I pulled into the parking lot of a run-down recreation center. I did not want to get out of the car. It was a brisk, blustery day, the likes of which only seem possible on the Plains.
I thought, not for the first time, how thankful I was to be born long after the dust bowl, then braced myself and opened the car door.
I spent the afternoon taking pictures with an old camera I had inherited and hardly knew how to use. This inheritance was not from a deceased relative, but an ex-boyfriend with whom I no longer spoke, and did not miss.
When I saw he had left the relic on my dresser in my Brooklyn apartment, I almost threw it across the room. Gifts from him always came with strings attached. But my curiosity prevailed and I thought better of smashing the 35mm to bits—I could always sell it if I changed my mind. Or throw it across another room, for that matter…
Now I was a world away from all that. I headed north to capture the rolling hills around Gilcrease, but decided instead on dilapidated old buildings.
I drove around scouting run-down structures that piqued my interest, snapping pictures in bitter winds. And why? I had enrolled in a darkroom class to busy my restless hands, and I needed at least one roll to develop by tomorrow. Like most things in life, it all came down to timing and I could not wait for better weather.
I stalked up a steep hill behind the recreation center, my hair whipping around, getting caught in my camera strap, while my chandelier earrings chimed frantically. From the top I had a view of the downtown skyline to my left and the neglected northside to my right. This was not where I thought I would be.
When I left 12 years before I had no intention of coming back for more than holidays. And yet here I was, surveying the cultural geography of my hometown, taking black and white pictures, wondering exactly how I got here.
Six months before I had a completely different life. The change had been so extreme, that I knew I was now becoming a different person. I often wondered what this new version of me was supposed to read or listen to, what she preferred to eat, if she would ever pursue acting again, if she wanted to have children, if she could still bring herself to take risks. Apparently, she valued hobbies…
I walked a bit further, coming upon a weathered white building with patches of exposed brick. It was most certainly abandoned, with a rusted-out sign and sagging chain link fences flanking it on either side.
I knew I’d never been to this exact location before, but the whole scene felt familiar.
This had become a surprisingly common occurrence since I returned home, with both places and people. It was as if my body remembered things that my mind could not locate. To be perfectly honest, I found the familiarity confusing.
I stepped into the shadow of the white building to block the afternoon sun. The upper right corner of the roof appeared black in the shadows, cutting a stark relief against blue sky and blinding rays of light.
Why was it that the simplest things often looked the most beautiful?
Maybe they were simply forms upon which nostalgia is built. I looked down to adjust the lens and caught a glimpse of myself in a dust-covered glass door. It served as a full-length mirror and I snapped a reflection of myself taking my own picture. I stood upright, letting the camera rest against my chest and I took myself in.
Of course my hair was a windblown mess, but it had grown so long and thick that I needed a trim. Even from the distance, I could see the silver strands at my temples—I had neither the extra money, nor the patience to cover them.
My eyes, though deep-set and ever-circled, looked more alive to me than they had in… years.
Even my cheeks had begun to fill out and regain color. The woman before me stood tall and she appeared strong, energetic, feisty, even a little intimidating, her brow furrowed in analysis. Was this what the world saw?
The disconnect between what people saw and how I felt inside was often vast. It reminded of the chasm that had festered in my Brooklyn apartment. The light-filled one-bedroom had seemingly housed a young, happy, creative couple—and on rare occasions it did. But most days were colored with lies, jealousy, verbal abuse, emotional manipulation and tactics of intimidation. My eyes stung with a shame that had come to visit me daily.
I could not believe I let it go on for so long. That I lost myself so utterly and completely. That those missteps had forced me to leave a city, friends, a career, and had then brought me into my parents’ extra bedroom 1,376 miles away. In the glass door, my shoulders slumped and my eyes grew huge with sadness.
Suddenly, a gust of wind rattled the rusty sign, threatening to knock it off its hooks. The commotion broke the spell of unwelcome memories. I felt my feet on the ground, the weight of the camera around my neck. I raised my right hand and gently tipped up my chin, holding it there. I made myself stand up straight and take a deep breath. My eyes, though still red, were fierce and defiant. And I realized with a slow smile: I was definitely not in Brooklyn anymore.
I snapped the last of my roll and hurried back down the hill for the shelter of my car. As I cranked the heater and drove away, I could think of nothing else but developing the film, then shooting roll after roll, making print after print.
The gadget was not an albatross after all.