This is a character study of a dark relationship between a photographer and his former muse. They meet again years after their collaboration brought them both fame. Originally published in October 2020 in Siren’s Call eZine, Issue #51.
by DL Shirey
Syren met my glance, then didn’t. One blink was all, as if the very sight of me reminded her of the person she no longer wanted to be. But for one instant it was Amy behind her eyes.
I concentrated on the irony instead of my feelings. Syren still looked like my Amy: thin, disheveled and sad. Syren’s makeup was perfectly applied to look trashy. Who knows how long it took a stylist to create Syren’s quintessential mess of smudged shadows and eyeliner mistakes? When I knew her as Amy, she would glop on makeup by feel, smearing the hollows of her eyes aimlessly. It only took two minutes before the mirror, but she’d reflect on the results for an hour. Few were allowed to see Amy’s naked eyes. Sometimes I did, briefly, before the bedside lamp snapped off.
Only once did my camera catch Amy plain. One morning while she slept, sheets whitened by sunlight, I released the shutter. Even in dreams she frowned. Minutes later she woke and rushed to put on her face.
Syren still had the hair Amy hated. Thick, limp and black, it defied all chemicals and appliances designed to force curls. It always looked sopping wet, hanging there as if just doused with water. Syren’s hair is longer, but still has Amy’s bangs, scissored straight, hiding eyebrows.
Hiding something else.
Amy was into drugs long before that famous magazine cover of Syren, sprawled upon an ocean of pills, writhing on a million capsules and tablets and empty Rx bottles. You know the one: camera directly overhead, Syren’s mouth cratered with pleasured pain as she scooped up pills between her thighs. To me that photo is Amy playing Syren playing a character. Under studio lights she could assume any role. Performing seemed the only countermeasure to the downers she took every day. From the first snap and flash, her prescription listlessness disappeared, replaced by any emotion the photographer suggested: click/bitterness, click/euphoria, click/lust.
Anger really clicked.
We met in art school, though she darkened my periphery for most of our first year. A now-famous ballerina used to practice in a room walled with mirrors. Amy and I were both drawn there, she with sketchpad and charcoal, me behind a camera capturing reflections. Suddenly I was struck by the contrast in these two women, Goth-girl artist and regal dancer. To get them both in the shot I set a chair in the middle of the room and asked Amy to sit there. “Keep working, please,” I said, “act as if I’m not here.”
And she did, ignoring me totally, a concentration in charcoal. Scores of photos later, I asked Amy to look at me, act as if I’d intruded on her privacy. In a snap, her face clenched: nostrils flaring, lips flattening, I could almost hear her teeth grind. And those eyes, nothing but blackened rage. Her body bristled, hands shielding the sketchpad from my prying lens. Amy was so distracting, so captivating, I never saw the dancer leave.
It started there, Amy dropped into any character I suggested and the place didn’t matter. We’d troll the city, looking for locations; seedy or gritty, it didn’t matter to Amy. She’d tag along, quiet as a shadow, indifferent to anything happening around her until told what character to be: a drunk guarding her virginity at a biker bar; full, foul-mouthed rage at an all-night eatery; hiding shame as she pushed past protesters into an abortion clinic. With every click of my camera, she would slip further into character, until Amy wasn’t there any more. As if she couldn’t wait to tamp down her everyday self and explode into that make-believe world as someone else.
It was a high she couldn’t seem to get to any other way. And like any junkie, Amy couldn’t quite remember what happened afterwards. Her return to reality was usually accompanied by sex. Sometimes with me, most often with any willing bystander, man or woman, found at the scene. When it was me, foreplay commenced with the same wrath or giddiness or narcissism that characterized the shoot, the part played until release. Then Amy fell back on the bed.
As her dull eyes registered who I was—who she was—reality reappeared. She’d slink down the hall, never turning on the bathroom light and returning without makeup. Pulling up the sheet, Amy always turned away from me to sleep. When she was plain Amy, I was not allowed to use her, which made me dream of keeping her that way. I loved who she wasn’t.
The next day, when we’d look at the results from the shoot, no emotion crossed her face. It was impossible to say if she recognized the person she’d become, or if she was even pleased with the photos. Amy never seemed eager for the next session or make suggestions of any sort. I saw varying shades of numb where excitement or embarrassment should be. It seemed Amy had no plans for the future, but would make herself available any time, anywhere I requested. As if she had nothing else to do.
The only places she wouldn’t go were the coffeehouses and galleries displaying my work. Talk was growing, but rarely about me. Amy was the star; I just happened to be the first one holding the camera.
Then came the photos no one could ignore: in a warehouse, on a loading dock filled with boxes. I told Amy to imagine what it would like to be product, something stacked and sold by the boxload, a commodity. And with that command, Amy became more withdrawn, fetal, curling in on herself. She didn’t become someone else, she became no one, hollow, a living thing that somehow became lifeless. I stepped up close, just her face in the frame, to capture those dead eyes; the black makeup only enhancing the depth of vacancy. Then she did it, the act that rocketed us both into the spotlight: she grabbed a nearby box cutter.
Sure, I took credit for directing Amy that day. It propelled me into a career photographing models for fashion magazines. I worked tirelessly, expensively, but truthfully, without the same results. Everyone wanted to work with the man who discovered Syren. And I took complete advantage of the situation.
So did Amy. Or, at least, the next person who found her did. Someone with connections. Someone who suggested she change her name. Just like Amy, Syren always said yes.
Yesterday I saw the meme again. My photo, her close-up; once shocking, now everywhere. Bad Hair Day read the bright blue caption below Amy’s dead eyes, the face everyone thinks is Syren. Her head is propped against cardboard, hand drawing a blade across her hairline, limp bangs parting, freshets of blood rolling down her forehead. These days, everyone assumes Photoshop, but I remember being as lost in that moment as she was. Amy never registered pain, didn’t flinch while the box cutter did its job. I was too shocked to move, dumbfounded by how slowly she pulled the blade. It was pure luck that I kept a hard focus while the motor drive captured everything.
There were no photos of what happened afterwards; how the self-inflicted wound ripped away her pretense. If only the camera captured her face at the moment pain registered; when realization narrowed her eyes, unfastened tears and cheeks flushed with anguish. When she discovered what she’d done.
I was afraid what this might lead to, but didn’t know how to tell her. Instead, I turned my back and refused to focus on her, thinking Amy would become whoever she wanted to be. And in that moment she left. Alone.
One look at the pictures and I could see her future, but it wasn’t in me to take Amy there. She must have known it too. Her flat was empty a few days later, my calls unreturned until that number was abandoned. I never saw her again, in the flesh, anyway. Not until a minute ago, when she walked into the cocktail party and showed me Amy’s face.