From: ‘Mina Bayless’
Sent: Saturday, April 16, 2011 9:17 AM (UTC +4)
To: ‘Elle Wakefield’
Subject: Morning in Moscow
A few quick words before I get on the train. Again. (Still not sure what internet connection will be like once I leave Moscow.) Found Anders the photog this morning. Apparently he got all my messages but couldn’t get through to me. He’s not what I expected. Older than me but not parental, direct way of talking, focused. He has this unnerving gaze. He looks at me & suddenly I’m totally aware of how I’m holding my hands or how often I blink my eyes or how crooked I sit. His last name in Hrafn & I wonder if he’s changed it for work or for vanity.
Yesterday at the Embassy went ok. The office manager even let me use the fax so I sent papers to the bank, to the Vital Records office, Dad’s lawyer, etc. Copies of the death certificate, the consular report, Dad’s id stuff all mixed with my thesis drafts. That will be one thing I can work on during the train ride, thesis thinking to cancel out my WTF thinking.
There’s another traveler who, I think, is getting on our train. He asked me for a cigarette & then took the opportunity to mention that he’s traveling all the way to Vladivostok. He is a model of efficiency; the Swedes would be proud. He has one pack with countless pockets that looks like it might hold everything you need for a 7-day trip. (14 if he’s coming back!) A bike bag with all the parts stored neatly. Then, a black case that looks like a carry-on. I passed him near the bathrooms awhile ago & he had it open. Inside was a guitar, a collapsible one with the neck folded down over the body & the strings coiled over the side. Portable pieces; a life that isn’t nailed down. Is this all that these thrill-seekers want?
Love to Uppsala,
From: ‘Elle Wakefield’
Sent: Saturday, April 16, 2011 8:26 AM (UTC +2)
To: ‘Mina Bayless’
Subject: Re: Morning in Moscow
Hrafn, hmm? Will he grant you wisdom or memory? Do you feel safe traveling with him? If not, you can see if Mr. Innovation has a collapsible cattle prod to keep him at bay.
But your phrase “life nailed down” reminds me of something. The Blumqvist lecture was last night. His topic was “ecstatic emasculation” in Ibsen’s plays. It was terrible, all sorts of unapologetic phallocentric bullshit. He thought that because he tied it into Anti-Christ that he was being very modern, very provocative. Tate and I stayed for the free food and to see what Vera would do. She attached herself to the inner circle (Blumqvist, Harding, Øster and Thomsen) and used up her quota of interjections for the semester. Blumqvist asked her, “Can the hero’s emasculation occur without the transcendent muse?” and she giggled out something, saying “quite” every third word. It was. Quite.
After that, Tate and I snuck away to the canal bridge to “find ourselves in a state.” We sat on the bridge; the water spoke to us. When we got too cold (not long) we walked back through campus and tried the linguistics building. It was unlocked and we went in to warm up. After a few minutes, we started wandering around the halls. The automatic lights flicked on in the empty classroom, playing tricks on us in our drug-induced state. For a building that has so many people go through it, there was no sensory echo. No lingering smell or sound. It was like a museum of learning where umbrellas, hats, and dead highlighters were illustrative props instead of forgotten things.
We started narrating little blurbs about each “exhibit” until Tate had the idea to head to the faculty offices on the top floor. You know how there is glass everywhere: the glassed-in bookshelves, the common area with glass partitions, the panes in each office door. Each section of the floor was a perfectly preserved habitat, including the locked offices. We stared at Vallenga’s container garden of chopsticks and knitting needles, Akerlund’s meticulous corner table for tea (heating pad, travel kettle, pot, cups, etc.), Thomsen’s framed definition of the word “exigency.” Here we were, out of bounds so to speak, and those little accessories remained as untouchable as if our professors were sitting in their offices.
At least that’s what I thought of; I don’t know what Tate thought. But after touring those capsules of personalities, we started crying. We left and went back to his dorm. We cried out heads off as we came down. Ridiculous, but I wish you had been with us to laugh afterward.
Love to Siberia,
Personal Notes of Mina Bayless
I thought that once I had someone along on the trip, I could relax. Here was someone who knew Russia better than I did, at least language & customs-wise. He was a Dane; we shared a language. Mattias had said that Anders was introspective, so I didn’t think I would have any demands on my attention. After our breakfast in a small cafe at the station, I knew I was wrong.
The actual meal was uneventful. I ordered simple food: fruit, yogurt, tea. I had no appetite that morning. He ordered something that looked like porridge, coffee, hard-boiled eggs. We made small talk about our separate trips to Moscow. It was a practical conversation. I asked him where he had flown from; he replied “Paris.” When I asked what he had been doing there, he said, “Holiday” without elaboration. Or when he saw what I was eating & commented, “A light breakfast.” I went on about my stomach & how I didn’t know what was bothering me, jet lag, your death, etc. He replied, “Then you have made a good choice.”
I think it’s his eyes. They are chips of green glass, sharp, cutting. It is the first thing you notice about him, because his gaze doesn’t waver. Measuring, recording. He keeps looking long after you’ve stopped talking & there is no other reason to pay attention to you. He can’t be older than mid-30’s, but he’s already grey. The contrast between his hair & his eyes only makes them more startling. I think that where you, Dad, could walk through a room once & describe everything down to the last details, Anders seems like he could focus on one thing or person for hours. Later, he could tell you how the light struck every surface and each shadow that resulted or how someone’s position changed and what their default tic was.
Later on the train, he asked how I learned Danish, which lead to a sort of who-are-you-how-did-you-choose-professions conversation. I told him briefly about wanting to become a translator, about growing up in New Mexico amid three languages, how I picked UW. It felt like ridiculous chatter until I asked how he became a photographer & he actually spoke for more than two or three sentences.
Anders told me that he’d dropped out of school at 16 because “he wasn’t interested” in learning from books. We went looking for work & found a job as a mortician’s assistant. “Not embalming them or restoring the corpses,” he said, “but helping to transport the bodies, readying them for presentation or cremation, keeping the mortuary clean.” Sometimes he might be needed to take pictures for before & after reconstruction or maybe a casket shot for a memorial program. This is how he learned how light & aperture worked, creating a harsh mug shot for intake records or a gauzy portrait that could trick the viewer into the phrase “Only Sleeping.”
His eyes drifted away from me & I caught myself relaxing. He started talking about how looking at corpses long enough taught him the difference between liver spots & mottles caused by decomposition, how defenseless the inner wrist looked when the body was being drained, how the simple function of a skeleton seemed more pronounced the more you fought a body’s rigor into a more presentable shape.
As he told me this, I remembered, unfortunately, how familiar your body was to me. When I was a teenager, you thought that describing your various conquests to me was “mature,” that you were treating me as an equal adult. Your various piercings, your advice on how to tell a “real” pair of handcuffs from “play” ones. I went through your negatives only once, the ones you kept in a manila envelope on a shelf tucked beside your favorite, a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. What was so special, I wondered, & discovered anonymous breasts, row after row of different torsos in different inviting positions, all of them shot from the neck down. Memories that make me want to blot out the nice things about you, like the scent of sap that always seemed to come from you, the one you blamed on the diabetes that ran in your family.
As Anders keeps talking, I remembered the last time you came to see me in Seattle. You got caught out in the rain taking pictures & you were pulling off your wet shirt before you came inside. Your left nipple was a thick white scar. One of your piercings had been ripped out while photographing a mob in Vancouver & getting caught up in the crowd. In my mind, I see that mangled square of your flesh perfectly & I run away from Anders in mid-sentence. I don’t make the bathroom in time for the first round of throwing up. But as soon as I’m inside with the door locked, I force myself until I’m dry heaving (an old trick from childhood). My sides suck at my empty stomach. I think, Well, maybe he won’t stare so much anymore.
Anders Hrafn’s interrupted sentence
As a photographer, I want to see life in defiance of death.