Snapshot

While the “bomb cyclone” roils away outside, it seems like an appropriate time to curl up with a short story from the latest issue of North Dakota Quarterly. Here’s is Bill Gaythwaite’s story “Snapshot” which evokes in me warmer days and the gentle melancholy that feels like a lingering winter of springtime snow.

The story appears in NDQ volume 85 and you can explore more content from that volume here or purchase a paper copy here. By buying a paper copy or subscribing to the Quarterly, you help us make more great fiction, poetry, and essays available.

Snapshot

In the snapshot, Ben and the girl, who is not yet on her vivid trajectory of fame, are seated side by side on the trunk of a fallen birch tree. It is an actual photograph which can be held in one’s hand. The shot was taken over two decades ago at a lake house in Vermont owned by Ben’s parents. The log where they sit in the picture is located along a narrow path leading from the cottage to a stretch of rocky beach where there is a wide-plank wooden pier.

From this pier, every day for two weeks, Ben and the girl have cannonballed into the freezing spring-fed water, fished for smallmouth bass, and watched the sunset from two unsound Adirondack chairs. In the photograph, they are turned vaguely toward one another, and the girl, who for purposes of discretion shall hereafter be referred to as Veronica, looks as one would expect, even at this age: poised, confident and disturbingly beautiful. By contrast, Ben sports a stricken expression on his plain, smooth face, at once injured and remote, as if he has already left the frame of the picture.

It is the August after Ben’s high school graduation, but Veronica is set to return to the school after Labor Day for her senior year. She has just turned seventeen. She and Ben have been friends (without benefits, as a later generation might assert) since their participation in a deeply flawed production, even by secondary school standards, of a lesser known Neil Simon play. When they meet, Ben is on the stage crew and Veronica has scored one of the leads. An unlikely camaraderie is struck, manifesting itself in snarky backstage observations and a shared antipathy for the show’s director, Irene Pill, a dour and emotionally troubled Language Arts instructor.

Though mesmerizing to most who encounter her, Veronica is surprisingly unpopular with her peers. It seems her remarkable beauty has a polarizing effect. Boys hold lofty, unreal expectations of her and as a result are often profoundly intimidated. Girls, on the other hand, tend to dismiss her entirely (when not simply hating her on sight) as if she is only a shiny object with nothing of consequence to offer anyone. She is rarely approached for inclusion in social gatherings, but is nevertheless judged to be aloof, cold, and conceited.

Veronica accepts these traits, even wears them in defiance, though casually, as if they are bracelets dangling from her wrist. It feels good to be separate and superior, to be watched from afar and envied for qualities she has not yet cultivated. She grows used to being the object of grudging and lethal admiration. But when she meets Ben backstage, halfway through her junior year, his stocky, jovial presence has a restful effect on her. He has a clear-eyed sincerity, which she spots right away. He doesn’t appraise her in the nervous, hopeful way most of the other boys do ― not to mention some of the teachers. Instead, he gives the impression that he is actually listening to her when she speaks and not just inspecting the shape of her mouth as the words are being formed. If not exactly inseparable, they become steadfast companions, much to the amazement and chagrin of their classmates.

When Veronica is asked to join Ben’s family on vacation that August, it is only after the slightest hesitation (and perhaps a rapid inventory of her other options) that she courteously accepts. Ben’s parents are durable and forthright. They remind Veronica of solid oak furniture. They are kind and accommodating to her, almost deferential, and slightly bewildered too, as if she is a visiting princess. She has had a pleasant, restful holiday. Ben’s little brother, Rory, is the one who snaps the photograph, sneaking up on them, which is his habit that summer, with a newly acquired Nikon. Before the photo is taken, Ben is talking and talking. Mostly about his future. In a few weeks he will be starting at Boston University, and already he has decided on a plan, though he refers to it as a calling. For Veronica, this term conjures images of chanting, robe-wearing monks and medieval castles.

“Foreign Service,” Ben explains. “International Relations.”

Veronica offers an indulgent smile as Ben proceeds to illustrate his future in global diplomacy, using descriptions gleaned largely through spy novels and old films concerning Cold War espionage.

~

Nine days after the snapshot is taken, Veronica is discovered by an agent from a top-tier modeling agency while she and her mother are in Manhattan for their annual trip to purchase school clothes. Veronica’s mother is a tall, brittle woman who takes great pride in her daughter’s appearance and the seismic impact it has on others. Veronica’s parents divorced when she was an infant and her father is no longer on the scene. Veronica’s mother is protective yet practical when it comes to her daughter’s raw potential and gauges most details in Veronica’s life as to how they will shape and influence her own. She does not, for instance, particularly like Ben, and is confused by the girl’s friendship with him. But he is harmless enough, Veronica’s mother concedes, rather like a merry lapdog, a term she uses privately to describe him.

In New York City, a man wearing an expensive suit, brandishing a grin as if it is a weapon, leaps out of a taxi. He hands Veronica a card, as she and her mother stand on a sidewalk outside of Saks. Her mother takes the card and examines it. Once she determines that the man is not a garden variety predator and that the agency highlighted on the card is legitimate and actually rather famous, she is savvy enough, when the question is poised, to shave a year off her daughter’s age in deference to the youth-obsessed modeling market.

The next thing Ben discovers (he will get occasional postcards from Veronica throughout much of his college career) his old friend is chucking high school altogether and flying off to the Bahamas for a magazine photo shoot, where, unbeknownst to him, she feels compelled to lose her virginity to the middle-aged and amorously persistent fashion photographer. Success ensues, or at least a marginal enough version of it for Veronica to move to New York City and rent a tiny, bleak apartment near Tompkins Square Park. She goes on daily modeling auditions, or Go-Sees, as they are called, and soon her image is gracing, if not yet Vogue, then the higher-end department store catalogues. This is before Veronica realizes she doesn’t really like modeling at all and decides, despite her unhappy high school experience with Ms. Pill, to turn her attention to the stage.

She takes drama classes at a famous studio presided over by a collection of show business lost souls and switches to a theatrical agent. She goes on more auditions until in swift, almost unprecedented fashion, she finds herself playing Natasha in a well-regarded Off-Broadway production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. One minute Veronica is frolicking for the camera, posing for sales circulars with a gaggle of mopey, underfed girls, and the next she is getting raves from a hardnosed New York Times reviewer who describes her debut performance on the legitimate stage as luminous, spellbinding and enormously promising.

If Ben had been the theater’s publicist he might have made more of Veronica’s strange segue from paid mannequin to performing Chekhov six nights a week ― some zippy article or press release about her reinvention seems called for, but Veronica feels (perhaps wisely) that the less revealed about her modeling days the better.  Communication between the two is infrequent by this time, but Ben still gets an occasional peak into her new life.

He comes to see her late in the run of this play, in fact, taking a train down from Boston. He feels awkward in the backstage flurry, with a surplus of fussy theatrical types streaming by him after the performance, curling their lips (when they notice him at all) as if he is the only one not dressed for a masquerade ball. He’s wearing a tweed sport coat, beige Dockers and a burgundy tie borrowed from his father. Someone delivers Veronica a note on Ben’s behalf and still he waits a long time for his few minutes with her, as if she is a dignitary on a tight schedule.

At last Ben is ushered into a small, austere dressing room by an exasperated and exhausted-looking older woman. And here is Veronica, still in costume and made up for the stage, looking gorgeous, vaguely familiar, but also as if she belongs to a separate species altogether. He is flustered and stammering, and after some graceless attempts at conversation ― mostly compliments aimed at her performance, because she really was quite good ― he asks her out to dinner, an invitation she politely refuses. This is a crushing blow, as he had informed her weeks before of his visit.

“I have another engagement,” Veronica says with a prim and cautious smile.

Engagement is an oddly old-fashioned word, Ben silently observes, especially for a girl he has arm-wrestled with and with whom he has baited hooks, a young woman who is not yet twenty.

It is the last time in his life that he will see her in the flesh.

This is before the West Coast casting agent attends the play and Veronica is whisked off to Los Angeles to read for what becomes her television series ― with its ludicrous premise (college student by day, psychic crime fighter by night), which she nevertheless pulls off. The show runs four popular seasons and she even collects a television award for it, but eventually she leaves the show because she is getting a steady stream of film offers and her lovely face is beginning to show up regularly on the covers of various celebrity magazines and in advertisements for a famous cosmetics company. Her career is, as they say, on the rise. At the grocery store, Ben stands in the check-out line, and suddenly there’s Veronica, popping out at him like a signal flare from the racks. She strikes flattering and sensational poses for these magazines and when profiled within the glossy pages she often mentions braving a lonely childhood in a charming, bucolic town ― describing their affluent and bustling Massachusetts suburb as if it is a cross between Grover’s Corners and Li’l Abner’s Dogpatch.

Ben follows her early movie career with some interest. He admires the rather smart way she builds it, one block at a time, though perhaps a more accurate image would convey a house of cards. At first she does one of those big budget action films, shot on four continents, where everything in sight is blown to bits. She plays the lead’s girlfriend, a part that can scarcely exist on the page. All she is required to do is look ravishing in the costumes and scream effectively during her inevitable rescue in the last scene.

A meaty role, however, follows. Veronica is a pregnant, delusional waitress in a nothing budget, independent film, the type of movie which cynical reviewers adore and audiences stay away from in droves. For a number of years she repeats the pattern, back and forth, from the commercial to the artistic, cross-stitching her way to both public and critical recognition. Ben often travels to a dilapidated art house in Harvard Square to watch her in the poorly lit indies where she plays a drug addict or a prostitute or a serial killer. In one movie she plays a character who is all three at the same time and wins a prestigious critics’ prize.

By now, of course, Veronica is surrounded by a gaggle of handlers and professional kibitzers, people who sometimes morph and blur before her eyes. The fussy maintenance of her professional life makes her impatient and tired. There is a moment in her career when she wants to go back to New York to do an Off-Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. She envisions herself playing the “Marilyn Monroe” role to great acclaim, walking home alone to a small apartment near the theater district after performances, having no responsibilities other than immersing herself in the part. This would be bliss and much the way she remembers those early days, back when she was doing Three Sisters. However, when she mentions the idea to her agent and manager, they both respond as if they believe she is experiencing some kind of Tourette’s induced tirade.

This is when Veronica realizes that she’s on a runaway train. From here on out, escape (even manifested in safe-bet theatrical revivals) will seem like the wildest of fantasies. Too many people count on her for their paychecks and livelihood. She’s like a public utility. She can’t stop delivering.

Until, after a while, it all starts to crumble.

A tempestuous liaison with a mercurial baseball pitcher (who years later will find himself front and center during the steroid scandal) may be the turning point, when coverage of Veronica’s personal life begins to overshadow her genuine acting ability. Certainly, her move to London and a swift, head-scratching marriage to an aging and rowdy British rock star, garners more attention than the films she is making at this time. After the divorce, Veronica returns to the States where she discovers her A-list potential is badly tarnished after the failure of her last few projects. She goes for a casting meeting with the producer of an upcoming film about a spunky suffragette and overhears him whisper to his assistant, “What the fuck is she doing here?”

She reads for the “girl” role in a cop movie, but the director thinks she’s too old to play Harrison Ford’s love interest. Losing her status in the Hollywood firmament proves far more humiliating than she would have expected, and she begins to show signs of temperament. She stomps off a movie set in Mexico and is fired for unprofessionalism. She appears incoherent in a television interview, which she blames on medication after a root canal. Her estranged mother gives an angry, bitter interview to a popular women’s magazine for its Mother’s Day issue. The spiral continues when Veronica is linked to a former child star, an OxyContin addict, who sells a story about their sex life to an online tabloid. Her career, which has been slipping gears for some time, is now sputtering and nearly stalled. Veronica turns forty-three or forty-six (depending on the source) and is seriously considering an offer to hawk designer jewelry on The Shopping Channel when she snags the lead in a Lifetime television movie, where she plays an ex-stripper with a heart of gold who goes back to school to pursue a medical degree. It’s called The Same Old Grind and somehow scores huge ratings. There is even talk of developing it into a series, news that fills Veronica with nothing but a sense of gratitude and sweet relief.

~

Ben observes Veronica’s evolving existence as if from a great height, as if it is a carnival encased in a snow globe. But he has his own crooked journey. He never pursues his dream of Foreign Service, for instance, as the plan loses some of its luster after that day by the lake. He chooses law school instead, though his legal education feels like a vaccination that doesn’t take, so he tumbles through a few more careers, before landing haphazardly in hospital administration, a stressful but lucrative living. He settles outside of Boston, two towns over from where he grew up. His first wife leaves him for a roofing contractor who comes to inspect leaky gutters above their vestibule. But his second marriage, to a peppy accountant, fares better, despite her struggles with vertigo and an OCD ailment requiring her to avoid geometric patterns in carpets and floor tile.

Ben has fathered no children, a fact that gnaws at him occasionally when he is stuck in traffic on Storrow Drive or can’t sleep at night. This is also when he thinks of the lake house, which is now gone, as are both his parents, who were taken too soon by cruel and lingering illnesses. He and his little brother Rory, no longer a smart-aleck kid with a crewcut and a Nikon but a portly investment banker with a divide and conquer attitude, fight bitterly over their small inheritance and are forced to sell the cottage and share the profits. They no longer communicate.

Ben keeps the snapshot hidden in a sock drawer. He often thinks about that afternoon by the lake, when he outlined his future, and afterwards revealed his true feelings for Veronica, all the things he felt from their first conversation backstage ― and even before that, as she sat in the cafeteria or stood by her locker, oblivious (or so he believed then) to the attention she elicited from everyone in her orbit. Veronica was a sensation, a rare astronomical occurrence. Even after they sought out each other’s company and became fast friends, he’d sometimes catch his breath when he glimpsed her in unguarded moments, while the rest of the world slipped by.

~

It is their last day of vacation, and as they sit on the log, Ben talks rapidly, trying to outpace his own awkwardness as the lake shimmers through the trees in the middle distance. First he discusses his plans for college and his career, but he’s promised himself he won’t leave here without telling her everything, so he makes a sudden shift. He is afraid he sees a flicker of disappointment in Veronica’s big green eyes, but he goes on anyway, confessing it all, relentless as a seizure.

Ben sometimes wonders if Veronica has her own memories of that day.

And so she does. But the memories are vague. She remembers there had been a thoughtful, chubby boy who professed his love for her while they sat near a pond. That’s what she recalls. They had known each other in high school, she thinks, but his name escapes her now. He was rambling on about his feelings for her that day and it was really quite embarrassing. She even lost track of what he was saying in the middle of it because a hummingbird was buzzing and hovering near the boy’s head for a while and she began to focus on that instead ― its back and forth motion. In this way it seemed to her that the bird was experiencing the past and the future at the same time.

When the boy had stopped talking, she hadn’t known how to respond, so she said something from a movie she’d once seen about a popular girl who was always breaking boys’ hearts. In a slow and deliberate voice, Veronica told this boy that they would always, always be friends. But that it could never work out between them in any other way because he was destined for a bigger life and far greater things ― and she was, after all, just a simple girl from the suburbs who craved a quiet, ordinary existence. Then she remembers there had been a click of a camera. Someone had taken their picture. She can’t imagine who would have done this or why. But it’s something that might still exist somewhere ― this mystery photo. And she finds this quite amusing, a snapshot from so long ago, from her other life, before she was anyone at all.

~

Bill Gaythwaite’s short stories have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Subtropics, Chicago Quarterly ReviewGrist, Oyster River Pages and elsewhere. His work is also included in Hashtag Queer: an LGBTQ+ Creative Anthology, Vols. I and II and in Mudville Diaries, a collection of baseball writing published by Avon Books.

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