Vapors | Rebecca Miller | Granta


Rebecca Miller

Justine was pushing Francis in his stroller along the New York City sidewalk. She looked down at his sand-colored curls ruffled by the breeze as he leaned back, one ankle crossed over his knee, his bottle in his mouth, gazing out at the world in a state of trusting relaxation as he sucked contemplatively at his rice milk. She crossed Prince Street, trying to remember where that cafe was. She and Francis had an hour to kill before his music class, and she craved a cappuccino. She was about to get to the curb, had lifted the front wheels of the stroller, when she heard her name. She turned toward the voice and there he was, standing there, like Death. His beauty was staggering, and she felt herself, though very slightly, stagger.

‘Hi, Joseph,’ she said. What else was she supposed to say.

‘I thought it was you.’

‘Well, it is.’

‘Then I thought it couldn’t be.’

‘Why not?’

‘Who is this?’

‘This is Francis.’

‘Saint Francis.’

‘No, just Francis.’

He chortled. He was wearing a pair of black jeans. Maybe the same black jeans he’d owned years ago, the ones she was so familiar with. Likewise the black turtleneck, even in this heat. His uniform. The round eyes rimmed with dark circles stared out of his alabaster face. Vampire football hero had always been his look.

‘Do you live around here?’ he asked.

‘I’m here for work,’ she said.

‘I heard you moved away.’

‘I did,’ she said. ‘Are you . . . still in your same apartment?’


The apartment on Avenue C startled her with its nearness then. She could smell the enormous cat, Sweeney, and the unwashed linoleum floors. She had a memory of lying on those grubby tiles with Joseph, the first time. He told her she was beautiful on the inside.


They had been introduced by her dad’s friend Anouk, an experimental filmmaker in her fifties. Joseph wrote Justine a postcard after that encounter, asking if she wanted to get coffee and talk, that he was ‘around if you ever need an ear’. As though he was willing to do her a favor. She was intrigued, but coffee with Joseph was complicated by the fact that Justine had recently moved back in with her college boyfriend, Elliot. She and Elliot had lived together after college for a couple of years. They fought with the clean, absolute rage of siblings, pulverizing their sex life while ballooning their mutual affection to a point where they seemed destined to be together; their breakup was incomplete, shadowed by the specter of marriage in the offing, despite all the evidence. Their solution to this conundrum was to find an apartment with a three-month lease. That is, they wanted to try living together again, but not for a whole year. This apartment was on Lafayette Street. They never actually had any sex there, and Elliot always seemed to be agreeing to babysit his brother Seth’s ancient dog in White Plains, because Seth was an emergency room doctor whose girlfriend had left him, the dog needed a lot of attention, and the ex-girlfriend had no interest in sharing custody of an epileptic Weimeraner. A few weeks into the lease, Justine, who was a fashion photographer, booked a job in LA; the fashion house put her up at a trendy hotel where she was given a nice sunny apartment with a kitchen. It made her feel so happy to be in that little apartment with no memories. In need of a book, she dashed across Sunset Boulevard during a pause in the traffic and ran into the bookshop facing the hotel. After browsing in the history section, then the fiction section, she decided on a biography of Barbara Stanwyck. She loved Barbara Stanwyck as an actress and was anxious to know the details of her life. She opened the book while she was on line to pay and was already fascinated when she heard her old name. ‘Tiny?’ She looked up and there behind the register was her first boyfriend ever, Hal, from boarding school. She hadn’t seen him in nearly ten years.

‘Hal,’ she said. ‘How weird.’ Hal had been the only person ever so far to break Justine’s heart, when she was seventeen, because of a transgression. You might call it Justine’s ur-transgression.

Justine had gone to boarding school because her bereaved and distracted father, when she was in tenth grade, suddenly realized that her public school had no arts program, and limited science. At boarding school, she quickly caught up on all she hadn’t learned in her small rural high school about hard drugs and sex. She got to affect a whole new identity. She was ‘Tiny’, the rough-edged girl from public school who smoked unfiltered cigarettes and rarely spoke. She met Hal when she was fifteen and he was seventeen. He was her first love. After a year, Hal graduated and went to college. One day that fall, her scofflaw roommate Kelsey, irritated by Justine’s virginity, arranged for Hal to sneak into Justine’s dorm room and sleep there overnight. It all worked according to plan, but right after the awkward act, which felt to Justine like trying to mount a baseball bat, there was a bang on her door, and they were busted. Justine was suspended and placed on final warning (Hal just took the train back to college). She remained faithful to Hal all senior year, becoming in fact a famous cocktease, but the night before graduation she got tipsy and had a big flirt with Kelsey’s younger brother, whom she had only met that night. She went on a family dinner with Kelsey’s wealthy family, was somehow served a great deal of wine at the restaurant, and ended up with her foot in the brother’s crotch under the table. After the dinner, as Kelsey’s father drove them all back to the dorm, Justine, sandwiched between Kelsey and Kelsey’s cousin, Didi, who was also in their class, kissed the brother sloppily in the back of the car, and happened to be sitting on his lap in the common room when Hal walked into her dorm, blond and windswept, having hitchhiked all the way from Amherst – or maybe she was making up the hitchhiking – but definitely having made a big effort to see her graduate. And there she was on this kid’s lap. Hal looked so shocked when he saw her. She had been bad and traitorous and bad and she didn’t know why. The next morning, she dragged herself over to the boys’ dorm where Hal was staying, feeling nauseous, and pleaded with him to forgive her. He didn’t seem angry, but he wasn’t friendly, either; he was scarily neutral. Justine really hated herself for having made such a stupid mistake and hurting Hal, and she just hated herself, but she still had to put on the pretty linen graduation dress her father had found her, with a sailor’s collar on it trimmed in blue and a big blue bow on the back. She looked so innocent in the dress, yet she felt like an absolute monster. After that Hal didn’t trust her anymore, and although she came to visit him a few times in New York City where he was working over the summer, things were not the same between them; one day at a diner, Hal launched into a very long, awkward sentence which Justine began to realize was going to end with a breakup, so she stood up, walked out the door, and began a season of heart sickness which lasted through her first semester of college.


Now, here was Hal, a decade later, standing behind the cash register at the bookstore on Sunset. They exchanged a few words and arranged to meet the following day. That night, she got a call from a recent ex-boyfriend, Carlos, who was in LA working as an electrician on a TV show. She spent the afternoon at her fashion shoot photographing extremely tall, surreally beautiful women, and by the end of the day she felt like a garden gnome. She answered Carlos’s call enthusiastically and they had sex in her apartment without memories in the trendy hotel, only now there was a memory in it which was of having sex with Carlos standing up in the kitchen. She and Carlos had been together for two years and broken up really because she’d been unfaithful to him with a charismatic older friend named Larry, who had bad diabetes and was missing several toes. Larry was a real physical mess and Justine got naked with him more out of a sense of duty than anything – and maybe curiosity, but either way she should not have mentioned this to Carlos, obviously. But to be fair Carlos already knew she had a problem with fidelity; their affair started when she was working as a set photographer on a low-budget picture he was on the crew of. She was going out with another photographer at the time, Ben, who was so upset when he realized she was sleeping with Carlos that he moved to Pittsburgh. Anyway, when Carlos left the hotel, she called Elliot, with whom if you remember she was still living in their three-month-lease apartment on Lafayette Street. Elliot said something like, ‘Getting back together with you is easier than I expected.’ By which he meant she was easy to get along with in her absence. Justine laughed at this, not pausing to think about what her life was becoming.


The following day she worked until six, then met Hal in an outdoor place where they shared guacamole. There was this sweetness between them, an echo of extreme youth. He drove her to basically a flophouse where he was renting a bare room, saving every penny till he made it as an actor. He really was beautiful, with long, slender arms, and those legs that she had always called ‘fried chicken legs’ when they were kids because they were tanned with blond hairs all over them that made her think of glistening grease. He told her how weird it was that she had turned up at the bookstore like that because in the past year he had started thinking of her a lot and regretting how they had parted. The next few days she was over at his room often, talking and doing a little kissing, but they didn’t make love. They just reminisced about the past and stared into each other’s eyes. Hal claimed that he didn’t want to be with Justine physically unless they were together as a couple, because he was in love with her and he would be too hurt if it didn’t work out. So now, here she was, wallowing in nostalgia with Hal in his flophouse while Elliot waited in the three-month apartment for her to get back to the nostalgia she felt for him and their days in college. She was trapped in a kaleidoscope of nostalgia. She returned to New York and the confusion continued. She and Elliot shared hilarious dinners and then went to bed and stared at the ceiling. Hal flew east to see his mother but also to be with Justine. He invited her to go to his mother Sybil’s house near Rochester. Justine knew Sybil from the days she and Hal went out in boarding school and she had come upstate for the weekend, Sybil banging on the locked door of Hal’s room yelling, ‘Do-not-get-that-girl-pregnant!’ as Justine read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Hal’s bed, fully clothed. But Sybil did have a point.


Justine knew if she went to Hal’s mother’s house this would be a statement that she and Hal were going to be together. She could not decide whether to go or not. Elliot was at his brother’s house in White Plains babysitting the palsied dog for the weekend and she spent an afternoon in an agony of indecision. Then, as she wondered what to do, she found herself packing her bag to go visit Hal at his mother’s place; that was how she discovered what she had decided.


Hal’s mother, a hulking landscape gardener, had always gotten along with Justine, but also suspected her of being a little tough for her son. The first evening after dinner, Sybil took out her computer to show off Hal’s big acting break in a long-running cop series. Hal tried to prevent this, but he didn’t try too hard, so he and Justine sat folded up together on the couch, his arm around her, and they all watched the episode, in which Hal played a weepy heroin addict. He had three highly emotional scenes – screaming scenes, crying scenes. Watching him, Justine could tell he wasn’t really feeling anything. He was just screwing up his face. It was crushing to sit there with a beautiful man’s arm around your shoulder, a man you were beginning to think might be the love of your life, and watch his work, which he thinks of as the goal of his struggle, his true gift, and it was fakery. It was like lying next to someone you thought was alive but gradually you feel them turn cold and you realize they’re dead. During the show, Justine kept trying to tell herself it shouldn’t matter – that there was something wrong with her if it mattered so much. When the credits came up, Sybil looked at her as if to say, ‘Wasn’t that something?’ and Justine nodded and smiled, feeling the gates of Paradise clang shut behind her. When she turned to look at Hal, he was a stranger. The next day, she took the train back to the city, sat down with Elliot, and poured a glass of wine. You’d think this whole clusterfuck would end here, but no.


Justine took the bus home to Connecticut to visit her father, a melancholic yet gregarious Frenchman, and her father’s Serbian girlfriend Behida. Justine’s mother had died when she was twelve, and Behida had been around for the past few years, which was a relief because her father had been inconsolable after the death of his wife. The minute Justine got home, she went upstairs to her old room and fell asleep on top of the bed. She woke to a spectral body of light glimmering on the pink ceiling. She looked out the window and there was dusk happening all across the lawn, golden rays strewn over the trees like great webs. She took her old Leica outside and started snapping. Eventually, a car drove up; she recognized her father’s friend Anouk exiting the car. Anouk waved at Justine, her bracelets jangling. Then this guy around Justine’s age got out of the car, too. He was all in black, tall, broad-shouldered, pallid. ‘This is Joseph,’ said Anouk. ‘He’s writing the new screenplay with me.’


Justine’s father had a passion for dinner parties. He and Behida hosted them all the time. There was always loud talk over the table and lots of wine flowing, and Justine’s small father would hold forth one paragraph at a time, pointing the tip of his tongue out of his mouth to reset, then launch on another paragraph, expounding on French film, or maybe Swedish or Finnish film. He owned a small art house cinema, and film was the great passion of his life. Justine was sat beside Joseph at the dinner. They talked about photography, mostly. He was a photographer as well as a writer. He was earnest and respectful. That was when he asked for her mailing address, which she found quaint. And two days later the postcard arrived, with the offer to listen.


A few weeks after the disaster at Hal’s mother’s house, Justine found the postcard at the bottom of her bag, covered in crumbs. She called Joseph and they went out for lunch, took a subway up to MoMA, drifted past some artwork, walked sixty blocks down to the Lower East Side and took in the Tenement Museum, then had falafel for dinner on a bench. The date lasted eight hours. Joseph was deeply interested in Justine. She found herself opening up to him, telling him all about Elliot, the sadness she felt at the fading of that big relationship, the confusion of thinking she had been in love with Hal and then realizing she had been mistaken. She talked about her work, how grateful she was to get fashion jobs, even as she wondered if she should be doing more political work. He listened as no one had ever listened to her before. Often, his eyes were trained on the ground as she spoke, as if he were visualizing her words, and he nodded slowly. Days later, when he showed her his work on his computer, she was relieved and intimidated. He was really good. He shot still lifes of fruit, vases, sometimes a dead bird – classic themes with an eerie quality. Shot on black-and-white film, the images were overexposed, silvery; the presence of dead animals and skulls hinted at a gothic core. A few days later, she went to his apartment. That’s where Justine met Joseph’s massive cat, Sweeney, and spent some quality time on the floor.


Soon, the three-month lease with Elliot was up. they both sobbed, and they were both relieved. Elliot moved in with his brother temporarily and Justine walked around Little Italy till she found a man sweeping outside a building. She asked him if he knew of any apartments around there; he took a good look at her, showed her a place upstairs, and she wrote a check.


Soon, Justine and Joseph were a couple. Joseph supported himself as a bartender in a restaurant uptown. Justine had a small inheritance from her mother, which she used whenever she was between photography jobs. Joseph had no such cushion. His father was a lineman for the telephone company. Joseph came to Justine’s apartment in Little Italy every night after work with a tub of salad from what he called the ‘sneeze bar’ of the local deli. He ate his salad drenched in French dressing. She had convinced him to stop eating burgers every night. He spent a lot of time in his black turtleneck, naked from the waist down.


Joseph started photographing Justine unclad in his apartment, as part of his still life series, with grapes on her stomach, or curled up on a platter of raw sausages. Sometimes Sweeney was in the photos, her massive form hunched, cross face pointed to the camera.


The first time Joseph was a little bit mean to Justine, they were on the beach in Far Rockaway. As they walked along, talking, Joseph threw sand in Justine’s face. She laughed and threw sand at him, but then he did it again, and again, and again. She felt as she had when she was a child and other children had bullied her. It was a confusing moment. She tried to smile. Maybe the fact that Justine had been bullied as a child made her the perfect partner for Joseph. But whatever the reason for her tolerance, she looked back on that day on the beach as the beginning of everything else. There was a slight bondage-y aspect to the sex, but that was really nothing compared to the bondage of everyday life.


He started to say things in a jocular tone, like, ‘I would like to hit you so hard your jaw is hanging by a thread.’ Or, ‘I would like to serve you a little espresso cup of shit.’ He pointed out some physical flaws she had not yet noticed, such as her lack of a real ass, and called her breasts ‘big old droopy milk wagons’ in a jokey, confusing voice. He also disparaged her photography, after a time. He told her that her mushy, middle-class, pretentious upbringing made it impossible for her ever to do great work, that only working-class people had ever done anything worthwhile. He recited lists to prove it. She felt he was right. He told her that her work was clearly made by a female, that it was girls’ pictures. He had heard from someone working on a shoot with her that she was not highly regarded by the crew. He taught her how to cull her images mercilessly, disregarding all but the best. He had a great eye. She no longer trusted her own judgment, and constantly asked him to review her selects. Then one day he wondered out loud why Justine’s father had allowed her mother to be cared for by strangers in a hospice at the end of her life, something she had confided to him. Justine said she thought it was because he was afraid of making a mistake with her care. Joseph said it was typical middle-class coldness, an inability to face real life. And this was a terrible thing to contemplate, because Justine’s father had avoided her mother in the last months – however much he loved her, he delegated her to strangers at the humiliating end, popping in to hold her hand once a day and make a few cheerful remarks, unable to face what was happening. It was a moral failure which Joseph had laid bare. One by one, with amazing efficiency, operating entirely by instinct, Joseph was removing the things that had made Justine believe in herself. And she allowed him to do this, allowed it like a person whose home is broken into and watches, silent and afraid, as all their valuables are taken. Sometimes, Joseph could be very kind, nearly angelic. In these moments, Justine loved him absolutely. It was as though she had been bewitched. She had thought she was so strong.


One curious thing was, Justine was no longer unfaithful. Of this she had been cured. And one day it happened that from dawn until dusk, she wept, and then the next day, too, and the next. She felt she was dissolving, like a lozenge in the rain. She didn’t mind so much. It was Elliot, by now married, who told her father what was happening to Justine. Her father took her to stay with relatives in France for three months, and she remained there, moving to Paris and finding work as a portrait photographer through a family friend. She thought about Joseph all the time in the beginning. It was like an ache, an addiction. It was the first time she’d been without a guy since she was fifteen. Yet she found a grim pleasure in her solitude. She feasted on work for a couple of years, taking any photography job she could find, and rose gradually up the ladder of prestige to the point where she was shooting ad campaigns and some editorial for fashion magazines. One spring, she was booked for a major fashion shoot in the Garde Républicaine, an immured garrison on Boulevard Henri IV. The story would be splashy, with photos of the handsome gendarmes in their gold Napoleonic helmets alongside models in evening gowns. Justine got to the Garde Républicaine an hour before the appointed time with a single camera, to get a sense of the light. Her assistant for the day would bring the rest of the gear. She walked through the high, baroque stone archway of the entrance. Three mounted policemen practiced jumps in the center of the bright courtyard. To her right, a square doorway led to the stables. As she entered, Justine smelled dung and hay, her eyes adjusting to the darkness. Scanty light fell from high, semicircular windows. The horses were largely turned away, blanketed behind the iron bars of their stalls, eating oats from small metal troughs set into the stone walls. Justine noticed a man at the end of the long room, standing on a crate, holding the bridle of a massive black horse tight as he trained a pinprick of light into its eye. Instinctively, Justine stalked the image. With a light tread she approached the scene, raising her camera. Through the lens she could now discern the man’s expression of absorbed concentration, his angular face resting against the horse’s dark muzzle as he pointed the needle of light into its wild, frightened eye. Justine pressed the shutter. The man looked down, spooked, and released the horse’s halter. Justine explained herself, apologizing for startling him. Blushing, he stepped down from the crate and introduced himself. Etienne was the veterinarian for the horses of the Garde Républicaine. Justine asked in her homely French about the animal he was treating now. He explained it had a cataract. This man had a manner new to Justine: self-effacing, yet steeped in his own competence. Justine asked him if she could take another picture. Reluctantly, shyly, he allowed it. She asked him to take step to his left, into the light. He missed the mark. Without thinking, she reached out to adjust him. As her fingers brushed his bare forearm, a shock branched out through her hand and her body, causing a sudden and profound ache in her womb. Within six months, she was pregnant with Francis, and had moved into Etienne’s small but charming apartment in the barracks of the Garde Républicaine.


Francis swiveled in his stroller and looked up at his mother, his dark almond-shaped eyes inquisitive, the little blond eyebrows raised. He wondered why she had stopped pushing him, but also, possibly, more. Francis was a gifted, wise, rather serious person, even though he was only two. Often he looked at Justine with an encouraging smile, as if to say, ‘You are going to be all right.’ She was not imagining it. He really did look at her that way. And now he was saying, ‘Perhaps we had better go.’

‘We have to go,’ said Justine.

‘Already?’ said Joseph, flaring his nostrils slightly and raising his chin, as if trying to puff himself up with his former power.

‘Bye!’ she said.

‘Goodbye, Justine.’ He took her hand and shook it, his expression at once solemn and ironic.


Justine pushed the stroller to the cafe she intended to go to, heart hammering, and entered. Sitting down, she pulled Francis onto her lap, sniffing him behind his ear, where it smelled like a fresh roll, and waited for the tide of feeling for Joseph to come in – regret, love, rage, desire. She kept scanning herself, but there was nothing. She felt nothing at all for Joseph anymore! She had nearly died from love of him and now it was all just empty images. For so long she had yearned for the pain to go away, and now that it had, she found it chilling. Why bother feeling so much in life if it all turns to vapor? She cast her gaze down at Francis, at his round cheek as he tried to replace the cap of his bottle with a chubby hand, the curls near his neck humid with sweat, then out the window of the café, at the people passing – all these strangers who were in love, or abandoned, or desperate, or happy. ‘It will pass,’ she warned them silently, the heat of Francis’s back against her belly.


Image © Ian Sane

Rebecca Miller

Rebecca Miller is author of the novel, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2008) and the short story collections Personal Velocity (2001) and Total (2022).

More about the author →