Chapter no 13

Little Fires Everywhere

In the fall of 1980, Mia Wright, just turned eighteen, left the little yellow house in Bethel Park for the New York School of Fine Arts. She had never been outside of Pennsylvania before, and she left home with two

suitcases and her brother’s love and without her parents’ blessing.

She had not told her parents she was applying to art school until the acceptance letter had arrived. It was not wholly unexpected, or should not have been. As a child she had been fascinated by things that, to her bemusement, no one else seemed to even notice. “You were such a woolgatherer,” her mother would say. “You sat in your stroller just staring out at the lawn. You’d sit in the tub and pour water back and forth from one cup to another for an hour if I’d let you.” What Mia remembered of those moments was watching the blades of grass in the breeze, changing color as they went, from dark to light, like the nap of velvet when you brushed your hand over it; the way the stream of water broke itself into droplets as it splashed against the cup’s rim. Everything, she noticed, seemed capable of transmogrification. Even the two boulders in the backyard sometimes turned to silver in the early morning sunlight. In the books she read, every stream might be a river god, every tree a dryad in disguise, every old woman a powerful fairy, every pebble an enchanted soul. Anything had the potential to transform, and this, to her, seemed the true meaning of art.

Only her brother, Warren, seemed to understand the hidden layer she saw in things, but then they had always had an understanding, since before he had been born. “My baby,” Mia would say to anyone who would listen, tapping her mother’s belly with a finger, and infallibly Warren would kick in reply. “My baby. In there,” she informed strangers in the grocery store, pointing. When they’d brought him home from the hospital, she had immediately claimed him as her own.

“My Wren,” she’d called him, not only because Warren had been too long to pronounce, but because it suited him. Even in those early days, he’d

looked like a vigilant chick, head tipped to one side, two impossibly bright and focused eyes, searching the room for her. When he cried, she knew which toy would calm him. When he wouldn’t nap, Mia lay next to him in the center of their parents’ bed, blankets heaped around them in a chenille nest, singing him songs and patting his cheek until he dozed. When he fell skinning the cat on the monkey bars, it was Mia he ran crying for, and Mia who dabbed the gash on his temple with iodine and stuck a bandage across it.

“You’d think she was the mother,” their mother had said once, half in tones of complaint, half in admiration.

They had their own words for things, a jargon of obscure origin: for reasons even they had forgotten, they referred to butter as cheese; they called the grackles that perched in the treetops icklebirds. It was a circle they drew around the two of them like a canopy. “Don’t tell anyone from France,” Mia would begin, before whispering a secret, and Warren’s reply was always, “Wild giraffes couldn’t drag it out of me.”

And then, at eleven—almost twelve—Mia discovered photography.

Warren, just turned ten, had himself discovered not only sports but that he was good at them. Baseball in the summer, football in the fall, hockey in the winter, basketball in all the spaces in between. He and Mia were still close, but there were long afternoons at the baseball diamond in the park, long hours practicing passes and practicing layups. So it was natural that Mia, too, would find a passion of her own.

At the junk shop in town she spotted an old Brownie Starflex sitting in the corner of the front window. The camera had lost its flash and neck strap, but the shop owner assured her it would work, and as soon as Mia flipped up the little silver hood and saw the junk shop reflected in blurry miniature in the lens, she wanted it immensely. She dipped into the cat-shaped bank where she saved her allowance and began to carry the camera everywhere. She ignored the manual’s suggestion that she write the Kodak Company for its helpful book How to Make Good Pictures and went by instinct alone.

With the camera dangling from two of her mother’s old silk scarves knotted together, she began to take photos—odd photos, to her parents’ eyes: rundown houses, rusted-out cars, objects discarded on the side of the road. “Funny thing to be taking a picture of,” the clerk at the Fotomat remarked as he handed over an envelope of prints. That set had contained three images, taken over successive days, of a bird’s corpse on the sidewalk, and

he wondered briefly, not for the first time, if the Wright girl was a little touched in the head.

For Mia, however, the photographs were only a vague approximation of what she wanted to express, and she soon found herself not only altering the prints—with everything from ballpoint pen to splashes of laundry detergent

—but experimenting with the camera itself, bending its limited range to her desires. The Starflex, like all Brownies, allowed no focusing. The shuttle cocked automatically to avoid double exposures—which the manual billed as a convenience for the amateur. All you had to do was all that you could do: peek into the viewfinder and press the shutter. Instead of holding the camera level against her chest, per the instructions, Mia tipped it at different angles, knotted her makeshift straps higher or lower. She draped silk scarves and wax paper over the lens; she tried shooting in fog, in heavy rain, in the smoke-filled lounge of the bowling alley.

“Waste of money,” her mother sniffed, when Mia brought home yet another envelope of blurred and grainy photos.

With each roll of film, however, she began to understand more and more how a photograph was put together, what it could do and what it could not, just how far you could stretch and twist it. Though she did not know it at the time, all of this was training her to be the photographer she would become. With only twelve exposures on a roll, she learned to be careful in composing her shots. And with no controls—no aperture control, no focus

—she learned to be creative in the ways she manipulated her camera and her scene.

At this moment, fortuitously, their neighbor Mr. Wilkinson intervened. He lived up the hill from them, and for some time he’d seen Mia with her Brownie wandering the neighborhood, snapping pictures of this and that. Mia and Warren know only one thing about Mr. Wilkinson: he was a toy buyer and spent most of his time traveling to toy shows, perusing merchandise, sending reports to headquarters on which toys to stock. Every few months, Mrs. Wilkinson would round up the neighborhood children and distribute the sample toys Mr. Wilkinson had accumulated. Marvelous toys they were: a set of molds that you filled with plaster to cast Christmas ornaments; a Saturn-shaped ball on which you could bounce, pogo-style; a giant doll’s head with hair of gold to coif; a box of perfumes to blend and pinkie-sized vials to hold your concoctions. “I need my basement back,” she’d said, laughing, making sure each child got something, even if only a

yo-yo. The Wilkinsons’ son was grown by then, living somewhere in Maryland, and no longer needed toys.

For a long time, this was the only image Mia had of Mr. Wilkinson, a mysterious cross between Marco Polo and Santa Claus who filled his home with treasures. But one afternoon, just after her thirteenth birthday, Mr.

Wilkinson had called to her sternly from his front porch.

“I’ve been seeing you traipsing around for a year now,” he’d said. “I want to see what you’ve been up to.”

Mia, terrified, collected a stack of her photographs and brought them to the Wilkinsons’ the next morning. She had never shown her photos to anyone but Warren before, and Warren, of course, had oohed and aahed.

But Mr. Wilkinson was an adult, a man, a man she barely knew. He would have no incentive to be kind.

When she rang the Wilkinsons’ doorbell, Mrs. Wilkinson led her into the den, where Mr. Wilkinson sat at a large desk typing something on a cream-colored typewriter. But when Mia entered, he swiveled around in his chair and swung the typewriter shelf down and under, where it folded into a cabinet in the desk as neatly as if it had been swallowed.

“Now then,” he said. He unfolded a pair of half-moon glasses that hung around his neck and placed them on his nose, and Mia’s knees trembled. “Let’s have a look.”

Mr. Wilkinson, it turned out, was a photographer himself—though he preferred landscapes. “Don’t like shots with people in them,” he told her. “I’ll take a tree over a person any day.” When he went on a trip, he took his camera with him and always scheduled himself half a day to go exploring. From a file he pulled a stack of photographs: a redwood forest at dawn, a river snaking through a field shot with dew, a lake reflecting the sun in a glittering triangle that pointed to the woods beyond. The photographs all over the hallway, Mia realized, were his as well.

“You’ve got a good eye,” Mr. Wilkinson said at last. “Good eye and good instincts. See this one here?” He tapped the top picture, a photo of Warren perched in the low branches of a sycamore, back to the camera, silhouetted against the sky. “That’s a fine shot. How’d you know how to frame that?”

“I don’t know,” Mia admitted. “It just looked right.”

Mr. Wilkinson squinted at another. “Hold on to that. Trust your eyes.

They see well.” He plucked out another photo. “But see this? You wanted

that squirrel, didn’t you?” Mia nodded. It had been running along the ridge of the fence and she’d been mesmerized by the undulating arc its body and tail had traced as it ran. Like watching a ball bounce, she’d thought as she clicked the shutter. But the photo had come out blurry, focused on the fence instead of the squirrel, the squirrel itself simply a smudge. She wondered how Mr. Wilkinson knew.

“Thought so. You need a better camera. That one’s fine for a starter, or for birthday parties and Christmas. Not for you.” He went to the closet and rummaged in the back, the old overcoats and bagged dresses inside muffling his voice. “You—you want to take real pictures.” In a moment he returned and held out a compact box. “You need a real camera, not a toy.”

It was a Nikon F, a little silver-and-black thing, heavy and solid in her hands. Mia ran her fingers over the pebbled casing. “But I can’t take this.”

“I’m not giving it, I’m lending it. You want it or not?” Without waiting for her to answer, Mr. Wilkinson opened a drawer in his desk. “I’m not using that one anymore. Someone might as well.” He removed a black canister of film and tossed it to Mia. “Besides,” he said, “I’m looking forward to seeing what you do with it.”

By the time Mia went home that afternoon, she had learned how to wind the film onto the spool inside the camera, how to focus it, how to adjust the lens. Strange and beguiling new words swirled in her head: f-stop, aperture. Over and over again she lifted the camera to her eye to peer through the viewfinder. Under the hairline cross at its center, everything was transformed.

Mr. Wilkinson taught her how to extract the film from its roll and develop it, and Mia came to love the sharp bite of the developer, how to watch for the sheen of silver on the film’s surface that told her it was ready. Like a pilot dipping the plane into a tailspin to practice pulling back out, she would deliberately take photos out of focus, with the wrong shutter speed or the wrong ISO, to see what happened. She learned how to control the light and the camera to get the effects she wanted, like a musician learning the intricacies of an instrument.

“But how can you—?” she would ask, watching the print form on the paper and comparing it to the image she’d had in her mind. At first Mr. Wilkinson would know the answer. “Dodging.” “Use a diffused bright fill.” “Let’s try freelensing.” But soon her questions became more advanced,

sending him to the copy of Photographic Techniques he kept on the bookshelf.

“The young lady wants a greater depth of field,” he mused one afternoon. By now Mia was fifteen. “What the young lady needs is a view camera.”

Mia had never heard of such a thing. But soon all her earnings, from clerking at Dickson’s Pharmacy to waitressing at the Eat’n Park, were earmarked for a camera, and she spent hours poring over Mr. Wilkinson’s camera catalogs and photography magazines.

“You spend more time reading those things than you do taking pictures,” Mr. Wilkinson teased her, but she eventually settled on one—the Graphic View II—and even Mr. Wilkinson couldn’t dispute her choice.

“That’s a solid camera,” he said. “Good value for your money. You take care of that, it’ll be with you your whole life.” And when the Graphic View II arrived, procured secondhand from a classified ad, well loved and packed into its own case like an expensive violin, Mia knew this would be true.

To her parents the camera was less impressive. “You spent how much on that?” her mother asked, while her father shook his head. It looked, to them, like something from the Victorian era, balanced on a spindly tripod, with a pleated belly like a bellows and a dark cloth that Mia ducked underneath.

She tried to explain to them how it worked, but at the first mention of shifts and tilts their attention began to wander. Even her beloved Warren gave up at that point—“I don’t need to know how it works, Mi,” he told her at last, “I just want to see the pictures”—and Mia realized that she was crossing into a place she would have to go alone.

She took pictures of the jungle gym at the local park, of streetlights at night, of city workers chopping down an oak that had been struck by lightning. She lugged the view camera downtown to photograph a rusty bridge stretching over the spot where the three rivers collided. By toying with the settings, she took a picture of Warren’s football game, from up in the bleachers, where the players looked like miniatures, the kind you’d see on a train set. “That’s me?” Warren had said, peering at one of the figures, the one long in the end zone, waiting for the pass. “That’s you, Wren,” Mia said. She had a sudden image of herself as a sorceress, waving her hand over the field and transforming the boys below into pea-sized plastic dolls.

She took that print to Mr. Wilkinson’s the next day, only to find a strange woman at the door. Mr. Wilkinson’s daughter-in-law, it turned out. “Della

passed in her sleep,” the daughter-in-law told her, eyeing Mia, the camera around her neck, the photograph in her hand. “What did you say you needed?” After the funeral, the daughter-in-law and her husband convinced Mr. Wilkinson to move into a retirement home in Silver Spring, nearer to them. It happened so quickly Mia did not even have the chance to say goodbye, let alone show him the photograph, and she and her camera were alone again.



In the fall of 1979, her senior year of high school, Mia applied to the New York School of Fine Arts with a series of photographs she’d taken of abandoned buildings around town. She’d dabbed the prints with a damp cloth and, while the emulsion was wet, used the tip of a needle to scrape away the image, leaving a pin-thin white line. The results were a kind of reverse scrimshaw: a spectral worker slumped on the steps outside a shuttered factory; the outline of a sedan atop the empty hydraulic lift of Jamison’s Auto Repair; a pair of phantom children scrambling hand in hand up a hill of slag. At the sight of those children, Warren had squinted and peered closer. The two children could have been anyone, but they weren’t anyone: there was the little cowlick at the crown of Warren’s head, there was the knotted silk scarf around Mia’s neck, the weight of the camera pulling her slightly askew. There were no pictures of the two of them doing such a thing but it seemed to them they’d spent their childhoods playing on the slag heaps that butted up against the park, and looking at his sister’s photograph, Warren felt as if Mia had taken a photo of the ghosts of their past selves, about to fade into the ether. “When you get it back, can I have it?” he’d asked.

To her parents, the photos—and Mia’s work in general—were less enchanting. They did not even call what she did “work,” or “art,” which in their minds would have been just as bad. They were middle-class people, had lived all their married lives in a butter-colored middle-class ranch house in a stolid, middle-class town. To them, work was fixing something or making something useful; if it didn’t have a use, they couldn’t quite make out why you’d do it. “Art” was something that people with too much time and money on their hands did. And could you blame them? Her father was a

handyman, founder and sole proprietor of Wright’s Repair, one day working at the church repairing the eaves where a board had broken and a family of squirrels had wriggled their way into the nave, another day at a neighbor’s house snaking the drains or replacing a U-bend under the sink that had rusted away. Her mother was a nurse at the hospital, counting pills, drawing blood, changing bedpans, no stranger to night and double shifts. They worked with their hands, they worked long hours, they saved all they could and put it into a paid-off house and two Buicks and their two children, whom they were proud to say—accurately—lacked for nothing but were never spoiled.

But there was Mia, sprawled on the floor for hours, taking a perfectly good picture of Warren and cutting him out like a paper doll, setting up her cutout brother in a diorama of leaves in an old shoebox—all for one photograph, in which Warren looked like an elf surrounded by giant acorns: clever, but it hardly seemed worth the time she’d put in. There was Mia the second her father got home, his shoes barely off and the grease not yet washed from his hands, begging for two dollars for more film, promising I’ll pay it back, I promise, though truth be told, she seldom did. There was Mia who, when her mother gave her money for new school clothes, patched the holes in her old jeans instead and spent the money on yet more film, running around in skirts that were inches too short, shirts that were faded and worn, taking yet more pictures. There was Mia who, when she went out and got a job as a waitress at the Eat’n Park, instead of using her earnings to buy her own clothes or a used car, saved them and spent everything on a camera, of all things. It wasn’t even a camera the rest of them could use— she’d tried to explain to them once about movement and lens distance and they’d all lost interest almost at once—though she did take a family portrait of the four of them, her senior year of high school, that her mother had framed and hung on the living room wall. The camera folded down into a valise the size of a briefcase and somehow this made it even more disappointing to her parents: all that money packed away into such a small space.

How could you blame Mia’s parents for not understanding? They had been born in the wartime years; they’d been raised by parents who’d come of age in the Depression, who threw nothing out, not even moldy food.

They were old enough to remember when rags became felt for the war effort, when cans and scrap metal could become bullets and cans of grease

explosives. Practicality was baked into their bones. They wasted nothing, especially not time.

So when it came to college, they had assumed she would go somewhere practical, like Pitt or perhaps Penn State, to study something like business or hotel management. They had assumed this photography thing was an adolescent phase, like boy chasing, or vegetarianism. What else had they worked so hard for all these years? For Mia to throw their money away on art school? No, if she wanted art school so badly, she would have to pay her own way. It wasn’t mean, they insisted. It was sensible. They weren’t forbidding her from going. They were not angry, they assured her; certainly not, definitely not. But they’d sat her down in the living room and put it bluntly: this art thing was a waste of time. They were disappointed in her.

And they certainly wouldn’t pay for it. “I thought we raised you to be smarter,” her mother said, her voice laced with disapproval.

Mia had listened sadly, but it was what she’d expected. She had known all along her parents would not approve; all this time they had indulged her hobby but now that she was eighteen, she knew, things would be different. She was supposed to be an adult, when childish indulgences were supposed to be set aside, not dived into headfirst. She had already done a series of calculations, and if her parents had agreed to contribute at all she would have been taken aback. The school had been so impressed by her portfolio that they’d offered her a tuition scholarship. Her room and board and supplies, she estimated, she would pay for with a part-time job. Her parents glanced at each other, as if they’d known all along their threat wouldn’t work, and absorbed this news in silence.

The week before Mia was to leave, Warren appeared in the doorway of her room.

“Mi, I’ve been thinking,” he said, so seriously she almost giggled until he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a folded stack of bills. “I think you should take this. It won’t pay for all the rest, but it’ll be most of it.”

“And the car, Wren?” she asked. Warren had been saving up to buy a car, had even, after much research, picked out the very car he planned to buy: a Volkswagen Rabbit. It was not the car she’d have expected from him: she’d have guessed a Trans Am, or a Thunderbird, something flashy and fun. But gas was running $1.10 a gallon, and not only was the Rabbit one of the few cars he could afford, the ads promised it would get 38 miles per gallon as

well, and she was amused to see this practical side of Warren emerging here, of all places.

She folded his hand over the bills and pushed it gently away. “Go get that car, Wren,” she said. “Get it and promise to pick me up at the bus station whenever I come home.”

Mia had boarded a Greyhound to Philly, then New York, with one suitcase of clothing and one of cameras. From a bulletin board, she’d found an apartment in the Village, not far from campus, with two other girls.

She’d gotten a job as a waitress at a little diner near Grand Central and another at the Dick Blick in SoHo. With the last of her savings she’d headed over to the photography store on West 17th, where a young man sold her film and paper as she tried not to stare at his yarmulke. Thus equipped, she’d begun her classes: Figure Drawing I, Light and Color I, Survey of Art I, Introduction to Critical Studies, and—with the most excitement— Introduction to Photography, taught by the renowned Pauline Hawthorne.

It turned out that despite their best intentions, her parents had prepared her exceptionally well for art school.

Each morning she got up at four thirty and went to work pouring coffee for businessmen about to catch their trains. The hot plates she carried from the kitchen seared the insides of her forearms with arc-shaped scars. Her mother had always managed, even on her double shifts, to make each patient more than a body in a bed—chatting with them about their daughter’s dance recital or their brother’s recent car trouble, asking after their pets—and watching her for years, Mia had learned this talent, too: remembering who took cream and sugar, who liked ketchup on their eggs, who always left the crust on the edge of the plate and was delighted to find, next time, that she’d had the crusts cut off in the kitchen. She learned to anticipate people’s needs: just as her mother knew when to appear with the next dose of morphine or to empty the bedpan, she learned to appear with the coffeepot just as they were setting down their empty mugs, to watch her customers for the little fidgets and stretches that signaled they were in a hurry and ready for the check, or that they were relaxed and wanted to linger. Because of this, the businessmen and ad men liked to sit in her section, and they usually left an extra dollar—or sometimes a five—on the table. In the kitchen, when the manager wasn’t looking, she ate the leftover wedges of toast and cold forkfuls of scrambled eggs from the plates instead of scraping them into the garbage. This was her breakfast.

When her shift was over, she changed in the little closet of an employee bathroom, rolling her work uniform and apron into a tight cylinder before tucking it in her knapsack, so they would not wrinkle. She did not own an iron and this way, if she was careful, she could wear the same uniform for a week or more before she had to brave the Laundromat. Then, in jeans and a T-shirt, she headed to class.

From her father she had learned to change the oil in a car, to wire a socket, to chisel, to saw—which meant she wielded her tools expertly: she knew how far you could flex a piece of wire or a sheet of metal before it broke, how to make clean lines and soft bulges and curves, how to coax a copper pipe into angles and bends. From her mother she had learned how to handle cloth—from drapey gauze to thick canvas—and how to make it behave, what its limits were, how much you could stretch it and how much it could hold. How to clean a tool, properly, so that no trace of what had touched it remained. Now, in class, when they were asked to make a chair from metal, she already knew how to weld and make things strong; when they were told to work with cloth, she knew—with a quick squeeze of the fabric—how to transform corduroy and linen into a tree, six feet tall, that even her teacher would admire. She knew how thin you needed to make paint so that it would flow and how thick you could make it so that it would clump on the canvas like clay, something to be sculpted. In figure drawing, when the model unbelted her robe and let it puddle at her feet, she alone wasted no time blushing but began, immediately, to sketch the model’s long limbs and the curve of her breast: at the hospital, helping her mother, she had seen too many bodies to be shy about anything.

At three o’clock, after her classes ended, she went to work again. Twice a week she had shifts at the Dick Blick, selling art supplies to her fellow students, or restocking the back room. She talked art with the older students, and they told her what they were working on, why they preferred knife to brush or acrylic to oil, or Fujicolor to Kodachrome. In the back room, her boss—who had a daughter about Mia’s age and thus had a soft spot for this girl, working multiple jobs to pay her rent—allowed her to keep the pencils and pastels that had snapped in transit, the paint tubes that had leaked, the brushes and canvases that had been dinged or come unstapled. Anything that could no longer be sold Mia took home and repaired, restretching the canvases or mending them on the back with tape, sanding the splintered handle of a brush, sharpening two half pencils to use

in place of a whole. In this way she was able to acquire a good portion of her supplies for free.

Three evenings a week, Mia boarded the 1 and rode to 116th Street, where she put on a different uniform and waited tables at a bar near Columbia. The undergrads she served tended to be either haughty and obnoxious or leering and obnoxious, more so as the night wore on, but they tipped her, and at the end of a good night she might have thirty or forty dollars in her apron. She ate the last bites of their burgers and their forgotten fries and the stubs of their pickles for dinner and folded all the cash into her jeans pocket.

She scraped her way through the first year with some money saved even after her rent was paid. Now and then, when she called home—for she did call home, she and her parents all insisted there was no ill will between them; they asked politely how school was doing and showed, or at least feigned, interest in her answers—Warren asked if it was worth it. He had always been the happy-go-lucky one, ready to take things as they came; she had been the driven one, the ambitious one, the planner.

“It’s worth it,” she assured him. And she would tell him about her classes, what paintings she’d studied that week, and her favorite, the real reason she woke at four thirty every morning and stayed up late every night: photography.

When she spoke of Pauline Hawthorne, her tone was half the adoration of a schoolgirl for a crush, half the adoration of a devotee for a saint. It had not been clear, at first, that it would turn out that way. On the first day of photography class, the students had sat upright at their desks, each with a 35mm camera and two notebooks—as specified by the supplies list—in hand. When class began, Pauline strode to the back of the room, flicked off the lights, and, without introducing herself, clicked on the slide projector. A Man Ray photograph burst onto the screen before them: a voluptuous woman, her back transformed into a cello by two painted f-holes. Complete silence filled the room. After five minutes, Pauline twitched her thumb, and the cello woman was replaced by an Ansel Adams landscape, Mount McKinley glowering over a lake of pure white. No one said anything.

Another click: a Dorothea Lange portrait of a Dust Bowl woman, her dark hair in a deep part, the merest hint of a smile lifting the corners of her lips. For the entire two hours of the class this continued, a survey of photographs they all recognized but which—as Pauline must have realized—they had

never spent much time looking at. Mia, from her reading at the library, recognized them all, but found that after she’d stared at them for long enough, they took on new contours, like faces of people she loved.

After the two hours had passed, Pauline clicked the slide projector off and the class sat blinking in the sudden brightness. “Next class, bring the photo you’re proudest of,” she said, and left the room. They were the first and only words she’d said.

The next class, after much thought, Mia had brought one of the photos she’d taken with her large-format camera. Introduction to Photography focused on handheld cameras, but Pauline had said the photo you’re proudest of, and this was hers: a shot of her brother playing street hockey in their backyard, their house and the rest of their neighborhood spread out behind him like miniatures. She had climbed all the way to the top of the hill behind their house to take it. On entering, they found index cards with each student’s name pinned up on the walls around the classroom, with clips fastened below them. At two minutes past the hour, Pauline entered— again, without introducing herself—and the class gathered beside each photo in turn, Pauline commenting on the composition or the technique of the picture, students timidly answering her questions about point of view or tone. Some were carefully constructed scenes; one or two had attempted something artistic: a silhouette of a girl backlit by an enormous movie screen; a close-up of a tangled telephone cord wrapped around a receiver.

Mia and the rest of her classmates had braced themselves against Pauline’s questioning. After that first class, they’d been sure she was one of the dragons, as the harsher teachers were known: the ones who delighted in making their students uncomfortable, who thought the best way to push students out of their comfort zones was to bulldoze them into rubble during critiques. But Pauline, it turned out, was no dragon. Despite her no-nonsense air, she found something in each photograph to highlight and praise. It was why—despite being well established—she chose to teach the beginning students. “Look at how the little sister is laughing here,” she said, tapping one of the family portraits. “She’s the only one not looking at the camera—which gives you a sense that there’s something outside the frame. Is she a rebel? Or does this hint at the whole family’s spirit?” Or: “Notice how the skyscraper here looks like it’s about to pierce the moon. That’s a thoughtful choice of perspective.” Even her criticisms—which were as common as her praise—were not what Mia had expected. “Water is hard,”

she said simply, when someone pointed out that a photo of a waterfall was badly blurred. “Let’s suppose this was done on purpose. What effect does it have?”

Mia’s photograph had been last, and when the class gathered before it, Pauline had paused for a moment, as if taken aback. She had studied it carefully, for two minutes, three, five, and in the silence the class grew uneasy. “Who’s Mia Wright?” she asked finally, and Mia stepped forward. Everyone else took a half step back, as if whatever lightning were about to strike might hit them, too. Then Pauline began to ask questions. Why did you have this line run from right to left? Why did you shift the camera this way? Why did you focus on the hockey stick, and not the net? Mia answered as best she could: she had wanted to capture how small the house and the lawn were in comparison to the hills behind it; she had wanted to show the texture of the grass and the way the blades crushed under her brother’s shoes. But at a certain point, as Pauline’s questions became more technical, she had become flustered and inarticulate. The line had just looked right that way. The shift had just looked right that way. The depth of field had just looked right that way. At last, just as the class session ended, Pauline stepped away with a nod.

“Bring your cameras next time,” she said. “We’ll start to take some photos.” She picked up her bag and left the room, leaving Mia unsure if she’d just passed or failed utterly.

Over the next few classes Pauline treated Mia just like any other student. They learned to wind film into the camera, how to compose a photo, how to calculate the proper aperture and width. All of this Mia knew already, from Mr. Wilkinson’s tutelage and her own experimentations over the years. As Pauline explained it, however, her intuitive feelings about how to shape her shots became more conscious. She learned to articulate her reasons for choosing a specific f-stop, to not only find the settings that made it look right but to explain why it looked right that specific way. Two weeks into the semester, as the class began making their first prints, Pauline stopped by Mia’s station in the darkroom. In the glare of the red light she looked as if she had been carved from a giant ruby.

“How long have you been working with the view camera?” she asked, and when Mia told her, she said, “Would you like to show me some more of your photos?”

The following Saturday, Mia found herself in the lobby of Pauline’s apartment, an envelope of photos clutched in her hand. The building had a doorman, and Mia, having never encountered one before, was so awestruck she did not listen when he told her which floor, and resorted to pressing each button in the elevator in turn and checking the names on each door before ducking back inside and pressing the next. When she at last came out on the sixth floor, she found Pauline standing in the open doorway.

“There you are,” she said. “The doorman called up to say you were here ten minutes ago. I was starting to wonder.” She was barefoot but otherwise looked exactly the same as she did in class: a black T-shirt and a long black skirt and long beaded earrings that jingled like chimes as she walked. Mia, blushing, followed her into a large, white-walled, sunlit room where everything seemed to glow. She had expected a photographer’s apartment to be covered in photographs, but the walls were bare. Later she would learn that Pauline’s studio was upstairs, that she never hung anything because when she wasn’t working, she wanted the white space. Palate cleanser, Pauline would explain. But at this moment, Mia simply sat down beside her on the nubbly gray couch, where they laid photograph after photograph across the coffee table. Pauline was full of questions, as she had been that second day of class: Why did you set the camera so low in this one? Why so close in that one? Did you think about adjusting tilt here? What were you thinking about when you took this shot? In the photographs Mia lost her shyness. They were so engrossed that when a woman entered and set two cups of coffee down on the end table, one beside each of them, she jumped.

“Mal,” said Pauline, with an offhand wave. “Mal, this is Mia Wright, one of my students.”

Mal was slender with long, wavy brown hair. She wore jeans and a green blouse and, like Pauline, she was barefoot.

“Thought you’d like some coffee,” Mal said. “Lovely to meet you, Mia.” She kissed Pauline on the cheek and went away.

Mia spent all afternoon there, until it was time for her shift at the bar.

Pauline and Mal pressed her to stay for dinner, until she finally admitted she had to go to work. “Then next week,” Pauline suggested, “when you have a day off.” Over the following months she would visit Pauline and Mal often, talking photography with Pauline, watching her at work in her studio, listening to Pauline think aloud about whatever she was working on at the time. “I’ve been reading about ancient Egypt,” Pauline might begin,

flipping a book open. “Tell me what you think of this.” At their dinner table Mia tried foods she’d never tasted: artichokes, olives, Brie. Mal, she learned, was a poet, had published several collections of poems. “But no one cares about poetry,” Mal said with a rueful laugh. She lent Mia books by the stack: Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich.

By the time winter came, Mia would bring her newest photographs to show Pauline nearly every week, and they would talk them over, Pauline pressing her to articulate what she’d done and why. Before, Mia had taken photographs by feel, relying on instinct to tell her what was right and what was wrong. Pauline challenged her to be intentional, to plan her work, to make a statement in each photograph, no matter how straightforward the photo might seem. “Nothing is an accident,” Pauline would say, again and again. It was her favorite mantra, Mia had learned, in both photography and in real life. In Pauline and Mal’s house, nothing was simple. In her parents’ house, things had been good or bad, right or wrong, useful or wasteful.

There had been nothing in between. Here, she found, everything had nuance; everything had an unrevealed side or unexplored depths.

Everything was worth looking at more closely.

After these sessions, Pauline and Mal would always press Mia to stay for dinner. They knew, by now, about the three jobs, and Mal would urge extra servings on her, would send her home with Tupperware full of leftovers, which she would return on the next visit. They would, in fact, have encouraged her to stay the night, to settle into one of their guest rooms and stay for good, if either of them could have thought of a way to suggest it.

Because Mia was proud: this was quite obvious. Although she accepted their hospitality gratefully, after that first visit she made a point of never arriving empty-handed. She brought them little things she had made: bunches of leaves gathered in Central Park and bound with a ribbon into a ruddy bouquet; a thumb-size basket woven from grass; once, a little sketch of the two of them she’d drawn in ink, even a handful of pure-white pebbles after Pauline mentioned she’d begun a new project with stones. It was clear to both Pauline and Mal that these gifts eased Mia’s guilt over all they offered her—their food, their knowledge, their affection—and that otherwise Mia’s pride would prevent her from coming back.

And they very much wanted her to come back. By Christmastime it had become clear to all of them—Pauline, Mal, and Mia’s other teachers and fellow classmates—that Mia was immensely talented.

“You’re going to be famous, you know that, right?” Warren said to his sister one evening. She had come home for Christmas, and true to his word, he’d come to pick her up at the bus station in the little tan VW Rabbit he’d bought that fall. Now, four days after Christmas, he was bringing her back. Without discussing it they had agreed to take the long route, along the winding back roads, in order to stretch out these last few minutes together. Warren was now a junior in high school, and it seemed to Mia that he’d grown in the time she was away: not taller, but that something about him had deepened. His voice had lowered and he’d begun to grow into his hands and fingers and feet, which for the past few years had been too large for him, like a puppy’s paws. In the fading afternoon light the stubble on his throat looked like only a shadow, but she knew it for what it was.

“We’ll see” was all she said. Then: “And you? What are you going to be when you grow up?” In kindergarten, when the teacher had asked this question, Warren had answered with his plans for that afternoon—the afternoon being as far into the future as his five-year-old mind could imagine. Since then, “What are you going to be when you grow up” had been their way of asking about plans for the day, and even now, Mia teased him, Warren never seemed to be able to look more than a week or two ahead.

“Tommy Flaherty and I are going hunting Friday,” he said now. “Getting in one more trip before school starts.” Mia made a face. She had never approved of hunting, though everyone in their neighborhood had a deer head or two somewhere in their houses.

“I’ll call you when I get back,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek.

She was struck again by how he’d grown, how he seemed leaner and stronger and more solid than she’d remembered. She wondered if there was a girl in his life. What would he look like the next time she came home, she thought—and when would that be? Summer, perhaps, unless she got a job to save up for next year. There was so much to do. Already, in the few months since she’d come to New York, her work had developed: from her time with Pauline, from studying the work of her classmates, even from the long hours she put in at her many jobs and the constant rotation of strangers she encountered there. It had become smarter and more deliberate, more technically advanced and adventurous, riskier and edgier, and everyone— including Mia herself, and Warren, waving to her through the passenger window before leaning over to crank it closed—was certain she would go

far. Nothing was going to distract her from her work, she promised herself. The work was the only thing that mattered. She would not allow herself to think about anything else.

She was so focused on her work that, on the afternoon in March when the man with the briefcase began staring at her, she did not notice right away. It was midafternoon when she got on at Houston Street, heading up to her job near Columbia, and the 1 was quiet, with only a handful of passengers. Mia was thinking about her project for Pauline—Document a transformation over time—when she felt the sudden prickle on her skin that meant she was being watched. Mia was used to stares—this was New York, after all—and like all women she had learned to ignore them, as well as the catcalls that sometimes accompanied them. But this man she couldn’t quite read. He seemed respectable enough: neat striped suit, dark hair, briefcase between his feet. Wall Street, she guessed. The look in his eyes wasn’t lust, or even playfulness. It was something else—a strange mix of recognition and hunger—and it unsettled her. After three stops, when the man had not stopped staring, she bundled up her things and stepped off at Columbus Circle.

At first she thought she had lost him. The train pulled away and she settled herself onto a grimy bench to await the next one and then, as the handful of passengers cleared the station, she saw him again: briefcase in hand now, scanning the platform. Looking for her, she was sure. Before he spotted her she turned and made for the staircase at the far end of the platform and followed the tunnel, walking as briskly as she could without attracting attention, to the platform for the C. She would be late for work now, but it didn’t matter. She would get off in a stop or two and walk over to Broadway and catch the right train, once she had gotten away, even if it meant paying another fare.

When the C came, Mia stepped onto a middle car and scanned the seats.

The car was half full, enough people that she could call for help if she needed, but not so full that the crowd would hide anything untoward. She settled herself into an empty seat in the center. At 72nd Street there was no sign of him. But at 81st, just as Mia rose to leave, the door at the end of the car opened and in came the man with the briefcase. He was slightly disheveled now, a few locks of his hair falling into his face, as if he had been hurrying through the cars looking for her. Her eyes met his and there was no way to pretend she hadn’t seen him. Mia’s roommate had been

mugged twice walking home late at night, and her classmate Becca had told her a man had pulled her into an alley off Christopher Street by her ponytail

—she’d managed to fight him off, but he had pulled out a hank of her hair. Mia had seen the bald spot. Whatever was going to happen would happen now, whether she stayed on the train or off.

She stepped off the train and he followed her, and when the doors closed they stood frozen on the platform for a moment. There was no conductor or policeman in sight, only an old lady with a walker slowly trudging toward the stairs and, at the far end of the platform, a sleeping bum in tattered sneakers. If she ran, she thought, perhaps she could make it to the stairs before he caught her.

“Wait,” the man called as the train began to pull away. “I just want to talk to you. Please.” He stopped and held up his hands. Now she could see that he was younger than she’d thought, perhaps only in his thirties, and thinner, too. His suit, she could see, was expensive, fine silver thread running through the wool, and his shoes were, too: cordovan with tassels and smooth leather soles. Not the shoes of a man who ran.

“Please,” the man went on. “I’m sorry I followed you. I’m sorry I was staring at you. You must have thought—” He shook his head. “I don’t like my wife riding the subway because I worry she’ll get followed by someone just like that.”

“What do you want?” Mia croaked. She had not realized how dry her throat was. Behind her back, she tightened her grip on her keys, points out. It doesn’t look like much, but it’ll hurt, Becca had told her.

“Let me explain,” the man said. “I’ll stand right here. I won’t come any closer. I just needed to talk to you.” He put his briefcase down at his feet, between them, and Mia relaxed an infinitesimal amount. If he tried to lunge at her now, it would trip him.

His name was Joseph Ryan—“Joey,” he’d corrected himself—and he worked, as she’d guessed, on Wall Street: he’d rattled off a string of names that she recognized as one of the big trading firms. He and his wife lived over on Riverside Drive; he was headed home now; they’d been married for nine years; they’d met as high school sweethearts; they didn’t have any children. “We can’t,” Joseph Ryan explained. “She can’t have children. And

—” He stopped and looked at Mia beseechingly, ran a hand through his hair and took a deep breath, with the air of a man who knows he is about to utter

something preposterous. “We’ve been looking for someone to carry a baby for us. The right person.” And then: “We would pay her. Generously.”

Mia’s head spun. She dug the points of her keys into the heel of her hand—not for protection now, but to convince her that what she was hearing was real. “You want—” she managed at last. “Why me?”

Joseph Ryan fumbled in his pocket and produced a business card, and after a brief hesitation, Mia took a single step forward and stretched her arm to take it. “Please. Will you just come and talk with us? Tomorrow? At lunch? Our treat, of course.”

Mia shook her head. “I have to work,” she said. “I can’t—”

“Dinner, then. My wife and I can explain everything to you. Look—the Four Seasons. Seven o’clock? At the very least, I promise you’ll get a good meal.” He bobbed his head like a shy schoolboy and picked up his briefcase. “If you don’t show up, I’ll understand,” he said. “I can’t imagine

—having someone suggest this to you. On a subway platform.” He shook his head. “But please—just think about it. You would help us so much. You would change our lives.” And then he turned away and went up the staircase, leaving Mia standing on the platform, holding the card in her fingertips.



For the rest of her life Mia would wonder what her life would have been like if she had not gone to the restaurant that day. At the time it seemed like a lark: just a way to satisfy her curiosity, and get a nice meal in the bargain. Later, of course, she would realize it had changed everything forever.

That evening she stepped from 52nd Street into the lobby of the Four Seasons, in the only nice dress she owned: one she’d worn to her cousin Debbie’s wedding the year before. She’d grown since then, so the dress was a bit too short and a bit too tight, and even if it had fit it would have been worlds of style away from this plush lobby, with its huge chandelier and its dense carpet and its jungle of potted plants. Even the air seemed lush and thick here, like velvet, swallowing up the click-click of ladies’ heels and the chatter of men in suits, so that they passed as silently as gliding ships.

Joseph Ryan had not told her where to meet them, so she stood awkwardly to one side, pretending to admire the painting that covered one of the

lobby’s enormous walls, trying to avoid the attention of the maître d’, who floated around the entrance of the dining room like a solicitous specter.

Five minutes, she thought, and if they didn’t come, she would go home. She had forgotten to wear a watch, so she began to count slowly, as she and Warren had as children playing hide-and-seek. She would count to three hundred, and then she would go home and forget this crazy thing had ever happened. And then, just as she reached a hundred and ninety-eight, Joseph Ryan appeared at her elbow, like a waiter.

“Picasso,” he said. “What?”

“The tapestry.” Here in the lobby he seemed almost bashful, and she had almost forgotten the menace she’d felt the day before. “Well, not a tapestry per se, I guess. He painted it on a curtain. They asked him for a painting, but he didn’t have time to make one, so he gave them this instead. I’ve always admired it.”

“I thought you were bringing your wife,” Mia said.

“She’s at the table.” He made as if to take her arm, then thought better of it and put his hands into his jacket pockets instead. It was almost comical, his gentlemanliness, she thought as she followed him down the hallway.

A huge white room with—she blinked—a jade-green pool in the center.

Trees inside, studded with pink blossoms and starred with lights. Like a fairy forest hidden in the center of a New York office building. All around the soft hum of conversation. A scrim of fine chains lacing the window, rippling like waves though there was no breeze. And then the strange thing happened. As they came into the dining room and Joseph Ryan approached the table in the corner, Mia saw herself somehow already sitting at the table, in a neat navy dress, a cocktail in her hand. For a moment Mia thought she was approaching a mirror, and she paused, confused. And then the woman at the table stood up and reached across to take Mia’s hand.

“I’m Madeline,” she said, and Mia had the uncanny sensation, as their hands met, of touching her reflection in a pool.



The rest of the evening unfolded as if some kind of dream. Every time she looked at Madeline Ryan she saw herself; they shared not just the curly dark

hair and similar features but some of the same mannerisms: the same tendency to bite their bottom lips, the same absent habit of pulling one curl down, like a spring, to their earlobes and letting it bounce back up. They were not identical—Madeline’s chin was a bit more pointed, her nose a little thinner, her voice deeper, richer, almost throaty—but they looked so similar they could have been mistaken for sisters. Late that night, long after the taxi the Ryans had summoned had dropped her back at home, Mia sat awake, thinking over all she’d heard.

How Madeline, at seventeen, had still not gotten her period, and how the doctor had then examined her and discovered that she had no uterus. One in five thousand women, Madeline had explained—there was a long German name for it, Mayer-something syndrome, which Mia had not fully caught.

How the only way for them to have a child was a surrogate. This was 1981, and three years before headlines had trumpeted the arrival of Louise Brown, the world’s first test-tube baby, but the odds of such a birth were still poor, and most people still viewed brewing babies in petri dishes as suspicious. “Not for us,” Madeline had said, twisting the stem of the wineglass between her elegant fingers. “No Frankenbabies, no thank you.” Instead, the Ryans had decided to take a more old-fashioned route: as old, Joseph pointed out, as the Bible. Sperm from the father, egg from—and carried by—a woman who seemed a suitable match. They had been advertising for months— discreetly, Madeline added—for a surrogate with the right characteristics, and had found no one. And then Joseph Ryan, riding the subway from a lunch meeting, had spotted an eerily familiar face at the other end of the car, and it had felt like fate.

“We see it,” he said, “as an opportunity for us to do each other some mutual good.” He and Madeline glanced at each other, and Madeline gave him the merest nod of the head, and they both sat up a little straighter and turned to Mia, who set her fork down.

“Don’t think that we’re entering into this lightly,” Madeline said. “We’ve been thinking about this for a long time. And we’ve been looking for just the right woman.” She tipped the carafe of water and refilled Mia’s glass. “We think that woman is you.”

In her room now, Mia did calculations. Ten thousand dollars, they had offered, to carry a healthy baby for them. They had said this to her as if outlining the terms of a job offer, laying out the benefits package in the

most attractive way. “And of course we’d pay for all your medical expenses,” Joseph had added.

At the end of dinner, Joseph had slid a folded sheet of paper across the table. “Our home number,” he said. “Think it over. We’ll draw up a contract for you to look over. We hope you’ll call us.” He had already paid the bill, which Mia had not seen but knew must be appallingly high: they’d had oysters and wine; a tuxedoed man had prepared steak tartare at their table, deftly folding the golden yolk into the ruby-red meat. Joseph hailed Mia a taxi. “We hope you’ll call,” he said again. Behind him, behind the glass window of the lobby, Madeline buttoned the fur collar of her coat. Only after he had shut the door, and the taxi was on its way back downtown to Mia’s cramped apartment, did she unfold the paper to see that astonishing figure again: $10,000. And below it, a single word: please.

The next morning, she’d thought it was a bizarre dream until she saw that creased note still lying on her dresser. Insane, she thought. Her womb was not an apartment for rent. She could barely imagine having a baby, let alone giving one away. In the gray and steely morning light, the evening before now looked like a childish fantasy. She shook her head, dropped the note into her dresser drawer, pulled out her uniform for work.

And then, a few weeks later, Mia learned her scholarship would not be renewed. Pauline and Mal opened the door and without speaking she handed them a letter, slit jaggedly open by a finger.

Dear Miss Wright: We trust that you have been benefiting from your first year at the New York School of Fine Arts. However, we are sorry to inform you that due to funding restrictions, we are unable to continue your financial aid for the 1981–1982 academic year. We of course hope that you will nevertheless continue your studies with us next year and—

“They’re idiots,” Pauline said, tossing the letter onto the coffee table. “They have no idea what they’re losing out on.”

“It’s the state,” Mal said. She retrieved the letter and slid it back into its envelope. “They cut funding so the school has to cover more, and scholarships suffer.”

“It’s no big deal,” Mia said. “I’ll get another job. I’ll save up over the summer.”

As she rode the elevator back downstairs that evening, however, she rested her head against the mirrored wall and bit back tears. She could not take on more hours than she was already working or she would have no

time for her classes, and as it was she was barely making ends meet. If she worked full time all summer . . . She ran her mental calculations again.

Unless she found a job that paid twice as much, she could not afford to stay. “Are you all right, miss?” The elevator doors had opened and there she was, back in the lobby, the kindly doorman peering down at her through his

glasses. Behind him a wine-colored carpet rolled all the way to the thick glass doors that sealed out Fifth Avenue. The lobby was hushed as a library, but beyond those doors, she knew, were the cracked concrete sidewalks and the rush and clamor and ruthlessness of the city.

“Fine,” she said. They knew each other a bit now, as people in New York often do: his name was Martin and he grew up in Queens and rooted for the Mets—not the Yankees, he’d told her, never the Yankees—and had a dachshund at home named Rosie. For his part, Martin knew Mia’s name and that she was the protégée of the Lady Artists upstairs—as he fondly referred to Pauline and Mal—and though Mia had told him little else about her life, his seasoned eye could divine quite a bit from the secondhand camera slung around her neck, the black-and-white uniform she sometimes still wore when she arrived, the containers of food she often carried home at Mal’s insistence. He resisted the urge to pat her on the shoulder and pushed the front door open with one gloved hand.

“Have a good night,” he said, and Mia stepped out onto Fifth Avenue and let the city swallow her up.

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