The Polaroid Photo

by

03/22/2020

Neighborhood: Bowery

I have an old Polaroid of Dolores, Roni, and me. I was finally painting my kitchen, after not dealing with it for years. There’s a stepladder slanting diagonally across the snapshot and I am in the center, sitting on the bottom rung, a glass of wine in my hand. Dolores is vamping toward me from the left, looking directly at the photographer, with her hip thrust out like a showgirl, waiting for her cue. Roni leans back against the ladder, forming the right side of the triangle. She’s tall, and she has a slight gap between her front teeth, a wide smile. I can almost hear her voice, and that occasional childlike lisp. Dolores, who had no time for fools and would tell you so, said, “I like Roni, don’t get me wrong, but that girl is simple.”

The photograph has not weathered well. The color has drained away. A coffee cup ring stains the lower left corner.

I had been living in the apartment for four or five years, and the ceiling had quietly collapsed. I had watched it slip lower and lower over the course of several damp winters. Discolorations from trapped rainwater and melting snow splayed out like old bruises, the taped seams puckered. Friends, mostly male friends, would look up and say, voices strident, “Susan, why don’t you call your super? That’s going to fall down. You could be hurt; what about Benjamin?” My son was six years old, and in the name of his safety and mine, my friends were eager to discuss this situation, their enthusiasm fueled by my apathy and their zeal to rant about acts of perfidy by landlords everywhere.

I knew the ceiling was a disaster in slow motion, but I didn’t care, and there was no super. Anyway, I did get some enjoyment out of wondering what might happen and when. I was curious what the end would be like. Many days I seemed lost in a fog of futility; I called it apathy, but it may have been a darker state of malaise.

One day I came home from work, put my key in the lock and turned the knob. The door opened about six inches and stopped. I could see plaster dust lightly coating the floor and table, the whole room white as Bergdorf’s Christmas windows. While I was admiring the transformation, Benjamin danced impatiently up and down the flight of stairs that led to the roof, waiting for me to open the door. “Hey, Benj,” I said, “The ceiling fell down.”

There was no more procrastinating. I called the landlord, and he sent up one of the guys out on the Bowery to take a look. To my surprise, this man assessed the damage and returned the next morning to start the repair. He said it would take several hours to replace the ceiling, so I called in sick to work and stayed home to keep an eye on things. Even I, who knew nothing, found it peculiar that he used the empty packet from his Newport cigarettes to separate the wires of the ceiling light as he tucked them under the new slab of sheetrock. Still, he worked diligently. I spent the afternoon sweeping and wiping down plaster dust, and by the end of the day the ceiling looked far sturdier than it had before.

It would need a coat of paint, of course, so I vowed to do it—and the drab walls and cupboards, too. Roni and Dolores dropped by, mostly to drink wine and keep me company. I can’t remember that they actually helped, although the impulse to pitch in would have been in keeping with Roni’s personality. She was good with her hands and sometimes worked for a jeweler in Soho, polishing bracelets made of translucent resin. She was in love with Brian, a hat maker. He let her cut out the felt for hats that he’d swirl into shapes like birds in flight or little cakes. It’s how I see Roni still, scissors in hand, adoring Brian, tiny bits of felt confetti fluttering to the floor. He was gay and beautiful, his skin as translucent as rice paper. Like my ceiling, it was just a matter of time, before he would crumble.

In the photograph, you can see Dolores’s hands. Her fingers are short and practical. But Dolores was not one to roll up her sleeves, not like Roni. She took great pleasure in her own indolence. She had a job as a bookkeeper in a small company and usually showed up late. But there was a charm to her lack of guilt about her tardiness, and her boss forgave her over and over. Most Saturdays she wouldn’t leave her apartment until nightfall and padded around in her pajamas—her favorites were Dr. Dentons, the kind little kids wear, with feet. The television was always on, murmuring in the background like a forgotten guest. She kept a glass of vodka in the freezer, and she’d sip from it throughout the day.

Look at us: We don’t look at all alike. White, black, and brown, and yet we were as close as sisters. None of us had a real sister—Dolores and I each had a brother, and Roni was an only child. We were all fatherless, too, after a fashion. Dolores’ father lived in Philadelphia, and although she grew up not far away, in her mother’s house in South Philly, she had no memory of ever being with him. It’s not like she had forgotten all about him, however. He had married another woman and had other children. She’d call him up every once in a while late at night and berate him. I’d overheard her once: “All you’ve ever done, motherfucker, was send around a case of evaporated milk after I was born. Do you think that’s what it takes to be a father?”

Roni didn’t say much about her father. I knew her mother, who lived in Connecticut and would come to the city to visit. I was surprised the first time I met her. She was small and blonde—coloring like mine. Roni was taller than me by an inch or more, and bigger—long-boned, angular, solid. If you tried to guess her heritage, you’d think maybe Spanish or Sephardic. Her father was black, I knew that much, but she never said where he was from. When she was a kid, Roni and her mother had spent summers in Provincetown, on the Cape, and her father may well have been a fisherman. One night when the three of us were drinking and killing time until it was late enough to go out dancing, Roni told us her father had abused her with a hairbrush, but she only mentioned it that one time, and it was so horrifying I was never sure I heard her correctly.

Roni’s mother and Dolores’ mother would call me if they couldn’t reach their daughters. I was the responsible one, the oldest, and of the three of us, only I had a child. When Benjamin was nine months old, I had met Dolores after she answered an ad I had placed in the Village Voice for a babysitter. Benjamin and his father, Danny, and I went to Philly when Dolores got married. At the reception, she introduced me to her old friends, “This is my white girlfriend,” she said. “And that’s my baby, Benjamin. I’m letting her hold him for a minute.” And she laughed and laughed. Years later, Roni got a job at Benjamin’s school, working in the afternoon program where kids stayed until their parents picked them up after work. She’d walk him home sometimes, and he was special in the eyes of the other kids because he got to be friends with the teacher.

The photograph holds us, our faces soft with youth, our smiles are for the present. We cannot know—we don’t want to know—what sorrows lie in wait. On the day of that snapshot, Brian, the hat maker, was still alive; you can see that much in Roni’s eyes if you know her well enough. Brian, elegant, slim Brian. Roni loved him so. Beyond reason, Dolores and I thought. But she lost him, saw him pulled under, trampled like so many other beauties in the first devastating wave of disease. And that was just the beginning of too much sorrow. Dolores’s mother, my brother, lovers, and husbands—we all had our losses. The three of us were drawn together, and we gave the world our brave, wild-women faces. But we could not rest easy. We drank too much, stayed out too late, or never went home at all. Too often, we slept damply in someone else’s apartment, adding another knot of regret to our tangled lives.

It couldn’t last, our perfect triad, that delicate geometry. And it’s not like we were the only ones whose lives fell apart; those years took a lot of us down and some never pulled themselves back together. Dolores and I are survivors—she always said she’d die before she was thirty, but she turned sixty-five not long ago. She moved to Europe to sing, and she’s been living in Hamburg since the 1990s. The Germans love jazz, she says. There are fewer boyfriends, there’s no vodka in the freezer. I talk with her now and then, and she’s been sober, mostly, for years.

When she’s in a celebratory mood, she cooks up a pot of rice and black-eyed peas like her mother used to and invites the neighbors downstairs to come by for dinner. They have a little boy, and she says he looks just like Benjamin did, back in the day.

Before I moved away from the city, I ran into Roni in the Salvation Army thrift shop on Fourth Avenue, near the Strand. She was in the back, trying on a blouse in front of the mirror. She’d lost a lot of weight, but she told me she was fine, that things were okay. She didn’t drink and had stopped the drugging, she went to meetings, and started going to a church. Her eyes shined when she talked about the pastor the way they used to shine when she talked about Brian. I said, “It’s great to see you so happy, Roni,” and I turned away and headed toward the front of the store. The air was too heavy. The clothes hung limply on their hangers. I took a deep breath to temper the tears once I reached the street, and then headed downtown toward Astor Place.

***

Susan T. Landry is a writer and an editor. For life-blood money, she is a medical manuscript editor, editing articles for medical journals; and for pleasure and less money, she is also an editor of other writers’ stories. She founded and managed an online literary journal about memoir, called “Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie,” which is no longer publishing; Susan previously edited the print journal, “Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir.” She lived in NYC for many years, and on the Bowery from 1978 to 1991. Susan now lives in Maine.

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§ 4 Responses to “The Polaroid Photo”

  • Jeff Loeb says:

    Beautiful, Susan. I love the way you slowly unravel all the memory underlying the photo. It’s like Yeats’s “ Ah, Druid, Druid, what great webs of sorrow/Lie hidden beneath the small, slate-coloured thing.” Only hinting at the terrible scourge taking place. Jeff

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    thanks a lot, Jeff. what a lovely comment! (If i ever do a book, may I mention that I’ve been compared to Yeats?)

  • Charlotte says:

    I love reading your memories about NYC, Susan, that time and place of the lower east side that’s gone now; it’s not nostalgia, exactly, because those memories, the way you write them, are still so raw. One day, I hope to sit down and read all of your stories I’ve read over the years, together, in a little book with this picture on the cover. xCharlotte

  • margaret canepa says:

    Wonderful, Susan, I remember so much from those days. I met Dolores a few times, but Im not sure I met Roni. which school did she work at? I remember that you were quite the wild thing in those days!

§ Leave a Reply

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