In lab the next day, Professor Nelson scanned my proof sheet with a huge smile. “Matt, you have such a natural eye. Your composition is perfect and original, like nothing I’m seeing from your peers. I love the graininess and how much you’re willing to push the film. What speed is this and what did you shoot it at?”
“It’s four hundred. I pushed it to thirty-two hundred.”
“Nice. Lots of agitation when you developed the negative, I take it?”
“This one is fantastic. Is this you?”
I had set up the timer and taken a picture of Grace standing in front of me as I sat on the floor. The only thing in the frame was her legs, just below the bottom of her wool sweater dress. My arms were wrapped around her calves. You can’t see it in the picture, but I’m kissing her knee.
“Have you thought about doing more color, more landscapes—documentary-style stuff?”
“Yeah, I actually shot a roll of color the other day but I haven’t developed it yet. I just really like this subject.” I pointed to Grace.
“You know, Matt, I’d hate to see your skills and talent go to waste.”
“I’m thinking about going into advertising photography.”
He nodded but seemed unconvinced. “Your photos have this story-telling quality that I don’t see often. We can talk about composition, framing, contrast, or even printing, but I think this is the true mark of an artist, when you can make a statement about humanity in a single two-dimensional image.”
I was a little embarrassed by the praise, but I was relieved to finally hear what I knew myself: that I was good at it. “I’ll never stop taking photos. I just don’t know how it’ll translate into a career.”
“I have a friend who works for National Geographic. Every year he sponsors a student to shoot abroad with him. You have to apply, but I think you’d have a good chance. You’ve got the technique for it.”
I was taken aback by the suggestion but more so by how crystal clear my goals suddenly became in that moment. I thought National Geographic was a pipe dream. It’s one of those things you aspire to as a kid, like becoming a professional baseball player or the President of the United States. In my book, traveling the world and taking photos was the ultimate level of success, and I couldn’t believe this chance was falling into my lap, even if it was just an internship.
“I’m definitely interested.” I hadn’t known what I was going to do once I graduated, but now everything was coming into focus.
I made an extra print that day and slipped it under Grace’s door during my break. On my way back to class, I saw her crossing the street about a block away. I yelled to her but she didn’t hear me. By the time I walked a block up, I saw her quickly enter a medical building. I got impatient waiting at the light and dashed across the street when the traffic was clear. Once inside, I scoured each floor until I found her on the fifth, standing near a table with coffee and donuts. She was wearing a hospital gown, stirring cream into a little foam cup. When I marched up to her, she looked up at me, startled. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Generally speaking, a person’s medical history is their own private business.” She held up a little dough ball. “Donut hole?”
“Don’t try to distract me. Are you sick, Grace?” I felt sick myself at the idea.
“No, I’m not sick. I signed up to do a medical study. You wanna do it, too?”
“You’re letting them use you as a guinea pig for free donuts and coffee?”
“I’m getting eighty bucks a day. That’s a lot.”
“Grace, are you crazy? What kind of study is this?”
“I just have to take this medicine and then they take me off of it and see if I have any withdrawal symptoms.”
“What? No,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. I turned her by the shoulders and pointed her toward the curtain. “Go put your clothes on. You’re not doing this.” I looked down at the open hospital gown in the back. She was so damn cute with her little flowery underwear. I pulled the back closed and tied the strings tight so the flaps overlapped.
She turned around and looked up at me with her big green eyes full of tears. “I have to do it, Matt. I need to get my cello back.”
“Back from where?”
“I pawned it for money to pay the rest of my tuition.”
“What about your student loans and financial aid?”
“I had to give some of it to my mom because my little sister needed to get a tooth fixed and they didn’t have the money.” Tears fell from her eyes. When I reached up to brush them away, she flinched.
“Grace, I won’t let you do this. We’ll figure it out, I promise.” Grace selling her cello seemed crazy to me, considering she was a music major. It was hard for me to understand her level of desperation.
“You don’t understand.”
“Explain it to me then.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’ve been helping my parents out. Their situation is more dire than I’ve let on, so I’ve been sending whatever I can from my student loan money. I’m almost out of cash for the semester and my mom called and said she and my dad were going to be evicted. They had the money to cover the rent but my little sister had a broken tooth that needed to be fixed and their credit is shot so they had to pay in cash. I couldn’t stand the thought of my sister going to school in pain with a broken front tooth.”
I was shocked, but that didn’t mean Grace needed to participate in potentially dangerous medical studies. “It’s not your problem.”
“It’s my family. I read about this study and I can make the money back before next week. They pay you every day. I’m going to get my cello back and everything will be fine. But I have to do this, Matt. It’s not a big deal.”
“It’s a huge deal, Grace. You don’t know how this medication will affect you.”
“You still don’t get it.”
“I’m trying to. I have some money. I’ll get your cello back for you.”
She shook her head. “I won’t let you. You need to buy photo paper and film.”
“I have plenty. Don’t worry.” Grace hated letting me help her. She wanted to be independent. “Go change—it’ll be okay.”
She turned and shuffled behind the curtain. When she came back out, she was smiling uncertainly. “You must think I’m insane.”
“I like your neuroses.” I put my arm around her shoulder. “I’m just not going to let anyone use you as a lab rat.”
As she walked by the refreshment table, she scooped a handful of creamers out of the bowl and shoved them into her bag. She would steal creamers everywhere we went, mix them with water, and pour them over her cereal. I smiled at her and shook my head. In a silly voice she said, “Just goin’ grocery shoppin’.” The mood suddenly lifted and we both laughed as we walked out the door. Still, it killed me to think Grace was sending her parents money that her dad was probably using for beer.
We went to the bank and I withdrew the last three hundred dollars I had. I didn’t tell Grace that I actually had negative eight cents in my account after the withdrawal. She took me to the pawnshop where she had dealt her cello, and we were greeted by a middle-aged man behind the counter. “Hello, Grace,” he said.
I shot Grace a disapproving look. “He knows you?” I whispered.
She pinched her eyebrows together. “Kind of.”
“Here to pick up your cello?”
“Yep,” Grace said.
I handed the man three hundred dollars. He went into the back and returned a moment later with the large cello case. Grace completed the paperwork and we left. Once outside the building, I turned to her. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
I went back inside the pawnshop and asked the man for a piece of paper. “Here’s the number where I live. Please don’t let Grace pawn her cello again. She’s an extraordinary musician. She needs it for school. Just call me and I’ll come down and straighten things out.”
That night, after Grace went to bed, I snuck down to the lounge and called my father collect from the payphone.
“Hey there. You impressing everyone at NYU?” Sarcasm seeped through every syllable. He was never good at hiding his disdain.
“I called because I have a friend who needs help and I was wondering if you could loan me some money to lend to her.” My pride was completely gone. I closed my eyes and waited for his response.
“This is for a her? A girlfriend?”
“No, Dad. It’s not like that.”
“You get some girl in trouble? Is that what you’re telling me?”
I took a deep breath. “She’s my closest friend here, and she doesn’t have any help financially. Not like me and Alex. She’s putting herself through school almost completely on her own. She’s a musician and needs a new cello, but she can’t afford it.” I had to lie a little; I didn’t want to go into all the details.
“You know, I have your brother’s wedding to pay for.”
“Monica’s parents aren’t paying for the wedding?”
“Well, we want to throw them a nice engagement party, and then we have the rehearsal dinner and open bar and . . .”
“Okay, Dad. No problem.”
A beat of silence. “Well, at least you’re starting to appreciate what we’ve done for you. How much do you need, son?”
“A few hundred dollars.”
“I’ll put it in your account tomorrow. You know, I’m willing to help you out, Matthias. Just because you’ve decided on the hardest possible future . . .”
I laughed. He couldn’t help himself.
“I’ll get a job and pay you back. Thanks, Dad.” I hung up.
As painful as it was to call him, I didn’t care; all I could think about was how hard Grace worked, all the sacrifices she made just to play her music. She believed in it, she had faith that it would all be worth it, and what is faith if it doesn’t endure? That’s what I was learning from her: how to have faith in myself and my art.
I felt it for Grace before I even had a name for it. I might have said the word a million times, but it sounded different now that I meant it. When I thought about what we had, it didn’t matter that it was just friendship. I loved her.