Recently, I happened to catch CBS Sunday Morning. The program is an oasis in the otherwise parched landscape of morning television news shows. It was Labor Day weekend and they were doing a segment related to notable celebrity’s work ethic.
John Waters was talking about how he owed his success to being persistent in his craft. The idea of seeing John on a major network morning show made me feel old, much like when I first heard Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” as the background music for a Carnival Cruise commercial. Funny how songs that used to piss off my parents now show up in ads for Viagra and pain relievers.
When I met John, I was a student of cinema studies at the University of Iowa. While my dorm mates were pulling all-nighters cramming for their exams in computer science, biology, electrical engineering, or whatever, I was out drinking, smoking dope and pointing my super 8 camera at whatever I thought was amusing. I’d edit together these little vignettes and, thanks to the fact that I’d had a camera in my hand since I was 8 years old, would get an easy A.
In 1981, John Waters was unknown to respectable society. For the counter-culture artsy types like myself, he was a god. Anyone brave enough to film a drag queen eating dog shit – REAL DOG SHIT – was aces in my book.
Jamie, my girlfriend at the time, idolized him just as much as I did. When we heard he would be the featured speaker in the monthly film studies lecture series, we were ecstatic. He was touring college campuses for the release of his third film, “Polyester” which would debut “Odorama.” As attenders of the Iowa premiere, we received 5 X 9 cards with a series of large numbered scratch-n-sniff dots. John’s brilliant innovation in cinema was the vision of an entire movie theatre full of people with these cards, all scratching and sniffing at the same time. The room would immediately fill with the odor indicated by the flashing number on the screen. The smells he chose were disgusting: Dirty shoes, flatulence, model airplane glue, to name a few. Too bad I didn’t buy an extra movie ticket so I could save an untouched Odorama card. I could name my price on EBay.
Instead, Jamie and I chose to buy John’s first book, “Shock Value,” as a memento from the event. There were no more than 50 or 60 students in attendance. After he concluded his hilarious, profanity laden lecture about the simplicity of his films, Jamie and I approached with his book in hand, asking for an autograph. I didn’t think twice about buying the book together, or asking Waters to reference both of us with his signature. In a flash of an eye, Jamie hesitated. Whatever thought pursed her lips was arrested by the joy of the moment. With the flourish of his pen, John waters wrote, “Jamie, Brent – so glad to meet both of you. See you in hell! – John Waters.”
We lingered, chatting with him as long as we dared. John seemed to enjoy our company. That’s when he pulled out his camera, a Polaroid SX-70, and pointed it at the two of us.
A press of the button, flash of light, and there we were, the image of a couple in love slowly fading into view. He pocketed the picture, then excused himself to greet other well-wishers.
Imagine! John Waters was so impressed with us, he took our picture.
Jamie broke up with me 18 months later. We divided our shared possessions from the 3 year romance. I let her keep the book, though I scarcely imagined her wanting it -- a book now stained by her ex-boyfriend’s name.
Fast forward to a week ago. Depressed, I was lying in bed binge watching movies on Netflix. A new doc about the Polaroid camera caught my attention. About halfway through the film, a 20 something girl with braided red hair and a lacy cotton blouse began crying.
“I know there are people dying in Haiti and children being trafficked in Thailand, but this is a big deal to me. Life won’t be the same without Polaroid film.”
She was overwrought that Polaroid would no longer be producing their SX600 color film stock.
To my surprise, the documentary cut to John Waters. He explains how he’s kept a library of thousands of Polaroid pictures that he accumulated over the decades. He too lamented the demise of the Poloroid as he thumbed through trays and trays of head shots. My heart stood still, knowing that in one of those trays, was a picture of me and Jamie from 34 years ago.
I would like to say we were among the handful of Poloroids he chose to share with the filmmaker. Sadly, we were not. It didn't matter, really. My mind was already spiraling down a wormhole. I couldn't get Jamie off my mind. I spent years suppressing the memories of our relationship. The rapture of being twenty-somethings in love, all to come crashing down when suddenly, and without explanation, she broke up with me.
Three years later, I would be engaged to marry my wife, Jackie. A woman I adore and who excels in every regard beyond any other woman I've ever been with. Unfortunately, it was only a month or so into our engagement when Jamie would re-appear quite unexpectely. It was at a party of a mutual friend's. This mutual friend had also gotten engaged. Instead of a large, expensive wedding where hundreds of guests would be invited, they opted for a low-key ceremony with their immediate family. The party we were attending was the opportunity for their larger social circle to offer well-wishes prior to the happy day.
There she was. I thought, what with the few years that had past, I might briefly chat with her. I hoped I could get the closure that was lacking. After making introductions, I asked Jackie if it might be OK for me to speak with her for a few minutes. She knew about Jamie. When it came to my past relationships, Jackie had been the grand inquisitor. She was determined not to make the same mistake as she did with her first husband, who betrayed her with a broad swath of secrets that would surface less than a year into their marriage.
Jackie reluctantly agreed to our having a brief chat. Unfortunately, the time it took to exchange superficial pleasantries was all the time Jackie was willing to allow. At the point Jamie told me there was something she wanted to say to me, Jackie made it clear that if I spent any more time talking to Jamie, she would call a taxi and there would be no wedding. The threat made my choice a no-brainer. In fact, I was relieved I could tell Jamie, "Thanks, but no thanks," and return to the side of my bride-to-be.
In the years the followed, my preoccupation with the conversation that never was began to grow into an obession. Not an obsession with the thought of what might have been, or regret we were not meant to be. No, simply the obsessive curiosity with what exactly it was she was going to say? Surely it would have given me the closure that might cleanse at least one compartment of the vast recesses of unresolved issues that contributed to my lifetime of self-loathing.
While I binge watch television when I’m depressed, when manic, I obsess about past regrets. I mean really obsess. Now it was Jamie. The conversation that never was. I thought about it every waking moment. This led to an appointment with my therapist.
He had an idea.
“You’re a writer. Why don’t you script the conversation you would have had?”
Brilliant! I didn’t have to think twice about it. I knew he was on to something. That evening, I sat down to my desk and penned the conversation we never had.
“Brent, could you walk for me for a few minutes, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Sure. What is it?”
“I’m sorry I never gave you much of an explanation about why I broke up with you.”
“When I moved back home I felt like I was such a failure. Dropping out of school was the last thing I wanted to do. I realized I used you as a crutch for trying to hang on to something that wasn’t working – and I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about me. I was depressed. I blamed you for my depression. I’m sorry. Really, it wasn’t you as much as it was me.”
“You broke my heart.”
“I’m sorry. Seems like you’ve landed on your feet, though.”
“Yes. Yes I have.”
“Are you in love?”
“Uhh…well…I think so. Nothing like how I felt about you, though. What can I say? You were my first love. You still haunt me. I keep waiting for the feelings to pass, but they haven’t.”
“Give it time.”
“It’s been three years.”
“Seriously, your fiancé is gorgeous. Strange, but I feel a little jealous.”
With an awkward chuckle, she catches my eye for a moment, then looks towards the ground. Nervous silence. She finally looks up. We smile at each other.
I turn towards Jackie. This time, she waits patiently.
In some kind of mystical reverse process, that old Polaroid snapshot fades from view
…and the camera dies a quiet death.
Brent Watkins has worked as a pastor, writer, filmmaker and television producer. According to Brent, “I’ve spent much of my career telling the stories of others. I now think it’s time I tell my own.” As a writer, Brent blogs about faith, life and living with an emotional disability at www.authorbrentwatkins.com Brent currently lives with his wife and children in Iowa City, Iowa.