This one had a very different start from the others because I was in New York when Samantha did the photoshoot, so I got to watch it from the inside out.
It started with a cake. Samantha said she couldn’t tell me what she needed/wanted from the cake because we were sticking to our ‘don’t talk about the process until it’s done’ rule to avoid proscriptive contamination between the photos and the stories. We ended up driving to Veniero’s and after much deliberation bought a small strawberry shortcake.
The shoot happened at Peter (the model)’s apartment. It was dusk outside. Samantha and Peter has spoken pre-shoot and he’d laid out a selection of outfits as instructed. He showed us round while we explained the concepts behind Dirty Laundry and the grant that let me be in New York, then Samantha decided on the open-plan kitchen as the location and agrees on the neon-pink shirt with Peter. Sam clears out the kitchen area while Peter changes, then lays out the cake and the props she has brought with her.
I’m familiar with the lighting softener as Samantha talked me through it as we carried equipment to the car earlier. She sets it up, swaps out lenses in her camera, and gets me to hold a light behind Peter’s head before dciding to swap it out with the light bulb in the oven hood instead. She wraps that bulb in tinfoil to reduce glare, taking test shots of Peter sat at the counter.
I move to the floor, writing fieldnotes continually to distract myself from the strong desire to make ‘helpful suggestions’. There are so many details and decisions that never made it into the final shot- the burnt-out matches, the fact that Peter is barefoot,
I start questioning what Peter’s character would be doing if he were sitting here – what kind of person does these things? While i’m aware I have full license to ignore the context of the shoot (as I have done for the others, not having been present), it also feels like a waste not to start pulling myself into the atmosphere. I think how different it would look if Samantha had gone for Cake No.1, a massive $40 ‘party cake’. I’m curious how Peter’s expression will come across on camera. I wonder how the other shoots went, how open to or confused by Samantha’s instructions the models were, how they interacted with the propos. How cold the outdoor shoots must have been. The issues with space and lighting. On the drive over we passed the location where DL#9 was shot.
Seeing how closely Samantha selects props, I can see how strange it must be for her when I don’t see them at all in the photos she has selected, or when I don’t pick them out, or translate them as something else. One of the candles flares into a high flame and Peter’s face is lit completely differently. He looks younger. Vulnerable. A boy having his birthday alone for the very fist time. This makes me think about a conversation with my boyfriend, who is a twin, about never having his own birthday. The cake is so small, it’s designed for only one person. Crowded with candles. What happens when the candles go out?
A boy’s first birthday alone in the big city. A lonely celebration. No friends to share the cake with. What’s happening back home- is his twin (half of himself) hanging out with their fiends and family as usual? Will he see photos of ‘himself’ up on Facebook the next day. Would people mistake and think he was there after all, if they were truly identical? His brother could change outfits halfway through the night as a joke and only the twin would know the truth.
Has he cut his hair so he looks like the past? The strawberry on the cake is burnt and the room is full of the smell of burnt out candles and hot sugar. Samantha gets Peter to relight the candle stubs and the cake turns into an inferno. I think I would have been a nightmare on the earlier shoots, unable to sit back and not interfere. At this point I have a better understanding of the process and the importance of retaining control over our own areas of creativity. I really want to talk to Samantha about my idea in the car on the way home, to see what she was thinking as she set the shoot up and if any of it ties in, but I also know I won’t. It would change how she picked the three photos, and it would change how I thought about the idea itself.
Peter begins cutting the cake. I picture the boy cutting slices for people who aren’t there. His brothers. is parents. His grandfather. When Samantha has finished we eat the cake.
Fast forward from December 2012 to March 2013. I haven’t revisited these notes in this time – we’ve been too busy editing down the other stories. Yesterday I wrote-up DL#11, based on my notes from the day before the photo shoot for DL#12 in December. I sit down in Samantha’s flat in New York with the photographs and try to approach them as cleanly as possible.
First impressions: the lighting is really slick. The colour palette feels different from many of the other sets; I don’t remember much pink in the others. The darkness of the second picture reminds me of the photos from #DL3. The thumbnail has a decent mirror reflection of the cup and saucer which is echoed in the cake/plate mirror reflection in the third picture.
Picture One: 12 candles. Unlit. Whole. Whole small cake. Hand in the top left corner suggests he is sitting and watching. Anticipation. Hand almost balled into a fist. rushed metallic surfaces catching the overhead light. Industrial? One large, red strawberry on top of the cream of the cake with the green stalk/end/hat still attached to it, crowding out the candles. The candles are stuck directly into the cake, no candle holders. three yellow, three green, three pink, three blue. Plate is small, round, cream, with slightly shaped edging. Small chip at the very front.
Picture Two: harder, looking at this picture, not to get lost in ‘already knowing’ what is in the background. Need to filter out my memories of the photoshoot and concentrate on what it actually there. A neutral profile- not happy/angry/sad. Shape of the neck, of the shoulder. Suggestion of the pink shirt shading in the shoulder, picking up the pink in the – bottle? – in the background. The light is coming from underlighting, which suggests kitchen. Could be laboratory? [but, the bookshelf in the thumbnail photo says home rather than laboratory. Most of the stories are set in or by homes. It could be a studio or a shop though. I find the thumbnail for this set very compelling.]. A kitchen, bu it could be a corner kitchen behind him, in the corner of an office or some kind of studio. There’s an emptiness that comes across as very lonely. Also, celebrations alone are very poignant. Could that be turned around- could it be an achievement to be celebrating something alone?
Picture three: defiant. The candles are burnt down to stubs and there’s wax running down the side of the cake. Crumbs – from where the candle was blown out, perhaps? One hand, in the background, up on fingertips. Waiting, but with no sign of immediate movement. The person is absorbed fully in the moment. It’s a ritual more than a celebration, A marking of something. Something that it takes time to absorb. The cake is there to mark something, rather than be eaten – it’s there to hold up the candles, perhaps? Symbolic of something beyond that?
I move to a cafe in SoHo and keep working through the ideas.
This is the twelfth time the ritual has been done. – the twelfth year in a row. He’s young, could be 28 say. Which means that that ritual started on his 16th, which is a portent number. I want to say that after the third picture, he raises that fist and slams it down ont eh cake, maybe breaking the saucer, and decides never to do the ritual again. That it is only right in the moment of doing the ritual that he realises that he doesn’t need it any more- or that it’s no longer working, he doesn’t believe in it any more? Maybe it started as a joke: ‘I’ll pay you twenty bucks to let me be you.’ A lot of money to sixteen year old back then. Twin.
I look back through my notes from the photoshoot – for the first time – and i’m stuck again, stuck in knowing what was actually there rather than what I’m finding in the photos. I give up and return to editing down DL#9 instead. I think maybe I’m pushing too hard, having just finished writing up DL#11, that I need time to separate and recharge.
A day later I’m in the New York Public Library for a talk as part of their Art and Literature series. I get there early so I take a seat in the dimly lit room and get my notebook out and start clearing my mind with notes. I’ve just come from visiting Samantha on location and I mean to write down my impressions of that, but what comes out are anecdotes from my childhood. Then that clicks and transfers into the childhood of the character in DL#12 (who I go back and name Matthew, and his brother Luke, after the talk finishes). The image of him smashing his fist down on the cake is so strong that I believe it happened, that Peter the model really was Matthew, sitting there and telling me about where it all started while Samantha walked around the pair of us, taking photogaphs.
Even now, typing up these notes, a part at the back of my mind believes that if I were to go through all of Samantha’s photos from the shoot that image of the cake being destroyed would be there.
I finish the draft of the story back in Samantha’s flat the following evening.
Matthew slams his fist down into the cake. The saucer rackets against the work-surface the first time he does it, the second time it slips out under the cream and the violence and spins over the edge. He hears it break and scatter against the tiles. About now, back home, they’ll be singing for him and Jake will be opening his presents.
One of the melted candles is stuck to the side of Matthew’s arm. He picks it off and lets it dangle, blue and white wax crumbing from the end stub of the wick. He picks the other candles out of the crush and splutter smeared across the brushed steel, then searches on the floor for the twelfth. The remains of the saucer are a raw-edged jigsaw under the cabinets.
The first year he did this – the autumn they turned sixteen – he told himself it was a good idea to do Luke a favour. ‘Next year it’ll be your turn,’ his brother had promised. ‘I just really need this one.’ Matthew had gone into the loft and sat in the far corner where the muted sounds of the party had been oddly calming.
After their guests had gone home Luke told him about it in a rush, then passed out on his bed. Matthew hadn’t been able to sleep. Listening to his brother’s panting snores, a numbness had spread up from his stomach and held him, his ribs replaced by anaesthetic fingers. Nobody had noticed or – if the had – none of them had commented on the switch. He had proven, unintentionally, that he was replaceable.
The second year would have been his turn but Luke hadn’t found a job and then Matthew got the scholarship and it seemed like the only way to make it up was to give something up. Luke asked him to get his hair cut the week before, so they were back to being identical. Matthew had thought of a different solution. ‘We could both go.’ Luke shook his head.
Matthew came back from college for their eighteenth and found that Luke had prepared the corner of the loft. The slice of cake had three candles in it. ‘It’s the most hilarious joke ever,’ Luke was buoyant. ‘The punchline is that nobody ever needs know.’ For his nineteenth he stayed out of town, but he got a pack of candles from the store and stuck four of them in a muffin.
His roommate heard that Matthew was famed for his birthday parties in his hometown, so a bunch of them travelled down for his twentieth. It continued, year after year. Luke called it their secret tradition. It went along with the secret loans, the secret infidelities, the secret arrest. All of these involved Luke as the centre of attention and Matthew staying out of sight. ‘It’s so much better this way,’ Luke wrote in his twenty-fifth birthday card. ‘You know you hate it when people stare at us.’
When they were small Luke got measles and Matthew didn’t and Matthew had the whole of their fifth birthday party to himself as a result. All day people sang to him. He was the only one opening presents. Then when they were older they watched the video of it together and saw their grandmother singing Luke and someone else in the background asking how long before Matthew came out of quarantine and it was totally hilarious.
Neither of them ever said that Luke wished he was Matthew all the time, but Matthew thinks that must be how Luke feels. Matthew is the one who had a girlfriend. A cool summer job. Who left town for college then stayed in the big city. Luke got their birthday, but as far as everyone else was concerned it was Matthew who threw all those great parties while Luke – well, everyone knows what Luke is like, right? That kid just doesn’t like big social events.
Even here – where nobody knows him, or knows he is forever defined in the context of someone else, knows about Luke – Matthew hides on the days around their birthday. He tells everyone he’s going home. He sends Luke a login for his accounts and the photos go up on Facebook and he gets an email from his mother a week or so later saying how good it was to talk and how much she misses him.
The room smells of burnt jam. Matthew lights a match and holds it against his arm until he loses his nerve. Now the room smells of charring hair. The smooth, red patch begins to swell before the pain kicks in. He lights another match and holds it up to his face. The heat and the light feel too close to his eye. He doesn’t want to. He drops it onto the pile of candles. A thin line of smoke curls up. He wants to. He lights another. He doesn’t want to.