by Diane Callahan
When I go, Helen said, I want you to remember more than just the pictures. They’re too happy. I don’t want anyone to ever think it was easy.
Deanna rolled her eyes. Fine. I’ll title one, “I Don’t Want Anyone to Ever Think It Was Easy.” But I’m keeping the exhibit title I put on the application, no matter what.
Helen never asked how Deanna wanted to be remembered because she thought she’d never need to know.
She was speed-walking to Deanna’s condo with the congratulatory email from the gallery curator when she got The Call. She didn’t recognize the number, but some internal itch compelled her to answer. As she pressed the phone to her ear, a strained voice asked, “Is this Helen Mackey?”
She remembered stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, a pink chalk drawing of a smiling flower staring up at her. Her first thought wasn’t This can’t be happening but She wanted me to know first. Deanna had listed her as the primary emergency contact. Not her mother or her older brother, nor one of the long-term boyfriends she’d left behind—some drummer or poet or otherwise unemployable man-child. Deanna, who was somewhere between a sister and a soulmate to Helen, had taken the time to write her name in that little white box, thinking of this possible moment.
Helen’s second thought was How can I possibly go on?
Standing in the low light of the exhibit hall three weeks later, Helen pictured her best friend’s reaction to the way she’d died: a snort of laughter, a long pull of her flask, and a “Whelp, there are worse ways to kick the bucket.” The hospital staff hadn’t told Helen the cause of death beyond a heart attack, but she’d learned from Deanna’s yoga instructor that “it all happened too damn fast.”
She imagined how Deanna would’ve beamed, seeing their photos displayed across the pristine walls of the Zion Gallery. Photos that Helen had posed for, that Deanna had captured, that Helen had brought into being in the darkroom, spending hours with her own likeness until it ceased to resemble her and became someone else, an Other who no longer shared her skin.
In one photograph, a flowery pink do-rag covered Helen’s head as she crouched naked.
In another, an arm extended like a wing, the plastic vines an extension of her body.
The exhibit’s centerpiece always turned her stomach. She stood, about to catch a falling leaf, the black-and-white image shining with unseen color. Her head was bare—bald and lumpy—and that type of nakedness was somehow more obscene to her than the nudes. Helen hadn’t wanted to include it. That frozen version of herself hoped she’d die soon, yet she didn’t want anyone to know she’d given up without so much as a half-hearted march to war.
Helen explained all this to Deanna one night after her friend found the negatives in the trash. Deanna stared at her a moment before saying, I don’t like to imagine that reality at all. But we can make room for it.
She missed the way Deanna said a lot without saying much, just like her photos. They’d both discovered photography late in life, meeting in a class for amateurs. Deanna was a natural. Helen wasn’t. One week in, they planned to retire together and be the old ladies who sent glitter bombs to their worst exes and blinked with an innocent “Who, me?”
The visceral, needling pain Helen felt when she so much as glanced at the photos made her want to turn and run, to escape before the show opened. Before she had to deal with all the pitying looks and hollow I’m sorry for your loss platitudes.
They had created this as a celebration of life, after all.
You have an eye for light, Helen told Deanna once.
I have a talent for bringing the dead to life, her friend replied. And maybe she’d been right. Deanna made the ugliest parts of the world look beautiful. A kid’s broken bicycle became a sculpture. An abandoned tunnel revealed a portal to another world. Through her lens, grief morphed into a kind of triumph. After the photos were submitted to the gallery, Helen’s cancer went into remission—scared off by the magic charm of their photographic might, Deanna had put it.
Helen’s wandering feet led her through the empty exhibit hall to the entrance, where a sign hung by the door with their artist statement. The name of the exhibit spanned the top in bold lettering: Triumph—Or, A Bird Without Feathers. Deanna—self-proclaimed master of terrible titles—had penned those words on a takeout napkin during one of their late-night planning sessions and slapped it on the table in front of her with a crooked grin.
That need for freedom from pain pulled Helen toward the doorway again.
But then her gaze caught a small photo in the corner. She didn’t remember Deanna taking it.
Her feet moved with a lightness she hadn’t felt in weeks. Deanna must’ve set up a tripod, a trickster as always. The picture showed the two of them in profile from behind, both sitting on her couch—Helen scowling, Deanna with her head thrown back in an almost maniacal laugh, her face blurred by movement.
Helen glanced at the placard next to it, which read, “Surprise!”
She caressed the edge of the photo, leaving behind a faint fingerprint. I won’t stop telling you my thoughts. She spoke to the emptiness inside herself. Even the dangerous ones. Even the hard ones. Even the ones reality doesn’t have room for.