THE CLEAN ROOMS
My mother was the famous artist known for taking photographs of her naked daughter. Freshmen year of college, it seemed all my friends were enrolled in a photography class. They'd learn about the photographs, but they didn't know she was my mother because I had my father's last name, and in college I did not look the way I did when she took my picture. I only told one person about my mother and the photographs, and I'm certain he told no one. The photographs were controversial but also beautiful, and she made them using techniques that resembled the dioramas in natural history museums. It was amusing to listen to the girls admire the photographs, argue about them, and sometimes speculate about the daughter because by now she was probably their age.
In college, everyone is thinking about what they want to be, what they want to say about themselves, and what they hope no one will find out. I could see it in their eyes when I talked to them. How to divulge the truth, they were thinking, a slow unfurling or quick flash? The girls who said the daughter must be an exhibitionist or else a genius were the most wrong, but really no one could get it right. Sometimes I listened silently as if I was playing a joke on them, and at other times, I listened as if one would know some truth about the daughter and that would be the course my life would take. When my mother found out she had cancer, a filmmaker proposed a documentary on her life and work, but she died before the shooting started. So now there is a different kind of documentary in production, and the world will know soon enough I am the daughter.
I live with my father temporarily. We are taking care of one another. My mother never took professional photographs of my father, which I used to think meant she loved him more. It's difficult to understand how too much looking can make a person feel hated, but it does. Some of the photos are of very clean domestic spaces with no one in them. Others are of these same spaces but with me in them alone and naked. Then the space appears like a large mouth and the appliances and lamps and pillows like sharp teeth ready to clamp down on the daughter. If anyone knew this child was me, they would ask me how it felt, but I honestly cannot say. Everyone knows the person in the photos is my mother's daughter, but no one knows the daughter is me. Because of the documentary, all of this will change.
Not long ago, the Director of the documentary film on my mother visited my father. He realized I was the daughter when I answered the door; he was looking forward to it, meeting me, I mean. I could tell he was surprised my father would send me to the door and not open it himself. While we drank tea and talked about the plans, he looked at me strangely, sweetly, differently than he looked at my father who is so visibly diminished by my mother's death. My father wants to protect my identity. In a peripheral way, I am involved in the art business—I design sets for a man who photographs enormous and very detailed tableaus—and my father fears that being the subject of art might complicate my ability to make it. But we agreed that during the making of the documentary, we would support one another. We wouldn't go it alone when asked to speak to my mother's famous temper, her exacting methods.
Now that the filming is well underway, and the production crew has already visited our home several times, my father and I take the train into the city. We need to get out of the house, especially out of the living room that has been the site of filming. Even after we put the room to rights, and there is no sign of the lights, cords, and young assistants, our home feels like a studio and we like actors. The holiday season has just started, the days are shorter, darker, and it is cold. We agree it is a time to be together as a family, reflective and calm. The city is a way for us to remember the best parts of the past. We have tea at a famous hotel, and we visit the natural history museum. At the end of the day, it is cold and we are tired, but we walk through the park anyway. In the last weeks, I have become used to mediating my thoughts as if they might be cast out on a larger audience. As I take my father's arm, I imagine how this gesture might look to the Director.
My father, on the other hand, seems to only have spontaneous thoughts and self-forgetful actions. He openly stares at strange-looking people, lingers in the tunnel to enjoy the saxophone but fails to leave a dollar. He speaks too loudly, stops walking on crowded sidewalks. The worst is when he recalls memories that are almost too difficult to bear and then abruptly abandons them. These hurt us both so much. I admit I don't know what to do.
We walk to the duck pond at the end of the day. The sky is very grey, and snowflakes begin to fall slowly. Still we are not cold because we have been walking, so we sit on a bench. My father says in a way that suggests I have asked that he and Corinne often met in this place. He has never said her name. My mother once said her name over the phone when she called me at summer camp. I was sixteen and had returned as a girls' counselor. She said, Daddy is having an affair with a woman named Corinne. When you come home in August, he won't be here, but he was, and Corinne's name was never mentioned again. But now the way he said they had met there, it made me think he was telling me a secret, and even as an adult this whole thing was very strange.
My first inclination was to feel gratitude—and I still think this was the truest response, but by evening, as we finished dinner and parted at the doors of our hotel rooms, I remembered my mother's heavy voice on the phone that day. She had not called all summer though she had sent a new bathing suit and some candy. When she did call I expected not the worst but a small miracle. The revelation of a parent's sexuality is an obvious consequence as are vulnerability and fear concerning the stability of one's home life. And while I experienced these, I also felt suddenly free. My father was home when I returned as were all his belongings, whose absence I feared more than his, but I stopped considering it a home soon after. Their rules had always been loose. I did what I wanted, came and went as I pleased.
As I made myself comfortable in the large, fancy bed of my hotel room, I wondered dully if the Director would ask about Corinne or about my leaving home so early. There's no way to know what others know about you, but sometimes chance forces their hand. Almost no one has a documentary made on their mother, but if it happens, I think it's best to simply sit back and listen.
After watching Brief Encounters, a documentary on the artist Gregory Crewdson, I realized that in the world there are adults who used to be children who were the subject of art photography.