His ex-wife threw the photo albums down the incinerator chute. That’s the effect he had on women — he left scars.
They had believed their marriage would last a lifetime. That’s what the photo albums were for — to keep a record, to maintain that sense of personal history, that continuity.
She told him what she had done in a long-distance phone call. She said to keep her sanity she had to obliterate every memory of him and every memory of their life together — every photograph, every image.
After the divorce and after she turned the pictures into ashes she went back to the Catholic Church. Now, in her barren apartment, there were only pictures of Christ.
He related the story to his mother, with full emphasis on the word incinerated. His mother put on a reflective face. “That poor girl,” she said, “how you must have hurt her. I think I’ll write her a letter.”
Not the reaction he was looking for. He told his girlfriend and she said, “Forget about it. Stop brooding. Make a new life with me and we’ll make new pictures.”
That was the right answer, of course. Accept his loss and get on with a new chapter. Quit sifting through fading memories like a father searching for a lost child, trying to recall every detail of a photograph of his mother visiting their little family one northern winter, or of him and his wife and infant son at Niagara Falls. One picture in particular he loved, of his young son and himself, taken in a photo booth of all places. He could see it in his mind. But he didn’t have it. He didn’t have it.
On a trip north he took the subway out to the old high-rise where they had lived and knocked on the door of her apartment. When she opened the door he barged in and condemned her. She stepped back, holding onto a chair for support. She lived alone. She was frail. Her once golden hair was already turning gray.
He gave her a sob story about how one day he would have made his own albums with those photos, and he would have had them when he was old and alone inside a small house, listening to the rain on the roof, turning the pages, studying the photographs as though each was an important piece of history.
His ex-wife turned toward a picture of Christ on the wall. From behind it she removed a small photograph and handed it to him. It was the picture of his son and himself, the one snapped in a photo booth.
“I was keeping this blessed,” she said. “But you take it. There’s only this one I’m afraid.”
She stood there in that same apartment with the same furniture they had picked out together, now draped with covers to hide the wear and tear of the years and he saw her pain. And he thought he understood her strange act of hiding that one photograph — that solitary souvenir of lost love — in a special place.
The bitterness left him. Tentatively, he put his arms around her. He remembered how much they had once meant to each other. Ever so slightly, she put her arms around him. She remembered too, he could feel it. There was a moment in that embrace when he believed they could have started over and the five years of bitterness could have been five minutes. But they broke apart.
He told her to put the photo back, that he would rather have it there than kicking around in his overnight bag, a vagabond like him.
He wasn’t a religious man, but it felt right for that photograph, that lone survivor, to be in that place. That’s what he wanted and that’s what he asked her to do, and, while she re-adjusted the picture of Christ, he slipped out the door.
Originally published in the Miami Herald