The Photograph

Martin had found the photograph three years ago, while he was going through divorce. He was sorting through the family photo collection, stored in a box that was hidden in the guest room closet. He wanted to ensure that his memories stayed with him.

Though the photograph was yellowed with age and blurry, he could still discern his features and those of the two women. They had met on the beach in Naama Bay on the Sinai Peninsula in 1980. The beach in the photo was in possession of Israel since the Six Day War in 1973.

He recognized Sandra Williams. “SAHN-dra” was her preferred pronunciation. He could not remember the name of the other woman. Since Martin had returned to Wisconsin, the region had reverted to Egypt.

Shortly after moving into his divorce shack, an apartment about three miles away from the house that he and his ex-wife had shared for the last 15 years of their marriage, Martin joined Facebook. He started befriending dozens of schoolmates, old friends, his two adult children, former colleagues, and just about everyone from his past who was not a friend or family member of his ex-wife. He had a rule against friending anyone at work he supervised or the government regulators who supervised his firm.

He found Sandra on Facebook. She had changed her last name after she married Robert Graham, but listed herself as Sandra Williams Graham. She was the mother of two adult sons. All four of them lived in or around San Diego. She worked as a hospital administrator, and her husband Bob was an orthopedic surgeon. Sandra had graduated from UCLA and earned an MBA from San Diego State. She was active in her non-denominational church, and liked tennis, running 5K races, Joni Mitchell, and novels by Anne Patchett. Her blonde hair had turned silver, but she still looked like an athlete. He sent her a friend request, which she accepted about two weeks later.

For three years, they did not exchange messages or emails or texts or phone calls. Martin noticed posts from Sandra and, occasionally, liked them along with dozens of her other friends. She had liked a photograph of him and his sons taken in Chicago. The photo showed the three of them on the glass Skydeck on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower. Martin still called it the Sears Tower.

He noticed Sandra’s post announcing that she and her husband were getting ready to embark on a road trip across the country. On their way to Mackinac Island, they planned to drive through Wisconsin. Martin sent her a message inviting Sandra and Bob to visit in Madison.

He was surprised when Sandra responded two days later and accepted the invitation.

*****

They had been college students back then, studying abroad in Israel. Towards the end of his stay – and as a favor to his parents — Martin had agreed to be the local contact for a group from his hometown church on a tour of the Sinai Peninsula. He had just finished his academic program in Haifa and would be returning to Wisconsin in three days.

While the church group ate breakfast and held a worship service in their hotel, agnostic Martin wandered to the beach. He spotted Sandra and her friend sunbathing. Wearing cutoff jeans and bikini tops, they looked American in a way that Americans abroad are so obvious. He thought they were cute and looked far from home. The Tom Petty song ran through his head:

Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there
Was a little more to life
Somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to

He remembered walking up to them and asking, “Where are you from?”

He learned that Sandra and her friend were spending a semester at the university in Tel-Aviv. He thought they said they were both from California. They were in Naama Bay for a long weekend.

After the friend put on a t-shirt, a passing tourist from Jerusalem snapped a photo of the three of them with Martin’s camera.  The friend wanted to buy a trinket for her mother, so she left him alone with Sandra on that beach. They sat on the beach and talked for hours.

With no one else watching, Sandra seemed to Martin to be bold and assertive in a way that the girls back in Wisconsin would never dare. However, Martin did not think she was trying to be provocative; rather, it seemed to him like she was just enjoying a kind of freedom that he was hearing about that women of that era could not celebrate.

Martin had to spend the afternoon with his hometown group, but Sandra agreed to meet him for dinner at his hotel. Before they slept together that night, Martin remembered vividly one exchange over dessert.

“On certain levels,” Sandra said while they were discussing the dangers of traveling aboard, “you can only be cynical or you’ll be taken by a charlatan.”

“I think that’s probably good advice for living, not just tourists,” Martin said.

“In this life, we’re all tourists, even walking around in the towns where we were raised,” Sandra said.

*****

With no husband in sight, Sandra walked into Martin’s apartment and gave it the once over. It was just after 9:00 AM on a Saturday. She discovered a heavy IKEA aesthetic, mixed with abstract paintings on the wall. His older son had gone to art school in Rhode Island before joining an advertising agency in Chicago. Over the years, he held back paintings of his for his parents. Two large canvases dominated the living room, scenes of families both reminding Martin of the work of Eric Fischl. In both paintings, the father figure’s face was obscured. She wondered if it was Martin’s family. The apartment had a nice view of Lake Monona and she could see the state capitol in the distance.

For a moment, too long to be casual, they just stood there and looked at each other.

“You look remarkably the same,” Sandra said.

“And you look really, really good,” Bill replied.

“You forgot to say, ‘for someone of my age.’”

“No, I didn’t.”

Sandra smiled. She was curious about why she would remember what he looked like. She had a very selective memory, the kind that would sentence her to forgetting the name and face of a person after meeting them over a long business lunch the previous day. And yet, she remembered this man’s face after having spent a few scant hours with him decades ago.

“Anyway, Bob will join us for lunch,” she said. “He told me that he should give us some space to get over the awkward stuff before meeting you.”

“Why does this have to be awkward?” Martin asked. He motioned for her to join him at a table in the kitchen. He made Oolong tea for them. Sandra took honey and milk, Martin just honey. They snacked on coffee cake that Martin had baked last night.

“Well, to answer your question,” Sandra began. “You know how men can be when their wives meet the mysterious men we knew in foreign countries before them.”

“How’s that?”

“Squirrely,” she answered. “Men are so territorial and proprietary. Like women are sexual commodities.”

“Huh. Is that the way men are?” Martin responded. “It’s not like we had celebrity sex.”

“What’s ‘celebrity sex?’’’

“Well, it’s a concept my ex-wife and I developed. ‘Celebrity sex’ is the kind of sex you imagine Beyoncé and Jay-Z had before they became parents. The sex that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston had before they broke up. The kind of sex that normal people imagine the most beautiful and famous people have with each other.”

“And we weren’t beautiful back then?”

“Maybe beautiful, but certainly not famous. I mean, I haven’t seen your photo on TMZ.”

Sandra laughed. He remembered her laugh.

Martin rose from the table and picked up an envelope from the kitchen counter. He took out a single photograph and handed it to Sandra. “Remember?”

Sandra scanned the photograph. She gasped and held a hand up to her mouth. She smiled, almost ruefully.

“Were we really ever so young and impossibly naive as we were on that day?” she asked.

Sandra continued to study the photo.

“I cannot remember the name of your friend,” Martin said.

“It’s Karen. Karen Messner. She graduated with me from UCLA.”

“Where’s Karen now?”

“She married her college boyfriend, moved to Henderson, Nevada, had a couple of kids, and settled in the Valley of Never Heard from Again.”

“What does that mean?”

“I think it means that she wanted to get away from Sacramento and start over. Maybe she’s happy and fulfilled. Maybe not. But whatever she is, it’s different from what she had. That day we met on the beach, she was so sad. Our trip abroad was different than she imagined. And she found that disappointing. She wanted everything to turn out the way she imagined. I guess she wanted something like “Celebrity Vacation.” Instead it was hard. Schoolwork, plus lack of partying. Not much glamor, but a lot of dust and sand. And always the threat of war. The only time we connect anymore is wishing each other a happy birthday on Facebook.”

“How did the trip turn out for you?”

“I loved it! I loved being surrounded by foreign languages and cultures. I loved the edginess of living in a land where no one gave a second thought to people in uniforms strolling through the city holding machine guns. I loved eating Mediterranean cuisine cooked by people living in the Mediterranean region while seated next to the Mediterranean Sea. I loved the hard work, the dust, and the sand. I loved meeting some guy on the beach, engaging with him on a meaningful level, and never seeing him again. It was all so color-outside-the-lines for me. After growing up in the protective cocoon created by my parents in Cupertino, I loved walking around and bumping into things.”

“Like me?”

“Yes. I liked bumping into you. I think that I still remember it because you saw me for who I was. I don’t think people at home took me seriously, because I was a girl. They appreciated my looks and my personality, but I think the most my parents expected of me was getting married, having kids, maybe selling insurance in a strip mall, and living a life like theirs, preferably in the same zip code as them. That life would have strangled me. You were one of the first boys who actually took seriously what I thought and said.”

“How did I do that?”

They had both finished their tea.

“You don’t remember what we talked about?” Sandra asked.

“Don’t read anything into what I remember and don’t remember,” Martin said. “I remember some things, like what you said about all of us being tourists, even in our hometowns.”

“The tourist observation? Really? I still tell people that,” Sandra said. “Do you remember that we talked about the presidential campaign? Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan?”

“Did we?”

“We also talked about, let me see, the theologian Hans Küng and the water wars in Los Angeles. You had never heard of either, if I recall.”

“I do remember that we talked about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, because he was from Wisconsin,” Martin said.

“I don’t think you appreciate how rare and important that conversation was for me at the time.”

“We had dinner that night at my hotel,” Martin said evenly.

“Yes.”

“And then after dinner?”

“What about after dinner?”

“We went to my room and had sex,” Martin said. “You deflowered me.”

“I did not!” she shouted.

Sandra started laughing uncontrollably. Martin’s chin dropped to his chest. This was the awkward moment to which Sandra’s husband had referred. When their eyes met, Sandra noted a hint of mirth in Martin’s expression.

“Yes, you did. Both the sex and the deflowering,” he said. “I think that I am supposed to be insulted.”

“I guess you are right.”

“About what?”

“About what we remember and don’t remember,” Sandra said. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, but sex is not that big a deal with me. It’s not like I’ve had sex with a lot of men, but I don’t invest a lot emotional weight into sex. Honestly, I find you and your ex-wife’s whole concept of ‘celebrity sex’ kind of ridiculous and overly romantic. With me, sex happens, it’s fun, and then I move on.”

“So, you don’t really know anything about me, except as a faded memory of words.”

“No,” she said. “A good memory. One that stuck. In a ‘we’ll always have Naama Bay’ kind of way.”

“Didn’t you at least check me out on Facebook before accepting my invitation?”

“Hmmm. I mostly use Facebook to spy on my kids, but I see your point,” Sandra said. “I don’t know. You got me. Maybe I didn’t want to ruin the memory. You’re not angry, are you?”

“No,” Martin responded. “I think that anger is the least useful emotion.”

They sat there, silently. Martin poured them each another cup of tea and they sipped their tea and looked at each other like two teenagers who barely know each other but find themselves embarrassed to be on the way to prom together.

“OK,” Martin said, breaking the silence, “if you had checked my Facebook, you would have learned that Martin Olson lives by himself in Madison. He is a compliance officer with a large brokerage firm. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he focuses on securities law. One of his sons lives in Chicago, the other in Washington, DC. Martin graduated from Wisconsin and received his law degree from DePaul University. He loves cycling and completed the RAGBRAI bicycle ride across Iowa three years ago, along with his sons. He likes Radiohead and John Updike. And you could have deduced that he is not involved with anyone.”

“Glad to meet you, Martin Olson.”

“Now what?”

“This? You?” Sandra said, shaking her head. “I don’t know.”

*****

Bob Graham sat waiting in a restaurant called Graze, pondering the lunch menu and considering the Beet and Walnut Burger, when his wife joined him at the table. He was not a vegetarian, but he liked to try new things when dining out.

“Where’s Martin?” he asked.

“Not coming,” Sandra replied. “He sends his regrets.”

“Huh. Is there a story there?”

“Everyone’s got a story, Bob,” Sandra said. “Christ, everyone’s got a book in them.”

“So, what’s in his book?”

“He’s written his first book, it seems, which ends with divorcing his wife a few years ago. He’s working on his second book now, but don’t ask me. I don’t know what it’s about.”

“As usual, you’re making this complicated, Sandra. How was the visit? What’d you talk about?”

“It was so…unexpected,” Sandra said.

She paused for a moment. Bob could sense his wife struggling to choose the right words.

“I might as well just come out and say it,” she said. “We started out talking about the afternoon we spent on the beach, when he had the most amazing Ethan Hawke-Julie Delpy conversation. I already told you about that. But mostly we ended up talking about having had sex later that evening. We talked about it for an hour over tea, like a couple of old friends sharing a memory. It seemed important to him.”

Bob sat there, stunned. He picked up a menu, handed it to Sandra, and then pretended to look at his. He had already decided on the Beet and Walnut Burger with unsweetened iced tea. They ordered their meal and talked about the sights in Madison that Bob had visited. Bob had been gone to the state capitol and took the elevator to the observation deck and the shore of Lake Mendota. He had also visited the First Unitarian Society, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Their food arrived and Bob said, “I’ve got to be honest with you, Sandra.”

“Before you say anything, Bob, remember that the truth can be overrated.”

He paused.

“Sex?” he finally spat out. “You went to man’s home, a virtual stranger to you, and you talked about having had sex with him?”

“Yup,” she answered. “I can hardly believe it myself. According to him, we had sex 40 years ago. I don’t remember it at all, but he remembers it as if it happened yesterday. Apparently, I was his first.”

“You know, Sandra, I don’t need to know about your sexual history from, what, 1980. This conversation is kind of creeping me out.”

“Does it always turn to sex for men?” she asked. “I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question.”

“I cannot hope to answer for all my gender’s foibles, dear,” he said.

“And we don’t have to continue to have this conversation,” Sandra said. “You know me. I know you. Nothing is going to change that belief that I hold so firmly within my breast.”

“You said ‘breast,’” Bob snickered.

“Are you ever going to leave middle school?” Sandra pretended to scold him. “My god, you are a doctor!”

They ate their lunch in silence. Bob enjoyed the Beet and Walnut Burger. Sandra ate most of the Bánh Mì. They shared a slice of apple pie for dessert.

“I guess that I’m just interested in what this man is to you,” Bob said as he looked over the check. “On an intellectual basis.”

“He’s a memory,” Sandra said. “I think I would like to keep him as just a beautiful and joyous memory.”

“Sandra, life is just a shit sandwich, Sandra,” Bob said, “interrupted by moments of transcendent beauty and joy.”

“Like Martin Olson for me and a Beet and Walnut Burger for you?”

Bob handed their waiter the check and his credit card. Sandra thought she detected a hint of mirth in his eyes.

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