Laurie Mazzaferro

 

Afterwards

            When Leslie ran into Dr. Cuttings, she was amazed at how much he had aged.  He was at Hemingways ordering a rum and coke, and when he turned and saw her, he blinked for a moment and said, “I know you, don’t I?”

            Leslie recognized him immediately and said, “Yes, Dr. Cuttings, you were my advisor for my senior thesis.”  She was about to mention the year, but Dr. Cuttings, the perpetual gentleman said, “May I buy you a drink, I assume, my dear, that is if I can say that these days, that you are over 21.”

            Leslie blushed.  “Of course.”

            Leslie found out through the course of the evening that Dr. Cuttings, now professor emeritus, who said she looked much better at um her present age than at twenty whatever, had lost his dear wife to cancer a few years ago.  He still taught at CMU and would be spending the summer in Germany and Switzerland doing research on some obscure artist.          

            “Remember Jason Rivets?”  She asked just as their evening came to an end.

            Dr. Cuttings paused for a moment, looked at the ceiling.  He stirred his drink. “I do, I do.  That very nice gentleman in my senior art history theory course.  Let me tell you something, Leslie, they just don’t make students like him. “ Dr Cuttings caught himself,  “or for that matter students like you anymore.  Such insight that young man had.  Such motivation.”

            Leslie and Jason were to be married. But that was, well, way back when.  Leslie tried to do the mathematics.

            “Funny that you should mention him. He sent me an email not so long ago.  I don’t remember exactly when.  Strange what age does to you, but then again, recalling time and place was never my forte.  I suppose he just wanted to keep in touch, to let me know what he was up to these days.”

            “Oh?”

            “Another drink, Dear?”

            Leslie tilted her drink and placed it back on the table.  “I’d love one, Dr. Cuttings, but I think I’d better stick with water.”

            Cuttings nodded.  “Yes, Rivets.  He’s a lawyer now.  Some firm downtown.  Married with a few children.”  Cuttings finished his drink in one swift swallow and they stood to depart.  Cuttings shook her hand and told her to drop him a line. “Or I suppose it’s email these days, which is a pity that the art of correspondence is lost.  Such a pity, “ and he shook his head.  “May I walk you to your car?”  They had entered the warm summer night, not yet dark but not quite light.

            “Oh, I didn’t drive.  In fact, I don’t own a car.  Not really necessary.  I’ll just catch the bus, but thanks, and thanks for the company and the drink.”

            Cuttings paused for a moment and held her hand in his.  “It’s been a pleasure, Leslie.  I do so enjoy seeing my students, what happens, how they blossom from, well, these little fledglings into mature adults.  Please, please, do keep in touch.  I’ll keep my eye out for your by-line, and I’m sure you’ll have your own gallery or book soon.”  He nodded and Leslie watched him walk up Forbes toward the Windsor Hotel.

  

 

            Leslie thinks Pittsburgh is a photographic city with dozens and dozens of bridges, the landscape and hills, the  panorama views atop Mount Washington, the juxtapositions of urban buildings next to turn of the century steel-town row houses.  All she has to do is walk through Squirrel Hill or down Murray Avenue or venture down  or up Munhall and take her camera, an old 35 millimeter, she detests the new digital, the photos and their touch-ups.  She wants Pittsburgh, blemishes and all.  The real Pittsburgh is a dying city, and when the old men sitting on their porches telling stories about the coal mines, the rail road or the steel mills die that part of Pittsburgh will die with them.  She thinks about this as she bathes the last roll of film in developing fluid and considers calling it a day.

            Jason. In her mind, he is twenty-one, smooth face, fumbling in the dark.  Jason, he still weeps afterwards in her dorm bed.  This startled her.  She had never been with anyone who had trembled, who had wanted to look at her eyes, who had bent his face to hers as he kissed her and said I love you not as a matter of formula like rubbing her breasts before sliding his hands beneath her good panties but because he actually meant it.

            Afterwards he sat at the edge of the twin bed and wept.  She watched his shoulders heave, and there were tears, so many of them, they collected in his hands and spilled onto his knees.  She didn’t know what to do so she  pulled the sheet to her shoulder and fiddled with a stray piece of thread, unraveling it further, until finally when the piece of thread stretched from her wrist to her elbow she reached for a crushed pack of cigarettes on the floor and asked him if he wanted a smoke.  He started to lean back as if he might want to kiss her or stroke a stray hair from her face.  He hesitated then returned to the edge of the bed, hiding his face.

            Leslie remembers the reflection of her camera in the dresser mirror -- the naked lens, how careless she was with the cap, letting it spill on the floor with the clutter to become buried among the litter -- the half-written English paper or the unsatisfactory photos, the light and angles not quite right, the torn bits of paper with fragments of phone numbers.  She shook out a cigarette and handed him one.  Jason mumbled no thanks, something about a bio exam, and pulled on his jeans. 

 

 

            Every other boy she fucked in college never stayed the night, or if he did, it had only been because he couldn’t see straight to find the door.  Most boys ended up mistaking the garbage can for the john and laughing about it the next morning, then left before she woke to those awkward moments in class when they pretended that nothing happened.  But Leslie being Leslie just passed the boy by in the row of lecture hall seats, or if he happened to sit beside or behind her she ignored his request for a pen or piece of paper or shrugged when he asked if she wanted a piece of gum.

            There was always the opposite situation, what everyone on campus called the notorious walk of shame, stumbling back from his dorm the morning after in high heels, a dress, mascara running, everyone knowing what transpired, as if fucking was something to be kept under the covers, as if a girl walking home rather than the guy made the girl promiscuous and this always bothered her.  

            The thing between Jason and Leslie had been different from the standard let’s get together scene at the party where Leslie would be tanked up and slurring her feet and stumbling words and the guy just got lucky.  She and Jason knew each other.  They were in photography, then Art 1 and 2 then English Literary Contemporary, then egad Physics.  When he asked her to go to the frat party, she thought nothing of it. 

 

 

            There is a street in the small college community of Oakland that isn’t really a street, at least not a street in the conventional sense.  It is nothing but stairs, and this morning, the morning after Cuttings, Leslie takes her equipment and hikes to the top.  Like any other day, she freelances.  Some months she doesn’t have enough to make rent and then there’s the call to her dad in France or to her brother in Montana or her sister and brother-in-law in Cranberry, the ritzy part of Pittsburgh; all of them are getting agitated.  Occasionally she sells a photo or two to an art magazine and makes enough money to last through summer, even so, they want her to settle down, to get a studio, to do layouts for ads, to take wedding pictures.  Her father has made the same proposition for six months in a row: “I won’t give you the money for rent, but I will do this.  I’ll loan you money for a studio.  There’s a room in the South Side, I checked. It’s perfect.  Atop some upscale shop.  It’ll attract quite a bit of attention.  Really artsy. I did my research.   I’ll buy it, you pay me back.  You set up your own business.  Leslie, you have the talent, you can make a go of this.”  It’s always the same argument.  

            Cuttings said, “Jason is a lawyer, joined a firm somewhere downtown.  He’s married, has a few children.”  Afterwards, Leslie hangs up with her father and speed dials her sister.

 

 

            At one time steel workers lived in tiny pocket communities such as Millvale, at one time just steel workers lived there.  Your dad lived next door; he got your husband and your brother their jobs down at the plant, and across the street, your father-in-law, so that at two in the morning when the baby woke with the coup you either ran next door or across or caddy-corner and one woman or another always had a remedy brewing. 

            Steel workers still live in Millvale, well some still do, that is those who work in the small plants that are up and running, but mostly those who are retired and who have lived in the same house they bought when they first got married.  Millvale is nothing but this gigantic slope; it boasts the steepest hill in Pittsburgh.  After the first time, Jason took her to the top of the hill and they slipped his Toyota into neutral and slid to the bottom.  It was the dead of winter.  Penn-Dot never salts this road; it’s too hazardous, and over and over they spun out doing donuts until some Babushka and Pap yelled out their door:  You’re going to kill yourselves.  We’re going to call the cops.  But later that night, huddled in his frat room, they burrowed beneath blankets.  Jason did nothing but stroke her cheek, over and over.  Afterwards, when he had gone to class Leslie stayed in his bed and wept.

 

 

            Leslie hikes up the stairs that is a street in Oakland and plops down to look at the rows of houses carved in the hills or around and above tunnels.  Last night she looked for Jason’s name in the telephone directory.  It wasn’t there.  She went online to see if he has an email account.  If he does, it’s not with any of the major servers.  She went through all of the firms in Pittsburgh to see if his name was listed.  He must be a very junior partner.  He is invisible. 

 

 

            Leslie has this idea.  She contacted a literary agent in New York.  She wants to do a photo-documentary of Pittsburgh -- not just Pittsburgh but the living Pittsburgh -- of the steel workers, the retired men who worked in the mills, who live in Millvale and the surrounding communities.  When they die, their stories die and a part of Pittsburgh dies with them.  Her father laughed.  At first she couldn’t even get the agent to return her calls, but a man with a thick Brooklyn accent finally did.  A secretary to a secretary to an assistant of an agent who gave her some advice.  So she wrote a proposal and initially it was rejected but some small publishing house is interested.  It won’t make her millions maybe not even thousands but it’s a step in the right direction.  Leslie stands up and snaps pictures and opens the aperture and closes the shutter and adjusts for light and wonders if afterwards Jason still weeps.

 

 

             The Christmas before graduation Leslie took Jason home to meet her parents.  It was what all her college friends did, that is the girls who were planning to get married after graduation.  It was expected of her.  She was twenty-two.  Jason had been accepted into Pitt’s law school.  When they got off the plane and back to CMU, Jason set his suitcase down in her apartment and began to nuzzle her neck; after all, her parents had made them sleep in separate beds.  She pushed him away.  She didn’t know why at the time. Nothing made sense.  Jason wept. He wept through January, through winter.  She threw the dozen roses he sent, which she knew he worked ten hours to buy, down the stairs.  She stared at their broken red necks, the severed ferns, she stomped on them with  clod hopper boots.  She had just been accepted to NYU’s School of Photography.  She framed the letter and hung it in her kitchen above the stove to cover the patch of singed wallpaper.  She never bothered to tell Jason.  

            He wept through March.  He wept through spring break.  He followed her to Panama City, Florida.  She sat in film class and watched Midnight Express and thought about Billy Hayes, the scene in the Turkey prison where Hayes’ girlfriend goes to see him, and Hayes is so grief stricken or lonely or whatever from being in this horrible prison he masturbates.  It’s sad; he sees her breasts and weeps. Or rather, behind glass he whimpers.  Billy can barely articulate.  He motions for the girl, and funny that now Leslie can’t remember her name.   Hayes, who is so overtaken with a cocktail of grief and anger and despair, motions for the nameless girl to unbutton her blouse so he can masturbate and it’s quick and easy and afterwards Billy weeps.  Afterwards Leslie wept that day.

            Jason wept through graduation.  Leslie never saw him again.  Leslie holds the camera in her hands; she feels its weight.  She calls it a day and goes back to her apartment.

 

 

            On the bus ride, Leslie watches the sun scrape the rivers.  She counts the bridges.  She goes over the list in her mind -- the men she wants to interview.  She’ll take pictures, men sitting on porches.  Their black and creaky lunch pails.  Men bent with hands swaying between knees as they listen to old Magnavox’s play Sinatra; she’ll capture their yellow and broken teeth as they sing, the sun struggling to sweep through gauzy sheers their wives have hung in the living room.  

            The bus jolts and bumps her.  Leslie gets off and runs up the stairs and thinks she’ll get right to making her appointments; she thinks she’ll go by the Mill and take more photos.  She’ll take pictures of shattered windows, at night, at twilight, at dusk, at day-break.  She’ll capture the door, just as it opens, before the first foot crosses the threshold.  She’ll take a picture of its long-lean shadow.  She’ll follow the third shift to the bar on the corner and snap pictures as they down whiskey boilers.

            She knows the bridges, which were made by Pittsburgh steel and which have been replaced by foreign and she’ll take photos of rivets and bolts and grates and rust. She never dated seriously after Jason.  

 

 

            When she’s back at her studio apartment in Bridgeville, Leslie makes her list and studies her photos and begins to think about the project.  It is nearly twilight by the time she is hungry.  She walks down the stairs and out the door.  Leslie stops for a moment to watch her landlady prune roses.  She admires their colors --  red, yellow, blush.  “They smell lovely.”

            The landlady nods, shears in hands.  “If you’re sweet talking me because you’re going to be late again on your rent, it ain’t no use.”

            Leslie asks if she can have a red rose.  The landlady picks a stray one from the clump piled on the stairs and blinks but hands it to her anyway.

            Leslie doesn’t take the bus to wherever she’s going.  She decides to walk until she can’t anymore, until she runs out of film, until the canisters of film can no longer fit into her pockets.   She thinks she’ll start at the parks where mothers and fathers stroll babies.  She’ll peer into buggies.  She’ll walk until her legs ache.  She’ll cross bridges.  She’ll go down stairs and up hills and along river banks.

            She’ll walk through Shadyside.  She’ll admire turn-of-the-century homes, architecture.  It will be good exercise.  It will keep her skills sharp.   She will peer into any window that has curtains drawn, where families sit in what used to be called parlors.  She’ll peer into rooms where parents pace with cranky babies in their arms, hoping the night air exhausts them.  Leslie will snap photos.  The houses have arched doorways, brick-a-brack crown moldings.  Dormers etched into sloped roofs.  She’ll develop the pictures and study each and every one of them.  It may take her all month, many months.  There will be dozens maybe hundreds. She’ll look and look for a shadow that weeps.  

 

Among others, Laurie Mazzaferro's publication credits include Barrow Street, Poet Lore, West Branch, Pearl, 5 AM, New Delta Review, Unlikely Stories and Poems Niederngasse. She is recipient of two pushcart nominations and the winner of the 2000 Slipstream chapbook contest. Presently, she teaches creative writing, worries about her son, a talented visual artist, who attends Kent State, and rides a motor cycle. Hey, life's too short.

 

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