Jan. 10, 2017
In late September of last year, I made an impromptu trip to the Grand New York City, it was my first time on a plane and the only time I have felt the loneliness a sleeplessness place like NYC can have. I was having coffee with a close photographer friend Jeslyn in Tulsa, (she was in town for a funeral from Oklahoma City.) as we sipped our bitter drinks and sat in the early autumn air, I gave my condolences and we amused ourselves by talking about the itching the both of us had to get away. It was the kind of itch only a plane ticket could scratch. Suddenly, Jeslyn looked at me with caffeine-crazed eyes and exclaimed “we’re going to New York” saying it as if she could already picture us there. “Yes, okay we’ll go,” I said with a plain face. I had to repeat myself a number of times before she could tell I was serious, and I was.
Two days later we bought our plane tickets after changing the dates twice. I was ecstatic. I had to have an annoying phone call with our airline to make sure that I didn't accidentally pay for two tickets. Despite the early hour, I couldn’t sleep on the plane, I was far too excited. The flight, the anticipation of seeing such a grand city was too much, and my ears hurt from the altitude. New York had always been just a well-composed movie set or a collection of imaginations in my head. But when I finally stepped out of Grand Central Station and saw Manhattan, I melted, it was surreal. Movement was everywhere. My eyes darted around in my skull trying to grasp the magnitude of where exactly I was, all that was happening, and all was happening. Cars honked like knives being thrown. I was pushed out of the way of busier, dulled people. Buildings stretched so high my neck hurt looking at them. I was in love deep within a sleepless, lonely city.
This is where I met Elizabeth. Several days had passed, occupying what seemed like every subway and delicious Chinese food, and lots of street photography. Yet I longed for more intimate subjects. I am a portrait photographer after all. I looked to the internet and found a few prospects to shoot in those grim streets. And only one worked out. Elizabeth met with me late at night, I remember thinking how silly she was picking me up in her car. ( Who drives in NYC? ) She was nervous, giggling with a smile that scared me at first. But still very cute. Her plan for this outsider was simple. We needed Insomnia cookies. Elizabeth had a very apparent love for cookies, and how else to show someone a city such as this, than to get a dozen fresh cookies at three AM on the Lower East Side. Only in New York, I thought. This tiny cookie shop was laughable only because the vast majority of their late night clientele were under heavy influence of cannabis. This proved to be true from the glazed eyes of the people in line in front and behind us. It was too dark for portraits in most of the city so my only solution was to head to Times Square. Upon arrival, I was Shocked to find one of Instagrams “top photographed places in history” completely dead save a few drunken tourists. To be fair it was almost 3 Am on a Wednesday. Nonetheless, we began using the interesting and iconic array of lights for some portraits. I had a ball. Elizabeth had a wonderful childlike spirit that I had just not seen before. It startled me at first and still sometimes does. She was beautiful. With magnificent curls bouncing as lively as she was, we created and had innocent fun together.
We went to a nearby diner after (We seem to usually end up at diners looking back.) and talked about our upbringings and then stared at each other. So gay. After that, I retired back to my Airbnb with Jeslyn and she went back north of the Bronx where her parents lived.
I remember a wave of sadness as I hopped on another plane for my return trip to Dallas. So many reasons I didn't want to leave New York. But I knew one day I would be back. Elizabeth and I kept in touch. Facetiming often and sometimes for hours on end. Talking about time zones and her struggles with geography. She inspired me. Such a Talented girl, actress, singer, photographer, it seemed like the world and the city gifted her endlessly. What was even more remarkable was her humility and focus on others. Her affection extended to those around her like ripples in water, but ripples that lasted much longer. I found this part of her very opposite of the stereotype of New Yorkers, which I Definitely felt on my trip firsthand. I think her contrast to the city’s monstrous appetite for devouring kindness had something to do with my admiration towards her. She told me that I inspired her. That she didn't post pictures or feel very motivated with it creatively until she met me. This confused me, I couldn't remember doing anything remarkably inspiring during my time with her. Sure we had loads of fun being silly and walking and talking and taking in the streets and the night. But still, her words of kindness to me I feel are misplaced. She was always very sweet, it's who she was.
Time in OK
Elizabeth had brought up the fact that she wanted to come see me a few times over the phone in the months that our friendship grew after I returned home. I quickly shut her down when she brought it up. This is the point in the story where my vast collections of walls and defenses begin to play a part in our friendship. She was getting close to me, and that scared the shit out of me. It had been a long time since I had allowed anyone to get as close to me as she was. I pushed her away for it. Finally, after a rather difficult night, she was there to calm me down and just hear my struggles. Over a thousand miles away and she was a good friend to me. With stubborn persistence, she broke some of my walls. I remember what a wonderful feeling it was to feel like she cared about me. I was letting her. It was after that incident that I told her I wanted her to come see me. I talked about how she could meet my pals. We can book photoshoots here. We can watch movies without seeing the light of day. Anything she wanted. It was troublesome to try and plan a week of activities to rival someplace like NYC. But Elizabeth assured me that I didn't have to worry.
So we set a date, Jan 4th. I gathered my friends and we talked over coffee in my apartment planning a trip with all of us together. I needed her to have at least one big trip while she was here with all of us. When my friends and I meet to plan something it's usually nothing short of coffee filled chaos. It's a wonderful feeling being in a room with such creativity and energy with pals like my pals. After much deliberation and distraction, music and dancing, cheese plates and cups of coffee, we settled on Arkansas. More specifically a place called Hawksbill Craig. Reachable only after a four-hour drive, six of which were up steep, winding dirt roads, and finally a two-mile hike. I had previously been to Hawksbill on a pal trip and but it seemed to be a good fit for our circumstances. It was perfect.
Now about my pals that accompanied Elizabeth and me in our adventures. Pertaining to this story are Taylor, Caleb, Morgan, and Chris. First up are Taylor and Caleb.
They have been dating about four years and honestly, I look up to them collectively and separately for so many reasons. Both deeply rooted in their faith. It shows through them with a light-hearted way about life that made me see the good in the world. They make me believe that one day I'll be able to put in the work to have a real relationship and go through life hand in hand with the one. Caleb is not a photographer like the rest of us, rather a writer and a good one. Currently in school at OSU for journalism. He is hella stylish and pays close attention to pop culture. Aware or the large parts of superficial and, well, shitty parts of our modern society, yet it's like he takes what he can, and leaves the rest. Admiring music and artists with him is engaging and ridiculously fun. A youth leader at his church, I look up to him as much as the kids he leads undoubtedly do. Constantly dancing to any hype beat, he is a joy to be around. His girlfriend and high school crush Taylor has an eye for photography that fuels me every time I get to see her work. I see a spark in her as she settles into an artistic flow and I find myself watching fog settle in a valley on an early morning. She is a sweetheart by nature and a true inspiration. She has a knack for finding the most colorful solutions when taking images. We take turns with our subjects, and a feeling of cohesion overwhelms me.
“Tag you’re in”
“okay I got it you go, Ian”
“Taylor hold on I like that lighting don't move”
“what the hell Taylor that looks killer”
back and forth like crazy people, we create.
Then Morgs. One of the first things you notice when meeting someone like Morgan is her exuberant expressions when a celebration is due when one of us has even a small success. It's rare to meet someone so selfless to show unyielding support for her loved ones touching the mountaintops of life. Just as well a steward of her higher power, Morgan is the oldest of Seven kids.
she has more patience than I do.
With her, it's the little things in life, at least that's what it seems. How else would someone 5’3 fill a room with silk sheets and down feather pillows? She was recently accepted into a school in Colorado for graphic design and has started her first semester online. After she finishes her assignments and comes to meet the pals I can't help but try to match her sprightliness and beg her to show us her school work and hoop and holler as we watch her achieve her dreams right in front of us. What fireworks.
Of course, there is Chris. Chris was a long friend of Caleb’s and in town, for winter break upon first impressions, I came to the result that he was the human incarnation of a golden retriever puppy, innocent and eager to take everything in as quickly as possible. New in photography, when we met he told the group as we sat over coffee that he was only a novice and new to exploring the world of film with a Canon AE1 35mm camera. Old school and I Respected that. Not many my age can truly appreciate what 35mm film photography did to shape the way the world takes pictures, I’m not sure if I even san say that fully. With the help of his mom, he was able to get a digital camera for our trip. I remember vividly watching him learn his camera. Watching him ask questions about how to really take control of his toolset, so to speak. Such a quick learner, I was honored and delighted that I was able to be there to help gain an understanding of his camera. He also vlogged the trip and watching his videos was a hoot. It was blatant, his desire to get better and hone his skill. I have no doubt that there will be great things to come from him, though he might not tell you so.
Elizabeth and I
I took off of work to host Elizabeth. I remember being too anxious to sleep the night before her flight got in, and almost waking up late going to get her that morning. Her flight arrived at 11:45 AM and I promptly sat alone in Tulsa International Airport at 11:30. Her flight landed late at noon and I sat in baggage claim with sweaty palms and it seemed like hundreds of people picked up their bags and left going wherever people go. With nervous eyes I looked for Elizabeth, getting distracted by the walls covered in what seemed like numerous photos of iconic Tulsa landmarks and businesses, pathetic kind of I thought. We don't have rumbles like the outsiders anymore and downtown is empty and eerie at night with nothing to do but get drunk. Finally, I see her, cozy in at least 4 layers of clothes and smiling at me. We embrace and say our hellos as I grab her bag. We headed home and she called her mother to assure her that I hadn't kidnapped her and her flight made it to Tulsa safe. The drive home was somewhat awkward as we approached downtown, blinked and missed it.
Our first day together we spent doing nothing. Save grabbing some groceries because Elizabeth insisted that she cook for me. How blissful that day was with her. We picked a movie and I held her tightly to me. Holding her felt like stirring a teaspoon of honey in a cup of hot tea. Steam came off of us. I didn't let go of her that day.
Elizabeth, being the capable woman she is, took it upon herself to contact models and scout locations for her visit. Create create create. So we did. I drove her where we needed to go. Today it was Tally’s, Diner. With dirty snow still on the ground from the once-a-year snowstorm Oklahoma gets, we were lucky enough to find an entire section of the diner to ourselves. We retired our bags in booths and our model arrived shortly after. Elizabeth was hell bent on shooting other people, but I really only wanted to take photos of her. She was so beautiful after all. I constantly reminded her that you simply can't look like you look, be who you are, be with photographers like us pals, and not expect to have the lot of us wanting to capture you and who you are. So I sat and watched her. I watched her direct and build rapport with her model. I saw her move strands of hair and mimic how she wanted to pose her subject. I looked as I disappeared and she put together her masterpieces. She had grace and tact as she hopped around tables and chairs and ordered food for her and a strawberry shake for her subject, setting the classic “diner” scene. After she was happy with her work, she came to me as I reappeared to her, reality was visible to her again.
“Okay” she smiled at me,
“You’re up, you wanted to shoot her too right?”
I really didn’t, not more than I wanted to admire her with my camera. But instead of saying that I took our subject and went to another section of the diner to try and find a different feel. I ended up with an interesting few shots of brilliant neon in that old diner. I finished and we said our goodbyes, everyone loved her, such a kind heart it was hard not to. We headed to my studio, I booked time in it for us and found a model (her model fell through) for Elizabeth had not had near enough pictures to curb her appetite. For this shoot, one of my close co-worker's Bruce helped me set up and had a few laughs with us. We blared music and danced and I lost myself with different styles and colors of lights. We all took photos and we all got in front of the camera.
I packed up the studio and put everything back in its place. Everyone left and I settled at my desk with Elizabeth next to me on her laptop to upload our day's photographs and a few. After we were late to meet the pals and a taco place called Don’s what was open until 4 AM. We ate and talked over our plans for our Arkansas trip. Elizabeth asked,
“Can we have the pals sleep over the night before our trip?”
And so it was.
Around 9-10PM one by one, the pals showed up at my apartment with pillows and backpacks and pancake mix and smiles. Good music played feet stomped the ceiling of the neighbors below us as I lit a fire in my fireplace. I would compare the feeling of having all of those wonderful people all in my home that night to what I imagine it feels like to have your kids and siblings come home for Christmas. I can remember drowning out the comradery for a moment, standing in a corner and thanking God for what wonderful life was here with me, what life.
The next morning Taylor and Morgan made pancakes and peanut butter banana sandwiches as we fought over who got the bathroom while getting ready. I made coffee for everyone. I can't really cook or be much of any good in the kitchen, but I make a great cup of coffee. The plan was to leave at 11:30 and to my surprise, we were right on time. We hustled about groggy and excited in my third-floor apartment gathering our cameras and various necessities.
Just like that, we were off to Arkansas. Hawksbill here we come. With Caleb at the wheel, listening to a playlist he had made specifically for this trip. I sat extremely uncomfortably next to Elizabeth. Cramped with no room for our things inside the Jeep “StormTrooper.” (All of our cars have names, Marv, Tommy, Stormtrooper etc.) about an hour in a car in the fast lane held up a piece of paper to us telling us that one of our tires was dangerously low. We pulled over to assess the damage. The car who kindly warned us had looped around and pulled over ahead of us. An older couple got out and came over to make sure we were okay. We had to visit a few gas stations to find an air pump that would work properly. After Caleb inserted the hose wrong and let all the air out and looked at the pals with horror, I hopped out and we aired up the tire correctly and were off again. Luckily nothing was seriously wrong with the StormTrooper. After a few pit stops, we finally started swaying inside the Stormtroopers cramped cabin from the winding Arkansas roads. We were close. As I previously mentioned the last stretch driving to Hawksbill is six miles of very steep, dirt roads. We came upon it after driving past a few corner stores and a church that populated the valley.
We made it maybe a quarter mile. The road was so slippery at that angle that we slid into a berm facing the downward slope, the girls got out and the guys tried to put our heads together to get us unstuck in a way that didn't send the StormTrooper sliding down the mountain. To make matters worse, in between our attempts to turn the car around and get it safely down the road at least three pickups came passing by offering to help, or getting stuck, or blocking our path. But we got the car down safely.
“Well, what now”
Sh*t… I didn't plan on the road being iced over… I felt awful. I really wanted Elizabeth to experience The peak and the valley and the hike. Even if we hiked the six-mile dirt road we wouldn't have made it before sunset. But what is an adventure if something doesn't go wrong? So we returned to the Church. We all hopped out and went to see what there was to see. About half of the valley and most of the ground that was sheltered from prolonged sunlight was still covered in snow. The church stood tall in that valley all by itself. They say they still have service in there every Sunday and I believe it, some people to live only miles away. After that, we drove the Stormtrooper across the valley in the opposite direction from where we got stuck. We stopped whenever someone shouted
“Ooh an elk!”
or “Look at that! Caleb right here!”
and we all hopped out to explore our slightly adjacent surroundings.
Our next to last stop was over a bridge that Elizabeth thought would be perfect for couple portraits of Caleb and Taylor. They came out lovely. Lastly, as we were squeezing every ounce of sunlight out as we could. We kept along driving up another steep winding road. We came to a bend that had parking and we stopped for a few last portraits. I got some of my favorites including a photo with Caleb’s hand in his pants and one of the entire pal group.
The sun set on us and we piled back into the Stormtrooper to head home. We stopped in Fayetteville AR. to eat, we settled on a diner, a cute old school diner, we were practically the only ones inside. We laughed and shared stories for hours at that table. We tipped well and left Arkansas. It was about 11:30 when we got back to my apartment. We all hugged and everyone left. Elizabeth and I went to bed and how soundly we slept after such a long day.
House Shoots and Movie Nights
The days following Arkansas included much more pal time, movies, and a challenging shoot in my apartment. Taylor had asked Elizabeth if she could photograph her and on the day of the shoot Elizabeth didn't feel well and asked if we could just do the shoot at my apartment. Taylor and I took that as a challenge. And it was a blast. Elizabeth and I cooked together, we ordered out, we ate a lot. The pals came over for movie night and we had popcorn to go along with it. I loved how well we all got along with one another.
When the pals weren’t over we watched Gilmore Girls while she edited photos, we talked. She broke down a lot of my walls. She is very persistent. She does care about me. While Elizabeth and I got to play house together for a week. Not everything was positive. No matter how well you know someone, living with them, spending every waking moment with them, can be emotionally draining. We fought and got on one another's nerves over the course of the week, there was even a night where she slept on the couch. But we soon made up and after we did we discussed what exactly we were, where we stand. Which brings me to why I decided to write our story in the first place. How we met, our relationship, how I have connected with Elizabeth it's all just so abstract to me. Elizabeth and I have very different views on certain things that may complicate our relationship if we decided to do anything serious like dating. Not to mention she lives over a thousand miles away, and I’m afraid, of commitment, of getting hurt much like the rest of us. If we were in the same place we might have had a different conversation. We agreed that neither of us was ready, and that long distance would indeed not be a good idea, but rather add pain and struggle to our lives. It seems like the older I get the less and less my problems are black and white. Things become less about wrong and right but more about how to go through life without hurting people while still putting myself as a priority. I had such a wonderful and memorable time with Elizabeth that I will never forget. She is amazing in so many ways. But we are very different people and live very far away. It doesn’t work. At least for right now. Saying that in my head makes me sad. Someone once told me that some people are just in our lives to be learning lessons. What a hard thing to grasp and accept. The biggest thing I think I can take away from this, from having Elizabeth here and our time together, is that I learned so much about myself and what I want in a relationship. I got a chance to create art with her. Get to know her unlike most do. I don't regret a second of it. In love and in life my higher power’s path for me is almost never what I had expected. I am grateful for this experience.