In the corner, a ball of girl, rolled up in a chair. Why do certain images strike us? Her face is lighted by the blue of a laptop, so that she looks to be in an entirely different world from her friends, their faces open in wide bright rictuses of laughter. She has been typing up until now, but at this moment she is just reading the screen. The tan of her skin mixed with the blue seems to suggest some kind of black, like the kind of dirt you buy at a hardware store. But of course, I have seen her in the light. Merely a shade of light brown. Unspecified but exotic provenance.
It is of her back. Hair long and brown, in constant motion like a waterfall. She notices the flash and turns. Just a crowd of coffee-drinkers, reading books. I am hiding behind Heart of Darkness, which she studied last semester. ‘The colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her,’ I read, occasionally glimpsing the sway of her back receding, the pendulum of her hair, ‘as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.’ The unknown, symbolized by Africa, by the back of a woman’s head, will always be a wilderness. I know this now, as I have read Heart of Darkness numerous times. I take it to bed with me, and fall asleep with the spine open over my nostrils, as if the book were redolent of her.
She is sitting up against a wall. A boy, her boyfriend, sits on a ledge above her and holds his legs against her shoulders. I know her name now, and I whisper it to myself, play with it like a rosary. When she is alone, sometimes I say it aloud, cough it into my hand as if it were phlegm, and she will look up. We have our ways of communicating. I am hidden behind a tree, so I call to her. I can feel the bark scratching me through my shirt, and I breathe shallowly so she won’t hear. She answers. As if sensing invisible forces of covetousness, he grips her ever tighter underneath him. Outside my house, there are small trees that suffer silently under larger ones. Gentle lines of concern grace her upturned face. Perhaps I can divine her age from their number.
A dying wheat field surrounds her. She is like a reed, or a tree, a stark green shoot rising from the mud. Peel down the rippling green dress and underneath the plant life is wick and anticipatory. Dark brown all the way down? A willowy branch, bending at the waist and photosynthesizing. The unknown, symbolized by the kudzu, by a nude and impervious woman, will always be virginal. Of course, this is not a real photograph. My mind reels when the angles of the light render her nearly angelic; I am left with phosphene fantasies.
I have watched them kissing, night after night. They are sitting on the bleachers at a high school soccer game, and he takes her entire mouth into his mouth. It is disgusting. His tongue slithers into her ear and she laughs. She is sitting in his lap, lips reaching out for his, as if she were a young bird about to be fed. I could vomit. I watch the video over and over, hundreds of times. One time I scream so loudly that someone calls the police. I come to the door holding my hand, which I have purposely sliced open and which bleeds huge drops onto the carpet. Nothing is wrong, I say.
The first time she catches a glimpse of me. There is amusement and also veiled worry. Were you photographing me? I was going to come say hello. A friend of your mother’s. Months ago, at another time. When did I first set eyes on you? I had hoped her eyes would be green up close, though I know they are brown. At least natural. A color of nature, that is. We could have a beautiful greenhouse together. A beautiful green house. Or brown. May I, I ask, raising the camera to my eye. I’m a photographer. She strikes an easy pose and we are in love.
There is a montage of sorts, of him coming towards me. He is so masculine, an animal of sorts. When he approaches part of me welcomes it, the reliable sparkle of pain and then the ground. Do I imagine she will take pity, the way suicides believe the world will take notice when they are gone? He speaks, a basso profundo warning from a boy who is still chastised by his parents for coming home late. She grips the door of his car, distancing herself from the violence. She doesn’t approve of violence and we are in love. I laugh and laugh, and blood seeps between my teeth. I must look like the very devil himself.
Breathing in the soft freshness of the earth, I raise a disposable camera above the sill. It will be impossible to know until later what secrets lay unexposed within the hollow yellow shell, like a wrapped present. I suppose the method is unnatural but it is the only way to get close enough. I wait fifteen minutes between shots, and in that time I dip my head into the underbrush and inhale deeply. Days later I can only see the camera in reflection. At night, she studies in bedrooms and libraries, not in kitchens. Until the house falls asleep, her mother scrubs dishes. I can see a resemblance. On the way out, I scratch my leg on a rhododendron bush.
Though I know it is irrational, I take pictures. The blues and purples are reminiscent of a sunset, floating above a carmine ocean once turbulent, now calm. It is perhaps the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I zoom in and, without context, pieces of him become hardly recognizable. It makes sense, really. The known, symbolized by a grimy city bridge, by a nude and lifeless body, is always in danger of being un-known. Black and white photographs, portraying a white hunk of flesh floating like a piece of bread thrown to the ducks, appear in local newspapers. I cry, they are so beautiful.
She is not the girl I knew, anymore. At the burial, I sat on a distant grave and watched her with nothing intervening. She was the picture of stoicism as it descended, and I wondered about coffins, about who would rather be boxed up than know they were returning to the Earth unmediated. Since then, she has maintained an air of martyrdom that is petty and unappealing. Her eyes look bruised they are so dark. It was a childish notion, that punishment, and I realize, regretfully, that I have slaughtered her youthfulness, and her youth.
In my wallet, I still keep the picture of her and her boyfriend with the boyfriend cut out. It is like a new photograph. Her brown eyes are big, cartoon-character big, and I imagine that her arms are encircling my chest. It is my old girl, and therefore not so hard to believe, that she could love me; she could love anything. Her hair brushes my cheeks. In melancholy contentment, recalling a lost lover no longer loved, she sighs into my ear, and her breath is the echo of the ocean in a conch shell, lying dormant. My mind takes root in the memory, where no photographs are necessary.