“Come visit me in New York,” Ronit said to Esti.
Come with me. Ronit wanted to say, until Esti smiled her watery smile with her eyes, even softer than when they were girls, seemed to quiver when she told Ronit “may you live a long life”.
Then the door closes and it seems far too quick for a goodbye. Too quick for Ronit to drink in Esti hungrily with her eyes and commit her to memory. Ronit dare not look back. She shut her eyes and clenched her teeth, an act the driver mistakes for exasperation. Not from traffic.
Ronit’s fingers itched to open the door. Never did she think she would want to return to the community she ran away from, not when she left for good and experienced the delicious thrill of breaking all the rules and breathing freely for the first time.
Stop the car. Ronit thought. Take me back. I can defer my flight, I can- but Ronit breathes in slow and deep, knows the familiar grip of impulse swimming in her veins. The same kind that leads her to open a bottle when she can’t sleep.
I want you to give me my freedom. Esti pleaded to Dovid, and Dovid, in return had said “you are free”. It was never yours to give, the thought blazed in Ronit, even when Esti was on the verge of tears.
Ronit fiddled with her phone, entertained the idea of calling Esti, thought of Esti lovely and glowing, taking the first steps into a new world. Except Ronit did not want to become another pretty cage, not when Esti reclaimed her freedom.
Something akin to anxiety bubbled in Ronit’s stomach, made it hard to breathe, her jaw tight and throat close. Esti to be alone, with a baby — albeit, under the rapt attention of others in the community and Dovid, but Ronit did not want Esti to be scrutinised with pitying or cold eyes. Ronit wanted, as the ugly saviour, human, possessive complex reared its head, to whisk Esti away from it all and keep her safe.
But Esti is not a possession or a pretty thing to be kept in a box or pinned on the wall like the beautiful blue butterflies Ronit once saw in the home of a lonely man.
This is what Ronit tells herself when she leaves the taxi and gets on the plane back home, to New York. It spins in her head as a mantra.
By the time the Captain announces their landing and time as nine twenty in the evening, Ronit resolved to return to her life.
Indeed, Esti needs to be free.
Ronit never experienced what some of her travelling photographer friends coined “post-travelling blues”.
“It’s when you get off the plane after a twenty hour flight,” Viv tried explaining to Ronit at a house party in the summer of ’09, “and you look around and everything seems so dull. You wonder if it’s always been that way and if so, how the hell you’ve dealt with it up ’til now. Do you get it?”
“No,” Ronit said, breathing out the smoke from her cigarette. “I fucking love New York.”
Ronit remembers Viv sighing, leaning over the cracked paint on the balcony and gazing into the dark, suburban neighbourhood . “I’m tempted to jump on the next flight back to India.”
Elliott stumbled upon Ronit and Viv, his fingers stained by blue ink, grasping two bottles of beer by the necks and made a silly joke that made the trio laugh and forget all about sadness, planes, and places other than New York.
The memory spurs Ronit to send a message to Viv.
“How do you get over post-travelling blues?”
She wakes in the morning to Viv’s response.
“You wait. You travel. Or go to therapy. Why are you texting me at 3am on a Tuesday?”
For three solid weeks.
It’s easy to fall back into her routine.
Until it’s not.
Two packs of cigarettes a day, more coffee, even more whiskey, alongside a string of almost-lovers whom she kicks out before things get serious no longer seem to be adequate numbing mechanisms.
More often than not Ronit is plagued by a sense of profound emptiness. It magnifies when she eases her way through a crowd during rush hour, is deafening in the early hours of the morning when the city is waking, and threatens to drown her when she lays in her apartment trying to fall asleep. It’s the worst when she catches visions of soft brown hair, smells summer and sees the way Esti smiled over her shoulder. The photograph is tucked away in the unused pages of her favourite leather journal.
Ronit finishes her silly project. Viv frowned and told her bluntly that it’s “shit” and she’s “lost her mojo”. And it’s true, the final shots are amateurish and boring, and whatever momentum Ronit built up before London vanished like smoke.
Her doctor suggests rather than prescription pills to help her insomnia she take up exercise instead. Ronit does not say fuck you to Jack, but rather signs up for boxing classes four times a week. A month later, Ronit could kiss him for the suggestion.
Elliott whistles at her from the opposite end of the bar after a month of not seeing her. “Damn Ron, who broke your heart?” He means it in a friendly way, and he cocks his head in thought. “Who’s your trainer? Do you think he could get me biceps like yours in a month?”
And it feels like everything can return to normal, be even better than normal. Ronit stops checking her phone every second, or refreshing her inbox for an email. Dovid changed his number. Whatever contacts she had left did not respond to her voicemails. The New York postcards she sends receive no reply either.
Ronit could kick herself for not asking Esti how to contact her. It is what Esti needs, after all, space and time.
So when a pretty brunette with soft brown hair and hazel eyes approaches Ronit on a Thursday evening during happy hour, Ronit does not ignore her advance. The brunette wore red lipstick but blushes brighter when Ronit looks closely at her, it is a pretty blush that spreads all the way to her chest. So different from the men she had been kicking out of her apartment.
“I have never seen you here before,” the brunette says.
Ronit must have said something funny. She couldn’t remember from the drinks she’d had. But when they kiss in the bathroom Ronit decides it is all wrong.
The perfume that hits her nose is not Esti. She moves her mouth enthusiastically against Ronit’s, lets herself be pushed against the bathroom stall and unbuttons her leather pants, draws Ronit’s hand to her heat— it's not Esti - She bites when Esti would sigh, steals and pushes when Esti would yield, would give. She pronounces Ronit's name wrong and though Ronit can see the desire dancing in her blown pupils -
She is not Esti, she is not Esti.
“I can’t,” Ronit pulled away from the brunette’s kiss, steadies the tipsy girl with her arms. “I’m sorry, I don’t-”
Ronit does not hear the answer when she slips out the stall and wipes away the lipstick from her face. But the brunette’s perfume clings to her when she returns home and
The apartment does not seem to be her own.
Esti does not call or write, or email—
So she calls Elliott for the damn contract she turned down before London, before her father passed away, before her almost- before Esti. The same contract that made her roll her eyes at the thought of not being able to dictate her work hours or have time to photograph what she wanted now seemed more appealing than staring at her own dark room in red light, either racing thoughts or blankness.
She listens half-heartedly to Blake’s explanation of the contract. “You are aware the hours are quite demanding. You will be travelling quite a lot. It’s unlikely you’ll be in the same location for more than a week.”
“A slave labour contract is exactly what I need.”
Blake makes a noncommittal noise. “You will be travelling with a team. One videographer, for the documentary and two journalists.”
Ronit nods and waves her hand. “I’ve read all the terms already, even went through it with my lawyer. Can I just sign it already?”
“Of course, please sign here.”
That is how, after three weeks in New York, home, she signs above the dotted line and finds herself in the air again on her way to Cuba.
They fail to mention to her one of the journalists is what they call a social media influencer. The twenty-something from Los Angeles is blonde positively model material with her long limbs and defined bone structure. She talks throughout the entire flight.
Cheryl insists on seeing Ronit’s photos on her website, which Ronit shows her in the back of their rented van as Danny and Phil pull onto the highway. Cheryl made a sympathetic sound and frowned at the interface of her lit tablet. “You get work with this? Honey, not to sound rude but— this looks like it was made ten years ago.”
Ronit rolled her eyes. “Well, I still get work from it.”
“This is so outdated, you realise, right?”
Alright, so paying a college dropout for a cheap website wasn’t the best. Heck, now Ronit had money to make an investment. She did always envy Viv’s sleek modern portfolio.
Cheryl smiled through her sunglasses, “If you want, you can make your own with wix.com, using my code you can get 10% off,”
“Is there anything you do that isn’t a brand deal?”
“Cheer up Ronnie, you can always just make an instagram. Lots of people make a living with that these days.”
Ronit does not try to hide her disdain for this new wave of self-proclaimed photographers who believed a phone camera is sufficient. The photos Cheryl shows her of photographers are basic, but many have large followings and seem more like influencers than artists.
So when Cheryl suggested they “collab”, Ronit by taking some generic shots of Cheryl every day and scenic shots, Cheryl can “promote on my page, it’ll help you get some real engaged followers” — Ronit agrees. The job is simple enough and the shots do not require that much thought.
It becomes a bit of a routine.
Cheryl edits the photos afterwards on some sponsored apps, even when Ronit pulled out her laptop and said she could use Photoshop. Despite Cheryl’s love of hearing her own voice, Ronit grows to like her— even the vanity and bland topics for discussion.
True to her word, within a week of shooting and posting when her followers are most engaged, Ronit gains 10,000 followers, which only seem to grow faster thanks to Cheryl’s instagram stories and behind the scenes.
On a good day Ronit slept three hours.
They wake before the sun rises and travel for most of the day. Ronit carries two bags of photography equipment. A feather compared to what the videographer, Phil brings along on their treks. There is no real schedule, and many times Ronit skips on Danny and Phil’s drinking to edit photos instead.
Her mind is too tired to run circles, to think or stress beyond the next upcoming location. It is freeing to be consumed by nothing other than her photography. Her mind filled with ideas for the next shoot, how best to express the next concept or theme, of lights, angles and lens.
There is something magical about travel. The unfamiliar sights and sounds, people and languages. The four of them stick out very much, but in some strange way it is pleasant to be seen with curiosity rather than hostility. Every so often a local would stop by and ask for a photo, and owners of hostels and small restaurants were more than happy to help them out.
And one night, trying to sleep in a hostel, on a bunk, with Danny sleeping above her, snoring his head off, Ronit thinks of Esti.
Esti thousands of kilometres away, across oceans, continents, timezones. How Esti looked at her with those eyes, the sweetness of Esti, when she said she thought of Ronit’s life in New York. Esti kept track of the time difference. She imagined how Ronit’s day went. For how long?
Ronit turned to face the wall, pulling the thin sheets closer.
All this time and Ronit rarely thought of Esti — when she was in New York, she did not think of London at all. Now when he brain does function, since her father died, all she seemed to be able to think about is London and Esti and the life she left behind.
Ronit takes a deep breath of musty air and closes her eyes, tries to will herself to sleep.
She can still hear Esti’s voice, see Esti with her gentle smile and dimple. Feel how Esti quivered beneath her, taste Esti’s name rolling off her tongue. If she focused hard enough it was as if Esti was beside her, synching with her breathing, smelling of home.
Ronit falls asleep dreaming of Esti, in London, looking for new apartments, going to interviews for a new job. Celebrating her newfound freedom. Esti being wonderful and brave and kind.
Esti shining, bright, perfect.
That, Ronit decides, is enough.