The Last Nude Photographs

The Last Nude Photographs by Erica Cavanagh

We tend to repeat what hurts us, things, and ghosts of things
!100!!50!Charles Wright, “Polaroids”

The morning I drove to Sara’s place to take photographs of her our hometown was covered in snow. A blizzard had passed in the night, leaving the roads so empty the traffic lights looked superfluous. Sara had just bought a condo. Days earlier she’d laughed when she told me this over the phone. A condo? I thought. Who would buy a condo? Less than a year had passed since we’d graduated from college. She was a nurse now, with benefits and a salary, so I supposed she could afford one, but that she would buy a condo in our hometown baffled me. I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t want to leave home. Now I worked across the country as a full-time volunteer at a maternity clinic. My understanding of real estate didn’t extend much further than how many books I could pack in my bags.

Sara, whose name has been changed, wanted nude photographs of herself, and I’d agreed to take them. For me to take nude photographs of anyone was rebellion, underscored by the fact that Sara now lived just a few blocks from the Catholic Church where I’d gone to Mass every Sunday for eighteen years. When we were kids and my brother would sneak away from Sunday school to check out the Playboys at the corner pharmacy, that was considered charming, but for a daughter to even think about nude photographs was the sign of a harlot. Don’t get a reputation, my mother used to say to me when I entered puberty. You don’t want to be known as “loose.” Though I was an adult now, the punishing disapproval for taking these photographs loomed. Never before had I taken nude photographs of anyone, so I was unsure how this was supposed to go. I was determined, however, to be comfortable with a naked body because artists were comfortable with naked bodies—not that I would have called myself an artist. That would have been presumptuous, but if you were going to become accustomed to working with a naked body, it seemed best to begin with a friend.

Posing nude was nothing new for Sara. She’d been posing since college and had always flouted convention, another reason the condo was such a surprise. Was she nesting? She did have a new boyfriend. She’d met him when she wiped out on a ski slope, and he came to her rescue. Now she was knitting a scarf for him. She wanted us to meet, so he’d be there when I arrived, and then he’d leave, so we could do “our thing.” I liked him from the beginning. He was unassuming. As we sat around her living room, bashful looks passed between Sara and her boyfriend, their eyes locking then looking away then locking again, the space between them so swollen and heated I couldn’t help but sense I was intruding. It seemed indecent of me to notice such things, and yet sweet, too, that they could hardly mask their lust in front of me.

Since our early teens, Sara and I bonded over stuff our peers thought weird, like birth, illness, and poetry. And now, in our first jobs out of college, we both worked in health, she with cancer patients and me with pregnant women and girls. I assumed our bond would continue when, nine months later, I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Africa to work in maternal-child health.  I don’t think Sara and I would have said then that our lives were taking “different paths,” but we might have sensed that our lives as girls together were coming to an end. Or so I think that’s what was happening when we decided to take nude photographs of her, as though the natural evolution of our friendship had led to a kind of pact.

As she took off her clothes, I studied the overcast light coming in through her bedroom window. Photography means “writing with light,” which I understood then in the technical sense of setting the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to let enough light in. When I was young, I thought a photograph would fix a moment in time, preserve something fleeting, but now I’m not so sure that photographs preserve so much as mark what has already passed. John Berger suggests the photograph may be “more traumatic than most memories or mementos because it seems to confirm, prophetically, the later discontinuity created by an absence or death.” At twenty-two, I could not imagine a friend’s later absence. As it was for Emily Dickinson, my friends were my estate. I was blindly sanguine about remaining close to them.

Frost and flecks of snow pressed on the window where Sara sat in her rocker, hugging her knees close to her chest. Though she had asked me to take these photographs, now that my lens was actually trained on her she was stiff. She couldn’t look at me, or maybe it was that she couldn’t allow me to look at her. I was nervous myself and somewhat confused that she appeared to be more private than I’d imagined a person who would pose nude would be. It seemed there was something I was supposed to do to put her at ease; I just wasn’t sure what that thing was. I worried that I’d fail her and prove myself inept at the whole photographic project. Perhaps Sara felt more naked in front of me because I did know her; I could see things. In the slant of her mouth I could see the pull of old disappointments, in her dark eyes the twinge of insecurity amid a fist of determination. I could see a father’s addiction that led to the loss of the family business. I could see her reluctance to rely on others as far back as the first time I tried to be her friend. It was first grade. She was a tomboy, alone on a swing at recess. I invited her to play paper dolls. I’d made them myself with clothes you could take off and everything. She shrugged and said, “I guess.” My older brother had been similarly unenthusiastic about my company, but this did not deter me. He came around eventually, and Sara did too. She tended to call the shots in our friendship. My role was to protect her from what made her uncomfortable and protect myself from pushing her. Being controlling in any relationship frightened me. Though now that I was the one with the camera, such wariness posed a challenge. I needed to take charge. Give her some direction. Be an artist—whatever that meant—though I’d read somewhere an artist has something to say. But the photographs were supposed to be for her, so it made no sense to me that I would have anything to say. My job, as photographer, was to disappear.

We tried different poses, beginning with Sara unclasping her arms and laying them on the armrests, opening her chest. She remained self-conscious, eyeing me peripherally, so I asked her to stand and turn away from the camera, then asked if she would lie on the bed. For each pose, I maneuvered around her, trying to get different angles, but nothing seemed to work. I couldn’t see whatever I was supposed to see. The room was too confining, too new, too flat—I didn’t tell her that. Instead, I apologized, saying it was the light, the small space, and that it was my fault for not knowing how to work within the constraints. She sighed, then suddenly looked up, eyes full of mischief. She had an idea and threw open her closet, pulling out a pair of snowshoes.

“How about these?” she said.

My eyes grew large, marveling at her old-fashioned snowshoes; not the lightweight, aluminum-frame-and-vinyl kind found in an L.L. Bean catalogue, but heavy wood-framed ones with pig-gut webbing.

“Let’s do it!” I said.

We hurried down the stairs, laughing, and stopped in the front hall where Sara pulled on wool socks and shoved her feet into her boots. She rose and with a dramatic flourish flung the side door open, the cold rushing against her naked body, and then dropped her snowshoes onto the powdery stoop. Neighboring condos surrounded her on three sides. She shivered and cursed, trying to buckle her boots into the straps as fast as she could. We couldn’t stop laughing as she plodded into the snow, lifting those giant foot-appendages step by awkward step. Her pale, tapered body and black, pageboy haircut seemed to remind the snow of its own elegance. She was so cold she couldn’t help but clench her fists and smile hard, fighting off the freeze and shaking, while I took too long, trying to focus.

“Goddammit!” she cried. “Are you ready yet?”


Good portraits often reflect the photographed and the photographer, and the only good photograph I took of Sara that day was the one taken outside. In a single, fleeting moment, it captured our mutual refusal to be contained by snow or shame; it captured our shared trust for one another; and it captured our childhood outdoors. Sara and I had spent our summers at camp in the Adirondacks, happily away from home, doing multi-day hikes that made our thighs ache and burn until hiking for miles uphill and downhill no longer hurt. We had grit. We slept in lean-tos and, to this day, when I think of those nights sleeping outside, lined up in sleeping bags with a dozen other campers, the crickets shirring around us, it is the safest I have ever felt.

What exactly the outdoors meant to Sara as an adult, I can’t be sure. I only know that the morning I took photographs of her in the nude the snowshoes unleashed a brief and glorious wildness that let us to break out of our self-consciousness and inhabit ourselves.


The following fall I moved to Benin, seven degrees north of the Equator. “This will change you,” someone said. I didn’t want to change, not in ways that would jeopardize my friendships. My friends sustained me and I planned to sustain our friendships through letters. There were other parts of my life I wished would recede so far into the background that they would cease to have power over me. My hope was that you could starve experiences by not talking about them, and eventually you’d become someone who had never had those experiences. But nothing is escaped.

My first dry season in Africa was chastening. The sun burned everything to bone and gutted the wells, making drinking water such a scarcity that death from dehydration was common and intimate.

After six months, when the rains finally returned and sprouts exploded, families began tilling and planting, and in the remote farming village where I lived, that was the season of marriage. I walked toward the fields with my camera and just as I reached the border between the bush and the village, two girls called out to me. They looked about seventeen, close to marriage age, and each wore a pagne, a colorful cloth they’d wrapped around themselves like a strapless dress. As women they’d wear more, a top with sleeves and the pagne wrapped like a sarong from their waists to their ankles, but wearing it as a strapless wrap-dress was acceptable. They were girls. They had yet to be married.

They asked me to take their picture. I agreed, raised my 35mm camera, and the girls stood up straighter, shoulders back and legs together. One tried to suppress a grin. I snapped the shutter and as soon as I put the camera down, they asked me to take another. Photo demands were common. Being the only person in Yéma who owned a camera, children clambered after me daily, calling out, “A man foto wia! A man foto wia!” Take my picture! Take my picture! The presumption often irked me, but for whatever reason that day I was feeling open, even detached, as though something about me didn’t much matter anymore.  Turning the camera vertically again, I was just starting to focus when the girls tossed off their pagnes and stood naked, completely topless in no more than underwear. Having no idea what to do, I kept focusing, albeit I was confused because the Bariba tended to dress modestly. They even called the Tammari, who lived in northwestern Benin, somba, “the dirty people,” because they wore little more than loincloths. Was this a joke? Had they dared each other to strip in front of the white girl? Having no idea what to make of the incident, I dismissed it as something that had happened by chance.

That was years before I could connect this to the nude photographs Sara and I had done. Years before my own girlhood had grown distant and alien from me, the girlhood of mooning each other on New Year’s Eve, pool-hopping in our underwear, and playing sexy for the camera: the time when we could still flash about, flamboyantly unaware of the consequences of wanting to be noticed, desired, and claimed. Before travel, marriage, and art would divide us. Years before I would lose Sara and find myself thinking of those nude photographs and wondering who would ever be wild and vulnerable with me like that again? The girls in Benin would likely lose that too. But to them, at the time, I was an outsider with a camera, an outsider who would never tell on them, and these photographs of them being outlandish and young together may have been their last.


When I returned to the U.S., friends told me I’d changed. I’d become more reticent and lost at least one girlfriend when I wouldn’t share her judgments about someone. My dependence on my girlfriends had not changed, however. They were my chosen family. Since college the only vision I’d formed of a caring and stable future was composed of them. We’d live within driving distance and be at the ready to attend to each other’s loneliness, heartbreak, and confusion. I’d pictured living with them when I came back from Benin; pictured potlucks and watching movies that made us cry. Romantic interlopers had a way of interrupting these plans. Not for me. I was attracted to men, but high school and college experiences taught me that guys wanted a girl who was “cool” and clean of a complicated past, which undermined my ability to trust them.

When our parents separated for the first time, my brother and I spent weekends at our father’s apartment, where dads took their kids swimming. Those were the years I was three, four, and five and I was a good swimmer. In the water, I was brave; I was a mermaid, a dolphin. I loved and still love water because it embraces you and lets you move freely all at once. Forces inside and outside the water could be dangerous but not the water itself. I swam up to my father. “Let’s see how long you can stay underwater,” he said, and pushed me under. My arms and legs scrambled, trying to get up, trying to get out of his grasp. Lungs constricted. Breath shortened. No breath. I wheeled so furiously it was like I had all the arms and legs of an octopus and not one of them worked. When he finally let me back up, I coughed and gasped for air. “Yeah! How was that?” he exclaimed. I gulped and nodded. I didn’t want to upset him. I wanted to be tough enough to take it.

I have wondered if trauma lives in the bones or the capillaries or that delta of nerves that stream out from our backs? If we could find the location, could it be reset? I know my father, who later sought help for his aggression, wishes he could reset the past. I don’t agree with Berger that the photograph can be “more traumatic than most memories or mementos.” Trauma lives in the body. The psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk says, “trauma almost invariably involves not being seen … not being taken into account,” which disrupts our ability to know what we feel. Trauma keeps you from being able to name a threat. It keeps you from running, when you are newly thirteen and two boys you’ve just met pull you away from a party. “You’re going to like this; this’ll be fun,” the boys kept saying. You didn’t believe them, but they were older, and you didn’t want them not to like you. “Where are we going?” you said stupidly as they hurried you into the next yard, and then pinned you to the ground.

For nearly all of my twenties, I avoided dating and studied instead. With Sara as my only married friend, I did not feel any pressure to find a mate. When I met men I liked, I sensed the thrilling gulf of the unknown between us, but more powerful than the allure of the unknown was the threat of their anger or sullenness when I did not behave as they wished. Books were more reliable. You could pick up a story, fall in love (or not), and when the story was over, put it back down again. In my late twenties, when I attended graduate school in nonfiction writing, I started to have trouble. There was so much I couldn’t say, so much that was unacceptable. My sentences hobbled. Every time I sat down to write an impassable rockface loomed before me. Futilely, I tried to dig into it. In workshop, when my peers asked me to clarify this or that point, I seemed unable to respond with anything but another opaque passage. Then my grandfather died, and it was like the face of a cliff fell into the ocean. He had mellowed in the end, but for most of his life my father’s father had been an overbearing and arrogant man who thought little of women’s intelligence. When he died, a great shadow lifted, and an invisible, supernatural force with a matter-of-fact voice kept saying, It’s your job now. Take the reins. The instructions weren’t much clearer than that, yet I sensed I was supposed to get down to the business of making a family. Could a grandfather’s death really say, Have children, get married? Did death say that?

Within months, I met someone. We’d been in the same nonfiction program and one night, after we’d been to the same reading, we ran into each other at the co-op where I bought bulk oats and egg salad. He had this intent way of listening with his eyes, his ears—his whole forehead. By spring, we were talking about moving together. I was twenty-nine and he was thirty-three. We moved to Maine. He had a good friend there. I knew no one in the state, but Maine was in me. I’d be back by the water. The summers when I was a toddler and my parents were first separated, my grandmother took my brother and me there, to Pemaquid, where I would sit in the tide, rocked by the push and pull of the sea, and marvel at how each wave could hit me and maybe even move me a little, just a little shove, depending on how big it was, but it didn’t hurt. What nature did wasn’t personal. Nature was just being itself. If I sat steadily, the waves just moved around me, and that’s how you had to be. Steady.

For my move to Maine, Sara gave me her snowshoes, the same pig-gut ones she’d worn in the nude eight years before, back when it seemed I had all the time in the world to find a mate. “You’ll need these,” she said. Was she sure? Didn’t she go winter camping with her family? She’d recently had her first child, a curly-haired girl who laughed whenever she was on the changing table. Sara hadn’t been camping in ages, she said. Take them. So I agreed, but only for safekeeping. I wanted her to want them back. I still saw women as each other’s true companions. They understood something about the body under siege and the determination to get free that most men just didn’t.

Meanwhile, my boyfriend studied Buddhism and told me attachment causes pain. What you want causes pain. I tried to divest myself of what I wanted—love—but the pain didn’t stop, and the one time I called him out on keeping his distance, he said, “I’ve always been resistant.” People couldn’t help how they behaved, he said, including himself.

I wanted to bolt but dug in my heels. My father and brother didn’t like me at first either, and then they did: you have to tough it out. Just listen to your friends, the married and longtime-partnered ones who’ve said that sometimes they don’t want to be married.

To heal from trauma, writes van der Kolk, “The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly seen and heard by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone’s else’s mind and heart.” My boyfriend was caught up in his own story of protecting himself against a threat that far predated our relationship. He walked ahead of me on beaches and hikes and at art exhibits. I kept hoping he would turn around and see me, call to me, say walk with me. I kept wishing for tenderness and surrender, kept wishing he would want to be with me, held in mind and heart. I felt pathetic for wanting that, like I wasn’t stoic enough to bear up. Too proud and too afraid of being needy, too ashamed of the pent-up resentment building inside me, I didn’t fight for anything different from him or myself. We were together for four and a half years, and by the end I felt hollowed out.

I moved to rural Virginia where I’d gotten a teaching job. I thought I’d make new friends locally, but hadn’t anticipated that being a single woman in her thirties would make it difficult to establish new friendships. Couples went out with couples. At dinner parties, where I was often the only single person, I felt like a tolerated, alien guest. I’d seen such behavior in West Africa, where a woman alone was viewed as suspicious. I had never imagined I’d see it in my home country, but here too, we push each other to pair up or be left out, as if, past a certain age something is wrong with you if you’re not with someone.

I tried dating sites. Reading profiles on my computer screen felt conspicuously like shopping online. I dated strangers and friends because I wanted a friend with whom I could be naked. I’m not talking about sex. Sex isn’t intimacy. I’m talking sincere naked. You-see-me-and-I-see-you naked. Surrender-to-being-in-the-relationship naked. A friend I’d just started dating said, “You know all these women online who say they’re into sports, they’re just saying that so a guy thinks she’ll go to games with him.” Really? I thought, but said nothing about the many women I knew who genuinely loved sports. Disagreeing with people I liked and who I hoped would like me back was so entangled in the fear of being considered disloyal, suspicious, and inconvenient that I couldn’t even speak up about something so trivial.

A blizzard hit, and it was glorious. So rarely did we get a good snow in Virginia that I got giddy watching snowdrifts swell against the windows. Once the big winds subsided and only the silence of snow remained, I knew exactly what to do: I dug Sara’s snowshoes out of the basement, pulled on my gators, boots, and big winter coat. A sense of ceremony took over, as if I were heading out to re-marry something essential about myself. I opened the door, took a breath, and walked into the hum. This was stillness; this was quiet. I was a woman, unafraid of the cold, trekking into the snow. I circled the neighborhood and walked into town. No one was out. I kept thinking I’d see someone, someone who loved snow, marveled at snow. As I passed home upon self-contained home and imagined the people tucked away inside, people who’d made routines together, people who maybe were watching a movie or reading or discussing the news that very moment, I sensed I’d missed whatever train I was supposed to ride in order to learn how to be one of those people. Who cared if I loved snow? I was alone.

That night I couldn’t stop crying. I wasn’t supposed to cry. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, my grandmother used to say. This is a tough world, and you’d better toughen up. But being tough seemed to have run its course. Toughness couldn’t hide that for some years I’d been trying to quell pain with too many glasses of wine. I thought of the Bariba brides back in Benin, how the night before the marriage ceremony, the bride bawled for hours, and all her girlfriends surrounded her, singing to her, washing her, staying with her through the night. The bride would be washed, she would be washed. The Bariba understood that leaving childhood is a kind of death, and she would not have to go through it alone. But here we cry alone. We pay for therapy. We drink, smoke, swallow pills. Loneliness is expensive. No one can afford it for very long. Ultimately, you cannot hold up the weight of your life on your own.

I had to change something about how I went into the world, and it had to do with my voice. I had to exercise that voice in my relationships and my writing. I just wasn’t sure how. I only sensed that suppressing my voice, my experiences, and how I think was distorting me.

When enough snow had been cleared that it was possible to get my car down the hill without sliding and crashing into a lamppost, I made the annual drive north to my hometown, Rochester, New York. Sara still lived there: she had recently moved to a house in the suburbs. “I’m a mom in the suburbs!” she cried, throwing her head back and laughing. This was not how the onetime president of our high school Knitting Club, the one who wore mostly black and now wore lilac, had pictured her life. It was the night before Christmas Eve. Her husband, the same man who thirteen years ago bowed out so we could “do our thing,” said he had some last-minute Christmas shopping to do, and just as he was putting on his coat, he bashfully looked at us, an impish smile taking over his face.

“Are there going to be more nude photographs?” he asked.

We laughed wistfully. That time had passed.

When he left, Sara wanted to know about my love life. I didn’t have one, just feelings for a twenty-eight-year-old friend. I was thirty-five. He’d had a crush on me for a couple of years, but I’d put it off. It would never work. Why? she asked. Because, I said. We’re at two different places in our lives. Sara groaned and said, “You’ve gotta tell him. Lots of men are dating older women.”


That was the last time I saw you, Sara, and when I try to understand why, I keep thinking about exposure. For as long as I can remember, I believed if you revealed something about yourself to anyone but your closest friends, you were bound to be rejected or thought of as unstable or undisciplined. Behind the camera was a good place for me to compose as well as remain composed and undetected. In college, I wrote fiction and poetry. Much of the work was autobiographical, but no one had to know that. A mask was preferable to claiming my life. You must promise never to tell, my mother used to say to me. Nothing in my upbringing taught me that I could speak about how I saw things without punishment.

When I went to graduate school in nonfiction writing, my plan was to write about other people. It seemed nobler than writing about myself. My nonfiction largely failed, however, as Virginia Woolf might have predicted: “If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.” Intellectually, I agreed with Woolf’s assertion, but in practice I balked, fearing the retribution my truth would incur. When Patti Davis, daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, published a memoir that depicted her father as negligent and her mother as wrathful, my mother said, “She never should have done that. Those are private family matters.” On the one hand, my mother comes from a generation that considered airing dirty laundry undignified and threatening to family reputation. On the other, she has always tried to control how each person in our family is perceived. In her stories, she is always the victim, and if her children did not submit to her version of a story, she punished us. In my early twenties, when I accompanied my teenage sister to an appointment with the pediatrician who’d known us our entire lives, he said, “Your family kept me up at night.” He was sorry he couldn’t do anything to protect us—my mother had left no visible marks he could report. My mind went still as he spoke. I could hardly believe what he was saying. I thought no one could see us.

In Hiding in Plain Sight, Wendy Lesser likens the intimacy that should happen in an essay to the moment in a love affair when the two “risk everything by revealing themselves to each other—a moment of decisive self-revelation, when one person, yielding up her weakest point, exposes her jugular…and the other meets the challenge by accepting the offered knowledge and perhaps gives something in return.”

Sara, I began to draft an essay about our friendship. I wrote about the nude photographs and how neither of us knew what we were doing, but we forged a way. I could only guess that you’d done something similar with your husband, risked your life by putting it in his hands, and he in yours. I had no viable model for marriage, so I listened to your stories like a captivated anthropologist, noting skills I might carry with me should I ever enter that foreign country. You’d told me that at times your marriage made you feel terribly vulnerable, but you and your husband kept making a story together, and that story was still unfolding. I deeply respected that. The day I took nude photographs of you I felt similarly that our story was unfinished. We were still having a conversation. In the draft I sent to you I wrote that our friendship had prepared me to take risks. You prepared me to risk telling the twenty-eight-year-old about my feelings for him, which terrified me, but I was going for it anyway. I had to speak.

When I gave him the draft, he kissed my face in the falling snow and called me beautiful. He hugged me tightly. Made me dumplings. He made a sculpture of us, two monkeys swinging on our own island, and gave it to me. That same weekend he mentioned he’d shown his buddies my picture. “They said you looked wily,” he said cockily, like some kind of locker room joke. But what did I do? I said nothing so I could save his face, spare him from looking at his own demeaning words. A month later, when he arrived on my doorstep, he said, “I can’t.” I am haunted, not at all from reaching out with love, but from all the times I did not speak and the residue it leaves of how little I thought of myself.

What happened after I gave the draft to you I understand far less. The spirit with which I sent it took me back to when I sent you the contact sheet of nude photographs I’d taken of you when we were twenty-two. How squeamish I’d felt then, because so many of the shots didn’t capture some part of you and you would see that, but ultimately, I had to trust you knew that weak shots are a part of trying to see. Photographs are like drafts. Not every shot can be good. Not every shot works. Drafts show my imperfections. They show me naked, but I figured after twenty-five years of friendship, this would be nothing new.

An email came from you that afternoon: “I love our story, except I am really uncomfortable with XXXXXX. I feel very exposed and I hope you can take that out or change it.” XXXXXX was a detail about your marriage that I thought was ordinary, but it mattered to you, so I took out the sentence and apologized. When I told you I’d wanted professional feedback and had sent the draft to an editor, you were appalled: “without my knowledge, you shared those details with others and are attempting to have them published. That is a betrayal of my trust. I didn’t know our conversations were open for public record.” But I didn’t use your name, I said. I only referred to you as “she” and “my friend.” I don’t even write under my name. And it’s not being published…. “Everyone will know it’s me,” you countered.

I tried to remain calm. This could be worked out. I explained that asking an editor to look at something is different from signing a contract to have a work published. Had I known how you would react, I wouldn’t have sent anything to anyone. You didn’t budge. I tried to make jokes. Oh, the hazards of being friends with a writer! We’re vampires! I told you about Nikki Giovanni who joked that her family stopped talking around her because they knew she’d write about them. And Claudia Emerson who said during a poetry reading, “Your friends don’t appreciate you making metaphors out of them,” which she followed up by reading a poem about a friend. I’d hoped you could see the humor and my acknowledgment, however awkward, that you felt threatened, and that this was a common thing writers and their friends go through. You did not respond. I scrambled to find the right lampoon of “Writer Writes About Friend.” I wanted so badly for all of this to be funny, similar to when I was a girl and couldn’t stop laughing around my brother or anyone I feared didn’t like me. Something funny would happen, I’d burst out laughing, and what was funny would have long passed, but I couldn’t stop. The laughs kept leaking out. I’d press on my chest, hold my breath, grip something, hide my face, but it was like a tick I could not quell because, in truth, I was panicking.

You stopped speaking to me. Giving you that draft was clearly not like reviewing photographs together. Something had changed. That part of our life was over; I just didn’t know it before then. After seven months of silence, I wrote you a letter in which I tried to explain what writing means to me, that it’s part of who I am and what I do—my way of trying to claim my life. It’s my way of listening to what our mutual lives are saying to one another, and out of that I don’t try to say something that’s right. I’m not trying to be right; I’m trying to be truthful. The lines aren’t always clear about which stories are mine to tell, and what had changed in our friendship wasn’t clear to me either.

“I can’t see your perspective,” you wrote in an email, “and it’s not for lack of trying. I want to make clear that I don’t want you to write about me, my marriage, or my family.”
That was the last I heard from you, eight years ago, and your silence has been like a death. I have missed you and been furious with you. I missed you when I was preparing to get married; I missed you when I was pregnant. I loved being pregnant. Then I miscarried, and the loss made me fierce. The loss told me you must try again. Courageously, with everything you’ve got. My husband didn’t want to try again, so I fought him. My life was in my hands in ways I’d rarely made my own, and one of the effects of this ferocity is a new response to your clear demand that I not write about you, and that is no. Your response to my attempt to understand intimate relationships was, whether intended or not, a controlling one, and I can no longer bend to such control absolutely.

You were my friend, Sara. That part of your life does not belong to you alone. Your marriage and family are your stories to tell, yours and theirs, but our friendship is ours and I will write about it. I will guard those girls and honor them. I will honor their friendship, honor the risks they took and how they broke the rules despite the threat of punishment. You and those girls in the field in Benin were demanding to be seen, and I am not turning my back on that.

Erica Cavanagh’s nonfiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Gastronomica, Off Assignment, Entropy, and elsewhere. She teaches nonfiction writing and food studies at James Madison University. More of her work may be found at