Travels with Clarinda

I tell Clarinda to give me The Look over her shoulder. When she does, I snap a few with the digital camera. We’re in Florence, in Piazza della Signoria. It’s supposed to be the place that everyone goes when they go there. It’s beautiful.

After a few more pictures, we wander for a while, looking for a place to lunch. We’re staying at a decent hotel near the Ponte Vecchio – not the best, but far from the worst. The staff all speak English. Sometimes I catch them giving us a look when Clarinda and I are together, but no one ever asks any questions.

I assume they think we’re father and daughter. Our last names don’t match on the passports, but these days, how strange is that? There’s nothing we do in public together that would lead anyone to think any differently.

Then again, it is Italy. Who knows what people think here? I remember one time, in Berlin, at a bar, a couple bought us drinks and sat down  with us. After chatting for a while, they asked if we would like to go back to their apartment and have sex. I was speechless, but Clarinda laughed it off easily, lightly, not giving a moment’s offence to the other couple. Later, I thought that had been generous of her, considering how offensive the invitation had been. And later still I thought, no, not offensive. I hadn’t really been offended. Presumptuous.

Clarinda and I don’t have sex with each other. I take pictures of her with my digital camera, then I post the shots on-line at a site we own together, “Melody’s Adventure.” Clarinda didn’t want to use her real name. She chose Melody because she thought it had a young, all-American cheerleader-ish quality to it.

I don’t take pictures of Clarinda naked. She will often times do a cheesecake pose, and she will sometimes put on an outfit — stewardess, cowgirl, pirate — just to make the site’s traffic jump. Some of the pictures are intimate; Clarinda brushing her hair by lamplight, or reflected in a vanity mirror. But mostly they’re simple candid shots. You might find pictures like them on the memory card of any college-age girl after she’s come back from a trip.

We post the pictures of her, every week a fresh batch. And the people all over the world stream to the site. We get more than 20,000 page views a week. The banner ads we run bring in a tidy monthly sum. But the real money is in the subscribers.

We offer them exclusive content in exchange for a ten-dollar monthly fee. I explain to them in my carefully-worded e-mail that no, they will not be receiving pictures of “Melody” naked or performing sex acts for their money. They will just be getting pictures that the visitors to the free site will never get to see.

And some people are angry at that and don’t subscribe. And some people think I’m lying, and that they are paying for pornography and then are angry when they don’t get it. And some people, a surprising number of people, are just fine with it, and they pay their ten dollars month after month. Clarinda with her hair in pigtails. Clarinda standing on a bridge. Clarinda, holding a cup of coffee with both hands. Tiny windows onto single moments they would otherwise never know.

Clarinda and I take the money and invest a chunk and, with the rest, we travel. We stay in good – but not too expensive – hotels, we eat in nice restaurants, and we occasionally take in a show. And wherever we go I take pictures of her. I don’t really take pictures of anything else.

She once called herself my little garden gnome, and when I didn’t get the joke she told me about this prank. A man stole his neighbor’s garden gnome and went on a trip around the world, sending pictures of the gnome at famous places back to his neighbor. She showed me the pictures on-line. Here, see the little gnome in his little red cap by the Eiffel Tower; see the little gnome by the pyramids, at the Coliseum, in front of the Statue of Liberty.

And now we are in Florence, and getting hungry. Clarinda has fallen in love with a kind of Tuscan doughnut, a bombolone, and eventually persuades me to duck into a café instead of continuing our search for a restaurant. I get a little ham and cheese sandwich and coffee, she gets her pastry and a steamed milk and we sit together, watching the Florentines walk past.

Clarinda used to be a student of mine when I taught high school: Social Studies and History. It was a few weeks before the end of her junior year when she asked me to take pictures of her. I asked what she needed the pictures for, and she told me she was going to try modeling and needed to “work on her portfolio”. She said it like that. I joked that maybe she had been watching too many of those reality-TV modeling contests.

And she asked, did I not think she was pretty enough? Instead of answering, I asked if she didn’t have some friend her own age who could take her pictures. She said she didn’t have many friends, and besides, she didn’t want word of her ambitions getting around. She said it would make the girls cruel and the boys impossible.

I asked, why me and not somebody else? And Clarinda said, because of how you see me. I can tell just how you see me. And if we can capture that, even a little bit of that, I just know the pictures will be great.

So I got my camera and the next weekend I lied to my wife about an errand. We went to the park and I took a few pictures of her in a light cotton summer dress. Of course I knew what I was doing, the meaning behind what I was doing, and I knew that it was going to destroy my entire life. But I did it anyway.

And we went on taking pictures, every other week or so. I ended up spending a ridiculous amount of money on a new camera. None of the modeling agencies Clarinda contacted ever got back in touch with her, so eventually we came up with the idea of the site. It was important — at the time it was very important — that we actually did something with all the images we were capturing.

Then one day, not too long after Clarinda’s senior year had begun, my wife found everything on my computer. I couldn’t explain. Actually, there was nothing to explain. It was all completely self-evident. I couldn’t even attempt to justify myself. I had no argument to give back to her, which only made her angrier.

She kicked me out and I went to a hotel, the first in what is now a very long string of hotels. My wife told my daughter, who is grown and in college now. My daughter called me to say that she no longer had a father, to tell me how disgusted she was with me.

Then my wife told the people at work, and I was fired. Clarinda’s parents were told, and they pulled her out of school. Clarinda’s parents told the police who came and took my camera and my computer, and one of them held me against a wall by my throat and told me he had a daughter Clarinda’s age and I was lucky he didn’t crush my balls with heel of his shoe.

It was a bad time. The worst time. But then, I had wanted to destroy my life. I didn’t go to jail. There were more ugly moments with the authorities, but in the end there were no charges to bring. I don’t take naked pictures of Clarinda. Clarinda and I do not have sex.

Clarinda turned eighteen the same day my divorce was finalized. I told the lawyer the only thing I wanted to keep was my co-ownership of the site, which was the only thing my wife wanted no part of.

Clarinda met me at my hotel. We went to my room and held each other and cried over all we’d lost. She had been unable to convince her parents that I hadn’t brainwashed her. She’d been unable to convince them she wasn’t on drugs.

We moved to another hotel in another town and managed the site from an Internet café until we could save enough money for a new computer and a new camera. Then the traffic started to pick up, and the subscribers started signing on, and we didn’t have to worry about money any more. Rather, I was able to stop worrying about money for the first time in my adult life. Clarinda doesn’t worry about money. 

One day we got to talking about Europe. Clarinda had never been, and I hadn’t returned since college. We could think of no reason not to go. So we got all our accounts in order and off we went. We’ve been here ever since, just getting one visa extension after another.

Clarinda indulges my love of history. I’ve been to Crecy. I’ve seen some of the beautiful cemeteries that dot what was once the Western Front in WWI. I’ve been to St. Mary’s in Linz, to the St. Lorenz in Nuremberg, to Pamplona to Majorca to Crete.

And I indulge her love of music. Aphex Twin, Sigur Ros, Philippe Zdar and Speedy J. I’m always the oldest person at any show we go to. I’ve learned that, when you are my age, if you dress all in black and do not dance people at the show will mistake you for a producer and offer you drugs.

Sometimes, often at the shows, she’ll find a boy she likes and I’ll disappear for a night or a night and a day. And I wonder if this will be the one she never comes back from being with – because I know that boy is out there – but, up until now, she has always returned.

And sometimes I’ll find a woman, in a bookstore or a bar or a flower-market, and Clarinda will quietly vanish for a night or a night and a day. And I think to myself, is this the woman to lead me back to a normal life? The kind of life, the kind of relationship that people are supposed to have?

But I always end up kissing that woman good-bye — sometimes without even waking her — and make my way to the hotel lobby or the corner store where (up until now) Clarinda has always been waiting.

Clarinda and I, we sit in the cafes and read our paperbacks. We lie on the bed together in our hotel room, watching the rain. We ride the Metro to the end of the line, just to see what the end of the line looks like. We wander the museums and the parks. We see old movies in old movie theaters.

Sometimes we miss our old lives and our old loves. And sometimes we are frightened, and frightened for each other, because we know that what we have can’t possibly last.

But then again, what does?

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