Photograph With Shirley
The author writes about the inspiration for “May I Touch Your Hair?”
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
The author writes about the inspiration for “May I Touch Your Hair?”
I don’t remember exactly when my parents gave me this photograph. I knew it was there, with their other photographs somewhere. I knew we had it. But I didn’t spend my time looking at it, or thinking about it because I had other things on my mind. At one point I had Elvis Presley on my mind. That took over my life.
For a long time, the picture was just in a box. I must have been in a normal and healthy stage of childhood mental development and I was spending my time as a normal child and then as an older child. When I found out about Elvis Presley, I wasn’t thinking about the photograph.
But I did come across it in a book I was looking through and I stared at it. And I always had it on the mantelpiece in my apartment, temporarily stuck in a cheap plastic box frame. Someone took a photo of the photo on the mantelpiece and also a photo of the minutes spent looking at the photo in the book.
A few years ago I was looking at this photograph and I couldn’t believe how great it was. I had never looked that closely at the expression on Shirley’s face. By then I was keeping the photo in a safe, and I ran downstairs in the middle of the night or — worse, early in the morning — to be sure it was there. I stared at it, I thought about it. And after a few weeks I thought that I should write a story about it, about that time and all those people and how Shirley and I came to be standing on the beach together in that way.
And then, in the middle of writing the story I wished I could get in touch with the family Shirley lived with that summer. I figured the youngest person in the family would be on some computer information thing. I don’t use those things but I knew how to find one. And there he was. And so I left him a message. His work phone number was on the page. He was some kind of doctor in the music business. We had a long talk about everyone in his family. Then I talked to him a few more times during the winter. I think he said he worked for some kind of medical company that took care of rock stars, and I couldn’t quite follow what that was. I got the picture that he knew some rock stars, not that I cared, because they weren’t the kind of rock stars I was interested in.
Then when I found out the publication date of the story, I thought I should leave a message for the rock doctor but somehow his number had been deleted from my phone. So I sent him an e-mail — a horrid method. And then I heard back from him, “Oh great, let’s talk, Love, _____.” When I called he answered the phone in a boisterous way, “ How are you, hi, here’s my sister.” She said, “You know what, we’re lost, we’re trying to find the entrance to this Fleetwood Mac concert.” I said, “Oh, you’re driving.” I heard the voice of her brother, who was the inspiration for the baby in the stroller in the story. The voice said, “Hi, I’m Dr. _____.” That was a shock. I still thought of his father as Dr. _____. Then he gave a number to some security guard, who told him where to park. And I heard him ask his sister, “Oh, did you hang up?” And she said, “Yes,” but she hadn’t hung up. I heard them talking to the security guards. A couple times I said, “I’m still here.” I decided to hang up.
There I was still thinking about this photograph and their lives from the past and they were at a Fleetwood Mac concert — not that I would want to go to a Fleetwood Mac concert; I wouldn’t even want to go to an Elvis Presley concert.
I mulled the conversation over for a few days. Because they were thinking about the present and I was thinking about the past. Then I sent another message. I said sorry that I called at a bad time. And he sent one back saying: “I was just rushing to give a musician a B-12 shot before the show. We were late and stuck in traffic. Let’s talk. Love, _____.” And I thought that was so funny I went and looked up — I mean Googled — vitamin B-12, to see if it had any special rock-star-effects. I figured rock stars know about drugs and special vitamins with drug-like effects.
I remember reading a quote from Stevie Nicks: “Klonopin is worse than heroin.” I really admired her for saying that because I know people who have been given Klonopin and other benzodiazepine drugs by doctors, how it’s wrecked their health and whole lives.
So as for the baby in the stroller in the story, I sent him a message to say, “Let’s set a time to talk, you can cancel or call.” He sent a message with a time — a time I couldn’t speak to him.
Maybe I’ll talk to him some time. But I figure he won’t be that interested.
His father was the real Dr. _____. He wasn’t a kid doctor at a concert, giving rock stars B-12 shots before the show.
The whole episode made nothing of everything that I remembered and wrote. It turned it into nothing. Maybe some people would understand some part about this family and how Shirley and I came to be there, standing on that beach that way.
But it’s hard for people to read. People don’t like to read. They’d rather look at a photograph. When you look at Shirley’s face, and what’s going on — that’s why they’d rather see a photograph than read. Her face, our hands, the way I’m touching her hair. So I guess I understand why.
It would have been better if someone had filmed everything that inspired the story. I wish I’d filmed everything I’ve written, or been filmed telling about it. It would have been much easier and better for everyone.
More from Julie Hecht:
Discussed in this essay:
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt. 352 pages. $28.
The extinction symbol is a spare graphic that began to appear on London walls and sidewalks a couple of years ago. It has since become popular enough as an emblem of protest that people display it at environmental rallies. Others tattoo it on their arms. The symbol consists of two triangles inscribed within a circle, like so:
“The triangles represent an hourglass; the circle represents Earth; the symbol as a whole represents, according to a popular Twitter feed devoted to its dissemination (@extinctsymbol, 19.2K followers), “the rapidly accelerating collapse of global biodiversity” — what scientists refer to alternately as the Holocene extinction, the Anthropocene extinction, and (with somewhat more circumspection) the sixth mass extinction.
Ratio of husbands who say they fell in love with their spouse at first sight to wives who say this:
Mathematicians announced the discovery of the perfect method of cutting a cake.
Indian prime-ministerial contender Narendra Modi, who advertises his bachelorhood as a mark of his incorruptibility, confessed to having a wife.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
Science’s crisis of faith