Roberto has a folder on his PC desktop. The folder has subfolders with names like “Sarah and Martin” and “Jacqueline and Sophie” and “Greta and Sam.” In the subfolders are images, four years’ worth of photo shoots with single moms and their kids.
Roberto wasn’t commissioned to take these photos. He is commissioned to take other photos, usually of young women wanting to capture their passing beauty. They want to look like the females in the magazines, and often bring pictures to show him. He paints their faces and poses them at their most flattering. Their boyfriends watch in a corner, arms crossed. After careful editing the result is positive. The women are always pleased. The boyfriends have slapped his back when they’ve spotted him at the bar in the months following.
But the mother and child shoots are not prearranged. Mostly, Roberto doesn’t even ask, just whips out his full frame DSLR and starts shooting. The women hardly ever say anything, maybe look a little uncomfortable but go along with it. They are prescreened for the right level of compliance.
Single mothers, Roberto knows, are simultaneously starved for attention and have limited time to devote to him. Still, they fall in love. Sometimes, it gets messy.
The day he chooses for the photo shoot is always a high point. Roberto meets them at a park, or a playground, or the beach. He brings a plastic toy for the kid. Then he takes out the camera, and what can they say? By the end of the afternoon the kid adores him and the moms are so fucking grateful. They don’t say it, but Roberto knows what they’re thinking: “No one has shown an interest in my child before. You are different.”
Roberto likes how, with a few simple actions, he can command this look. Likes how he can fill the space that an absent father has left behind.
Roberto didn’t meet his father until he was nearly thirty, didn’t know who his father was until a year or so before that. His mother had finally confessed: His real father’s name was Peter and he had worked construction jobs in the same town where they grew up. He’d seduced Roberto’s teenaged mother with a romantic dinner and too much wine, gotten her pregnant, and taken off. After some searching, Roberto found out he lived in New York and booked a flight. He packed carefully, looking for a blue and gray checkered shirt with a collar, one he had bought imagining this reunion. He could already see the photo of him and his father, the shirt carefully tucked in with a brown belt, Peter’s arm stretched across his shoulders. But he couldn’t find it, so he had to settle for an off-white button-down.
Peter lived in Queens and didn’t offer to host him, so Roberto spent a couple days wandering around Manhattan. He watched people rush by, oblivious in their importance, and waited. He took photos of the sidewalks and their inhabitants. On the third day, Peter invited him for lunch. Roberto took the subway to a house in Queens, stood at the door and rang the doorbell, his hands shaking.
The door opened and his likeness appeared, his flesh and blood, no warmth or recognition in his eyes. Peter pushed them onto the front steps, away from the place he lived and the people with whom he lived. He led the way to a neighborhood café. Peter strode along, several paces ahead of Roberto, and Roberto recognized the gait, the swinging arms, the chin raised to signal dominance, as his own. Roberto had imagined they’d eat pizza and compare their lives, plan future visits, establish a relationship. Instead, Peter ordered cheeseburgers and joked about other illegitimate children he was sure to have fathered. Roberto pushed his fries in the ketchup and wondered how this meeting would have gone had he been wearing his blue and gray checkered shirt. They said goodbye in the parking lot. Roberto was not invited for a second visit.
On the flight home, Roberto sipped a beer and thought about how the abstract version of people is always better.
Today’s clandestine photo shoot is with Karin and her six-year-old daughter, Kaya. Roberto’s been seeing Karin for about three weeks. He hasn’t met Kaya. They plan a date at the beach. Roberto arrives and lifts Karin off the ground, whirling her in his arms. He passes a wrapped package to Kaya and watches as she shrieks with delight, tearing at the paper until she uncovers a small green beach ball. Karin and Kaya kick the ball in the sand, their giggles intermingling.
Roberto opens his backpack and fits the prime lens onto his camera. He sees Karin glance at him, sees the hesitation pass on her face, but it is momentary. When he is ready to shoot, she is engrossed in the game with her daughter. Roberto watches their joy in flinging the ball, sees their gratitude in small smiles slipped his way, their trust as they surrender to his observation, and he feels like a god. Who giveth and who taketh away. He raises his camera and, through the lens, observes their easy companionship. He captures their intricacies: Kaya’s big, round blue eyes bulging with excitement, her face still flush with baby softness. Karin’s highlighted bangs falling just so into those same blue eyes, framed with a slight brush of mascara. Those wide, silly smiles, that arch of the neck at a shared joke. That energetic gait. Like mother, like daughter. Click. Click. Click.
Later, they will walk on the boardwalk, each holding one of Kaya’s hands. Kaya will bounce between them, her fingers clasping a caregiver to the left and to the right, sensing an unexpected balance. To strangers they are a family. It is an image of happiness.
The next evening, Kaya is with a babysitter, and they are in Roberto’s bed. Karin is warm and flushed from multiple orgasms. She describes his sexual skill in murmurs: He decides when she will explode. He teases her and then pulls the climax from her body.
Her tongue is thick, her eyes lazy, her arms tight around his neck, when she whispers, “Don’t you ever come? I’d really like to see you.”
He gives the answer he always gives, with a well-timed chuckle.
“I have a child, don’t I?”
Karin suggests a few scenarios in which she’d like to feel him let go, her nails tracing a pattern down his chest. Roberto knows he never will, not with her.
Roberto was in love once. Her name was Alice. He’d seduced her like all the rest, drawn her in with patience and unexpected compliments, then fucked her silly. But she captured him. He couldn’t say why. A few years went by and he clung to her. Finally, the inevitable: She was pregnant.
Three months into the pregnancy, there was a petty fight about chores and she went to the ultrasound without him, slammed the door and drove away and left him sitting at the kitchen table with his coffee. It was a betrayal that warranted Roberto’s disappearance. When he showed up a few days later, she told him to move out.
They could not anticipate or were unable to understand each other’s breaking points.
The pregnancy progressed and they didn’t make up. A son was born, and Alice named him Luca. Alice gave him her surname. The father’s name on Luca’s birth certificate remains blank.
Alice allows Roberto to see Luca every once in a while. Roberto always brings his camera. After each visit, he documents his visits on Facebook. He changes his profile picture to a smiling, happy image of Luca. Luca playing in the bathtub. Luca beaming in face paint. Luca eating a banana. Acquaintances like and comment.
“Is this your son, Roberto? What a handsome child.”
“Roberto, he looks so much like you!”
“You must be very proud. What wonderful photos!”
Roberto reads these comments, likes them, and wonders if it isn’t our destiny, all of us, to repeat history.
Roberto sits on Karin’s couch. They sip cold beers. She is talking, animated,about some aspect of her life. Their affair is almost over. He stares at her, memorizes her, then interrupts.
“You look so much like her,” he says, his voice breaking, his eyes wide and vulnerable.
She laughs, glances away. It seems to be a compliment, this comparison to Kaya, but she does not respond. She carries on talking, her gestures now awkward, her teeth a bit too exposed when she smiles.
In the bedroom, he asks Karin to spin for him in her lingerie. She obeys, the rusty pink bra and thong blending perfectly with her skin tone, her long hair softly curling down her back, her gaze on his, trusting, anticipating. His arousal grows, his hardness threatens to overtake him. So he thinks about shooting her, and how he would pose her. When the moment passes he orders her to come to him and undresses her completely.
Roberto tells her something later, when the lights are off.
“I always see my potential child in every woman I am intimate with. I can’t imagine being with someone in any other situation.”
He talks of his ex, his son, his disappointments, his failures to develop a relationship with any of his recent girlfriends. What he says, it seems, is simultaneously a warning and an invitation.
Karin snuggles closer and reciprocates. She shares her hopes for a little brother or sister for Kaya, weekly trips to the beach, a home.
When Roberto was five, he marched into the kitchen and asked his mother who his father was. She washed the dishes, her hands red and soapy, her eyes fixed on the task, and said his father’s name was Julio and he was a truck driver.
“He’s not in our lives anymore,” she said. “Don’t think about it.”
Roberto lived by the off-ramp to a highway with his mother, stepfather, and two other siblings. They played together but when they fought, bloodlines were drawn. Roberto saw his expendability in his stepfather’s eyes.
More than once, after slapping his face, his stepfather said, “There’s the door. Just leave. You don’t belong here anyway.”
After these altercations, Roberto would sit in his front yard watching the trucks angle onto the ramp. The trucks groaned as they decelerated. They rumbled and grumbled and their drivers remained unseen behind sun-blinded windshields. Roberto examined each of them, wondering which might contain his father. Wishing the next one, that orange one, would pull to a stop in front of his house. A man would get out, see Roberto sitting there, and walk toward him, arms outstretched.
“Roberto,” he would say. “My son. I have been waiting so long to meet you.”
Roberto lingered, wondered, for years. He went through every colored cab in his fantasy, every type of load, from gasoline tankers to the ones hauling live chickens. Around the age of fourteen, when he became busy with an after-school job, he slowly forgot his lookout. The abstraction of his father faded. Yet far into adulthood he still felt a knife twist in his chest when he heard the reverberation of a semi engine.
It is time to say goodbye to Karin. Roberto stops contacting her. No more texts, no more calls. After a week she queries, tentative, wondering if she’s said or done something to offend him. He waits a day and gives her the standard answer, a vague rendition of “It’s not you, it’s me.” Part of him wants her to cry and plead, like so many of them do. Karin doesn’t. Roberto is both disappointed and relieved. Without a beeping phone to distract him, he can concentrate on the task at hand.
He turns back to his computer and gazes at his favorite images of Karin and Kaya. Kaya’s hair pulled back into a long ponytail, Karin’s flowing freely across her face. Their lean, strong bodies track across the beach. A perfect summer day, sand, blue sky, crashing waves, contentment all captured in a digital image.
It’s getting late, but he looks at older photos. He particularly likes the ones he took about six months ago, of Sarah and Martin. In deep concentration they both stick their tongues out just a tip past their front teeth. He flips between images, marveling at the similarity, those strange habits that are passed through genes and not imitation. Even if Martin had been torn from his mother’s arms at birth, he would still manifest his focus in the same way. Roberto is certain.
Alice has granted a Sunday afternoon visit. Roberto peers through the lens at Luca. Luca is springing in his football uniform, red shirt, white shorts, showing off what he’s learned. He’s a child but still a baby, four years old, at that stage where he asks surprising questions but is unable to comprehend the answers. Roberto snaps a few pictures, then brings Luca’s eyes into focus and widens the aperture. Luca glances at him.
“Are you my father?”
Roberto appears briefly from behind the camera. He looks at his son. Luca looks back, anticipating. Roberto wants to believe the truth is there, that Luca knows, and it isn’t necessary for either of them to speak.
Roberto says, “Hey, sweetie, can you show me how to dribble that ball again?”
Luca obliges, happy and active. Roberto peers through the lens and captures the image.
It is a beautiful photo.
Janelle Ward is a born and raised Minnesotan who escaped to the Netherlands in 2001. Since then she acquired a PhD in Amsterdam, a job in Rotterdam, and four bicycles. She’s an assistant professor in media and communication but her real love is writing fiction. When she’s not eavesdropping on conversations for short story ideas she can be found traveling the globe in search of the local or dancing late night bachata. For a look at her other fiction publications please see janelleward.com.