This week, the Cut is featuring Escapades, a series of journeys by adventurous women.
My friend Nancy and I had been sitting in a coffee shop in New Orleans for about 15 minutes when we noticed the man staring at us. His hair stuck out at odd angles, like he’d jammed his finger in an electric socket, and he kept looking over intently, his eyes lingering for a few awkward beats too long before they skittered away. We smoked a few Parliament Lights, drank our coffee, and ignored him. It was early in the summer of 1999. I was 19 and Nancy was 20, and we were used to attracting a certain kind of attention from men — mostly older, always a bit off-kilter — that felt both empowering and unsettling. Maybe it was something about our mix of innocence and bravado. Maybe it was just that we were young — young enough that the attention still felt like something that we’d always be able to wield to our advantage.
Finally he came over. He was an artist who liked to take old-fashioned photos, he said, and if we let him take shots of us, he’d give us $100 each. He sat down without being asked and opened up an overstuffed black portfolio. His photos were all black-and-white, and all of naked women. Sometimes they were posing with things: the American flag, magnolias, parasols. The images were both demure and dirty, like the nudie pics I’d seen in antique shops.
We said yes to the photo shoot immediately — we didn’t need to talk about it. We were far from home and needed the money, and we couldn’t imagine a scenario in which the photos would ever reappear in our lives. As long as we were together, we assumed we’d be safe. Nancy and I had known each other since we were kids. In high school, we’d sought out any trouble we could find in and around the New York City suburbs where we lived — shoplifting bras at the mall, doing opium with the guy who worked the night shift at Dunkin’ Donuts, wandering through the Port Authority at 2 a.m. having missed the last bus home, wearing skirts so short we were mistaken for prostitutes — and we’d always managed to get ourselves out of whatever we’d gotten ourselves into.
Nancy was a year older, though. She graduated before me, and by the time I was in college we were on separate coasts. The night before she left, we’d slept holding on to each other like lovers. But now the seams between us were beginning to tear. The road trip was a plan to help us reconnect. We had a few hundred dollars and figured it would be enough to allow us to spend three weeks seeking out odd adventures and strange new people, each one, we imagined, leading naturally to the next.
We took off in June in my mom’s Subaru station wagon, heading south. We didn’t have a destination in mind, and we slept in the car most nights. But other than stopping to look at road signs and a trip to a petting zoo, for the most part, sneaking into hotel pools was the closest we got to fun. Fifteen days went by. The weather got progressively hotter, gas slipped below $1 a gallon, and we crossed into South Carolina.
Finally I pulled the car over. What we were doing didn’t feel spontaneous. It felt aimless and boring. In retrospect, the reasons the trip wasn’t going well seem obvious. My parents were in the middle of a divorce and Nancy’s dad had recently died of alcoholism. Neither of us was eating — me because I was somewhere in the vicinity of having an eating disorder, and Nancy because she had recently started taking an antidepressant. Whatever it was doing for her mood, it was putting her metabolism into overdrive.
But we didn’t discuss any of this. Instead, we decided the problem had to be the car. It was too insular, too filled with my mom’s tinted sunglasses and mechanical pencils. It was keeping us from meeting anyone new, and making the trip feeling so stultified and dull. We’d brought too much of our old lives with us.
So we came up with a new plan. We’d park at a friend’s house in Atlanta, take the bus to New Orleans, then hitchhike back to the car. Within a few days we were staying at a ramshackle hostel not far from New Orleans’s French Quarter. The city, or the version of it we found, felt boozy and debauched, like the kind of place where things could go wrong quickly.
The hitchhiking part of the plan soon started to seem stupid — closer to dumb that carefree — but we didn’t have the money for anything else. Then we met Michael*, the photographer. We figured with the $200 he offered, we could take the train.
* * *
Michael lived on the second floor of a rundown mansion on a wide street lined with stately trees. Every inch of every wall was filled with art — framed still lifes, reclining naked women, geometric abstractions. In the room he used as his studio, white sheets covered the tall windows, and old photography equipment was scattered among random props — a divan, magnolias in a vase. The air smelled vaguely of cat. While he went to get the first of a series of beers, we sat there awkwardly, and then when he came back and suggested we begin, I took off my clothes, trying to act casual.
It felt okay at first. He handed me two of the magnolias and asked me to hold them up to my breasts. I tried to avoid looking at Nancy because I knew I’d start laughing. Next he draped the American flag around me. Through all this he talked incessantly. About aliens, and alien and human sex, about his creative genius, about our bodies, and about how sexy we were. Then, after a few beers, he started touching me — moving my leg then leaving his hand on my thigh, moving my arm and brushing his hand against my breast. I asked him to stop, but he didn’t, so Nancy asked him to stop, and he still didn’t, and at that point I got this disorienting rush of fear. I began to feel almost removed from the situation, as if I was viewing it from a distance.
Nancy watched me, steady. We were always at our best in moments like that. During high school, whenever we had needed to detach from a feeling we didn’t know how to handle, we’d entrusted parts of ourselves with the other, for safekeeping. Eventually we’d braided ourselves so closely together, I had trouble knowing where I ended and she began.
After me, he took pictures of Nancy, touching her awkwardly too, then both of us together. Finally Nancy asked what time it was — we’d only promised an hour — and he ignored her. When she asked again, he said there were no clocks in the house. Mildly panicked, we started to get dressed, assuming we’d just leave, even without the money. Our panic increased when, at that point, he abruptly ran out of the house, saying he had to buy cat food. We heard the door slam shut behind him, and then we listened as he fiddled with his keys and locked us in.
We could have tried to kick down the door, but the desire not to break the membrane of civility felt almost paralyzing, as if acknowledging that we might be in danger would make things more dangerous. Instead, we sat in his kitchen and waited. I tried to ignore the horrible feeling in my stomach. I told myself he was nothing more than an eccentric, unstable alcoholic who meant us no harm. And in the end, it turned out that was the truth. After about ten minutes he came back, and while rummaging frantically for a pen so we could sign the model release forms, he even paid us, one crisp $100 bill each.
We left right away after that, walking faster and faster back through the neighborhood, toward the part of town where the houses weren’t falling down. We stayed at the hostel that night, but we both understood the trip was over. The next morning we were on a train heading back to Atlanta, and a few days later we were back in New York. That dead feeling in my stomach, though, didn’t leave for weeks.
Over the next few years I’d occasionally wondered if someone was living with a picture of me, magnolias sprouting from my breasts, but after Hurricane Katrina I assumed the photos were destroyed. Then, in 2008, I got an email from Nancy that only contained a link, and a few clicks later, I arrived at a slideshow of Michael’s photos that had been put up on an art-focused website. Among the black-and-whites of a girl wearing a slip, a nude tattooed woman holding a silver globe, and another nude woman draped in an American flag, there we were, kneeling, both of us with our arms entwined behind our heads, looking down at the space between us, mirror images of each other.
It was a nice photo, even sort of charming. But it was jarring, too, this visual representation of a time when Nancy and I loved each other with such fierce, single-minded clarity. We hadn’t spoken in months, not since a horrible fight that summer. By then we were living entirely different lives. I was in Western Massachusetts, working a badly paid job with a pellet stove for heat. Nancy was back in New York, working in advertising. She owned shoes that cost more than my rent, and whenever we went out together, she seemed to spend the night brushing off men who were so carried away by her that they’d do things like offer to fly her to Europe for the weekend. Neither of us had handled any of this gracefully. Instead, like the worst kind of sisters, for years we’d alternated between jealousy and judgment, until that fight. It had been a long time coming, in other words, and the actual details of it were so irrelevant that soon afterwards I couldn’t even remember what it had been about.
But after seeing the picture, it felt too weird to not be in touch. I called Nancy and we caught up casually, not touching on anything that might cause tension. Later that month we spent Thanksgiving together at her mother’s house, a long-standing tradition I’d assumed we’d forego that year. Nancy and I were gentle with each other, softly probing the unfamiliar outlines of our lives. The next night we met up with the man she’d been dating, a macho guy with a gruff sexiness who was both charismatic and a bit dangerous.
He drove us around suburbia in his Rolls-Royce, mixing sharp dismissals with unexpected bursts of tenderness, blasting European techno and bragging about his connections to celebrities and Russian mobsters. I watched Nancy, steady. She was trusting me with this, a new outline of her life.
I remembered how we’d tried so hard to hold one another together even as it felt like everything around us was falling apart. I thought of the parts of myself I had entrusted to her for safekeeping, and what she had entrusted to me. What I think we’d both begun to realize by then, though, was that whatever I’d carried for her all that time had become a part of me, and the same was true of her. There was never going to be a way to give it back.
*This name has been changed.