I just threw away a photo of a baby. The baby hadn’t done anything wrong. But I no longer knew which baby it was. Its photo had sat on my dresser, above the sock drawer, among various framed photographs, for years. I don’t get rid of things easily, including people. Or images of people (which have—magic of photography!—a special relationship to people). I no doubt once had a special relationship to the baby in the photograph (who lay on a comforter with a bear in a crib) and likely still do to the person the baby’s become. Because of this special relationship—of photographs to people, I mean—throwing someone’s picture away feels not un-akin to throwing them away, though fewer trash bags are needed. At the time I put the picture in the frame, I must have known which special baby the special baby was, but now that knowledge is lost. It would be reasonable to suppose that when I framed the photo (framing itself being a way of making special), it was obvious (or as they say, a no-brainer) which baby the baby was. In the back of the large white basement, someone’s laundry spun. I tried to reassure myself, tossing the image of the once special little one into the gray bin, that there were other images of her or him that would survive, since s/he was—or had been—special. It seemed a reasonable guess that this baby-image dated from an era when there weren’t so many special babies—in my life, that is. And thus had been (by me at least) especially often photographed.
But in the world there are countless special babies. And I could not help but ponder this as I threw the special baby in the bin. Herein lay the big lie, the one everyone knew but no one spoke of. The big no-brainer: If there are millions and millions of special babies, how can they all be special? Perhaps it’s a confusion of language, I thought, somewhat hopefully, as I looked at her or him among the torn envelopes, white and manila. The room was moist; the laundry hummed. Perhaps we don’t have a way of telling the babies they matter without telling them they’re special. Mattering and being special aren’t the same. Except that under capitalism they kind of are: Eventually the special babies morph into special children, who eventually realize they’ve been lied to, once they become aware of the sheer number of babies, special and not so special, sharing the planet with them. Or they half realize the lie, since it’s a pretty hard one to face up to, the belief in being special being more difficult to let go of than, say, one’s faith in Santa Claus. Some go through life secretly clinging to the “special” belief, in a way that, Miracle on 34th Street notwithstanding, would earn them entrance to an institution and lots of meds if they clung instead to old man Claus.
Logic hardly ever overturns necessary beliefs. I mean those beliefs we need to get through life. (This may of course just be something I need to believe.) But still it’s sometimes there, logic, that is, a sort of pale shadow. In the back of the room, a dryer turned.
I too, of course, had been a special baby. I too, as a child, had looked through the album my mother kept and been comforted by the photographs she had preserved in there. Perhaps they were held in place by small black corners. I don’t recall. I do remember one, the first, taken in the hospital. My face was squished. My oddly thick hair spiraled up in a weird black twist. When, having entered my special childhood, sitting on the shag carpet in the living room, perusing the album (which reassured me, on some afternoons, of my already threatened specialness), I would see the photo with the funny hair, I would imagine a past life in which I’d lived in Fiji (I’d cut up plenty of National Geographics). Time passed. I don’t know what became of that album. Perhaps it could still be found. But probably not. Oh well. I would still prefer not to hear about someone throwing (even unknowingly) my picture away. Doubtlessly this has happened many times, and not always unknowingly. Oh Hobbesian world of images! I thought as I tore up more paper to bury the photo of the baby—who lay in its crib with its bear—in the recycling bin, atop some coffee filters and their grinds, my ripped-up ConEd bill, some lousy poems, another appeal from UNICEF.
BIO: Robert Marshall’s novel, A Separate Reality, was published by Carrol & Graf in 2006 and was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for debut fiction. His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in Salon, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Event, Blue Lake Review, Ducts, Stickman Review, Alembic, Crack the Spine, Foliate Oak, Blithe House Quarterly and numerous other publications. His work was selected for Best of Salon 2007. His website is www.robertmarshall.net. He lives in New York City.