Kendall Pack

This picture was taken without my permission. I wish you could see it. Just know, whether it comes across your desk someday or not, that I was not prepared for a photo that morning.

The cameraman was Mark Holly, a professional visitor traveling from the West Coast to the East. He had been sleeping on my brother’s couch for a week when he took this picture. I say that he’d been sleeping for a week and that might as well be true. When he rose up from the cushions and snapped the picture with his disposable camera it was the first time I’d seen him conscious. That was our only Proximal Encounter.

You recognize the name? Yes, that Mark Holly. No, he hadn’t become that Mark Holly by then. He was only a few states in. It was when he hit the Midwest that things got messy.

Can I be honest? I don’t know much about those weeks. I know he did a bad thing and then another bad thing to cover the first bad thing and then the bad things spread like the seeds of a dandelion.

Whether it was Mark Holly or Jeffrey Dahmer or Gandhi doesn’t matter. The point is the picture. I’m trying to tell you the story of it to help you understand what I’m getting at.

My brother, Aidan, puts out two cups of coffee every morning, one to cool while he takes his shower and the other for me if I show up. He still does this. He says it’s his duty as big bro to grant his little sis access to caffeine. That’s the way he is, always someone else on his mind. And that’s the way he talks: big bro, little sis.

Our mother would say he’ll have a hard time in the business world if he’s always helping people. She would say he’ll become a stepping stone for the ruthless to climb on their way to success. Aidan has never paid much attention to what Mom said.

That day, I showed up at seven to invite Aidan to The Retreat up in Bryce Canyon. I’d kept telling myself to talk to him about it, reminding myself to text him. But this was the day of The Retreat. I was leaving in an hour and had yet to bring it up.

I walked in the door, there was the coffee, there was Mark Holly. I’d seen him twice before. I drank the coffee quickly, not thinking about the heat until I felt it like a branding iron on the inside of my chest. The shower was running. All this is important, I think.

As I finished the coffee, I heard rustling from the couch. There was Mark Holly, up on one elbow, camera in hand. He snapped the picture. I waved him off and didn’t think much of it at the time. Even these days when I recreate that moment, I think maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe it wasn’t as important as I think. Maybe I’m reading into it too much. But if that’s true, why does it stick in my brain like a well-placed dart?

Mark Holly said I was beautiful, that should be remembered. Not because of the compliment, because of the sentiment. These days we all know Mark Holly’s type, and that tells you something about me. It tells you I was vulnerable. If I could show you this picture, I think you’d understand. He captured that fragility.

I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time, The Retreat gave me that, but now I know that Mark Holly and I had our Proximal Encounter when the shutter clicked, that his choice in that Proximal Moment was to attempt to capture the moment instead of acting with the most good toward me. There I was, tired and worried about this conversation I was about to have with my brother, hot coffee still burning a trail through my body, weak and defenseless, and Mark Holly used our Intersection of Existence to capture my lowest point on film like a prehistoric fly trapped in the amber it died trying to escape.

It’s important to note here that I didn’t see this picture until four months later. If you’re keeping your dates straight, that means Mark Holly was awaiting trial. He sent this picture from a jail cell with no note attached. The envelope said it was from Mark Holly c/o The System. I thought that was funny. Like I said, I don’t know much about the case, knew less then. The reason I bring this up is so that you’re aware I wasn’t even considering all this until four months after the picture was taken. Keep in mind, this is two months after The Retreat had ended, so I had changed drastically. Seeing that picture was like seeing a portrait of a distant ancestor. There are similarities, yes. But there are as many differences.

Mark Holly took the picture, said I was beautiful, then went back to sleep. You may find it interesting that I place so much importance on a picture taken and a thing said by a person who may not have been lucid. I understand, it’s strange, but I can’t shake it now that I’ve had time to process that moment. Again, at the time, I didn’t think much about it.

Aidan came out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his waist. Later we realized he’d been seen half-naked by Mark Holly on a daily basis for a week. It’s not important, but it’s interesting stuff for the scrapbook.

Aidan could see it when he walked in the room: my hesitance, my closed-off stance, maybe the small red duffel bag tipped him off. I told him I was leaving. He asked where I was going. I told him about The Retreat.

I’m sure you know what happens when we tell our families about The Retreat. They fall apart. Aidan went like a sand castle. He collapsed in waves. I told him where I was going, what I was doing, and he said, “Oh.” He walked into his room, got dressed, and returned to the living room.

This is when the questions began: Who are you going with? How long will you be there? Have you told Mom? Are you out of money? Do you need a place to stay? Why haven’t I met these people? Do you know what this is? Are you doing this to hurt me?

The questions got less coherent from there. I think Aidan misunderstood our purpose. He still does, but he’s come to terms with it. On that day, he cried. I hadn’t seen that, even when we were young. But he cried and told me not to go. I countered his offer with one of my own: come with me. He considered it for a minute, but he later told me he only did because he thought he could convince me to turn around somewhere on the drive up. I didn’t have much in those days, but I was stubborn. After a few minutes, he gave up trying to change my mind and I gave up trying to convince him to go. Then we were silent. During The Retreat, once I had learned the importance of these moments when lives intersect, I feared that this had been the final Proximal Encounter with Aidan, that our lives would never affect one another again.

Keep in mind Mark Holly was there the whole time, sleeping, as far as we know. And the picture was imprinted on a rectangle of film in a disposable camera. It’s interesting to me to consider all this, to think about how I was captured in that moment before The Retreat. It’s like picking up an old diary and failing to see yourself in the distant thoughts.

Aidan’s changed. He’s more forceful, maybe from that encounter. He’s had promotions in the last year. He met a woman. They’re married now. I don’t like her, but she didn’t marry me.

I haven’t talked to Mom since The Retreat. I don’t see the need to. I left all considerations of blood behind. Aidan only stays in my life because he’s a good friend. He used our Proximal Encounter to do the most good for me. He acted out of love, out of concern. The last time I talked to Mom, our last Proximal Moment, she used it selfishly to make me tell her she was a good mother and that I was the problem in our relationship. This was over a box of my belongings that she had burned in an effort to get a rise out of me. Why keep her around after an encounter like that?

Aidan found me after I came down from the mountain. He put me up for a month. He didn’t ask too many questions and when he did they were thoughtful.

When Mark Holly sent me the picture, I had no idea what he’d done. I didn’t read the news up at The Retreat. I still don’t. All I know is pieced together from hasty summaries, most of them told to me when I talk to people about this picture. They wonder how I could let someone like Mark Holly sleep in my brother’s apartment. I tell them I don’t decide who sleeps on my brother’s couch.

I think what’s most important is this: Aidan and I had a moment before we both cocooned and became new people where he told me he couldn’t understand why I wanted to subject myself to whatever awaited me at The Retreat. I told him I didn’t know why, I just needed to go. Whenever I question that, I think about the picture Mark Holly took and I see flashes of the girl I was. All that’s in the past now.

When it was still in my possession, I’d see the picture and think, “Who is this girl? How did this picture get mixed up with my things?” Then I’d remember Mark Holly, capturing a picture the morning before my transformation began, a month before he would become anything other than a couchsurfing traveller. Sometimes I forget that Mark went through a change like I did, like Aidan did. That those Proximal Encounters were the beginnings of divergent pathways for all of us. I guess I focus so much on that picture because it’s the only thing I can point to as a catalyst: the coffee in the background, steam coming out of the bathroom door, a girl I no longer recognize with a small red duffel at her feet, all captured by a man who was about to become something else entirely. We called it Ascension, I know, but I’ve tried to describe it in the language of my former self. The best I can come up with is development. It’s not as transcendent, I know, but the flash of the disposable camera marked the capture of a negative and that negative had to be altered to become the picture that Mark Holly sent from jail.

At this point, I don’t even know if it’s worth it to paste a metaphor about developing film over a story that amounts to nothing more than a series of emotions and changing perceptions. I guess I just want to make this all mean something by making it tangible. I’ll be returning to the mountain in a month and I’d like to be able to show that my life has changed. I wish I had the picture still. Even then, I don’t know how that proves anything beyond the meaning I attach to it. All I can say is that things have changed. I’m something different.

Now that I’ve seen my Proximal Encounters for what they are and eliminated those in my life who don’t act with the most good toward me, my question for this year’s Retreat, that I hope you’ll help me answer, is: How can I expect Aidan and others like him to stick around if my entire focus is on how contact with them benefits me? Doesn’t that make my side of the Proximal Moment selfish? If so, shouldn’t they eliminate me? Wouldn’t it make sense for the Mark Hollys  of the world to gravitate toward me when I’m so consumed with how the world can serve me? I’m sure it’s my inexperience with the lingo. I hope to clear it up this year.