Saul Anton is former Senior Editor at BOMB Magazine and writes frequently about contemporary art and culture. He is the author of Lee Friedlander: The Little Screens and Warhol’s Dream. He teaches at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute.
The Story of L.
by Saul Anton
I first met L. on a catalogue shoot in my studio in Sunset Park. She was assisting Ebba Stahlström, a bleached-blonde Swedish stylist I used to hire when my regulars were unavailable. It was my usual 6 a.m. call time—I liked to fuss with the lighting before we started cranking out pictures—and Ebba was muttering under her breath as she unzipped her work valise with one hand and clutched a Starbucks Grande in the other. “Why do you always make me get up so fucking early?” A short while later, just as I snapped my first tests, Ebba pulled her American Spirits out of her purse and disappeared into the stairwell.
I first noticed L. when she didn’t follow Ebba out. She gave me an embarrassed smile as she set down a waxen rendering of a large bowl of ramen noodles, then went on to carefully unwrap three more of the wax objects we would be photographing that day for a high-end auction house. I still remember the blue and white striped men’s shirt she was wearing buttoned all the way to the top, along with a pair of cutoff jeans and running shoes. I even remember her blowing a face-sized bubble. When it popped, she let herself laugh like an innocent schoolgirl playing in the yard.
“They get up early where you’re from?” I asked casually.
“I don’t know, but I never did,” she said ruefully, as I tried to not look too smug.
I asked her name, which she told me, adding awkwardly, “I know your name, so you don’t have to tell me.”
As it turned out, Ebba never worked with me again, which isn’t surprising since I paid more attention to her assistant that day than to her, and people can be touchy about that kind of thing. But I didn’t care that much. At the end of the day, I asked L. if she was hungry.
We went around the corner from my studio to eat hamburgers and ended up drinking vodka tonics. She spent the night.
In the morning we stayed in bed for a little while, hazily puzzling together what had just happened. “This is so cliché,” she said, her head on my shoulder, “you’re a photographer sleeping with an assistant.” It wasn’t something I generally did, but I was on the rebound from Clarisse, who’d returned to France the month before.
I thought for a moment, looking for something compelling to say. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that photographers like pictures more than real life?”
She laughed, then disappeared into the shower. A few minutes later she was in her cutoffs.
“Call me if you need anything. I know a lot of stylists you can work for.” I gave her my card. She took it but wrinkled her nose.
“I didn’t come to New York to be a stylist,” she said, “I’m a photographer.”
She stretched out the syllables of the word with a mischievous grin on her face. Then, before I could respond, she gave me a peck on the cheek and headed for the door.
I didn’t see L. again for a long time, figuring she’d call if she wanted to hang out. Some months later, though, a burly detective who looked like he’d walked out of central casting came into my studio while I was doing another shoot, pictures of fruit I was trying to make interesting. He was a big guy in a dark suit with an Italian last name and a surprisingly soft voice.
I invited him to sit down and he quickly came to his point. He wanted to know when I’d last seen Ebba. I thought back to that day with L., then led him to my computer to show him the ramen-noodle pictures we’d shot that day.
“Was anyone working with her?” he asked.
I can’t tell you why but I didn’t tell him about L. I lied and said Ebba was working alone that day.
“I called her on short notice, so she probably didn’t have time to hire anyone,” I offered. The detective studied me pensively, then stood up, shook my hand, and left with a soft word of thanks. I watched him go like he was out of a cheap detective movie.
At least another year passed before I saw L. again. She walked into my studio one evening just as I was packing up my lenses. To tell the truth, I wasn’t really surprised when I heard her voice behind me. Somehow I’d always known that we’d see each other again.
“I was in the neighborhood,” she said coolly, and handed me a bouquet of dandelions she’d found, it seemed, growing on some patch of grass somewhere.
“Thanks,” I said.
I wasn’t surprised either by how different she looked. She’d grown her hair out and found someone who could style it, and she was wearing a black cocktail dress that showed off her body. Her arms and shoulders were chiseled like she’d been doing yoga five times a week.
“You want to come to a party with me? My date canceled.”
Girls like L. were invited everywhere by everyone and knew more people than I could ever hope to. She had been on private yachts, private planes, and private islands—with rich men named Jimmy, Bobby, Arty—whatever.
“You look great,” I offered.
“Fuck that,” she shot back, before tossing her handbag on my bed. “Can I get it later?”
We Uber-ed over to a SoHo loft, where we found a corner to stand in and sip vodka tonics. She remembered that was what we’d drunk the last time we saw each other and brought them over from the bar.
“For old times’ sake?” I asked.
She liked that, and clinked my plastic cup.
“How’s the photography coming along?”
Her gaze turned steely for a moment, then melted into a large smile.
“Great. I have a studio now.”
When we left the party an hour or so later, she asked me if I wanted to go see it. It was nearby in TriBeCa.
Soon we were climbing the stairs of a walk-up and unlocking a brushed-steel door. There was little inside except a large roll of background paper at one end. A brick wall with flaking paint ran the length of the place; I didn’t see much photo equipment but there was a hot light in the corner, which she turned on as I looked for a chair.
“Can you believe he’s just letting me use it?”
Someone named Carson was lending her the space out of the goodness of his heart. I didn’t probe the arrangement.
“We have to christen your new studio,” I told her, and took out my digital SLR. I flipped on a second hot light that she’d clamped to a pipe in the corner and snapped a few pictures of her.
Afterward, we sat on the floor for a while and looked at what I’d shot on the screen.
“I like the one with my hair over my face. That’s the one you should use.”
She looked at me blankly without saying, then took my hand: “What’s really strange is that I always feel like someone is following me.”
I gave her a you’re-not-serious look, but she was dead earnest.
“It feels like there’s someone always following me.”
I didn’t know what to say and didn’t really make much of it. We went back to my place in a cab, but I was tired and told her I needed to wake up early to catch a flight. I was visiting my parents in Florida. She didn’t mind waking up early, she said—“That’s how we met, remember?”
In the morning I found a note on the table. “Fly safe and see you soon, L.”
I caught my flight the next morning and before noon was stepping out of a cab in front of the ranch house I grew up in. It’s never a bad thing to spend time somewhere that doesn’t change much; Woodland Hills is such a place. After lunch, I spent time going through the garage, where my mother still had most of my childhood stuff: bikes, balls, toys, books, and several boxes of magazines from the ’90s—everything from Harper’s Bazaar to The Face.
That evening I ate dinner at home with my parents. My father was excited to have me there and went on and on about the fishing he’d been doing. He’d already reserved a boat to take us out in the morning. I never much liked fishing, but I always went because it made him happy.
Around 10 p.m., just after my parents had gone upstairs to go to bed, there was a knock on the door. I really didn’t know what to say when I saw L. standing in the doorway. She was wearing a white-striped boating sweater and jeans.
“I never told you I was from Tampa,” she started, “so when you told me you were from Woodland Hills, I couldn’t help myself.”
It hadn’t been hard to find out where my parents lived, but I didn’t remember ever telling her where I was from. For whatever reason, though, her comment seemed to make some kind of weird sense.
“There’s a lunar eclipse tonight,” she said. “Do you want to go down to the marina and check it out?”
I realized at that moment that L. reminded me of a girlfriend I had had in high school, Lisa, who always liked to “check things out.”
“Supposed to happen around 1. I was going to take pictures.” She swung around a camera bag she’d slung over her shoulders.
I didn’t ask her what she was doing there. It all seemed more normal than not.
“You know,” I said, “I’ve got a telescope in the garage—and it’s got a camera mount.”
L.’s eyes opened wide.
“Oh, we could take pictures! I love looking at the sky at night—you know, the stars, the constellations, the planets. . . .” Her voice trailed off. She was smiling now, and I could see her teeth, which were still, it seemed, those of a child, each one a little small and different from the next. It’s the kind of thing you start to notice, whether you like it or not, when you’re a photographer.
We headed down to the beach that ran north of the marina, passing by the local camera shop along the way. It was closed, but the sign was still lit and shining into the night sky like a beacon.
“Is that where you got your first camera?” L. asked flatly.
I nodded. “My mom gave it to me for my thirteenth birthday.” Later, I spent three summers working there, printing the odd picture of a kid or dog they wanted blown up and framed.
“A lot of people around here still use old-fashioned film cameras,” I said.
It was a warm Florida night. We walked down the beach a little ways, I set up the telescope, and we watched the night sky unfold. It was a bit early for the eclipse so we decided to go for a swim, something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager. She was wearing a bikini under her clothes, as if she’d knew that was what we’d be doing, while I made do with my boxers.
Afterward we dried off and waited for the eclipse, which came and went as we snapped pictures through the telescope. She did a lot of oohing and aahing all along the way.
“I’ve never taken these kinds of pictures before.”
All I could think at that moment was, “This doesn’t feel like it’s real.”
We went back to my folks’ place and fell asleep in my old twin bed. But when I was awakened by my dad knocking on the door in the morning, she was gone. I found another note sitting under a glass of water in which she’d arranged a bouquet of dandelions. “I’m going back to New York. See you soon.”
It was a while before I saw L. again. I spent ten days in Florida and when I returned to New York, I found the Italian detective waiting for me in front of my building.
“You shouldn’t lie to the police,” he said in a bored way.
Eventually I was charged with obstruction of justice and accessory after the fact. They charged L., if you can believe it, with the murder of Ebba Stahlström. They said I was hiding the suspect at my parents’ place, and my mom and pop’s confused testimony didn’t do much to give the jury any confidence that I was doing anything else—for they weren’t sure, in the end, how long L. had actually stayed at the house. My lawyer recommended I take a plea, so I did, and spent eighteen months in a low-security prison in, of all places, Florida. L. took a plea, too, and got fifteen years. The detective told me that she’d been looking for a way to set me up for what she’d done, and had almost succeeded. I saw her once during that time, in a lineup where I was standing behind the two-way glass and the detective asked me to identify L. as the young woman who had shown up that morning with a bright smile and a clear work ethic. She had, he told me with no inflection, drugged Ebba to sleep and then suffocated her. It was strange to hear that at that moment, because she was wearing a very Floridian fruit-print dress and a wide-brimmed sun hat.
I eventually wrote to L. in prison, saying that I couldn’t forgive her for what she’d done, but that I’d try. She responded by sending me a photograph of herself. I’m not sure when it was taken but she looked like a girl on the prairie, wearing a flower-print dress and her hair up. On the bottom, she wrote, “Remember that dress you got me and what I told you about someone following me? That’s her—in the dress.”
I didn’t remember getting L. a dress.
A couple of weeks after I came home from prison, I got a call from a friend of mine, a writer. We’d become friends some years back when we found out that he was from a place called Woodland Hills, too, only it was in California rather than in Florida. Like me, he’d grown up in a ranch house under palm trees riding BMX bikes around the neighborhood. He’d even dated a girl named Lisa, and though I never asked him if he owned a telescope, he’d once mentioned to me that he’d been in an astronomy club.
He’d heard what happened and thought he’d check to see if I needed anything. We went out for beers one night and I told him the whole story, at least what I understood about it: about L., Ebba, the way L. showed up in Florida. A couple of days later a book came in the mail, a novella by Balzac called The Unknown Masterpiece. On the inside cover my friend wrote a short note: “There are only so many stories, so it’s a shame if we end up living ones we haven’t ever had a chance to read.” He’d signed it with a smiley face and his initials, RE.
One of these days I’m going to sit down and read it.
All artwork © Roe Ethridge