lot longer. "Oh, come on," she says. "I'm hoping
to work on this one ravine; you guys are going to die when you see
it." She looks at us, squinting her eyes. "What you're doing right
now is beautiful, but there's no way I can get it in this light.
Remember where your feet and hands are, and maybe we can redo it
later on." Without looking, I can hear her getting the heavy tripod
ready for lifting up and balancing on her shoulder.
Myla rolls her eyes. She says quietly, "Like we were sitting this
way so she'd want to take a picture." I know what she's saying, and
I also know she's right and a little bit wrong. I did come lie on
the rock because I was cold, but also because I wanted Ruth to see.
Not just because she'd want to take my picture but because she'd
see Myla and me together, two girls basking, and think, "I've got
to capture that." Then she'd take pictures of Myla and me together,
and Myla would still want them. And things would feel the same
We catch up with Ruth and she tells us a joke about Kissinger and
Nixon and Kennedy on the Titanic. I don't get all of it but
I like the part where Kissinger says, "Women and children first,"
and Nixon says, "Fuck the women and children," and Kennedy says,
"Do you think we have time?" Myla and I giggle and everything feels
laughing and loose. But then Ruth says, half-joking, because she
knows our dad swears all the time, "Don't tell David I said that,"
and Myla says, fast, "God, Ruth, we're not little kids anymore.
Pru's ten. I'm fifteen. Remember? I think we can handle a little
swearing," and the dark shadow comes back. Then we turn a corner
and climb up a big boulder and see out over this perfect place of
green and water and smooth rocks. Ruth laughs and says, "Well,
maybe it's more of a lagoon than a ravine. What's the difference?
Myla, you always seem to know that kind of thing."
"I do not," says Myla, still grumpy. Ruth's already setting up the
tripod and stretching the black accordion-paper part of the camera.
She gestures me over and opens the backpack, pulling out the
delicate lens and unwrapping it softly. She touches my shoulder and
says to both of us, "Just put the stuff up there, on the bank. Make
sure none of it gets wet." Myla mutters, "We know," and I nudge her
foot. She gives me a look but I know she's not as mad as she
Now's the part that always feels strange because who knows when or
what will start the shoot. It's like the three of us do a dance
around one another, and either Myla or I will react to something in
a way that makes Ruth stop and say, "Hold still." But sometimes the
things I think will make her excited don't work and instead we'll
just eat sandwiches and not take pictures at all. But today I lean
over to look at a tiny swimming frog and Ruth says, "Pru, hold it.
Myla, can I have the reflector?" and they're both already into
place, Ruth grabbing her dark-cloth and shrouding it over her
shoulders and her camera like they have secrets, and Myla shaking
the reflector into a big round circle of white that gleams into my
eye and makes me want to blink. Myla already knows it's too much so
she stands back, moves the white to a different angle, and shimmers
my ankle a little bit but not much more. Ruth grabs the cooler and
pulls out a film holder, focuses the camera, slides the holder into
the back of the camera, and checks the shutter. She pulls out the
slide, leaving the film inside the camera, and says, "Look here,
but just with your eyes," and then cllllick goes the shutter and
Ruth says, "One more. This time no clothes." So I memorize my feet
in their certain way on the rocks and my hands pressing on my knees
and where my hair slides down my cheek and then I stand up and take
off my dress and throw Ruth that and my underpants. They get wet
when I step through them out of the water, but they'll dry. I get
back in place, even though it'll never be exactly right, and look
back down in the water. The tiny frog has swum away. Ruth says,
"Head down a little," and she's looking through the camera again,
the eye of it all the way open. Then she focuses, takes another
holder, pushes it in, pulls out the slide, and says,
"One-two-three," and cllllllick it's taken. Ruth stands up and
squints her eyes. That's the sign to let me stand up, and she turns
to Myla and says, "Now you. There, where Pru is. And Pru-y, you
back there on that rock."
Myla walks up and she's already naked and takes my place and I can
see she's proud, proud to be noticed. Ruth says, "Crouch, Myla.
Beautiful. Lovely hands," and I take my place back on the boulder
and lean my body into the sun. "Arms out, Pru," Ruth calls. And out
my arms grow into the air. And Ruth says something funny, something
I can't hear but I know it's a joke because it makes Myla giggle.
And then Ruth calls, "Beautiful, girls. Beautiful." The sun is on
me and I smile. What an easy day to make pictures. I want to stay
and stay like this, with Myla in front and me in the sun, me out of
focus and happy. Ruth calls out instructions, and for each picture
I lower my head, or lift up my arms, or turn to one side or the
other. Myla stays the same in front of me, even her back seeming
full of joy. And everything is cool and warm at once.
LATE-APRIL BREEZE SHIVERED across the lake as Kate Scott and
Samuel Blake walked at the edge of the water, almost holding
hands. These words repeated themselves over and over in Kate's
mind as she and Samuel walked beside each other, really almost
holding hands. The brisk air had driven most of the students into
the warmth of early supper in the dining hall, so not holding hands
for reasons of discretion seemed hardly necessary. Samuel wanted to
touch her, she could feel it, and though being wanted was not
altogether new, what was exciting was the part of the experience
that was new: Kate's wanting to touch him. Just a graze of
his finger and she'd be undone. She wanted to laugh at herself.
This was so unusual. What was she thinking?
Samuel had arrived at the college in early September, fresh
from a doctoral program in American cultural studies. Because he
was new and good-looking, he stood out at the president's reception
for incoming faculty. Both Kate and her colleague and best friend,
Mark Rios, had designated Samuel Blake as the most likely candidate
for the role of new friend and/or lover. Samuel didn't swing Mark's
direction—the mention of an ex-girlfriend had cleared up
whatever mystery there might have been—so Mark kissed Kate's
hand, bowing, admitting defeat. "We lose all the good ones to your
side," he said, and Samuel blushed at Mark's teasing. As the
evening cooled, Kate, Mark, and Samuel talked and talked on the
president's lawn, forgetting the earlier innuendo about who might
sleep with whom, the other faculty milling about, and the impending
school year, and Kate's body grew warm. It was more than the wine.
She recognized within her a small burst of joy; she was relaxing in
the company of others.
That had been early in the school year, when it was customary to be
full of hope about everything: class enrollments, committee work,
departmental politics. By late September the first cool days served
as a reminder that time was racing, that no matter how hard Kate
worked, she'd never be able to read all the papers as thoroughly as
she wanted, to advise all her students as closely as they deserved,
to complete as much of her own research as she'd planned. Mark and
Samuel and a number of other young hires had launched a
Thursday-night tradition informally dubbed "Beer 'n' Pool," but try
as she might, Kate was always too busy to attend. For the first
time at the college, she felt herself resenting the work she'd made
for herself, work she'd previously embraced. When she'd arrived
five years before, very few students had shown interest in medieval
literature; now she knew she had only herself to blame for being so
overcommitted. Students liked her even though she worked them hard;
they flocked to her courses and jammed her office hours, eager to
speak with the resident expert on valor and courtly love.
As for the role courtly love played in her own life, Kate kept
intending to fall in love when she had enough time and met the
right man. Until that happened, her friendship with Mark Rios was
just about perfect. He was gay, so their relationship had none of
the complications of sex, and yet she still had someone to change
overhead lightbulbs for her and tell her if she needed a haircut
and tease her about not changing the toilet-paper roll. In return,
she offered unconditional encouragement for his research and played
a mean game of Scrabble. Over the last half-decade they'd
established a pattern of passing October breaks in New York City,
winter breaks in Mark's modest off-campus house, and Augusts on a
lake in New Hampshire. They discussed their childhoods rarely and
only in passing; Mark's Catholic family in Maryland had felt
betrayed by the revelation of his sexual preference, and Kate
referred to her background only in vague terms. She told Mark that
her father, an attorney, had died years before, and she had no
living family. The past was a subject they never touched, and as
far as Kate was concerned, she couldn't have asked for more.
But then there was the panic. One cloudy afternoon in November,
Kate opened her mailbox and found a thick cream envelope sporting
an unknown return address. Inside was a letter from a lawyer named
Marcus Berger. He'd enclosed several flight coupons and referred to
them in precise language, urging her to come home. She'd been
found. Of course she didn't mention anything to Mark, she couldn't,
she simply shoved the envelope into the bottom drawer of her desk
as soon as she made it safely back to her apartment. She promised
herself she'd throw the letter away, but as the days passed, she
found herself unable to touch it long enough to get rid of it. She
tried to ignore its dark tug on her mind, the way it kept her awake
at night, the horror she felt about keeping secrets from Mark. She
told herself that as long as the past was closed, there were no
secrets and no problems.
She felt guilty about her silence and knew she'd feel better if she
put aside her work for one night and showed up for Beer 'n' Pool,
if only for Mark's sake. He'd asked her, somewhat defensively, what
was so wrong with Samuel, and Kate knew Mark was irritated by what
he saw as her pickiness. The truth was, she could feel herself
being tugged toward Samuel Blake, could feel herself springing to
life when he waved at her from across the library. She even knew
she was dressing for him on Monday and Wednesday mornings, when
they passed each other on the path behind the student center,
striding to their respective classes. She tried to keep her
expectations simple; she'd go to the next Beer 'n' Pool, sit next
to Mark, chat with Samuel, and remind herself that life didn't come
in huge, sweeping, irreversible strokes. This life, the life she'd
chosen, could be simple. She'd just break down her attraction to
Samuel into easy, digestible pieces.
But by the time Kate made it to the pool hall in mid-December,
Samuel was on the cusp of what would become a highly visible
romance with Natalie Cormier, the petite French professor who was
obviously a fan of both beer and pool. Kate found herself chatting
with a few members of the chemistry department, idly watching
Samuel as he held back Natalie's long hair so she could take a
particularly difficult shot. It was just as well. Samuel and
Natalie left early, and on the walk home, Kate had no problem
telling Mark, "I mean, Samuel's a great guy, and yeah, he's
attractive, but that's not everything. He's happy with Natalie, and
I'm happy for them. Obviously nothing's going to happen between us.
So that's that." She didn't know whether to take Mark's silence for
agreement, but she more than half agreed with herself, and besides,
there was always work to consume her.
And so the snow and sleet and freezing rain came and went. At the
end of February, Mark walked into her apartment, beaming, his arms
spread wide. "They broke up!" he declared, and Kate couldn't help
but notice two rather alarming things: first, she knew exactly who
Mark was talking about, and second, she was happy. Mark urged her
to call Samuel: "You know, the whole ‘cry on my shoulder'
thing, and before long, he's crying on your . . ." But it wasn't
until the tight buds of early spring had set up residence on every
branch that Kate really saw Samuel Blake again.
It was eight A.M. on a Saturday, and Kate and Mark were sitting in
their usual spot in the deserted student dining hall. This was the
only time all week they dared venture into this student space, but
they risked it for the free coffee and good omelets. Besides, early
on Saturday mornings, it may as well have been their private
quarters; most students didn't show until well after noon. On this
particular morning, Kate glanced up from the conversation to see
Samuel Blake striding toward her, smiling, his eyes bright. She
looked at Mark, who turned and waved, gesturing Samuel over. Then,
to Kate's amazement, Mark stood and, lifting his plate from the
table, said, "Oh my, will you look at this. I need a waffle. Right
now." He left the table, nodding to Samuel as they passed each
other. Kate could have killed Mark, but smiled at Samuel as he
pulled up a chair. She tried to ignore her own wild pulse.
"Good morning," Samuel said softly, setting his tray down. Some of
his coffee had spilled, leaving a cloudy puddle around the base of
"Good morning," replied Kate, unsure exactly what to say next.
She'd had no rehearsal for this.
"I've been trying to get up earlier on the weekends. The time just
keeps slipping away from me. Mark said you guys had this standing
date. I hope I'm not intruding—"
"Oh, not at all," said Kate, a little too loudly. She wanted to
seem more carefree. "We just eat omelets and talk. Nothing
"Okay. So to fit in, I've got to be able to eat omelets and to
talk." He grinned, pointing to his plate. "Step one accomplished.
What about step two? What do we talk about?"
The real answer was "We gossip." Kate imagined these words coming
out of her mouth and felt shallow, so instead she said, "Our
research," although this was a stretch. Most Saturday mornings, she
and Mark could barely muster the energy for a couple of grunts. She
was glad Mark wasn't there to call her a show-off.
Samuel shook his head. "Oh no. I've made friends with the smart
kids! The smart kids who actually have careers!"
"Hardly," laughed Kate. "We discuss our failed research, our
rejection letters from press after press, all the convincing
reasons not to argue what we're arguing—"
"And what are you arguing?" asked Samuel, taking a swig of his
coffee. His eyes were zinging into her, blue and sharp.
"Oh, well, I'm not sure yet, actually." She cleared her throat. She
remembered now just what she'd enjoyed so much about Samuel all
those months earlier on the president's lawn: his forthrightness.
When he had a question, he asked it. He wasn't particularly cocky
either, a trait that usually went hand in hand with forthrightness,
especially in young male academics. His clarity had caught her off
guard. She felt he could see right into her, into her brain, and
she was willing to give him access. She changed the subject. "And
we talk about our classes—"
"Please don't dumb down the conversation on my account!" Samuel
teased. "I swear I'll try to keep up." He held his coffee cup in
the curve of his hand, looking down at it, swirling it around. When
he looked up, his eyes were serious again. "Really, Kate. I'd love
to know. What are you researching?"
"Mary and the color blue. There have always been miraculous
sightings of the Virgin Mary, always. While I was writing my
dissertation on Mallory, I ran across a number of medieval accounts
of such visions, but the timing was all wrong for me. So I made
some photocopies about this tiny German village where all these
men, descendants of this one family line, keep spotting her. Or
rather, she keeps appearing to them. She's been visiting them for
For an instant after Samuel posed his question, before the words
rushed from her mouth almost on their own, Kate had wondered how
she'd answer. Revealing her thoughts about Mary felt a bit like
speaking about her family, something she couldn't let herself do.
The subject was intensely personal, powerfully irrational, and
didn't necessarily follow the neat paths of academic inquiry. But
Samuel's honesty, his avid stare, had made the words surge out of
her. She'd just started blurting about Mary instead of responding
the way she usually did with colleagues. Usually she tried to sound
both dazzlingly erudite and breezily witty. Now, here, she may have
just made a fool of herself. So much passion over something so
potentially boring: medieval research!
But then she looked up. Samuel was smiling at her. He didn't say
anything. He was waiting, waiting for her to continue. So she
smiled back, letting her mind sink into the delicious conundrum of
Mary's blue robes. This time she spoke more slowly. "You see, I
believe that even paintings of Mary count as sightings.
Because sight is the sense that experiences two-dimensional art,
and sight is the sense with which these men report witnessing her.
Both paintings and visions point to an imagined, altered
Samuel nodded. "Wow."
"I know, I know. And get this: everyone, to a person, who sights
her reports the piercing, blinding blue of Mary's robes. Blue like
gold. English doesn't have a word for that kind of blue. Azure?
Lapis lazuli? A brilliant, blinding blue. Nothing like the blue we
encounter in our daily lives."
Samuel was leaning forward in his seat. "Mark told me you were
Kate blushed. "Not that smart. I haven't exactly got an
argument yet. That's my next task. I do have a title: ‘Mary's
Blue.' I just need to find a damn argument already." She felt
herself deflating a little. She needed her full mind to do this
work, and somehow, with Samuel in front of her, she couldn't gather
her whole brain together. She felt lost in ideas.
But Samuel shook his head, smiling. "That's interesting. I'd love
to talk to you about this some more. See, I've been thinking a lot
about the relationship between art and life, about how art informs
our lives and doesn't simply reflect the way we live. Wasn't it
Plato who said— Ah, Mark! Come sit!" Samuel gestured a
smiling Mark back to the table.
Kate Scott, Samuel Blake, and Mark Rios sat together for two hours,
as sunlight moved across the walls, and coffee cooled, and the
first students to brave the day began to show their sleep-filled
faces. Outside the dining hall, before they parted on the path,
Samuel asked Kate if she'd be interested in coming to one or two of
his lectures. Maybe she'd even consider guest-lecturing on her own
idea sometime. Kate said she wasn't sure, and Samuel put his warm
hand on her arm and said, "Just come, then. Come and see what you
As Samuel walked away, Kate could feel Mark thrilling beside her.
All he said was "I guess you've met your match. Doesn't even ask
you out. Invites you to a lecture."
And so her courtship with Samuel began. They spoke about ideas:
hers, his, those of the great minds of literature and history. They
kissed, and they hiked together on Saturday afternoons, and Kate
spent less time alone with books about the Virgin Mary. Soon Kate
and Samuel were having easy, good sex and spending nearly every
night wound around each other in Samuel's queen-size bed. Kate
could feel, as spring swelled, a rush of good feeling inside
herself, a new hope, a loosening. It was as if she were unpacking
her vital organs out of a deep freeze. She found herself unable to
remember the last full day she'd spent in the library. She
surprised even herself when she asked the seminar she taught if
they'd be up for holding class outside, under the blossoming cherry
tree, on the first bright day of spring. Meanwhile, Kate visited
Samuel's lectures and listened as his voice lilted up to her in the
back of the lecture hall. Being pulled into Samuel's world made her
body warm. She pretended she was visiting a different life. Samuel
Blake kept the reality of Marcus Berger's letter, lingering in
Kate's desk drawer, at bay.
late April breeze shivered across the lake as Kate Scott and Samuel
Blake walked at the edge of the water, almost holding hands, on an
evening that would surely end in lovemaking. Not just sex but
lovemaking, something new. Kate knew that what she wanted now from
this man was lovemaking, and yet some dark glimmer in the back of
her mind told her she wasn't prepared, wasn't worthy of what could
come. Maybe giving her whole self to the act of sex would be
crossing an irreversible, invisible line. She'd have to reveal
truths she hadn't shared even with Mark, revisit a past she'd
hidden from herself.
She pulled her attention to what Samuel was saying about his
stepmother's intrusion into the family. Samuel and his brother had
been brutal. "I can't believe she endured us," he said.
"She obviously loved your father, Samuel."
He stopped walking. "Why do you always call me Samuel?"
She laughed and started walking again, forcing him to catch up.
"That's your name, isn't it?"
"Technically, yes. But you've heard people; they call me Sam all
"Yes, but Samuel has a ring to it. Samuel is beautiful to say, to
hold on your tongue." She felt herself smiling at the literal
interpretation of her words.
Samuel laughed. "I've never heard it put that way. I like it when
you call me Samuel." He put his arm around her, making a warm
bubble around their two bodies. "I just don't think I've ever heard
someone so determined to say my name before."
"I suppose names just matter a lot to me. They're powerful."
They walked in silence, the crunch of gravel under their shoes,
until Samuel's voice filled the air. "And what about you?"
"My name? Oh, very boring. Just Kate Scott. Kate short for
Katharine. With two A's." She almost added, "Because I liked that
spelling," then caught herself. People didn't name
Samuel stopped walking and turned to face her. "You're beautiful,"
he said, brushing her hair off her shoulder, and it was this simple
clarity, this truth he could share with her, that made Kate want
him in her bed.
were in Kate's bedroom now and they were kissing. He was still
wearing his tweed jacket, and the rough of it was harsh through her
blouse. It smelled of him, tinged with a trace of cinnamon and
rain, and it made a soft scratching sound between them as they
kissed. The kissing was soft and familiar. She knew his tongue
already, the warm hush of his mouth as it opened on her lips, the
bright smoothness of his teeth.
Samuel looked up and laughed. "I feel like a kid again. In a dorm
room with a beautiful girl. About to do something."
"Standard issue," she joked, knowing he felt the shift too, felt
the knowledge that this time their sex would feed more than just
their bodies. Not just because she'd finally invited him to spend
the night at her place; they both knew it was more. Kate gestured
grandly around her small dorm apartment. "I figured I was a perfect
fit for a house fellow. I'm schoolmarmish, able to make really good
brownies for study breaks, and I'm not someone who needs a lot of
"That's really why you live here?"
"Well." His hands were warm on her back. "I like the students. It
sounds strange, but I like the noises they make. Their racket keeps
me from feeling lonely." Samuel nodded. Kate was surprised at her
honesty with this man, and further surprised that her liking the
noises made sense to him. Everyone else, including Mark, thought
she was insane for wanting to live in the middle of a dorm,
surrounded on all sides by eighteen-year-olds.
Now Samuel was walking to the head of the bed. He pointed to the
poster hanging above it and looked closely, blinking in the shadows
of the room.
"Mark brought it back to me from a conference in New Orleans," Kate
said. "He said it reminded him of me." The poster was a photograph
of an African statue, a female nude outlined from the side. She was
curved, with hips and breasts and thighs and wide arms. Kate found
herself considering the poster from Samuel's point of view, and of
course the woman looked nothing like her. But she'd known what Mark
had meant when he'd given it to her. He'd meant that this woman was
brave and alone, fierce in the world. Kate had so appreciated what
it said about Mark's understanding of her that she'd framed the
poster and kept it over her bed so she could sleep under it every
night. The woman was a dream, an aspiration. She heard herself say:
"It's funny, you know? Because he was right. I look at it, and it
helps me remember not just who I want to be but who I am. How to
Samuel smiled at her and said, "Do you mind if I do something
strange without explaining myself?"
She looked at the bed and said, "Well, it depends on how strange it
For the first time she saw Samuel flash with embarrassment. "No no
no oh God no!" He laughed. "I should watch how I phrase things. No,
I just mean about her," and he pointed at the poster.
He shrugged his jacket off his shoulders, then brought it in front
of him, opening it with both hands as he leaned over the bed to
reach to the top of the poster. He tucked his jacket over the top
of the frame, draping and shrouding the African woman.
"Don't I even get to ask?" she managed after a moment.
"Come to my lecture tomorrow and all will be explained," he said as
he reached toward her. "You know where it is. Evans 206. Two P.M."
He pulled her onto the bed, and from that moment on, there would
only ever be a before and an after.
FIRST TIME I EVER KNOW what a picture is is when Myla shows me a
picture of our mom. She tells me stories about Mom and how she
flies and looks in our window at night and makes sure we won't die
or injure our persons. But this time Myla reaches up to the picture
on the piano and puts the frame on the ground and opens up the back
and pulls out just the plain photo and says, "Pru. You know what
this picture means?" and of course I don't know. So I say no and
she says, "It means Mom was real once. Only three years ago, before
the car accident, she was here. You were just a newborn," she says,
"but I was five years old and I remember her. And this picture
remembers her. It means she was real. It means she lived on this
earth." Then she points to this poster we have in our living room.
"And that painting means the painter was real. Monet, the guy who
painted that picture? He saw those lily pads on his pond and in his
head and wanted to make them real, so he painted them. But they
weren't art before that." Then she holds up the picture of our mom.
I want to kiss it, but Myla says I'll have to wait until it's back
under glass before I do that. "You'll ruin it," she says. "You have
to realize it's precious. Once this picture goes away, then she's
gone. Then the proof of her is missing." Even though I'm so little
that I don't even know what "proof" means, I know what she's saying
is serious. Proof is a good thing to have. And pictures can give
ON THE PHONE THE NEXT DAY, Kate gave Mark the usual update,
stopping short, as always, before providing the salacious details
he craved. She also held back on the way things had changed, about
the newness she and Samuel had made together. Even explaining about
the jacket, about the way Samuel had placed it over the poster,
sounded silly. She didn't know how to tell Mark that she knew it
was an important thing to do, even if she didn't know what it
meant, or why Samuel had done it.
"So, coffee? This afternoon?"
"I can't," said Kate. She could practically hear Mark's eye roll
over the phone.
"Another Professor Blake lecture, I presume?" he said, unable to
hide his hurt.
"Yeah." Mark paused. "I should have made you guys sign a contract
promising that once you started doing whatever it is you're doing,
it wouldn't disrupt my normal schedule. I mean, I have needs
"How about dinner?"
"You sure you don't have plans with the Professor of Love?"
"I'm sure. I'll come over. We'll reinstate movie night. I
Kate hung up and got off the bed, where she'd been sitting since
Samuel had gone. Growing aware of the time, she went into the
bathroom and brushed her hair in front of the mirror, examining her
face. More than once Mark had commented on her natural aversion to
mirrors, to the fact that the only one hanging in her apartment was
here, built in to the cabinet. She hid the real reason for such
omission: her face was a shock to her each time she saw it. It was
a shock because it was her, the her that was the
carryover from everything else. And yes, it was beautiful. There
was no denying it. Her body had changed with age; she'd become
curved, and her hair had been long and short and long and short in
the interim, but her wide eyes, the scooped bridge of her nose, her
lips that pinked when she bit them, the freckles dappling her
cheeks, all that was the same. When she thought about her looks, it
seemed strange that no one ever recognized her; apparently people
were willing to believe what they were told before they'd trust
their own eyes.
She opened the cabinet and traded her reflection for a collection
of lotions and creams. She'd cut her fingernails, and that would
give her just about enough time to make it to Evans 206 by
Inside Evans, her heels clipped down the echoing hallway and made
her sound adult. They sounded authoritative, the way she thought
she must look from the outside. Kate Scott Kate Scott Kate Scott,
they beat out.
lecture hall was old-fashioned, a relic from the early days when
the college had devoted itself to nurturing the young minds of
aristocratic women. Kate had taken to entering at the back, so she
could look down on the heads of all the students as they settled
in. They clapped down the wooden chairs before they sat, oblivious
at first to Samuel's presence at the head of the room, where he was
waiting for their eyes. The room buzzed with sound and movement:
the swish and scratch of jackets being stuffed under chairs, the
crackle of gum being unwrapped, the pock of pens being uncapped,
the unzipping of bags, the thump of books on the terraced
Samuel flipped off the lights, and simultaneously a projector burst
bright light against a screen at the front of the room. In the
first of Samuel's lectures Kate had attended, she'd noted with
jealousy the presence of a teaching assistant. Not only did TAs
diminish the paper-grading load, they also undertook such
mundanities as the turning on of projectors, a task Kate always had
to figure out on her own. She'd suffered through more than one
embarrassing disaster with in-class slide shows.
Kate could make out Samuel's sharp shadow cast on the screen, and
as he walked toward the class, his shadow grew larger and less
distinct. Then he sat. She found an aisle seat in the top row and
sat as well, glad for the darkness. The whir of the projector
contributed to the warmth and safety of the room. She looked to her
left and watched the spotlight growing from the booth, swirling
with dust and whiteness, then distilling itself against the
When he began speaking, Samuel's voice sounded different from the
way it had the night before; it was ten times more formal now, but
it still bore a trace of genuine kindness that she knew she rarely
revealed when she was teaching. He gave off an air of
trustworthiness. That was when she realized the obvious: Samuel was
like her father. He was like David. She was having more and more
moments like this, moments when her past was on the tip of her
tongue. She didn't know what to do with this swelling past. For now
she'd try to quell it and listen, for she was Kate Scott, and Kate
Scott had been invited to attend this lecture. With a great surge
of concentration, she leaned forward.
"We're going to be doing something slightly different today, rewind
a couple of millennia. Trust me that this will all hook in to what
we've been talking about, even if it seems off the mark at first.
Oh, and though she wasn't able to be here today, I'd like to thank
Professor Frasar from the art-history department for helping me put
together this presentation. It's a little out of my time frame, if
you know what I mean." A couple of girls twittered from the front
row; Kate had watched them gushing over Samuel in the last few
months. She knew they must discuss Professor Blake over meals: his
forearms, how he adjusted his glasses, the way he tossed his jacket
over the back of his chair. She blushed when she thought about the
jacket and the last time she'd been near it.
"So." Samuel pressed a button and an image clicked into place. A
drawing of a settlement from above, as if reconstructed by an
anthropologist. "Ancient Greece, about the third century B.C. Give
or take. Let's look at some of the images, the sculpture from that
time, and I want each of you to think about what these images might
do to people looking at them." Samuel was silent for a while as he
clicked through fifteen slides of nude sculpture, mostly of women
standing. Kate could count ten or twelve seconds between each
slide, and caught herself in the rhythm of the counting. When he
got to the last one, he said, "Okay, someone get the lights," and
as the fluorescents came on, everyone groaned at the brightness.
"Sorry about that, folks." As the room rustled into activity,
Samuel caught Kate's eye and smiled. Then he handed out a pile of
images. "These are the photocopied versions of what we just saw up
there, but I wanted to give you a better perspective on how
powerful that work is in its full glory. Does anyone want to start
A boy in front whom Kate had taken to calling the Dream Student
raised his hand. "I guess what I'd notice first is how sensual
those images are." Samuel had no idea how good he had it.
Samuel smiled. "Okay, good. Sensual how?"
"Well, it's not like they turned me on or anything"—general
laughter erupted—"but I can tell that they might have had
that power. To the Greeks."
"The point here," said Samuel, "is that those images do something
to us even now, right? We recognize them as powerful even though
they're just carved from marble. But what about them makes them
A girl on the left spoke without raising her hand. "They're
"So. The naked body is powerful."
"Just to look at?"
"I don't know. I guess so."
Samuel walked over toward the girl. "Go on. I think you're on to
something." Then he turned to the rest of the lecture hall. "Why is
nakedness inherently powerful? Why does looking at a picture of
someone naked do things to us?"
Another boy raised his hand. "I think it's more complicated than
that. I think these sculptures stand for more than just plain naked
bodies, because someone chose to carve them. The sculptor wouldn't
have expended the effort if the statues didn't have a deeper
Over the past two months, Kate had been consistently impressed by
how engaged these students were. With the exception of her one
300-level course, her lectures were routinely filled with drowsy,
unprepared teenagers who were enticed by the idea of courtly love
but didn't want to deal with the difficulty of Middle English. She
smiled to herself when she realized the sharp, focused intensity of
today's class might have something to do with the naked ladies
Samuel had chosen to project. He had great instincts for luring
students in, getting them excited about potentially boring subjects
by dangling something tantalizing in front of their noses. Kate
knew she lacked such salesmanship; certainly no such interest had
accompanied her students' discussion of The Friar's Tale.
Her yearly lecture on the Wife of Bath always assured one
interesting discussion, but even that was nothing like this.
She could tell that Samuel was getting excited. His ideas filled
him up, literally, like helium inflating a balloon. Suddenly he
seemed lighter than them all, moving his arms in large circles of
thought, nodding with comedic intensity. Even his feet seemed to
barely graze the ground. He continued, "Okay, well, here's the cool
part. The ancient Greeks would use image—and not just
sculpture like this, but also paintings—to aid them in
certain things, especially conception. They believed that if you
looked at a picture while engaged in the sexual act—or even
if the picture was looking down on you while you and your husband
or wife were making love—the picture would instill in the new
life the picture's virtues. They'd hang pictures of beautiful,
nubile bodies over their beds not because, in a modern sense, those
pictures ‘turned them on'—this wasn't
Playboy—but because they believed those pictures were
so powerful that making love under them would create a new life and
endow that new life with attri-butes like beauty, truth, and
Samuel looked up at Kate and smiled. She blushed in the sharp
recognition of his gaze. He'd asked her here to tell her something
important. He'd covered that woman in her bedroom because he'd
known they were about to do something powerful, and he'd wanted to
keep a baby from her bed. Frenzy coursed into her. She flushed with
possibility, with knowing she'd been right last night, that things
had changed. Here was a man who understood something about
the power of the face and body in a way she hadn't heard anyone
speak of it in a long time. She was filled with an urge so strong
that she wanted to stand up, tell the students, "No more class
today." To push a disbelieving Samuel out of the room, into the
hallway, and confide all her secrets. The lecture continued, but
Kate didn't listen, just watched Samuel's soft hands move through
She smiled at him from her distraction, from her knowledge that he
was the one. She would unburden herself to him. He said to the
class, "Not long ago, I was talking with a colleague. We were
discussing the role that the unseen but beautifully imagined has on
our consciousness. Like the Virgin Mary's beautiful blue robes that
appear in so many medieval paintings. Like the sculptures I just
showed you." Kate felt herself relaxing, joyful.
Samuel continued, "A painter paints something and makes it real to
the beholder. But what happens in photography, when an image is
captured on film? We are a culture savvy in visual interpretation.
We look at a photograph and know that more or less, what we're
seeing is what actually happened. And that leads the imagination
all over the place.
"This is why pornography works. When you look at porn, you know
that somewhere, some woman actually posed for those pictures,
knowing it would turn on her viewers." There were titters, but
Samuel went on. "This is the power and allure of the photograph:
it's personal. You look at a picture of that woman and know she's
chosen to share her body with you. This doesn't even have to be
about porn. How many times have you looked at a picture of a
celebrity and believed it reveals something about them? The
photograph is a supposed depiction of the real."
Samuel cleared his throat, obviously waiting for the giggles to die
down. When he had the room's attention, it was as if the air were
taut, expectant. Kate wondered what he had up his sleeve next. "If
you've looked at your syllabus, you'll realize that our next series
of readings concerns the Ruth Handel photographs. You may be too
young to remember this controversy, but you were alive when it
happened. It's an extremely important episode to consider as we
continue our discussion on art in America. How many of you have
heard of these pictures and the surrounding controversy? Good.
Those of you who've been complaining about the relevance of all
that theory I've been making you read, well, here it is. This is
popular culture; a Vanity Fair article mentioned the case
just last May. The Ruth Handel photographs were some of the first
to draw a line in the sand between so-called defenders of the
Constitution and so-called defenders of children's causes. You may
remember that the photographs in question were nudes of two girls
given the pseudonyms May and Rose. One of those girls is dead. Ask
yourself: is she dead because of Handel's photographs?
"This is a course in cultural studies. I promised you an
exploration into the role that culture plays in determining our
personal, moral, and social responses to art. In light of that,
let's think about the Handel case in terms of the devastating
effects of child pornography. Can nudity ever be innocent? Yes, of
course it can. But what about the nudity of children in a culture
that automatically associates nudity with sexual availability? What
kind of people are we if we allow ourselves to forget what our
culture expects of us? Those little girls had a father. Those
photographs were taken by a woman who called herself a friend of
the family. We have to ask: What is pornography? What is art? Can
they ever be the same thing? Is the issue of intention even
relevant? Does it matter when tragedy strikes? One hesitates to
place blame on these adults, and yet where else can it lie? The
tragedy and media blitz that ensued . . ."
Kate willed her legs to stand. All around her, the students were
rapt, and Samuel, arrogant, compelling, sure of himself, talked on.
But Kate couldn't listen to him anymore. She got out of there and
kept walking. When he looked up, she'd be gone.
Excerpted from THE EFFECTS OF LIGHT © Copyright 2005 by
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Reprinted with permission by Warner
Books, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights
The Effects of Light
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
- ISBN-10: 0446533297
- ISBN-13: 9780446533294