A Photograph of You
This short story was originally posted in my newsletter dated 7 July 2018.
There is a photograph I have of you. There’s you, and two boys. The three of you sitting crosslegged against a brick wall.
You’re twenty-one in this picture, which I know because the three of us went on holiday to bring in your birthday, and this is the morning after.
It’s a cold morning, I can tell. You’re wearing a dark woollen cap and a shawl your mum gave you draped over your shoulders. Your toes peek out under the corners of the shawl, which you’ve clearly just thrown on because it seems to have drifted open, revealing the thin, translucent kurta you liked to sleep in back then.
Your head is thrown back in laughter, your nostrils open like a horse’s. The way you do that, I’ve told you sometimes, it’s like I can see all the way to your brain.
While you’re laughing, you’re leaning against one of the boys. The one that’s not me.
He’s bent forward, his head down at his knees, so your cheek is against his back. His hands reflexively smooth back his hair – a habit you and I find incredibly self-conscious but which he cannot or will not stop. I can’t see his face in the photo, but clearly he’s bent over laughing. The two of you, laughing together, leaning on each other. He’s wearing a sweater over the sort of long shorts that used to be popular when you were twenty-one. These days, he’ll swear that he always knew they looked stupid, but that’s a lie.
The photo’s in black-and-white, so it’s not reasonable for my memory to tell me that the brick wall was red, that your woollen cap was dark blue, or that the morning fog is why the photo looks slightly faded, or even that the little white flash I can see on your upturned face is not lens flare but the nose-ring you stopped wearing two years later even though you knew I liked it. Memory could be deceptive – a brick wall might just look red to me the way it looks in my head rather than the hundred subtle shades of yellow, orange, and wounded blue it probably had from being baked by hundreds of different people in different kilns for different lengths of time.
In black-and-white, the whole thing looks a little staged. I remember photos from my parents’ wedding, and from later, when I was a kid, when the idea of candid photography was a bit strange, and everyone in a photograph always looked stiffer than they meant to. Colour is the present, while the past is artificially posed puppetry. You caught mid-action, raising one hand to your mouth, him seemingly about to bang his head on the ground (he wasn’t – that’s just how he laughed), your other hand slipping from the hold the boy on the other side of you had on it.
The boy on the other side of you, that’s me. I’m sitting there wearing your t-shirt from the day before, with little boxer shorts underneath. You find it weird how I don’t feel cold ‘like normal people’, but the fact is I enjoy the way my skin bursts out in goosebumps when it gets just slightly colder than I can easily tolerate. The anticipation of that involuntary shiver my body gives to generate heat.
I’m looking at you.
I’m the only one lounging against the wall. I’m blowing out smoke from the cigarette I’m holding in one hand. I’m trying to look cool, but I look like someone too old to be amusing himself with the shapes his cold breath creates in the air.
In a few moments, I’ll pass the cigarette on to you, and you’ll give me a side-eyed look. Sometimes the look was indulgent, as if you liked checking if I was there – like I was your domain and you were surveying it and seeing it was good. But sometimes it meant you wanted to tell me you were on to me, it meant you’d noticed something I was trying to hide and failing, and that you’d talk to me about it later. I don’t remember which one it was, but I remember the look. In any case, it’s not in the photograph. It’ll happen in the moment after the click, and it’ll be lost.
Your hand in mine is still there in the photo. I can see it. You’re drawing your hand away from mine, because you have a habit of covering your mouth with both hands when you think you’re laughing too much.
What is, once again, not in the photograph is the fact that I’ll resist. I won’t let your hand go from mine.
You’ll pause in your laughter and look at me quizzically. There’ll be something in your look, a bit haunted – I won’t say a thing, just not let go. You’ll be nonplussed, and I won’t be able to tell you what I’m thinking. Then slowly, your eyes holding mine to task, you’ll pull away. Finger by finger, your hand will slip from mine.
In a few seconds, I’ll smile and pass you the cigarette, but before that, there’ll just be your pinky finger hooked into mine. You’ll hold it there for a moment, but then, you’ll shake your head, and you’ll disengage.