When Isaac got home from work there was a message from Renee on his machine. They were supposed to have dinner that night, and she was calling to confirm. She sounded excited. “I have some great news!” she said. “I can’t wait to tell you!”
He wondered what qualified as great news for Renee. Perhaps she’d gone to a party and struck up a friendship with a former Sandinista minister of information. Perhaps she’d secured a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal.
He cleaned up his apartment. This last week had been a downer. He’d been suffering from a kind of postpartum depression ever since the opening of his exhibit.
He’d been looking forward to it for such a long time—he’d spent a full six months selecting photographs, getting the invitations out—and now it was over. And nothing, absolutely nothing, had come of it. It hadn’t been reviewed—not in the Times, not even in the Register. The two-bit newspaper that he worked for had decided that his show wasn’t worthy of review.
Well, an hour or two with Renee would cheer him up.
She arrived at his apartment breathless, twenty minutes late. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t come to your opening. But I have a good excuse. I have good news.” She was smiling mischievously, and for a moment he thought she was about to give him good news about him. His show was still the foremost thing in his mind—his show, and what it might do for his career—and he was still in that state where news that’s not about yourself seems bafflingly irrelevant.
“The reason I couldn’t come was that I was in the city that day, having meetings. Can you believe it? I’m a grown-up now! I go to meetings!”
He smiled at her indulgently and sat down. She was still standing, bouncing on her toes. She looked like a boxer.
“First of all, I was meeting with people from the anti-sweatshop coalition, and the fact-finding tour is really going to happen.”
“That’s wonderful, Renee. Congratulations.” Not exactly his idea of a good time, but her enthusiasm was charming.
She finally sat down. “And then I had another meeting. I think you’re going to be proud of me about this one. I was having a meet- ing with—The New Yorker! Your favorite magazine! They’re having a special photography issue this winter, and they want to use three of the pictures I took in Chiapas. Can you believe it? It’s so crazy. I don’t even know how to pronounce the words when I tell people. They want to use three of my pictures! They want to use three of my pictures!”
“The New Yorker?
Really? That’s incredible.”
He was happy that his voice hadn’t cracked. He wondered whether she could hear any of the things that he heard in his voice: envy, disbelief, rage, sorrow, a feeling that she’d betrayed him, a feeling that she’d emasculated him.
He wondered, also, whether she could hear the note of sluggish stupidity. When she’d mentioned the photography issue, he had thought for a moment that she’d shown them some of his photographs—that she was telling him that she’d slyly submitted his work, and that they wanted to use it.
The New Yorker. He’d been sending them photographs, and getting rejections from them, for as long as they’d been running photographs. More that ten years.
“Thanks,” she said. “Can you believe it?”
She was glowing. One of the things that was wonderful about Renee was that she was too guileless, too pure, to realize what was happening here—to realize that she’d struck him to the heart.
“Gosh,” he said. “We have to celebrate. Can I get you some…decaf tea?”
She smiled at this. Her ultra-pure nature—her organic, herbal, free-range nature—was one of their standing jokes.
He went to the kitchen for the tea; he glanced at the window, and he thought it might be a good idea to put his fist through the glass.
He had always felt sure that Renee would eventually surpass him. He’d felt sure of it because of her zeal for life, her desire to do and see and experience everything. Taking good pictures has very little to do with technique, in the end; it has to do with appetite for life, and he’d always understood that Renee’s appetite for life was greater than his own. He’d always known that she would surpass him; he just hadn’t thought it would happen so soon.
Renee had just attained a kind of success that he had never come close to, not in twenty years of striving, and never would. He was a known quantity now, and no one was willing to look at his work with a fresh eye. With some of life’s rewards, if you don’t get them when you’re young, you don’t get them.
He wanted to kill her. Because she was killing him. She didn’t realize it, but she was killing him.
“How was your show?” she called from the other room. She couldn’t have said anything more insulting if she’d tried.
“It was nice,” he said. Yes, it was nice—he’d been praised by a roomful of old friends, none of whom knew anything about photography. And a woman from Latvia had told him about her grandfather.
The New Yorker was using her pictures because they fit in with a particular article, not because she was a good photographer.
He felt his mind working to diminish Renee’s achievement. The New Yorker was using her pictures because they fit in with a particular article, not because she was a good photographer; they wouldn’t be using her again. It was a lucky coincidence. It would look good on her resume, but it was a one-shot deal.
He ran quickly through his mental file of photographers who’d enjoyed early success and then fizzled out. He was wishing that future on Renee.
But it wasn’t working. Renee wasn’t going to fizzle out. She was the real thing.
He’d once read an article about how birds lose their plumage when other birds defeat them in the struggle for dominance. He felt himself losing his plumage. If he could take a blood test right this second, he was sure it would show a stark drop in serotonin, dopamine, testosterone, and whatever other chemicals contribute to feelings of confidence, mastery, well-being, vitality, youth.
But you can’t be so upset by this! She once called you her mentor! You’re her teacher, in a way! Your role is to help her! The whole point of working with young people is that you hope they’ll surpass you! This is what you wanted! At least it’s what you claimed to want.
He was making the tea. He’d cramped himself into a corner of the kitchen, hiding from her while all this played out in his mind.
He came back out, bearing two steaming mugs.
“This is just so fantastic, Renee.”
What a hypocrite I am. If I was being honest I‘d scream at her. I’d throw her out.
But honesty isn’t the important thing here, he thought. The important thing isn’t what you feel. The important thing, sometimes, is what you appear to feel.
He believed in the authority of the visible. If all Renee saw was his generosity, then his generosity would be real.
“This is just so wonderful, Renee,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”
“ I know!” she said. “It’s just so great! I can’t believe it!”
The next generation was making its claim, and he hadn’t tried to obstruct it. He felt obscurely that this was one of the defining moments of his life.
“Where shall we eat?” he said, wondering if he could possibly eat anything.
He felt as if he’d been enlarged as a man. But that didn’t mean he had to enjoy it.
Brian Morton, who teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence and New York University, is the prize-winning author of The Dylanist and Starting Out in the Evening. A Window Across the River, his third novel, brings us characters who deal with their arts-based careers—Isaac is a photographer, Nora a writer of short stories—in ways that alternately hearten and disappoint. In this excerpt, Isaac is visited by one of his photography students, Renee. “I have come across students more gifted than I am,” Morton says.“ The question becomes what kind of attitude to take. There are two kinds of teachers, one who wants to find ways to discourage or crush that talent, and the kind who wants to help it blossom.”
—Raven Snook ’94