Elizabeth Ellen




After that I go straight. Or after that I make an attempt at going straight. I try to take photographs of other things. I take photographs of myself. I try to figure out ways of making myself appear interesting as a solo act. I don’t incorporate Adam into my art. There is still Eli, occasionally Eli’s female friends, Coco and Alondra, but the boys are gone. All the boys are now gone, sent out to various ‘alternative’ high schools and juvenile detention centers in the Midwest and, in Saul’s case, a boarding school somewhere on the east coast. I study Darius’s face in the photographs from a year, two years ago. I remember how it could go hard or soft, the carved scars on his cheek, self-inflicted scars on his arms, how he lay his head on my arm in the movie theater, cuddled up to Eli on the couch in the basement. “Damn right I was scared,” he used to say. It was the ending to a story he told about when he was a young boy, hiding behind his father’s legs in the presence of strangers. His father, he said, had been shot four times. But he wasn’t dead; he had survived. Darius and Eli tried to set us up once, before Adam came back. I found Darius’s father good looking, affable, strong, but I couldn’t imagine not looking over my shoulder in his presence. I couldn’t imagine not feeling as though Darius were always watching, listening through walls.

Once, when I had gone to see Adam in another state, Darius had texted me, “How’s your date going? Are you gonna get it in?”

I had been sitting in Adam’s kitchen. We were drinking whiskey, playing cards. I had smiled at my phone and put it away. There were no lines drawn.

I waited until the drive home the next day. It was six hours of freeway. I texted Darius. I said, “That is an inappropriate question, Darius.”

The scent of Adam’s semen was on the seat every time I rearranged my legs.

I was so full of want then. I forgot how quickly want fades; sex with the same person two days in a row, the same mouth for three.

Darius replied, “Oh, so you definitely got it in.”

I didn’t reply to that and three hours later a new text came in from Darius. “I’m sorry,” it said. “That was inappropriate,” Darius said.

I didn’t change my underwear until halfway through the next day.

I had become accustomed to rejection/self-denial/restrictions.

I didn’t yet recognize the dilemma.

I liked the semen scent of my underwear.

Adam and I honeymooned up the western coast of the United States; a series of travel guide hotels in Big Sur and Napa and the Bay area.

I couldn’t remember how not to feel lonely. The feeling was ingrained within me; I felt some loyalty to it. Or I purposely aimed my torso elsewhere.

On the fifth night I slept in a hotel robe on the floor of the closet.

I was manufacturing melancholy. I was trafficking in it.

I was afraid of becoming boring. Or I was bored.

I waited for Adam to leave the house to arrange myself interestingly upon the floor. I had a three second self-timer. Maybe it was ten. I can’t remember.

That’s a lie. It was ten.

At our wedding Eli had made an impromptu speech. We were standing in a barn in Kentucky. She said, “Even when my mom and Adam were broken up, I always knew they’d get back together.”

I had spent a split second wondering how she knew.





There were photographs from our honeymoon on a laptop somewhere in a drawer somewhere in the back of a closet.

I could never figure out how to make my face appear interesting next to Adam’s.

I didn’t know how other couples stayed together without breaking up.

There had been a photo shoot that interested me before Adam and I broke up for the first time, or after we got back together a second; photographs of the two of us dressed as Ziggy Stardust and Freddie Mercury. I had sat in Adam’s lap and then he in mine. His bony underside luxuriated on my spread out white thighs. We had gotten high that night; one of only two times together. Another time a honeymoon before the honeymoon, a rockside hut in Negril, Jamaica. An outdoor shower. Me spread eagle in a chair, Adam on his knees on the floor hut beneath me. Neither of us had known how to roll a joint. Adam had done the best he could, twigs and shit sticking out of the paper. I was so high. We were both so-so high…the moment seemed to last forever. Adam on his knees for hours. There isn’t any documentation of that time period. I had forgotten to bring my camera. Or, I had stared at my camera beside my suitcase the morning we left and not packed it. (I was afraid of appearing uninteresting. Not disinterested. Disinterest is something else.)

Ziggy Stardust and Freddie Mercury high and fucking on a rockside cliff in Negril, Jamaica. Ziggy Stardust and Freddie Mercury fucking in a leather chair with a ten second self-timer…

Art is what you can get away with. – Andy Warhol

After the honeymoon we settled into a contented funk. Adam got jobs at both universities in town. I made a family style dinner every Wednesday, a weekly muffin on Sunday. We allowed Eli’s boyfriend Aidan to come to family dinners. Saul was out of state. Darius was in juvie. Israel was at an alternative high school, a few months shy of being stabbed in a fight. I wasn’t in contact with anyone else. I didn’t feel comfortable within the feeling of not being in contact with anyone else. I felt stifled, claustrophobic. I started having trouble breathing in common situations. I developed a habit of carrying sick bags with me just in case. I never needed them but I felt as though I might always. Nausea was my most frequent state of being.





After the wedding, before Saul got sent out east, the four of us – Eli, Saul, Adam and I – had gone to a concert in Cleveland; a group of black teenage hip hop artists profiled in The New Yorker. Adam and I were the oldest people there. Adam had read about them first, told Saul and Eli and me. We waited in line outside the club for an hour and a half with fifty or sixty other white kids. A bouncer came and asked us for our I.D.’s. I didn’t have mine with me. I told him I was straight edge even though there was no X on the back of my hand and it was clear that the jacket I was wearing was constructed of real leather.

We were each of us separated from the other at some point early on in the show. We got pushed and shoved apart. I got sucked up toward the front of the stage. I felt jabs to my stomach, thighs, the back of my head. At one point I thought Saul was beside me but when I turned to say something to him, he was gone, and there was a stain of blood on my shirt. I didn’t think it was Saul’s. I don’t know why I thought I could recognize Saul’s blood. It may have been my own, but I couldn’t locate an area from which it’d originated. I couldn’t locate Saul or Adam or Eli either. It was disconcerting and melancholic; a liberation; a foreshadowing.

Someone threw a bottle at the stage. I turned back to look. I expected to see Darius, Israel, Saul, even though only one of the three was a presence here in the hall. I could see only a hundred people, indistinguishable faces and limbs, bloodied shirts like mine. Pale skin like mine. Had we all read about this in The New Yorker? Did each of us have a photograph of one of the boys on stage hanging on the wall over our desk – an upside down peace sign and the word ‘destroy’ on the boy’s shirt? A certain envy of the photographer who had taken it?

Another bottle was thrown. The stage quickly cleared, vacated; the lights turned up by some unseen force. We, the crowd, yelled epithets, voiced opposition, threw more bottles. A bad imitation of the lyrics of the songs we had come to hear. Glass was everywhere underfoot, tiny dustings on our shoulders, in our hair. I was afraid to rub my hands together. I was afraid to look down, afraid of finding Eli on the ground beneath me.

I found Adam first. He was leaning against the back wall. Maybe he’d been there the whole time. I gently slid the palm of my hand onto his shoulder, aware there may be tiny shards of glass stuck to my skin or resting within the flannel fibers of his shirt. He looked nothing like Freddie Mercury anymore. I didn’t understand how to behave now that he no longer resembled Freddie Mercury.

I looked away and Saul was walking toward us. He was grinning and I realized I’d never seen him grin before. Not so wildly, anyway. He was grinning and drenched in sweat. He shook his head and beads of moisture shot from his head as when a dog has been recently bathed.

“That was fucking insane,” Saul said, his face still a wide smile.

“Where’s Eli?” I said.

I had thought I would find Eli with Saul, though this had not been a formal or even a causal oral agreement and I did not hold Saul accountable for her absence any more than I held myself accountable, though, really, that is not saying much.

“Your shirt is bloody,” Adam said, gesturing in my direction.

“I tried to stay with her,” Saul said. “I was near the stage the entire time.”

His face, now somewhat more serene, registered heat. He was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen; I forget. Eli was six months younger. He treated Eli like a kid sister, like a baby, like a girl he was secretly fucking. I never inquired as to who it was he fucked. Eli claimed he was still a virgin but I didn’t know. It was not my place to inquire.

“I never saw her after the first song,” Saul was saying.

“I thought she was with you,” Saul said.

The building was emptying out. It would be easier to find Eli now that the building was near emptied. I began to walk toward the stage. Adam stayed against the back wall – “in case she comes this way” – and Saul followed me.

“I thought I saw her once in the mosh pit,” Saul said. “But it was so quick, just a fast glance. It could have been anyone, I guess.”

Saul didn’t get it. Saul was bordering on hysterical. I had to shush him three times, place my palm on his shoulder as I’d earlier done with Adam. If Eli was missing, it was my fault, not his. If Eli was hurt or displaced or unfound, I was the culprit, the only one of us culpable. I was less careful with Saul, more willing to embed my skin with glass particles.

“Remember when we didn’t realize Eli was in the basement office with Jehu and Nick for an hour?” I said. “Remember how bad we felt after?”

“No, we did realize. We just didn’t know they were holding her against her will,” Saul said. “We didn’t know Nick had barricaded the door.”

“Oh, right,” I said. I was holding my face steady, remembering.

Saul and I had been upstairs making chocolate-chip cookies, the kind you slice from a tube, bake in your own oven. It was four o’clock in the afternoon on a weekday. There were always four or five kids coming home with Eli after school. Saul and I were always picking up pizzas, deciding where to eat, what movie to see, who to invite along.

Nick had made some comment when we discovered them about Saul and me. I could never remember what it was, exactly; something meant to be disparaging. Nick had been annoyed with our disruption. He and Jehu had left immediately after; Eli and Saul and I gone downtown to eat somewhere with a sit down menu, a wine list, desert options. Eli had said everything was fine, had no discerning marks anywhere that I could see. She simply had not liked being unable to leave the room. She had not liked that the decision regarding when to leave had been made for her. They had just started dating then, she and Jehu.

Adam and I had started seeing each other again a few months after that. A text message meant for someone else. A misunderstanding that led to reconnection. I had been surrounded by sex for eighteen months. I had driven teen girls to Planned Parenthoods in multiple cities, sat in airless waiting rooms, made monetary donations. I had made films of teens kissing in my house, skinny-dipping in our pool. I had neither guided them nor dissuaded them. I had not provided them with drugs or alcohol. I had accepted marijuana from them when left anonymously for me. I had been celibate a year and a half when Adam and I got back together. I had considered recording our initial reconciliations but Adam had objected and in retrospect I was shyer than I thought I’d be at the thought of our coupling being documented on film.

I had films labeled “Eli” and “Coco” and “Darius” and “Alondra” and “Israel.”  I had films labeled “kissing2009” and “dressing2009” and “makeup2010” and “foreplay2011” and “Halloween party 2011.” I didn’t have any films of Saul. Only still photographs. And many of those had been confiscated, first by an ex-girlfriend of Saul’s and later by Saul’s parents when the ex-girlfriend went to them.

I had waited to be brought up on charges of child pornography. I knew it was only a matter of time. A matter of the right person. I told Adam about my waiting and he married me anyway. He said, “I’ve always admired your strength and courage. Your unwillingness to back down. Your ability to hold a grudge.” He didn’t have any idea how to fight for me, but he didn’t know how to leave either. So far that had worked out. But more and more I wanted meanness. I wanted ugliness and anger and I wanted it expressed on my behalf. I wanted it directed toward me. It felt impossible to feel anything, otherwise. It was beginning to feel impossible to feel.

“Over here,” Saul said. He was standing by the women’s restroom. I didn’t recognize the slumped body next to him as my daughter’s, as Eli, until I got closer, until I was close enough to touch her. I reached my hand outward and pushed aside her hair, which was hiding her face from me. I remembered long sleeves hiding her inner arms from me. I recalled the closed basement office door, a muffling of voices behind it.

We walked to the car, Adam and I slightly ahead of Saul and Eli. On the drive home I kept turning around, making sure Eli was still asleep on Saul’s chest, Saul’s arm still around her. I worried she would vanish from the car if his arm slackened.

I thought about a photograph of the moment hanging on a wall in a gallery somewhere decades into the future. The cool black and white imagery. The inescapable, automatic coolness of youth. A note about the photographer. A note about the banning, for years, of her work.

I could never figure out a way to feel both safe and secure in the world with Adam and liberated as an artist, as a woman. I had come to understand it was impossible to feel both simultaneously. You had to choose, one or the other. Security or autonomy. I had spent ten, twelve, thirteen years not choosing.

Adam admired my bravery but if I were really brave I would have left him, would leave him still.

If I were really brave I would find myself alone in a tiny shithole apartment or on trial for child porn.

I wanted to redefine the genre. Draw new lines.

But I was afraid of losing Eli. I was always almost losing Eli.





I got in bed next to Adam. I could hear Eli moving around her room above us. I couldn’t relax unless I could hear Eli’s movements. I exhaled and slid my jaw onto Adam’s chest as I’d seen Eli do in the backseat of the car with Saul. I was aware the temporariness of this safety. I was grateful to it, engaged. I was Darius hiding behind his father’s legs in the face of strangers. I was Darius telling his story again and again, over and over, to anyone who would listen. I was Darius falling asleep on a white woman in a movie theater. I was Darius committing crimes, going to Juvie. I was Darius hiding behind his 6’ 7” father. I was Darius and Israel and Saul and Eli and Alondra. I shoved my head deep into the emptiness between Adam’s arm and the side of Adam’s chest. Damn right I was scared, I would later tell anyone who would listen.