Ants, little black ones, were crawling over my hand where it supported me on the edge of the blanket, and it was all I could do not to brush them off. But Beth was staring intently into a tree where a cardinal or finch—we hadn’t decided which—was perched, the parts visible to us red against the thin branches and the blue sky peeking through from behind. Chin (hers), lips, nose, and forehead tilted upward in perfect Boticellian communion with the creature.
“Don’t move,” I whispered, “I have to get a picture of you.”
Except that she never cared about pictures—of her, of birds, of anything.
“Finch, I think,” she said, her eyes drifting to me with a bemused look, as though even that fact was not the important thing.
“God you’re beautiful,” I said, the sounds of Boston Common—adults conversing, kids screaming, dogs barking, traffic on Charles Street—shut out.
“How’d you like to kiss me now?” She lay back on the blanket, her gaze never leaving mine.
“I’d like that very much. Just let me get you with your hair flowing out like that first,” I said, swiping the ants from my arm and pointing my phone at her.
“Kill that thing right now.”
“Let’s not be hasty.” Mistaking her annoyance for embarrassment or shyness, I snapped the photo. Now I look at that picture and am sure I see things other than anger in her gray eyes: spaciousness, disappointment. Decision.
“Okay, now what were you saying?” I tossed my phone over by my shoes and scooted over to gaze down into that wonderful face.
“Picture yourself in a boat on a river,” she said to the single cloud floating behind me, “with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Quiet,” she whispered as I opened my mouth to speak. “Reality can’t be confined to a collection of pixels, to an arbitrary frame that captures me but excludes the grass, the tree, the finch, the sky, that plane, the entire moment. See?”
“That moment is what I captured,” I replied, starting to feel excluded myself, Beth again watching that bird.
“Understand,” she instructed without rancor, “that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the principle of moments overlap, that you can’t observe a moment you’re in without changing it.”
“Very profound,” I said, lying back on the blanket myself and looking up into the unforgiving blue. “What, am I never supposed to take a picture of you?”
“Xavi,” she said, her voice carrying no overt remonstrance or pity and thus all the more full of them, “you can observe with your eyes, your mind, your body, even your lips, and still be…”
Yesterday, in a news story about doctors treating people in a village somewhere in Africa, I saw her and a man I knew instantly to be her husband, not even noticing the camera. Zaire, I think it was, though no, it couldn’t have been, because what was once Zaire is now Congo.
Eric Grunwald teaches writing and ESL at MIT and was previously managing editor of Agni. His fiction, translations, and book reviews have appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Partisan Review, Spoiled Ink, The MacGuffin, Two Lines, The Boston Sunday Globe, and elsewhere. He has received grants from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation and the St. Botolph’s Club Foundation and fellowships from the Writers’ Room of Boston, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. He was chair of PEN New England’s Freedom to Write Committee from 2006 to 2008 and ran its prison writing workshops.
Lead image: “963 – CASSIN’S FINCH (5-3-08) male, torrey, wayne co, ut (4)” (via Flickr user Alan Schmierer)