Erykah’s been featured on Vogue.com. And that may not be as prestigious as being featured in print. And yet, it’s still something. No small feat.
If I call her up now, she’ll make a date to let me photograph her. But sometime in the moments that occur before that one moment, she’ll get a hold of me to push it off.
And I’m not bitter about that.
I met her for the first time in Prospect Park. That was back in 2014. I made the mistake of using an old vintage lens with my Nikon, and completely fucked up her photos.
We’d meet up in Bed-Stuy, or around Midtown after we both got off work. Out to Fort Greene or up to Chelsea. She worked as a stylist at Barney’s. People would always stop and compliment her wardrobe while we were shooting. Guys would stop and check her out, asking for her number.
Each time, the classiest, politest, most soul-shattering decline.
Erykah had a gravity about her. It could draw in the world and crack it like an egg.
A well of grace, overflowing from the tiniest gesture or movement. Like a rare animal, or a painting sprung to life. Erykah was the kind of person who embodied a sense of art. Erykah could make you believe there was ever such a thing, ever so elusive and ever so unquantifiable, as beauty.
She was kind, too. Giving me a second chance after botching our first shoot.
There was a time we shot on her roof. One afternoon, late in July. A bank of clouds rolling by and shading us from the occasional flood of sunlight. We had done two of three outfits. She wanted to get a chunk of work out of the way.
A yellow bathing suit with white patterned pants.
And the wind kicked up, high over the other rooftops. And Erykah must have felt cold.
Maybe I told her she was beautiful, maybe not. I can’t remember, but obviously, she was.
She offered to have dinner with me and ordered a pizza.
We talked in between bites. Then she disappeared to change, and came back wearing something sexy.
Which really isn’t saying much, because Erykah could make anything sexy. I don’t even remember what it looked like. I remember it being black, and there was a sheer fabric to it.
But as soon as I realized the sheer fabric – as soon as that piece of information coalesced in my brain and I realized what she was wearing – my eyes immediately darted to her neck. After that, I didn’t stop looking at her face, and I no longer have a concrete memory of the outfit she was wearing.
I excused myself, like an royal asshole, and left.
It’s not beauty that scares you.
It’s never the thing itself that scares you. But what it means. What it represents.
You see it every day in photos and music and literature. It’s that moment when the thing itself ripples the surface of your every-day, gray-hued reality.
And then you see it for what it is – for what it means.
And all the things it can do.
All the ways it can torture you and destroy you. All the ways it can swallow you up whole.
And Heaven help you should it one day disappear.
But all the thinking in the world won’t save you from something like that. Not once it ripples the surface.
It will draw you in. It will crack you like an egg.
It’s intoxicating. The way she’ll answer. Like you’re the most exciting person in the world. The only person she really needs and the only one she could ever want.
And not in an affected way. Not in some casual, callous, flirty way.
Knowing full well nothing will ever work out to that point – just to take a damn photograph. But swept up, you go along with it.
But under street lamps in Midtown, or in the glow of fading Brooklyn sunshine, she will tell me something stopped her from making it that day.
And she will tell me she’s sorry. And that we should reschedule.
She leaned in one day. Maybe I leaned in too. We were looking at a photo I had just taken of her. Down in DUMBO.
It was a kind of energy. Maybe we both felt it. Misplaced? I don’t know.
“You have to have a basic modicum of professionalism,” I tell a friend over a beer. “And you know, if you ever go down that road, that you proceed with the utmost caution.”
But it still feels stupid. And I still feel stupid.
Anyway, something stopped us. Pulled up short. Maybe it’s better.
Forgot to walk her home. On the way down into the subway, to catch the A Train, the sight of a g-string as her shirt rode up on her back.
Walked her home the next time. Then stood on the LIRR platform.
Unable to turn away. Looking at her silhouette in a window, the way I used to look at the moon.
Something distant and reserved for someone else. Something else.
Some other kind of person.
Met her boyfriend on some occasions, and the nicest guy. Chike worked for NBC or something like that. He’d stop by where we were shooting, give me a “What’s up?” and peck Erykah’s cheek.
He’d always make an excuse to disappear – something he had to do, something taking up his time.
But somewhere on a roll of 35 mm film – probably still inside my Olympus Pen FT, is a photograph I took of the both of them.
Taken one day on the edge of Bed-Stuy, where Erykah used to live.
I could reach out. I could take a shot. Every other time might have been the last time. Before a phone call, before a text or an email.
Have your pride, I think to myself. Stop bothering this person.
But maybe there’s something small you give back. That someone beautiful gets something from the beholder.
I go outside, stoned, and smoke a cigarette. And the smoke climbs up over trees and buildings, and into the night.
And in that moment, I feel something. And I draw it in. And crack it like an egg.