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The Elephants

The Photographer's Wife

Kevin Sampsell

She tells me all about the photographer. She is married to the photographer. He sells his photos for thousands of dollars, she tells me. The photographer is famous in the town.

The photographer does not know about me. I am a secret.

One night, her and I were walking down the street in my neighborhood and she pointed at a large photograph inside a house. We could see it through the window. It was the size of a front door and it was actually the image of an old wooden door, but with a hole through the middle of it. “That’s one of his photos,” she said to me.

I had seen the photo before and wondered about it. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a real door. It was odd to think that I had seen—and pondered—her husband’s art even before I met her.

The photographer does not know a lot of things about his wife. He does not know that she eats pork. He does not know that she has a secret United Airlines credit card. He does not know that she has always dreamed of going to Hawaii. He does not know that she has two other lovers. There is the woman at the bar with the van in the parking lot and the man who used to work for her husband who has the same first name as him.

The photographer does not know about me, although I am a photographer too. “You shouldn’t meet him,” the photographer’s wife says. “He gets jealous.”

I am his wife’s best friend. I feel like I know everything about them.

I have not had sex with the photographer’s wife but sometimes I think about it. One time, she told me that she thinks about it too.

I wondered about the hole in that door and how it was made. I imagined the photographer throwing a bowling ball through it or hitting it with a sledgehammer. I didn’t know if the photographer was a violent man, but when I asked his wife if he knew about her lovers, she quickly said that he didn’t. It was never a conversation they could have. The photographer would not tolerate it.

She told me about her life the first weekend I met her. She wouldn’t stop talking. I was being filled by her stories. She said to me, “I can talk to you.” She said, “Let’s talk more tomorrow, and then the day after that.” And we did.

The photographer became famous six years ago when his show, “Grandparents Playing Video Games,” was written about in The New York Times. He’s also known for his photos of doors, hip hop street culture, and midgets.

In one of the photographer’s most famous photos, a female midget stands blindfolded between the legs of a seven-foot tall man.

The photographer’s wife does not like this photo. It is not displayed anywhere in their home.

One night, the photographer called his wife while I was riding in a taxi with her. She answered the phone and I heard her lie to him about where she was, who she was with.

The driver heard this too and looked at me in the rear view mirror. Maybe he was waiting to see my reaction to what she was saying. His eyes locked on mine, pitying me.

The car moved slow through the empty streets, as if it was going in slow motion. My throat tightened. “You can go faster,” the photographer’s wife said, covering her phone.

One time, I was part of a multi-media group show of local artists and the photographer was there. I saw him looking at my photos early in the evening. He seemed unimpressed with my work but lingered a minute to examine one of my photographs that showed a battered screen door. In the photo you can see a slightly blurry shape of a man behind the screen, inside a house. The door is broken off one hinge, and looks as if it could be torn completely off with a tug. I took a few steps toward him, about to say something, but stopped myself.

She told me the photographer hates Hawaii and is afraid of the ocean. “Nobody knows where it ends,” he told her once when discussing their deepest fears.

His eyes are a watery blue.

We went to a hot springs once, her and I. Everyone was naked, including us. We did not know this would be a requirement, but we went with it. At the hot springs, she told me about the other woman and the man. About how much she could “pour into them” when she was with them. “But as soon as I leave and go home,” she told me, “I am in love with the photographer again. I become 100% wife. And he belongs to me.”

I have been married once. I was 28 years old and my wife was 30. We were the kind of happy couple who took turns making dinner and leaving sweet notes in pockets. We held hands and shared a bank account. I told her everything about me and it felt good. Sometimes I would think of something new to tell her and I’d get excited to come home and share it with her.

My job was taking photos for grocery store ads. Kids holding lunch boxes, footballs, Trapper Keepers. Sometimes there’d be babies. I’d be there for two or three hours at a time, or sometimes all day.

I came home after one of these long days, a sweltering August afternoon right before our fourth anniversary, and found my wife on the kitchen floor. She had died earlier in the day of a cerebral edema, an unexpected accumulation of fluid around the brain.

Later, someone in a white lab coat, who I had never met before, told me it was the same thing that killed people like Bruce Lee and Jean Harlow. But he didn’t say killed. He said “happened to.”

“We got married fast,” she told me. “I had no time to think about it. I was overwhelmed by him.”

They were married eight years ago.

I asked her if he ever took her photo.

“All the time,” she said. “I’m in some of his best work, but it’s never shown. We keep those just for us.”

The photographer’s wife told me once that each year of her life felt like another wall in a growing maze. She didn’t know if she was lost or just confusing herself.

Before we left the hot springs, I caught her staring at my body. Maybe caught is the wrong word. She stared without flinching, without apology. “We should take pictures,” she said.

I became shy. “Sometimes I just like the memory,” I said.

“Memories change, or fade away,” she said.

She took a bottle of some kind of perfume out of her purse and sprayed it into the air.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“Your sense memory,” she said.

At the art show, I stood behind the photographer and heard him talking to a rich woman who was considering his work. He mentioned a question posed by John Berger: “Has the camera replaced the eye of God?”

I never ask anyone if I can “shoot them.” It sounds too much like an assassination, like a violence.

Once, when I was a senior in high school, we had a substitute teacher for photography class. After a week, the substitute teacher finally gave us an update and told us that the regular teacher was shot by her husband. She would not be returning.

On the last day of the school year, I stole a photo of the teacher, a self-portrait, that was kept near her desk. I wanted to remember her.

I saw the photographer driving his truck down my street the other day. He was playing loud salsa music on the radio and drumming his hands against the steering wheel. His hair looked slicked back, or maybe was blowing in the wind. For some reason, he looked like he might smell like smoke. Like campfire smoke. I wondered what he smelled like.

“I’m glad I got to see you naked,” she told me after the day at the hot springs. “It was important for us to be naked together, without the sex. You’re my best friend.” I laughed when she said that. I’m not sure why. She looked at me like I’d hurt her feelings, but then laughed too.

After my wife died, I dealt with my grief by sleeping with anyone who let me. My body felt both alive and dead. My skin felt tight, my lungs heavy. I could barely talk but I fucked easily. I had to get through my heartbreak—which felt like a real physical ailment—to get back to prolonged spoken language. Nothing was connected inside me.

There were many years of lonely orgasms. I felt sorry for myself.

“Remember when we became friends?” the photographer’s wife asked me.

“I’ll never forget,” I said.

“What happened?”

“You took off your wedding ring and made me wear it while you ate a pork sandwich.”

Once, the photographer’s wife called me at 2:30 in the morning. I answered because I always answer. She wanted to tell me that she might divorce the photographer. They had a fight and she was in a 7-11 parking lot. We talked for an hour and a half. She did not mention her other lovers—the woman and the man—but I asked her who she liked the best between the two. “I don’t care,” she said. “I wish I knew. But I’ll probably never find out.”

I danced with the photographer’s wife and felt self-conscious. 1980s music that we both used to love. A bar in a town thirty minutes away. An unusual amount of younger people taking selfies around the bar.

She told me to loosen up. She said she’d be the designated driver. She pulled me close and patted my butt to the beat of a power ballad. I could feel her wedding ring. She licked my face, from jaw to ear.

I did feel more comfortable when she did this. My right hand rested near her ass, the curve of it calling to my fingers.

She sang softly into my ear and her voice couldn’t quite find the right pitch, but I held her tightly. It was almost like I was squeezing the song out of her. I could tell she was smiling. Almost laughing.

I asked the photographer’s wife why she told me everything about her life. “Someone has to be the kind witness to it all,” she said.

Kevin Sampsell has been a bookseller for twenty years and a small press publisher for over twenty-five years. He also makes and writes about collage art for Kolaj Magazine, Ohio Edit, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. His books include the memoir, A Common Pornography (Harper Perennial) and the novel, This Is Between Us (Tin House). Visit for more info on all his work.

This originally appeared on November 26, 2017