I am embarrassed to admit to it but I first came across this image on a pornographic blog. There, amid all the erect penises, all the bears and twinks and she-males, and all the photographs of bare-chested barely-legal swimmers, rowers and athletes, there was this photograph of three young friends taken on a train in Italy in the European spring of 2004. I stopped in mid-erection, so to speak, and the flush of shame was immediate. Without thinking I right-clicked on the image and saved it to my hard-disk. I exited the internet browser and cleared the history. Separated from the oceans of porn, swallowing my guilt, I allowed myself to examine the photograph more closely. It is not a beautiful image, it is a simple snapshot of three friends. I assume they are college students and another assumption I make is that they are American. I’m not sure why, probably the baseball cap askew on the middle boy’s head; but surely that could be a fashion anywhere in this world? The boy on the left strikes me as South Asian and the friend on the right is possibly Italian. Or Indian. Or Greek. A Spaniard, a Latino? Maybe that is why I think of them as Americans, not Europeans. It is a new world mix of faces. Underneath the image we are told that Jony, the boy in the middle, is now dead. He died two months after this photograph was taken. And years after this fact I steal this image, I steal it off the internet and hide it away in my hard disk. Even as I type this I experience another wave of shame, but it is not as intense, not as disgraceful as the humiliation I experienced when I first pilfered the image.
I don’t want to fuck these three youths, I promise you that.
I want to tell a story about Jony, who is the beloved of Omar, the young man nestling against Jony’s shoulder. Next to them, Carl is listening to Kanye West’s The College Dropout on his CD walkman – for it is just that moment, that period, before the MP3 player arrives and transforms the sound of the world - and he is thinking of Melissa, Jony’s sister, who along with her girlfriend Clara, is meeting the three of them in Rome. Carl and Melissa have been dating for three years, since senior prom. Carl has just slept with a woman called Sophia in Turin. Jony knows but has promised not to say anything to his sister. Carl wonders whether he should confess to Melissa. He thinks that would be the brave thing to do, the right thing to do, but he also knows that he won’t say a word about Sophia to her. He trusts Jony will keep his secret, he knows that Jony is loyal.
Jony is smiling because being in Europe has set him free. He did not expect it to be so ancient and so spent. He left the States disillusioned and frightened but now he can’t wait to return. He has enjoyed every minute of being in Europe but he wants to feel the bracing clean air of the Pacific Ocean. He wants to stretch out his arms and embrace the world. Jony knows that Omar is in love with him but, out of respect, has not said a word about it, does not want to force any confession. He wishes his friend would just frigging come out, do all that boring gay-pride shit, get it all over and done with so that everything can return to normal. Omar and Jony have been friends since elementary school.
In two months Jony will be dead. It might be that he is knifed to death coming home from class one night, by a schizophrenic woman who believes she has seen the Devil. It could be he takes his own life. It could be that that the erratic murmur in his heart has never been properly diagnosed.
I think this is how it happens –
Carl is driving the car, Melissa, in the front passenger seat, is switching CDs, and Jony and Omar are in the back, laughing as hard as they can because Carl has just let out the biggest dirtiest fart. Melissa’s face screws up, she is disgusted, furious with Carl. The boys, drunk and stoned, think it is the funniest thing they have ever seen. It is at that moment that Carl loses control of the car and it flips over, once, twice, skids furiously and slams against the thick solid limb of an oak tree. The noise is as deafening as an explosion and then there is just silence except for the whirr whirr whirr of a front wheel that will not stop spinning. Carl is in intensive care for weeks. Miraculously, Melissa and Omar are fine.
This is how Jony dies, his crumpled body entwined with that of his best friend, Omar.
This is how Jony dies and this is how a writer steals souls.
Every effort has been made to contact the owners of copyright for this image. As this has not been possible, the owners are invited to notify Centre for Contemporary Photography.Tags: Christos Tsiolkas, Issue 2