Martha Levinson lived with her two small dogs in a Victorian house, high on a hill in the Berkshires. She was long-divorced from her ex-husband and had two grown children, Claire and Philip, who lived in New York and Los Angeles. In her old age her almond eyes had become watery and caked with eyeliner, and she had resigned her chestnut hair to an eternally frizzy nest.
“It’ll be peaceful,” she said to herself when she decided to leave New York, the city where she had grown up. Her husband had been unfaithful, going after a young, blonde trader. Unlike the trader, Martha had never wanted a job. She assumed this lack of ambition was the reason why he decided to marry a hardbodied career woman. Plenty of New Yorkers go up to the Berkshires anyways, she reminded herself, and so she wouldn’t be alone.
Martha knew how to keep herself occupied—tutoring, church meetings, crossword puzzles, taking her two new Chihuahuas on walks, lunch dates, and afternoon teas with neighbors—but there was no one to come home to every night. Always the warmth of two little bodies nuzzled against her legs, but never one big one wrapped around her. She couldn’t yearn for it, because she didn’t know how. She had forgotten what it felt like—the smell of another’s skin, the iron taste of their saliva, and gentle nudges of warm feet.
One of Martha’s busy projects was to convert her son Philip’s old bedroom into a personal office. While cleaning out the clutter from under his bed she pulled out a shoebox. Inside was a single Polaroid. At first she thought it was a snapshot from one of Philip’s old girlfriends, but when she looked closer, the photograph fell from her hands. Only the dogs heard her startled cry of disgust. On the back in scribbled boy’s handwriting was the date, November 8th, 1991.
The last time Martha had seen her daughter naked was when Claire was a very young girl, long before this would have been taken. In this photograph, framed by bare trees and dead leaves, Claire’s body was awkward in its twelve-year-old prepubescent state. Her breasts were flat yet her hips were beginning to flesh out. Standing at five feet, she wore one tube sock scrunched down at her ankle and wrapped her arms around her stomach, clearly freezing in late fall. Under a brush of blonde bangs, Claire’s blue doe eyes seemed to look straight out of the photograph and into her mother’s eyes.
Martha felt revulsion at her son for hiding this little piece of child pornography under his bed for so long. So long that he had probably forgotten about it. She didn’t want to think about what Philip did with this photograph, or why Claire agreed to take it. Philip and Claire were close in age. They took baths together until they were six and held hands until they were ten. At the time the photograph was taken, Claire would have been in the seventh grade, and Philip in eighth. It was right before the divorce.
Martha remembered a short weekend trip to Vermont the family had taken around that time as a last-ditch effort at family solidarity. She and her husband couldn’t stop fighting under the covered bridges, at maple syrup tastings, and at the bed-and-breakfast. Claire and Philip became almost an afterthought during the vacation.
One day before embarking on a day-hike in the White Mountains, Martha and her husband had a heated argument concerning who had forgotten to bring the trail map. When the fight ended, they realized Claire and Philip were not there. The two had run off into the woods. For seven hours the children wandered the park as Martha waited in the ranger’s cabin sobbing hysterically while her husband sat silently. By nightfall the park ranger returned with Claire and Philip, slightly dirty and thirsty but unscathed. She remembered Philip, skinny and bespectacled, had brought his Polaroid camera to take pictures of the fungi, moss, and insects he collected.
Philip and Claire were soon sent to boarding school. The two received routine praise from the school administrations for their good behavior and academics, and they were always cheerful whenever Martha saw them. At one point, Claire picked up smoking. Martha never thought much of it, for she had done the same thing when she was eighteen. While her children were away at school, Martha moved up to the Berkshires with their things while her husband stayed in New York and moved into a new apartment.
Martha picked up Philip’s Polaroid from the floor and put it on the desk by the window. She shivered, remembering something from her own adolescence in New York.
She was fairly certain it had been a dream. Long ago, during a daytime nap after school, light streamed into her bedroom, causing her to drift in between states of consciousness. She heard a taxi horn from far below and opened her eyes. Her brother was standing in the doorway. She closed her eyes again and heard footsteps approach her bed. His lips pressed against hers. She didn’t like how it felt but still found herself kissing back. Her mother rustled in the other room and the kissing stopped. She opened her eyes, and there was no one there. Stepping out of bed, she walked down the hallway to her parents’ bedroom, where she slunk underneath the duvet and curled up next to her mother reading a book.
Martha never mentioned it to anyone, especially since it probably didn’t happen. The last time she thought of this encounter with her brother was at his funeral after Vietnam. The morning her family received the phone call relaying his death, Martha wasn’t even at home. The night before, an acquaintance took her to one of Warhol’s factory parties. Martha initially thought the invitation was a joke, but when she walked up to the entrance her name was on the list. She tried talking to transvestites with flat, high-pitched voices and other girls from her high school who had snuck in, but they ignored her. Someone took a Polaroid of her face pressed up against Baby Jane’s ass cheeks. On her way back from the bathroom she saw Candy Darling quietly crying in a corner. Martha kept on drinking until she fell asleep on a red couch. Warhol never even came to his own party. The next morning she woke up by herself. Her friend had long gone, and her entire body was sore. Those still lingering ignored her, and smirked when Martha said goodbye as she walked out the door. The invitation was a joke after all—she never received one again.
Martha was still wearing her fake eyelashes when her mother broke the news. Cause of death: exposure to Agent Orange. No one knew whether her brother had wandered into the spray from overhead on accident or not. He had to be cremated before the army sent him back, otherwise his blistered, melting skin would have rotted as his body traveled across the Pacific. The little urn sat on their dining room sideboard for two months before his burial. Walking past it every day, Martha had nearly forgotten it was there.
artha left the Polaroid on the desk, mixed into a messy pile of papers.
A week later, Claire came up from Brooklyn to visit her mother for a few days. Now a choreographer, she casually draped her long legs over the side of a leather armchair as she sipped tea. She picked up a framed photograph of Philip on the table next to her, laughing at the backwards baseball cap he always used to wear, especially on vacations.
Sitting across the coffee table, Martha asked nonchalantly, “Do you remember a short weekend trip we took to Vermont in 1991?”
Her daughter looked up and thought for a moment. Claire responded with a quizzical look: “I remember taking a lot of trips but never one up in Vermont.”
“That’s funny, because I found a picture of you from the trip that your brother took on his Polaroid.” She shifted slightly but kept her face still.
Claire laughed. “I remember that camera! I’d love to see the picture. Where is it?”
Martha paused, looking away for a moment. She thought of her own brother.
“I’m afraid I’ve already misplaced it,” she said, trailing off.
“Well I hope you find it the next time I come up,” Claire said, smiling, before taking another sip of tea.
Late that night, after Claire had gone to bed, Martha returned to Philip’s bedroom. She went to the desk and rummaged around the papers. She looked in the shoebox under the bed and she searched the desk and the bureau. She couldn’t find the photograph.