I have boxes that I move from one place to the next, leaving them unpacked and unused. They contain my journals from the days when my triumphs and failures were written down painstakingly by hand. Endless pads and notebooks lie untouched in there. They also contain photo albums of yore, from the days when you had to take film into the camera shop and have them developed, and photos were expensive and precious.
I was looking for a couple of old photos the other day, unsealed the boxes, the musty smell of disuse wafting out. I flicked quickly through some of the journals that sat on top, but no more than that. They are hard to read. I was often full of angst then, or perhaps more accurately, I mostly wrote when I was full of angst. So the journals are, for the most part, difficult and angry and sad.
I had a quick shock of surprise at the snippets that I read, at how much I had rewritten history in my head. Perhaps, and probably, it is normal to rewrite our history because after all, it’s the searing pain and the blissful joy that we remember, and not all the details that went on in between. And goodness knows that in the moment we don’t see many of the things that become perfectly clear in hindsight, and we always colour our history through the filter of hindsight.
Photos, though, show only happiness. I’ve always thought that’s how it worked for me back then: Writing was to document badness, photos were to capture joy.
I found a photo of the first man I ever fell in love with, the first man I dubbed a ‘vanilla submissive’, the first man who showed me what it was I wanted in a relationship.
It was taken when we were on holiday, diving off the coast of Africa. He is beautiful in a way I’m not sure I ever saw when we were together. He’s not smiling, though he looks amused, his mouth slightly open as if he’s going to say something to me. His lean face is in high relief, the light catches the hard angles of it in a way that makes him look both younger and older. His cheekbones high and angular, there are creases in his face that would later become the wrinkles of maturity. His lips are full and soft and he is looking at me behind the camera with a gentle tenderness that I remember well. The day is bright, glaring, the background of the photo faded over time into a stark dry landscape.
My first thought was to send a copy to him, “Oh look how beautiful you are!”, but we had a difficult time on that holiday. My fault. It was the beginning of the end, and I fear that what he will see in the photo is not a beautiful young man looking at the woman he loved, but a man who knew, deep down, that his heart would soon be broken. Because hindsight can be cruel like that.