The Wedding Photographer’s Assistant

“I can’t stand a bride who won’t wear white,” Lydia told Dina, flipping through show albums with well-manicured hands. “Watch how these brides cast space—how that dress makes her stand apart, almost above the crowd. When a bride’s not in white it’s impossible to follow her; she becomes just another woman, she disappears on the dance floor.”

Dina wanted to respond that it was exactly the role of a white wedding dress to make women disappear, but stopped herself.

“There’s no question about white. If they ask me I tell them, ‘That’s it, we’re not even discussing this.'”

Dina nodded solemnly. She didn’t mention what she’d said to Andrea the night before, while debating whether to leave the world of temp agencies for that of wedding photography. “The thing is,” Dina had told her, “I hate weddings. It’s all such rehearsed, performed happiness. Photography should be about capturing something real and true—real emotion, real despair.”

“Dina,” Andrea said, “you’re the least romantic person I know. For you to be a wedding photographer is too hilarious to pass up.” Dina had grinned, immediately liking this smart, tough image. For months she’d been waking up anxious, aware of all she had not yet accomplished; successes other women her age, just a few years out of college, had already achieved: connections made, awards won, future plans secured. Finally, she’d have her own impressive story to tell. She could see herself sitting in a hip bar with some tall boy, laughing about the weddings, cynical and sharp.

Lydia closed a white leather-bound album, looked up at Dina.

“These pictures,” she told her, gesturing to the brides blushing past their dark wood frames, “will never hang in a museum. But they’ll be treasured more than those museum photos could ever be. There’s an old Jewish saying, ‘Every time a man takes a wife, a new world is created.’ These photographs are the first images of that new world.”

Dina quickly learned that Lydia’s lecture was repeated to every anxious pair who came to the studio. Her first day on the job she ate cake and sipped coffee while Lydia showed the albums to a young couple. The bride twisted thin dark hair around her finger; the groom turned pages dutifully. Lydia told them how those albums would accompany them on future family picnics, how their children would clamor to see ‘Mommy and Daddy’s wedding album,’ Dina was surprised to see both the groom and his bride smile shyly. All the talk of future and children and love; it felt too heavy a promise for the tiny suburban shop.

Dina wanted to laugh it off—who brings wedding albums on picnics? Yet watching the couple shift in their seats, earnestly flipping through albums filled with photographs: the first dance cast in a pink light, close-up of the best man offering his toast, aerial view of the bride throwing the bouquet, she felt only a confusion of superiority and shame.

From the beginning Lydia allowed Dina to photograph the weddings on her own. Dina always aimed for the outtakes—the moments when the bride reached for the lip balm or the groom nervously combed back his hair with a still unringed hand and everyone made small jokes and traded compliments. Lydia’s only rule was that Dina had to stay out of the way. Dina, who tended toward quiet observation in most social situations, was particularly good at that.

What surprised Dina, though, was how the weddings made her weep.

It was exactly like cutting an onion.

She would begin the wedding thinking this is fine, I feel fine, this can’t possibly make me cry. But somewhere along the way she’d find it cut too deeply, and the tears would come. At one wedding it was the father kissing his daughter before the altar, the way he held her arm gently between them. At another it was the couples’ first clumsy dance as husband and wife—they had turned so slowly, clung so tightly to each other.

The weddings were so joyful and yet so sad. Had her own parents once been this way—turning white circles on a parquet floor, arms closed seriously about each other—before the divorce, before the photographs of her father in California, running the sprinkler on another woman’s lawn?

The earnestness of the event, the dogged determination to declare true love in suburban catering halls, broke her heart every time.

Dina had worked for three weeks, six weddings, when Rachel arrived for her appointment, solo. Dina immediately noted her beauty—tall and thin with perfect waves of long black hair and a wide, serious smile—and her confidence. Most of the brides felt Lydia was judging their relationship, which of course she was, and would drag their fiancés in and caress them through the album-gazing process, but Rachel just said, unapologetically, “I left him at our place in New York. He couldn’t care less about this, and someone had to stay and walk the dog.” Rachel, on the other hand, had definite opinions about wedding photography. “No colored lights,” she said. “No phony backdrops, no throwing the bouquet, no photographs of me looking into a mirror or contemplating my ring finger. I will not fix my father’s boutonniere or allow my mother to brush my hair. Okay?”

Lydia nodded and poured more coffee. Dina beamed.

The wedding was in only two weeks. The previous photographer—Rachel’s close friend —had just been given an opportunity to accompany a biological expedition to Bolivia. It impressed Dina that Rachel knew those kinds of people, said things like, “it was an offer she couldn’t refuse,” even if she was marrying in suburban Philadelphia.

Wedding mornings Dina usually woke up later than she’d intended, instantly tense. She’d rush to the studio to quickly review names, family relations, and requests for special pictures with Lydia over donuts and coffee. But on the morning of Rachel’s wedding, the first Sunday in August, Dina awoke early, strangely excited. She even dressed up: a new blue silk shirt, along with eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick.

It was a hot, humid, gray day; they took the formal shots under the thin shade of two tall sycamore trees. “Bride, groom, just the two of you now. Smile.” “Dina—fix the veil, yes, like that, so it swirls more.” “Okay, turn slightly to the left and hold that, perfect.” Rachel’s dress was a soft cream color, curved close around her breasts and hips. Her groom was tall and thin and looked as though he would cry from joy, but kept laughing instead. Rachel’s mother said “honey,” every five words; her father was a fat pink man who clapped everyone on the back and danced around between pictures, practicing the steps he and his wife had rehearsed in class.

For the first time, Dina managed to get the photograph of the father kissing his daughter at the end of the aisle. A good shot; she felt it when she took it.

The dancing began directly after the hors d’oeuvres. The band played Hava Nagila, two concentric circles formed, and Rachel and her mother, linking arms, spun around the center of the inner circle. The guests shined, then sweated, as the music moved them faster Someone brought two chairs and a small group gathered to lift Rachel and her husband above the crowd. Like make-believe royalty they rose, each clenching the chair with one pale knuckled hand and a white napkin, buoyed up between them, with the other. The guests continued to dance circles around them.

Dina stood on a chair to get the picture, and stayed there while guests lifted up the groom’s parents and then the bride’s. She photographed Rachel’s father as he stepped off the chair; he swayed, his face moist with sweat and his smile strained. Something in his expression made her pause with her finger above the shutter button, but then he took the hand of his wife, continued dancing.

When Dina looked over again the father had paused. He was clapping, but his eyes looked distant and his face red. Still, his smile was so sincere that Dina photographed him. And then again, because he was holding his chest. And then again, because he went, impossibly, from red to ash gray. And then again, as someone cried, “Give him space!” and he crumpled to the ground in his tuxedo and curled around the pain.

Several women ran for their purses, fished out cell phones with nervous hands. Two guests, transforming back into doctors, stepped forward and barked orders: “Stand back, remain calm!” The older doctor, gray hair at his temples, bent down to the father, spoke loudly: “Are you okay? Can you hear me?” Barely pausing to listen to the silence the doctors rolled Rachel’s father onto his back, four arms wrapping round his body, pulling him flat like a carpet.

Dina focused her lens while the older doctor bent his ear to the father’s nose and mouth, watched the still chest with a creased forehead. Dina checked the light meter as he placed two fingers on the father’s neck, paused, frowned. As he tipped back the father’s head, opened the mouth and breathed—one, two—into the body, Dina took a picture. Then another and another while the younger doctor crouched over the chest, locked her elbows over the heart and began pumping—one, two, three, four, five. Pause. One, two, three, four, five. Pause. Again. Pause, two breaths, check pulse. Repeat.

By the time the paramedics arrived—five, ten minutes later; Dina wasn’t thinking of time—the guests had grouped themselves into small whispering circles. Most tried to watch while pretending not to look, a few brought over water, juice. Dina photographed Rachel and her mother kneeling on the floor, holding each other, the untouched glasses lined up beside them.

The paramedics lifted the body onto the gurney and rubbed the defibrillators together. Electric currents. searched for the heart; the body heaved while they quickly pushed it out the door. Dina captured Rachel’s mother as she stumbled to touch the father’s hand; Rachel stayed near the moving gurney while her new husband pressed ahead, seeking out doors to open, ways to help.

The catering staff slunk into the kitchen. The hall manager spoke with two policemen in the doorway, assured them that everything had been done properly. The guests remained in the room, devastated. At one table a woman sat with her head in her hands, sobbing; Dina photographed the woman’s pale face behind her clasped-hand veil. Dina moved softly round the room, drawn to the way those left behind touched each other, knowing death had claimed someone from among them.

If the guests noticed her they ignored her; she was camouflaged in the confusion. But Lydia, who had been waiting in the lobby for Dina to join her, was horrified to find Dina roaming about, taking pictures. With a strong arm Lydia led Dina from the room, as if she’d disciplined generations of errant photographers. Without speaking, she drove Dina home. In the car Dina rewound the roll and removed it, pressing it safe to her stomach. She left the camera on the seat when she got out. “Give me the film,” Lydia said. Dina shook her head no, and fled into her apartment.

Dina read the obituary in the paper the next morning. Rachel’s father had been a successful car salesman, owned three suburban dealerships, and served on the local school board. “He is survived,” the paper read, “by his wife. Rose Levine, his daughter, Rachel Levine, and her husband, Mathew Loeb.”

In another section the wedding announcement: “Rachel Levine, daughter of Rose and Arthur Levine, was married yesterday to Mathew Loeb.” How many people, she wondered, would connect the two, call over coworkers to shake their heads at the horror of it?

Dina developed the film, bit her lip to keep from grinning.

She brought the photos to a local gallery. “Tell me they’re faked,” the director said. When Dina shook her head no he whistled low, then offered her a group show in October.

Dina found a job with the Philadelphia mural commission. She met with painters and community residents, reviewed mural proposals, photographed the painting process. The job took her to neighborhoods all across the city; she brought her camera on each assignment. Returning home from work each evening she’d survey her apartment, third floor of a red brick row house, bathed in yellow early autumn light. She felt like a character in a movie: young, urban, talented.

And then, three and a half months after the wedding, Rachel called.

“How are you?” Dina asked, too loudly, too strained.

Rachel ignored the question. When Lydia had paid a shiva call, Rachel told her, she said that she would have Dina destroy the wedding photographs.

“I’ve thought about it since,” said Rachel. “Do you still have them?”

Dina paused. She could lie, say no, and pray that Rachel never saw the images. But Dina couldn’t lie. “Yes,” she answered, “I have them.”

“Good,” said Rachel. “I want to see them.”

Dina didn’t think to protest—this wasn’t her obligation, her responsibility. Yes, yes of course Rachel could see them.

“I’m back in New York now,” Rachel told her, “and I don’t have time to go home this month, but I could meet you halfway, if that’s alright, at one of those rest stops off the Jersey turnpike. This weekend sound okay?”

Hanging up the phone Dina placed her arms on the table, her head in her arms. When she’d looked back on that afternoon, days and weeks and now months later, she couldn’t answer for why she’d done it. Why hadn’t she put down her camera, showed respect for the dying? Even Andrea had been shocked to see the pictures. “Dina, you didn’t, you couldn’t have. . . ” she’d said, while Dina had hoped her flushed skin looked like shame rather than the pride she felt. “It was,” Dina told her, “just too good a picture. I couldn’t resist, I just couldn’t.”

Dina pulled into the Mollie Pitcher rest stop that Sunday at noon. The sky and the parking lot were the same shade of gray; the wind stirred paper cups and plastic straws in small circles. Outside the rest stop cars were lined up for gas; inside were the usual stores, arranged over brown tile: a coffee pavilion that almost looked like Starbucks; a Roy Rogers and a Home Country Cooking; a store that sold automobile products, souvenirs, sunglasses, and candy. Dina found Rachel seated at a red table next to a large window, watching for her. They smiled at each other and Dina sat down, placing her green canvas bag on her lap.

Rachel spoke first. “Listen,” she said, “I want to see them. I don’t know why, but I do.”

Dina nodded, suddenly important, a real photographer on a grave mission.

“No one knows I’m here. Not even my husband. But I’ve felt it’s so unreal—maybe everyone always feels that, but I’d looked forward to that wedding so damn long and then it was, stolen, you know?”

Dina nodded again, noticing the dark of Rachel’s eyes.

“So I thought, that since you had these pictures and I had no real memory of the whole thing happening, that if I saw them…”

Dina reached into her canvas bag. She pulled out a manila envelope and pushed it across the table toward Rachel. “You can keep them if you want to,” she said, half-standing up.

Rachel placed her hands on the envelope, looked up at Dina. “No, stay. Please stay,” Rachel said. “I don’t think I can do this alone.”

Dina sat down. She kept her hands clasped quietly on the table, crossed her legs to keep still.

Rachel carefully unwound the thread that held the envelope closed. Dina felt Rachel’s eyes on her, but kept her own head turned to the window, watched a young girl in a yellow jumpsuit run after her father, try to reach the car first.

Rachel pulled out a stack of photos. She took a long time to lower her eyes to look, but, when she did, she smiled at the picture of her kissing her three year old cousin. It wasn’t the wide, perfect smile Dina had seen before. It was a sad smile, slightly wavering.

“Oh,” Rachel said. Tears came to her eyes. “Oh.”

Dina’s hands stirred when she saw Rachel cry. She could have stroked her face, but placed her hands flat on the table instead.

The next picture was of Rachel and her husband, discussing something intently during a short photo break. The next of her motioning to her mother, “Over here, come join us.” Her mother was shading her eyes from the sun.

The procession began. Here was the groom between his mother and his father, all three delighted and tense. The groom’s brother with his wife: she, six months pregnant, one hand on her stomach. Pairs of friends, arms linked, smiling down the aisle. And then Rachel herself, veiled, one parent on each side.

Rachel looked for a long time, a small wrinkle forming between her brows, her hair tucked behind her ears. “I haven’t seen any pictures,” she said. “Guests who brought cameras didn’t send the film over, and I didn’t want to see Lydia’s. But I knew yours would be different.” She reached toward Dina’s hand, gently, but absently, covering it with her own.

Dina felt the touch inside; kept still. But Rachel drew lightly away, returned to the photographs.

Rachel’s father lifted her veil and kissed her cheek.

“I want to frame this one,” Rachel said, holding the photo with both hands. “Is that wrong’? It’s what I have.”

Dina smiled. “I think that’s okay,” she told her, “I think you can do that.”

Under the wedding canopy Rachel turned seven circles around her groom. Each sipped wine out of a silver cup, recited vows, placed gold bands upon pale fingers. The rabbi read the wedding contract aloud; the groom smashed the glass; the bride and groom embraced.

Rachel smiled as she looked through them, and Dina ached to see that sadness.

There was Rachel, held up on a chair, grinning, linked to her husband by a white napkin.

And then there were her parents, red faced and laughing, doing the same.

Rachel paused. Looked up at Dina. Again the bright, steady eyes. “Have you shown these to anyone?” she asked.

Dina nodded.

“Which picture is the most, you know, tough?”

Dina fished a picture out from the pile. A man was lying on the floor. Above him, a woman was screaming and clinging to a bride. A blur in the corner was the doctors rushing to the scene. The woman’s eyes were on the body, the bride’s on the doctors.

“I thought they would save him,” Rachel said. “But I shouldn’t have looked away.”

She went in reverse now, back to the beginning of the death. And then forward, to the place where the paramedics came and he disappeared.

“He was dead when they arrived at the hospital,” Rachel said, now staring so intently that Dina found it difficult to return the gaze, longed to blink away the intimacy. “He was dead right there,” pointing to a picture. “That’s my father dead. I can’t believe it—all those cliché things—he looks as if he’s asleep.”

Rachel walked Dina to her car, gave her back all the pictures except the few of the ceremony. They stood for a moment, looking at each other. The wind lifted strands of Rachel’s hair across her face, and Dina, without thinking, brought her fingers up to brush them away. And then Rachel was catching Dina’s hand in her own, and then holding it. They stood another moment like that, while Dina’s mouth went dry. Rachel dipped forward, placed her other hand around the back of Dina’s head, pulled Dina toward her.

Dina was just recognizing Rachel’s scent—something soapy, familiar—when Rachel drew back, kissed Dina quickly, and then stepped away, smiling. She stroked Dina’s hair a few times; her eyes were red.

“Thank you.” Rachel said, her car keys clutched in one hand and the photos in the other. “These . . . ” she lifted them up, paused. “They give me something of my father back.” Her voice was just a little high with sadness. “Thank you so much for that.” Rachel lifted a hand goodbye, then walked away.

Dina leaned against her car. She waited two, five minutes. It grew colder, windier.

She wrapped her arms around herself, feeling warm despite the weather, and grinned.

Ilana Stanger is currently earning a Masters in Fiction at Temple University, where she holds a University Fellowship. An earlier version of this story appeared in The Bellevue Review.