All original work © 2009 - 2017 Alexey Provolotsky

15 June 2017

A DAY OF THE WHITE DRESS



They were young, drunk, exhausted. Forty-seven between the two of them. About to get married, dressed in provocative white. Tipsy from two glasses of warm champagne, so dense and unforgiving in mid-July. Exhausted from the long hours of trying to find the right shot. 

'Perfect couple', said the photographer. 'Perfect couple', said everyone else. You could say she looked way too subtle, way too European cinema for him. You could say the Anna Karina angle was exaggerated. And then you had to consider his job as a sports columnist in a local newspaper or the way he raised his eyebrows each time someone mentioned French New Wave. If you got the chance to know them, however, you would say they were, indeed, a perfect couple.

The way he transformed when she was close by, whispering some in-joke into his ear (an in-joke everyone could hear but no one could understand) that would send him into fits. The way she transformed when she put on the shapeless blue jeans that made her disappear and seem twice as irresistible as she was. The way they mounted his motorcycle with that great abandon. It was in those details. The miracle.

'Perfect couple', said the photographer, a chubby American with a face redder than intended. He insisted they would not find a better place in New York. 'Good memory', he said. 'Good memory'. As if their English was poor or they suffered from amnesia. As if they were tired of the Central Park - as if it was even possible. 

Truth is, they did not much care for the photoshoot. They just loved the Central Park, they wanted to get married in this city and Karolina, that insane Polish designer who shared a Lower Manhattan studio with them, said she knew a man who could help. An old friend, a photographer. They said yes because New York City was the one place in the world where you never said no to a chance acquaintance. A chubby American with a red face, with a camera as long as a saxophone. He was supposed to make the perfect picture they had set out to make.

She used the palm of her left hand as a bookmark, half-closing the picture book - the sort nobody had anymore. She groped for the sounds in the room, underneath her feet, and sensed the tiny girl euphorically rolling on the floor. Happiness was coming like a flood to her daughter - like it had always come to her. She let the idea linger for a second or two, and then got back to the photo capped Central Park, The Day of the White Dress.

Her dress was indeed white. Conceptually torn, slightly scandalous. But then they were not going to do it the easy way, and she had gently talked him into the black suspenders shooting up from his checkered trousers from a Salvation Army shop. 

She loved his ideas. She could never read his sports writing, or even understand half of it, but she loved his ideas. Like he suggested listening to the improvised orchestra by one of the more remote benches (if 'remote' was even a word in the Central Park). They opened the champagne and took out the three glasses and the photographer said he would be honoured. 'Good memory', he said to the opening crescendo of Josef Straus's 'Ohne Sorgen', 'is all you need from this day'. He then quacked like a happy duck from the bubbles or else from the heat. They left with the final notes of 'Waltz of the Flowers'. She would have hated to know the seven men in black suits were Russians.

It was then that they were getting tired of the whole experience. The problem was that each time they hit on the spot, it was either trivial or pretentious. The photographer, a gay Republican whose name they would never find out, was at first ready to oblige. The champagne bottle out of the way, his face was glowing purple. He said one good picture was all you could possibly get in these photoshoots, but this time even that one good picture seemed elusive. 

Once there was a fine view sprinkled by the water from the fountain, but it was ruined by his closed eyes. It was okay to look ridiculous, but it was tragic to look cheap. The photographer said he would never redo a shot (a superstition they both appreciated), and they moved on. 

She put the picture book on the sofa beside her and got down to her daughter. The toys that lay scattered on the floor were a wild combination of dolls and cars and play cards and motorcycles. Even a few coins they brought from the States or from Western Europe a few years ago. They played together for a while, that buzzing mix of clipped sounds and meaningless words, and she soon felt the growing sense of unease. She looked at the pink dress of Katie. It was a lovely dress.

Katie, she soon noticed, did not mind being on her own, quite on the contrary. It was the self-sufficient world she could once recognise as her own.

The photographer did indeed show a few signs of exasperation, and even quit saying 'good memory'. In fact, he quit saying anything at all, and only occasionally glanced in their direction as if to acknowledge their kiss with a polite half-smile. It was the time, she knew, for one of his ideas. The official registration was forty minutes away.

At that point, they were right in the centre of one of the park's bigger lawns filled with teenagers dying in the sun as well as the bearded hipsters playing the ukuleles. He said 'stop', and they stopped. Just at that moment there was someone walking towards them. 'Let's have them in the picture', he said. The photographer quacked again, either to register a genius or a madman. 'Like, in your wedding shot?'

'Yes', he said, unmoved and totally serene, 'in our wedding shot'. 

Which was the point (a point everyone knew - everyone, that is, who knew the perfect couple) where the photographer came alive and began to frame the shot. They still had fifteen seconds to prepare before they had to explain to the two old ladies what they wanted from them.

In the busy street or else in the crowd, you do occasionally find the time to look around and catch something your eye would not otherwise see. A smile, a source of irritation, some kind of peace. They must have been about ninety, both of them, and they were holding each other by the hand the way two amiable spinsters would. Life-long friends brought together by a childhood accident. Sisters who have survived everyone in their family stretching back to the days of the Great Depression. The two white frocks, strikingly similar, could only be described as 'neat'. There was an invisible white bubble around them that brought an unlikely sense of order, if not structure, to the chaos of the Central Park. The ball was moving slowly, it was quiet and stooped, and eventually it was going to reach them.    

The photographer had to repeat his offer several times before they heard him. And even then there was a sense that they were trying to humour an incoherent bully. Soon they joined in ('we're getting married', they said, 'and we want to have this picture') and the ladies finally gave their trembling consent. It was hard to see if they realised how special this offer was, or what it was exactly, but they had it in the end. The shot.

At this point she always stood up from the sofa and began to pace the room. She twitched the curtains, she stuck fingers in her hair, she put the girl to bed. Katie, the New York kid from the last time they were in the States, did not appreciate it all that much. She wanted to stay on the floor, cuddling the toys and telling them secrets she did not yet have. She cried and she ran away and she pulled at the folds of her long skirt. And when she did finally fall asleep, as quickly and as quietly as she had been restless, she went back to the room. She put on Last Year At Marienbad, switched the sound to mute, poured herself a glass of red wine, and checked her phone. Then she opened the picture book, again. The way she always did. 

Of course, he suggested making the two ladies the main focus of the shot (the low-key nature of that kind of photograph appealed to both of them). After all, he would do that. The photographer wouldn't budge, though: they had to be in the centre. 'You're the perfect couple', he said, 'you've got to be in the middle'. Finally, the two ladies grasped the idea and agreed. She didn't, necessarily, but he gently nudged her on the left shoulder (his usual gesture to calm her down), and she sighed defeat. 

The two old ladies were positioned on both sides of them. They looked visibly flustered. They asked questions. They said 'what an opportunity'. They were unsure if the bonnets should go or stay. They smiled all the time. At some point, one of them even made a suggestion. She said they should call this picture 'The Day of the White Dress'. After which she had a small argument with her companion about whether anyone still did that. Pictures and names. 'Well, we do', she said, and they kissed. The sweaty, fulsome kiss of a midsummer's day. The old lady had no idea that naming pictures was what most young people were getting by these days. 

And they were young. Young, drunk, exhausted. 

The shot was wondrous. A miracle. Even through the minute screen of the photographer's camera, it looked like the best possible wedding picture. The old ladies were now moving away, slowly, clearly satisfied with a surprise so unlikely at that point in their lives. Whose lives, though? 'Old friends', they had said. 'Best friends'. And that laugh, the laugh they could both recognise.

There was no time to open the second bottle of champagne and celebrate, so instead they arranged to meet the photographer tomorrow and get the picture. 'I'll call Karolina', he said, and the Central Park started to look normal, if not ordinary, for the first time in their lives. But they had no time to notice, or to care, as they had to run as fast as they could in order to sign whatever they had to sign on the Day of the White Dress.      

He came home when she was already in bed. Katie was snoring in her arms, and there was no place for him to lie. He could only observe them from outside the room, the way he always did. He could not even approach them to kiss, or to whisper good night. He smelled of cigarettes, late work, women. 

In the living room, he heard the crackling sound of the TV abandoned on some channel that had stopped hours ago. He switched it off. There were toys on the floor, dolls and motorcycles. There was a wine glass on the table but he was too exhausted to take it to the kitchen. Instead, he sunk into the sofa and was immediately struck by some tough object. Had she been reading? No - it was, what, a picture book? Face down, on the photograph he at first did not even recognise. It was that old picture with a fancy title she liked so much. The title, he now saw, was written in his own hand. It was, perhaps, a reflection on that special day in America. Central Park, New York City, four years ago. 

He fished the glasses out of the corner of his coat (she wouldn't approve) and studied the photograph more closely. Yes, it was that very picture. The champagne, the dress, the suspenders. Shot by the fountain, with some blurry figures in the background. Mostly, though, just the two of them. He hadn't seen that picture in years, and now had a vague flashback to that day in the middle of summer. The hot wedding day, their last day in the States before flying back to St. Petersburg. 

Who did that shot? A real photographer? A tourist passing by? One of those strange old ladies they saw in the distance? He forgot. But he was too drunk to think so far back, and it was late anyway. Too late to do anything but fall asleep, with the picture book finally closed. The way it was supposed to be.