Ellen Carey (b. 1952). Pulls with Mixed & Off-Set Pods, 2010 dye diffusion prints (Polaroid). Courtesy of the artist and M+B Gallery, Los Angeles.

Ellen Carey (b. 1952). Pulls with Mixed & Off-Set Pods, 2010 dye diffusion prints (Polaroid). Courtesy of the artist and M+B Gallery, Los Angeles.

We Can't Explain

by Kate Doyle

We’re in a café together when this sudden, thunderous downpour starts up. It’s surprising and beautiful, nothing ominous about it. I don’t want to leave you, though worried I’ll be late for my family, as you and I laugh at these texts from my sister—don’t exactly remember why laughing, something about, Is she stealing this cab? Are the police coming after her, in transit to Gramercy Park from the Village? If memory serves, I leave you and take a cab to Gramercy alone. I’ll come over to your place after dinner. Parents on Gramercy Park North, easy to get the Q to yours from Union Square.

Can’t remember us kissing goodbye in the rain, so next thing I’m upstairs at my parents’, having of course a drink—remember this later when it comes to the part with Were you drinking, we can smell it. Dad’s 60th, but I’m drawing a blank on his gift, except oh, it’s this photograph. My mother’s idea. My father loves Gramercy Park, and so we give him for his birthday: my mother, sister, me, in this park, in a frame. You and I spend the night before photo shoot at my place in Bushwick, take the L in the morning, kiss goodbye in the station, before I go north to Gramercy with my pink canvas bag of possible photo outfits and you catch the Q. In the photo, as it’s turned out, I am a little too casually dressed: jeans and this plain linen shirt. Short hair unkempt. A better daughter would be better prepared and would not show up late. Regarding the ultimate photo, now wrapped for this dinner, my sister has been all day texting, incredulous, that of our many options Mom picked this one to blow up and frame? Sister feels she looks stupid here, and true there are photos we like better, but with various objections too—for example, Doesn’t that one seem like it’s all about me? says our mother, who eventually goes ahead and orders a different photo, the photo she feels like ordering, the photo my sister hates.

So now we’re all here and drinking champagne. Both daughters have made it to Gramercy in this downpour. Our mother wants to know, Should we do cake and the present before dinner, not after? Since dinner’s in Brooklyn and afterwards, she guesses, I won’t want to come back to Manhattan, only to return to Brooklyn again to get home? But dinner’s in a different part of Brooklyn from mine, and I say no, I don’t mind, which true anyway because Q train is near Gramercy, and this is my plan, though of course I’m not about to say so.

(And writing this now, I’m finding I actually can remember you and me kissing goodbye. This memory resolves and in it, we’re not outside the café. I’m not hailing any cab in the rain. In the version of this story that is true, there is no taxi I ever took alone. Instead, the downpour lets up, and we walk the rain-washed evening streets from West Side to East together, and say goodbye, see you later, at the front door to my parents’ building.)

After champagne, a cab to Peter Luger Steakhouse, where 60th birthday dinner proceeds unremarkably. My father for years has been telling one story about this place, in which it’s the eighties and he’s ordering steak. In the story the waiter keeps saying, Sir are you certain you want the most spicy, and our father keeps saying he’s sure, and the waiter keeps checking, and my father keeps confirming, and then steak arrives and in fact it is entirely too spicy, this being the point of the story, and maybe the only case ever for my father of anything being over the top, too much to take. I can’t remember what we’re saying tonight while we eat our birthday steaks, though I do remember how it’s too cold in the air-conditioning, and how dinner has this (not atypical for us) bristly edge. Then later More wine? and I put my hand on my glass—where to assign blame for the part where I am persuaded to take it away?

Ellen Carey (b. 1952). Dings & Shadows, 2013 Dye coupler print. Collection of Richard and Stacy Marquit.

Ellen Carey (b. 1952). Dings & Shadows, 2013 Dye coupler print. Collection of Richard and Stacy Marquit.

Next thing I have here for sure we’re in a cab on our way back to Gramercy when on purpose some guy runs his bicycle into the car. Trying to start a whole thing with the driver. It’s scary, and we can’t explain it. The bicycle guy is shouting, he follows us for blocks, rams his bicycle a second time into our cab. So now cab driver is angry, distraught, is ready to chase this guy down with the car, with us in it, but my parents say He’s crazy, we’re on your side. Just stay calm!

He’s crazy, he’s crazy. They keep saying, insistent, He’s crazy, we’re on your side. And my chest is tight and cab driver still muttering, angry, but he makes a right off of Park, drops us off, we get out of the cab, and this isn’t the part of the night that upsets me. At the apartment, cake and this present. Framed photograph, large and mediocre, unwrapped. My father should be thanking my mother more warmly, more attentively, more. Whereas you and I are different, are kind to one other, except for the times we both get confused because I get distraught can’t calm down freaking out. I am like my mother, explosive: able or likely to shatter violently or burst apart. Blow up that photo. Remember, one time not long before this, me shouting on the sidewalk after storming from a bar? A passerby making a joke, and I yell after her, Fuck off, fuck off, and you ask, without judgment, why I think I just did that?

Cake’s finished now, and here’s me saying tentatively that I’m going to head out. Presumably they think to my apartment and I don’t disabuse them, don’t tell them actually the Q, actually your place, though I feel a little guilty leaving them, even though the birthday’s winding down, even though it is so to speak my life. Even though you love me, even though everyone here is getting fairly surly. It still feels like I’m betraying them.

And this last I remember is the crux of it, my mother wanting to know do I want to take a cab? It would be faster. I tell her it’s just about the same, and thanks. She says, Then which should you take. She says, We will pay for whatever. I say I’m not sure but I’ll figure it out, I’ve got this, but still she needs to know which will it be. I’m putting on my coat saying Why are we discussing this, I’ll decide on my own once I leave. It’s just that I have this plan to take the Q, I don’t say. It’s just that I have certain hopes of my own. She’s asking again, angrier. Years of this, okay? The same. Which will it be? Why won’t I tell her? We will pay, we will pay, but I lose it, I say, You have no idea where I’m going, and how to explain the years of this that get me kicking and kicking the apartment door into the hall. (This birthday was months ago but you could, if you knew where to look, still locate the scuff marks I lashed all over the door’s inside. Then more of them out in the hall, like long smears of ink—the way they’re struck into white plaster, at the top of the long flight of stairs in descent.)

You did the right thing and are a good neighbor my sister will say later to fourth-floor neighbor who calls the police, who reports what he thinks must be an assault, based on the sounds he hears from upstairs.

Only a family disagreement, I tell them downstairs, outside, because I’m downstairs, outside now, have been circling the block.

Were you drinking, we can smell it, they say to me—before they go upstairs to this apartment, to my family. My sister will say later, You should have seen Mom’s face. She’s opening the door, and she’s got this scotch going, and here are the cops.

There is nothing to report. There is only a family. No one is hurt. I am allowed to go home: the police say I can leave, and then the police leave themselves. My sister tells fourth-floor neighbor The person who’s been making all that noise does not live here and is gone now. I get on the phone in Union Square, tell you I’m not taking the Q, I should not come over, I do not want you to see me this way, I’ve had this terrible time with my family. You express how you’d like to be able to be there for me. Years of this, and how will I explain to you? It’s early summer, and we’re in love. It’s scary and we can’t explain it.

I don’t remember if I take the L train or a cab. After this my mother stops drinking with her family. Takes the L to my apartment for an afternoon, sits against pillows propped on my bed, as though I am tucking her in. Small among the blankets she says We can’t keep doing this, and I tell her I agree. Later, my mother resumes drinking with her family.

For my birthday she frames my preferred version of the photo, the one she fears may seem to be all about her: the way she laughs into the camera, as above her head I meet my sister’s eyes. I keep the photo sometimes on my dresser, but other times under the bed. You tell me you love this picture. It’s true we look so happy. I wonder, do you notice when it’s gone—the times I flip it on its face?


Published May 13th, 2018

Kate Doyle’s writing has appeared in No Tokens Journal, Bodega, Meridian (Flash Fiction Award), Lamprophonic, and the Franklin Electric Reading Series. She received an MFA from NYU where she was a graduate fellow at NYU Paris.

From the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, where Ellen Carey’s work is on display through July 22: “Since the 1990s, experimental photographer Ellen Carey has been making photographs that defy photographic conventions of depicting identifiable subjects. Instead, her works depict vibrant fields of color that are meditations on the very nature of photography as an image created by the action of light on a light-sensitive surface. The exhibition Ellen Carey: Dings, Pulls, and Shadows features seven key works that explore the artist’s interest in color, light, and the photographic process as the subject of her practice.”