The Only Person You Hurt is Yourself
Upon the recommendation of a friend, I procure a Pentax H3 35mm camera from the 1960s. It is a metal contraption emblazoned with many numbers, most of which I do not understand. Nor do the electronic videos I watch about it instruct me. These videos are primarily crafted by faceless men whose voiceovers attempt to demystify the camera’s features. So there’s, uh, a construction variation in the H3—you can see this has a notch in the HT, maybe you can see that? So models made after 1963 have this notch. Needless to say, I can barely load film into the camera. So I ask a man for help. I should have asked a woman.
As I walk with the camera hanging around my neck, I think about writing, and how writing with a camera around one’s neck transforms one’s relationship to language. I am the ‘one’ in this sentence, or I am one with this sentence, but I also use this pronoun—‘one’—to cultivate space between myself and the sentence, as the camera cultivates space between myself and the world that is an extension of my sight, insofar as the world is shaped by one’s eye while simultaneously remaining separate from it. In the park by the Children’s Museum—does this park have a name? (“Words make things name themselves,” a poet once said)—I chase a squirrel with a nut in its mouth as it moves from the grass to a tree to a ledge where it appears to be racing my gaze, or testing me. As I chase the squirrel, I laugh, then become increasingly self-conscious in relation to the other human beings around me. Do they think I’m trying to take their photograph too? And if they do, what do they think?
When a friend who is staying in my apartment says she is going outside to reunite with her lover, I say I’ll stay indoors. It would be strange for me to be downstairs when you greet one another. But I’ll look at you both from the window. Not for too long.
Looking out the window, I creep. This is in antithesis to the swift tempo I maintain in the park, chasing the squirrel. At my bedroom window, I feel curious and languorous. Watching my friend embrace her lover makes me physically feel my heart, and makes my heart ache. As they hold each other on the sidewalk, time lapses. In front of them, a parked car pulls away; a stone church reflects the sun; an ancient tree grows older. And although I shed nothing, my words become waves.
My friend and her lover drive to the beach. This is five years before they conceive a child. I stay at home, practice yoga, neglect to read a book. Eventually, I take a walk with the camera hanging around my neck, but I am too shy to ask exhausted-looking parents if I may photograph their babies. I am enamored of my own baby photographs and, by extension of this narcissism, desire to photograph babies whose eyes are very big. My fantasy is that I will take these photographs and mail them to the babies' parents, and in 30 years, the babies will look back upon themselves with a sort of distanced inquisitiveness one might reserve for a Dinosaur Museum or Hall of Gems and Minerals. Will any of us even be here then?
Sifting through a plastic container of childhood ephemera, I find a photograph of my high school boyfriend. We met when I was 14 and he was 17. He had black hair, and I was overweight. To woo me, he wrote my name in the sand at a beach and took a photograph of it, which I hung in a frame above my bed. Sometimes while I masturbated, I fantasized about us eating french fries, then fucking on the sand. I had not yet lost my virginity, but we held hands in my high school’s bleachers, and continued holding hands until he cheated on me with someone closer to his age. Probably she was a slut who helped him ejaculate. Which, in retrospect, I wished I was.
I write to my high school boyfriend and ask for his mailing address. Subsequently, I send him his childhood photograph. And thus we begin a brief electronic correspondence about our lives. In this epistolary correspondence, my high school boyfriend calls his girlfriend “girlfriend,” as if she has no name. She lacks a sense of adventure, he explains. And I pity her. Maybe pity’s not the right word.
In my replies, I tell my high school boyfriend about my hobbies. One of them, I say, is sitting on the floor and doing nothing. I spent a lot of time at a Zen monastery before the year 2020, I say, though I imagine my high school boyfriend has no idea what a Zen monastery is. It occurs to me that my interest in Zen might be related to my attachment problems. A psychoanalyst once described my attachment issues as “disorganized.” This description—disorganized—made me feel like an exceptional case, for my apartment is well-maintained and tidy: a structured whole that I fancy to be, per Zen, a reflection of my mind.
My psychoanalyst, who is fluent in abandonment discourse and serves a mirror of sorts (provided I understand the person I see in the mirror isn't really me), narrated with clinical precision the way I get excited to enter a relational container. “Your excitement,” she explained, “is always a form of anxiety.” Once the relational container is achieved, however, I want nothing but to viciously break it. “Thus you sabotage your relationships by cultivating extreme forms of distance between yourself and your partner—one form of distance being the very partner you select,” she said. “Both you and your partners want to hurt other people but turn your ire inward. In the end, the only person you hurt is yourself.”
As her analysis echoed, I got very quiet, looked up at the ceiling. All the while, I felt a pair of invisible fists punching my skull’s walls. Later, in the computer, I recommended one book (Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium) and two bands (Throbbing Gristle, Suicide) to my high school boyfriend. Then I crafted some other sentences. I am a writer, after all, so this gesture did not feel like extraneous “emotional labor.” It was simply my practice. But I did not tell myself this as I gave him my heart.
Claire Donato is the author of Burial (Tarpaulin Sky Press) and The Second Body (Poor Claudia), and recently wrote the foreword to The One on Earth: Selected Works of Mark Baumer (Fence Books). She teaches poetics at Pratt Institute, where she won the 2020 Distinguished Teacher Award. In addition to writing books, she takes 35mm photographs, illustrates herself naked in fish tanks, practices Zen meditation, and records songs. She lives in Brooklyn.