For nearly a year now I had been living with five other people in a house in Redondo Beach. I slept on the couch. In the mornings I would pull back the Venetian blinds to watch the fog tiptoe from the ocean, then up the gentle sand dune overlooking the Esplanade, and the joggers and cars and bicyclists would disappear into the grey mist for hours, and when the sun dove into the horizon, the hills of nearby Palos Verdes glittered like fire.
Most days it was quiet. I would stare at the water intertwined with the clouds, trying to make out the surfers pushing forth toward the sand, small black dots of their wetsuits sinking in and out of the waves. Below, women in leggings, with their hair tied into taut ponytails, bounced past me and out of view. Men with skin like walnut shells blasted music from speakers, zip-tied to the handlebars of their beach cruisers. The walls dripped sweat, murky and impenetrable, and sliding open the glass door to the balcony was like falling into porridge: sometimes I would walk out there and climb atop one of the wobbly barstools, high over the wrought-iron railing, perched like a gargoyle to observe the living.
I learned all of my roommates' schedules. On Tuesdays, Alphonse worked nights: I could smell him before I heard his voice, reeking of animal grease. Some nights he brought me a sack of leftover cheeseburgers, and we'd sit on my couch and dive in like kings. Every other Friday Alphonse's girlfriend Sophie visited. They would whisper softly outside the door before entering, and her head would be tucked in his shoulder as they entered. She always held a polite smile toward me, yet her eyes betrayed her, like those of a cat staring at a bird on its windowsill. On Fridays Isabella could almost beat the traffic home: 110 to the 105, PCH to Aviation, then Avenue H to the Esplanade. If she took Artesia instead she could shave off five minutes—but the thing was, it felt faster, and when you had no other options, that mattered the most. On Thursdays Salazar took improv classes, and at the two-drink minimum shows he lured us to under the pretense of friendship, we were jarred by a charisma we never saw at home. Him, the star of the show! It was too much to fathom. I guess you had to know him. Lastly, Nick had been a friend from college, a fellow photographer who also had too many photos of sunsets in his portfolio, but he actually got paid for them. "What's the point of living here," he proclaimed one night over habanero margs, "if you can't see the ocean from your house? Why put up with this bullshit—" he swung an arm around the kitchen, knocking a trio of beer glasses into the sink, and breaking two—"if you can't even get the thing everyone comes here for?"
The black cat clock on the living room wall ticked its big round eyes left and right, left and right.
Most nights we would be forced into pleasantries while they waited for their food to heat up in the microwave—these frozen burritos, I grew up on them and now that I'm an adult I can eat them anytime. I would receive a cursory smile alongside the inevitability of it all, the repetition: how you been, what's new with you, have you really been here all day.
My answers: good, not much, yes. Soaking through my undershirt, I was undergoing some sort of slow, acrid death. Jutting up against the Pacific, there was nowhere further west to go. Nothing ever changed and nothing ever happened, and I found some strange comfort in all of that.
All of the weekdays blended together, but Saturdays came like a shock—I now played host to all of these interlopers.
Imagine the scene. All my roommates now planted their asses where I slept, and they kicked off their shoes and socks to curl up on their couch with their bare feet, and their stink lingered into the cloth where I placed my drooling head. The television would be on, and nobody would pay attention to it at all. The living room shrank to half its size, booming with the sounds of car horns, dance music, clashing voices clamoring at nothing, snippets of conversation of which I had no part—
Babe, you ok
Let's order a pizza, who's in
Hey you remember that chick Courtney? At my birthday?
Yeah, she was cute
Dude gimme that remote
I hate this show, change it change it change it
You two hit it off pretty well. Anyway, she's getting married next week, wedding's up in Ojai
Hey Theo, there's a wet spot on your couch, you been crankin' off when we're not here?
"Hey fuck you Nick," I found myself saying, and wished I hadn't sounded so defensive.
Nick laughed and Sophie winced and Alphonse emptied some Irish whiskey into a Vanilla Coke, which I knew tasted exactly like a root beer float.
You still want to order a pizza
I'm still full from lunch
Man that was great
Yeah this asshole's never gonna pay me back again
Shut up. You owe me for karaoke, remember? When we went out to Backstage all the way in Culver City and you made me drive (even though my Accord is suffering from a fault in its power steering system) and you all put drinks on my tab despite my protestations and you, Izzy, you did Bohemian Rhapsody to close out the night and you were so in the spirit of Freddie Mercury himself that you whanged your head on the TV right before the high notes and I had to carry you back to the car. Remember? Do you all remember this?
Shut the fuck up, Sal
This doesn't concern you, sir! That's not my name!
"Wait," I asked Nick, "you guys went out to lunch without me?"
You weren't around. I worked a half-day and when I got back you weren't here, you probably cranked off all morni—
Dude is that all you ever think about?
Well, uh, hey...Al, tell your lady that I'm not as gross as she thinks I am
I would buddy, but here's the thing: you are that gross
From what I remembered that day, nobody ordered a pizza. Someone was flipping channels with a dull but manic energy, and I found myself annoyed by the television cutting in and out; there was no reason to stick around. I found myself swimming in my own thoughts, treading water and feeling tired about it.
But I still stayed. After all, there was nowhere else to go.
There was one more. Her name was Hazel.
Hazel, where could I begin: Hazel, with her pale blue eyes that I saw behind her big round plastic glasses that she adjusted with her long slender fingers, brushing back her hair that dazzled in the sunlight through the windows, past a trio of red freckles below her left eye in a triangle. From her room I could hear the gentle tapping of her feet on the thin, worn carpet, her soft dancing where she stood: it was her way of working out the problems in her mind, as if jostling her thoughts loose, so they might tumble out and into some realm of coherence.
All day Hazel painted in her bedroom. She had set up her space for pure focus—that, or a broke artist's mentality: from the quick snatches I stole before she closed her door, there was a mattress on the floor, a big Nineties Aiwa boombox, and a folding chair that doubled as a nightstand. Her paint was stored in a fishing box, the lid and drawers opened, each tube curled like commas. And in the corner was a fine wooden easel—arguably her prized possession, so large that she could knock someone's head off getting it through the front door.
Some days we crossed paths in the kitchen, my old and raggedy self reloading on Tecate as she rinsed her paintbrushes in the sink. Mixing with the warm water, the paint smelled earthy, like fresh potting soil. It seemed to soak into her pores, intermingling with her until indistinguishable. Hazel: so effortless, with a lilting voice that felt sincere, even when I doubted it. Surely you jest, I thought, whenever she said something nice to me.
One can derive their own conclusions, draw from the heartaches they've experienced. I certainly did mine. I analyzed them, these long and distant memories, contemplated them against my current place in the universe, and landed on this conclusion: in a world that was free and easy, one never as difficult as this, Hazel would be the answer to so many things. There are no free and easy worlds.
On days like these, when I found myself in these moods, I busied myself with secret missions. It took me a while, but I summoned the energy to venture off the Esplanade and into the real world—and when I did I wanted to devour it all, I wanted to run a million miles a minute headfirst into Torrance Boulevard, tempting fate at the crosswalks, facing lines of cars like dragon's spines, their headlights spilling across every intersection.
On this secret mission, I was headed to the camera shop, to pick up my beloved Canon. Just a few blocks north past the condos and the famous diner and the alkaline water shops and six divided lanes of traffic, dying down by the time I made it to the strip mall containing the camera store, but you could really never tell here—the roar just becomes less burdensome. It was almost closing time.
Inside, the store was quiet and moody, lit by faint sunlight that barely made it past the shelves. Past Yashicas and Konica TCs, rows of Nikons against the window, an expensive Hasselblad under glass, vintage lenses and unopened film. I stood among relics of a dead museum, I smelled mineral oil and warm plastic, dust from the scratchy hardwood floor. And I felt at ease, until the shop owner came out from behind a curtain and glowered at me.
His name was Giorgio, as advertised on the window. He shook my hand with a squeeze that seemed less like a greeting and more like a wrestling challenge. "My friend! How are you?" The expression in his eyes didn't change. He grunted, took a slow breath. "I hope this is quick, hah hah, I'm about to close! But no rush, no rush."
"So, uh, I'm here to pick up my camera, you called me about it yesterday, last name—"
"Ah yes, I know! Theodore! Good name. Strong name. Like the president! Teddy bear. Are you a teddy bear?" He guffawed so hard I thought that his jaw would fall off. He caught his breath: "I kid, I kid, friend. Let me find your camera. Lot of problems it gave me! Had to tear it apart. But don't worry. It's good now."
He whisked away behind a curtain into the back room, shuffled some boxes, muttered in some foreign language, and reemerged with my Canon, silver and warm.
Giorgio opened the back and placed a finger delicately inside the camera's open body, the black hole of mystery where all the light disappears and the magic comes out.
"You, you were giving me so much trouble! What did you do to it?" He shook his head, gently, more disappointed than mad. I couldn't tell if he was talking to the camera or to me. "You take this surfing? No, no. I cleaned out so much sand! You play volleyball with it? You use a ball, not a camera! Hah, hah."
Perish the thought. Instead, I had dropped my camera facedown in the sand while attempting to take a picture of a seagull. I was crouched on the heel of my foot and swapping lenses when a particularly gusty wind blew a Ralph's plastic bag onto me, and my arms flailed, and I lost my balance, and the camera body flew out of my hands and arced like a cartoon through the sky and landed lens-side down, a good five feet away from me. The seagull flew off squawking as if mortally injured. "Does it work?" I blurted out. Beloved as this camera was, I was more concerned with practical matters.
"You see, the shutter, here. Every time you press it, here? It has a crunching sound. That's sand I couldn't remove. Sand in the gears, everywhere! I blew as much out as I could, but it's fine sand, California sand, real fine."
In my pants pocket I could hear my phone ringing.
Giorgio launched into a passionate explanation of the intricacies of a single-lens reflex camera. I had hardly considered these inner workings, as long as they worked. My hand reached into my pocket by instinct, as if too nervous for the outside world, and I pressed the wrong button, and a voice came through loud and clear, one that I hadn't heard in what seemed like ages.
"Son, can you talk? Can you talk right now? Are you there?"
"Sorry, George," I said, just as he was about to explain to me how shutter vanes work, how they can open and shut in milliseconds: "sorry, friend. I gotta take this."
"Theo, my dear," began my mother. "I need to tell you about an...inheritance that you are owed."
Giorgio glared at me. I knew that the unpleasantries of this camera business would cost more than expected. I stepped outside, to escape his gaze like a poison dart.
"Hi, mom. Listen, I'm very busy right now. I'm fine."
"Have you eaten yet?"
"Yes, it's afternoon here. I heated up some Hot Pockets for lunch."
"You need to eat better than that. You need to eat more fruit. Oranges, the ones they sell in bags. The last time I heard that you were in Los Angeles, you mailed me a postcard with the Hollywood sign on it. The Hollywood sign! I would've accepted the Santa Monica Pier, even. You couldn't give your dear mother a better postcard?"
"I said I'm very busy," I said, raising my voice to overpower the sound of traffic. "What's this all about? Have you called just to berate me?"
"No, I have so much to tell you, but it sounds like you're busy. Where are you? You sound like you're at a motor race."
"That's just LA, you know that."
She took a breath, and I heard the tinny speaker crackle as she spoke slowly, emphasizing every next word. "Theodore Song," she began, and I stood up straight. Even from across the country, hearing my full name made me brace for the worst. "Never speaking to your mother except to beg for rent. Do you remember how I told you about Galapagos?"
In my youth she had said this word as an incantation. I had never known it to be real, or an actual place, more like a state of being—surely it was some end goal to her enlightenment, what she could only reach once she had fulfilled her sense of happiness, I imagined, or self-sufficiency, a level of satisfaction I still sought. I didn't know. There were so many things I knew that she would never tell me.
But there were things she would tell me instead. I could sense a plan forming, and I braced myself for what was to come next: she made the plan, and you follow the plan, you never deviated from the plan, always as precise as a foreign invasion, and this was how my mother operated, this was how she always was.
"I'm getting up there in years, and I don't have the heart to argue. But since your father passed I've thought about this, the last untamed land on Earth. You cannot blame your old mother for trying.
"And you know what, I've been meaning to ask you. Your time in Los Angeles, it hasn't done anything for you, hasn't it?"
Technically I wasn't even in Los Angeles, I was in Redondo Beach, which was its own city, one of the Beach Cities, but I was in no mood to correct her. "That's what you think," I shot back. "I've got tons of projects in the pipeline. I've got collabs, people knocking down my door. People want me. It's good to feel wanted, isn't it?"
"That's nice," she brushed this off. "But I'm getting up in years and I don't have the strength to argue. But the tickets are in the mail. The house is yours. Everything in the house will soon be yours. I'll be gone by the time you come home."
"I can't go back to Hailwood. There's nothing for me back there."
She sighed, deeply and mournfully. "Funny, how I speak of an inheritance, when it was all going to be yours anyway. You didn't know that when you took the car, and you took all of your father's things, things I wanted to hold on to, for him. Your father's watch."
This was the part where my mouth clammed up and my lips went dry and my stomach dropped an inch off the ground below my ankles and weighted down by lead. I saw myself waking up in my childhood bedroom and the ceiling dropped from the sky like a cartoon anvil. The uprooting of everything, yanking weeds up by their thorny stalks, was what it had all felt like, this shuffling of Songs, across these Eastern seaboards. A bruised head, a flock of squawking birds around me.
My father, long gone. Myself, on the other side of the country. She had found no tethers holding herself back and she could go forth to the places where the land met the ocean, where the ground beneath your feet finally stopped.
"Now do you remember?" she said, and it was as final as a wound. "Do you know what that does to a mother? When her only son runs away from her?"
The sun was beginning to set over the Pacific, long faint lines across the sidewalk, stark contrasts from the shadows, a golden hue over the water. Since I started taking pictures I saw the world not through hidden levers and gears, but through something more intangible: the quality of light, and the possibility of its absence. I climbed the 13 steps over the pale red tiles to the front door. At the top step, I paused.
I have this move where I fold my arms inward, and I tense every muscle from my feet upward until each limb feels as heavy as lead, and I ball my hands into fists, place them over my eyes and clamp them shut, until I could track the little stars and supernovas floating past. I did not move. I held my breath. Maybe when things are hardest we are still allowed these moments of grace, standing in places we know we do not belong.
Perhaps she was right: there was no reason to stay. Those last few words echoed from beyond time and distance, life and death. I could always find my way back home. It would always exist in a void, preserved in amber, a singular point in the universe to draw me back.
Behind me the sun was setting, all colors and lines melting into each other, thin white streaks. Pretty as a postcard, the phrase came to mind. How many sunsets had I ever tried to capture? How did the image distort from my eyes to my brain and then to my fingers, to my camera? The coastline curved all the way from one end of the horizon to the other like a big sweeping crescent. The cars below the window now had their headlights on. The room was dark. I could see the paint peeling from the corners of the doorframe, and the wood rotting away inside, casualties of the relentless salt air. I had found California, and this was California, and for my share of California I paid half as much rent and slept on the couch.
On my last Saturday in Los Angeles, Hazel emerged from her secret cavern. She was wearing a sleeveless pale yellow dress that doubled as a smock, speckled with patterns of crimson and green and baby blue.
From the kitchen I watched her as she danced across the living room floor, slowly, deliberately: one, pause, two, pause, then three steps, left foot right foot tap tap tap, arms raised up like a ballerina unfurling invisible swan wings. In the kitchen she saw me and paused, embarrassed. I tried to smile in a way that might tell her: oh, go on, please, I don't mind.
"Chaos out there," I said. I was pulling the remains of a burrito out of the refrigerator, a goopy congealed horror of pork and soggy lettuce and refried beans, and I made a quick decision—a state of cheapness, or a preservation of dignity?—which concluded by my throwing it in the trash can, where it landed with a comically loud thunk.
"So many people on the beach," she said. "It's like, the last place I want to be on a day like this. Crowded like sardines on the fucking sand, can you imagine?"
In the sink I watched the colors flow from the ends of the paintbrush, thick at first, then a kaleidoscope of shades that occasionally flashed through the mire: yellows and whites and deep blues and the thick black that coated her fingers.
She turned around in the tight kitchen, reached past me, opened the refrigerator and grabbed a beer—and then, after a brief second of contemplation, another one, for me. A girl who drinks beer felt like a rarity, I thought.
"What were you working on in there?" I asked her.
This had taken a bit of convincing, since she was hiding some false modesty, perhaps not yet trusting me with her innermost creative fits. Maybe she thought she would never see me again.
"Come take a look," she said.
Savoring those words, my heart skipped a beat. I followed her into her room.
There was nothing on the easel. But from behind it she pulled out a board, with a canvas stretched out, clipped in on the corners. She held out the canvas in her hands. "It finally dried," she said, "but I gotta make room for the next one."
How do you describe art? I hadn't the faintest idea where to start with this sort of thing. What is art, is this art, why is this not art, is photography art, it's easy to describe a photograph, you just count the objects, the people, what they're doing, what they do to each other. A still life, sure. Picasso's Guernica, sure: people are getting killed. Van Gogh's skull smoking a cigarette: certainly a tattoo idea I had bandied about in my more drunken hours. But this was something greater then, and open to interpretation, and I desperately hoped that mine would match up.
This canvas that Hazel presented for me was primarily dark greens and blues and purples, all long brushstrokes, as if painted furiously. I looked closer and as if by magic a forest of trees appeared, tall and prideful. Their trunks were outlined in thin skinny white staccatos. As if there was a vanishing point, the strokes grew shorter as my eye moved toward the center. Huh, I thought, how about that: I hadn't noticed that at first. If I stared long enough, I imagined the colors swirling like a whirlpool, and at my peripheries a vortex: if I had photographed this, at night, with no moon but my eyesight, I would have jumped out of my skin. I felt the turmoil, the potential: how much darker it all could get.
"It's nice," I said, which felt like the least that I could say.
She snorted. "I was thinking of the humidity you feel when you wander around on a night like this. That's why the trees are in bloom."
She placed the canvas behind the easel again. And then she went through the half-hearted motions of cleaning up, as if only now realizing that someone was here. She rearranged her paintbrushes on the easel. She closed her fishing box. Then she looked up at me and beamed, and how I could capture that smile, in the camera of my mind: "Come on," she said. "Let's hang out here and get drunk."
From my couch I watched as Hazel gingerly poured vodka into the mouth of a can of grapefruit seltzer. She angled the plastic bottle precisely. When it spilled over, she giggled. I popped open my own can, tangerine this time, and took a swig. With one hand she slowly swirled hers in wide circular motions. With the other she raised the bottle. "Want me to do you?" she said.
I bit my tongue.
She handed me the bottle, reaching across the cushions, stretching her arm so far I could nearly hear her bones stretch. I spilled more than she did. Our livers still full of healthy fats, we were filled with burning idiot idleness, and God saw us down there and moved his gaze onward. My lungs burned. My face felt hot. She stood up and got a glass of water and handed it to me. Then she sat down next to me, right next to me on the couch.
"So, wait," she looked at me inquisitively, and her voice lowered, "doesn't that mean you technically stole it?"
"Stole what," I asked, taking a sip from the bottle, feeling like I had left out a vital piece of information, or I forgotten what I had just said, and realizing I had done both.
"Stole your mom's car. To drive out here."
"Well, I borrowed it. She's rich, she can always buy herself another one. And by the way, I didn't exactly make it all the way out here. It threw a rod in Phoenix. So technically, you're wrong on both counts."
And then I stuck out my tongue.
"Your mother," Hazel said, looking past my flirtatious attempt. She paused, and blinked, grasping for the words like they were within arm's reach. "She sounds like an interesting person."
"Seems," I mused. "Mostly these days she just calls me to complain about paying my rent. Telling me that I gotta lose this belly fat. I gotta put on a sweater, eat more fruits, oranges, always with the damn oranges. What's your favorite fruit?"
"You told me that."
I began to feel very self-conscious: examining the way my voice sounded, I was saying, fearing that I was losing her, that she was growing bored and listless, that I was grating on her, and that she would surely disappear back into her room, and worst of all, she would bring the vodka with her—
And then a notion popped into my mind. In that evening it seemed a great and fanciful scheme, one spurred by a heady warmth that arrives when you extrapolate so much about the person across from you. You project how you want them to feel and you try to will it into the world and you hope they can't smell the desperation on you. That was how it worked.
I reached behind the couch, feeling for something cold to the touch, and my hands grasped my camera, a 35mm silver Canon made in the 1970s. Back when they still made cameras out of metal.
Inside I still had an expired roll of Fuji Velvia 400, its chemicals warped by age. I took a quick light reading, made the necessary adjustments, and pointed the camera at Hazel, who held up a pillow to her face. "Stop it," she said, "I'm camera shy, you know that!"
Then she threw the pillow at me—which hit me square in the face, knocking the camera into my nose, and I yelped at the shock, and this sent Hazel into inevitable hysterics.
"Okay, for that," she said, catching her breath, "I'll allow you one photo. Maybe two, hah, two or three photos tops. Wait, hold on, gimme another one—"
I pressed the shutter just as she leaned her arm back with another pillow that she whipped right into my head.
"I wanna see these when you're done," she said. "I look good when I'm laughing."
She reached for the bottle taking it out of my hands, laughing, and now I laughed, and watched her take a mighty swig before passing it back to me, and I finished what little was left.
And she lifted herself off the couch cushion and placed it a few inches closer, dropping it on the leather couch with a poomf!, so close that I could smell her faint lilac hair, slow and deep and intoxicating.
I handed her the camera.
With a thin and delicate finger she poked at the casing, turned the shutter speed dial, feeling it ratchet with ancient precision. "I could never grasp this sort of thing," she said. "Too much math. It all feels so precise to me, scientific. Too boring! I guess I'm even more old-school than you."
She pried the film advance lever but not far enough for it to click. She let go and watched the lever ease itself back into place.
"How many photos can you take in a day? As fast as you can load film in, right? When can you stop and pause? Do you ever let your work really sink in?"
Months later I woke up with a hangover and walked down the steps to the basement of my mother's house in the village of Hailwood, Massachusetts.
The house was empty as the heart of a ghost. The basement, with its looming black oil tank, especially so. But it was the part of the house with the greatest absence of light, and I had draped black trash bags over the half-windows, and I taped up the door jambs, and I drew a weighty black curtain aside and let my eyes adjust to the red light.
I hung these negatives out of the chemical bath. When they were dry I peered at them with my Bausch & Lomb loupe. For days before, I remember, I had been feeling deeply cynical. It didn't matter, I thought, none of this did, the idea that any of this could be fine art, that I could consider myself an artist. Surely the very notion was broken.
These three photos—including a fourth and fifth, double-exposed when I forgot to advance the roll—seemed to represent what we had lost and what I hoped to regain, no matter how stiltedly: the rule of thirds. The Sunny 16 rule, compensating for light when there was no meter. How to load film. How to unload. How to advance.
I thought about every technically lacking photo I had seen on Kodachrome. All dulled edges and motion blur. I thought of the photos of the soldiers storming the Normandy beach, how all that footage was nearly lost in the bloody surf of the North Atlantic. Every soldier captured on film was less human than an abstraction, a suggestion of speed and violence, rendered as chaos.
This too was all motion and suggestion: her face, her arm, the corner of a square-shaped thing aimed right at my head. And on the next photo, one thing stood sharp and clear: her laugh, her white teeth bared in ecstasy, as if she had been consumed by nature: her laughter a primal impulse, a gut reaction, a survival tactic.
In the damp of the basement, enshrouded by blackout curtains, I elevated myself to the equal of the masters. Perhaps Erwitt or Maier or Capa also slept on couches, dropped their cameras in the sand, and became misty-eyed at the hidden things that extended far beyond these thin square sheets of chemicals. It was a marvel how these images could speak to more than just technical accuracy, and in doing so became more real than reality. How I would always remember that night. Happy, drunk, too drunk, too fast for the shutter, too blurry for the film grain, too inaccurate for anything other than a perceived truth.
From inside the refrigerator I opened up a half-empty bottle of wine that had belonged to Salazar, this fact making it taste ever sweeter.
"You know, I tried to dabble in photography too," Hazel said from the living room.
I took a swig of the wine, and joined her again on the couch, and I passed the bottle to her. "Is that so?"
"Eighth grade. Borrowed my mom's camera. Won an award. No, really! I took a picture of a peacock. You know about the peacocks that roam Palos Verdes? They're nasty bastards. They're so pretty, but they just run up to you and scream. And if you want to kick them, which is what I really want to do, some rich guy will call the cops."
She scooted over and sat cross-legged on the couch. I turned to look at her, at her face, the three dots below her left eye.
"All that stuff I said earlier, about how photography is so boring, I don't really mean that. That's just me razzing you."
Her pale blue eyes, ringed in a smoky grey. Black eyelashes like spears.
"You get it, right?"
She was staring right at me too.
"Go on," she said, softly. "Do that thing I know you want to do."
I didn't know who leaned in first, so I would just say that we both did, at the same time, and therefore we both wanted it first. I held my lips softly against hers, for just a second, although it felt like forever, it felt like the heat of all God's creation on the tips of our tongues, and I swore that I could taste lavender, and I felt like I was floating six inches above the surface of the earth.
After a moment that wasn't enough she leaned back and pressed her face into the pillow and laughed a soft laugh that pushed her shoulders up and out.
"Something to remember me by," she said, still giggling. "I kiss all of my friends. We should all kiss our friends."
When I pulled back, I realized that I had curled a lock of her hair around my fingers. Who else had she had kissed, I wondered, briefly—Nick, Isabella, even Salazar—but perish the thought: what a tawdry comparison to fall into. For now there was me, and there was only me. There are no accidental lovers. Every touch is deliberate, premeditated, meant to be savored, unforgettable.
She turned around and leaned over, arching her back, curving her legs off the couch, stretching like a cat roused from its sleep. She laid her head on my lap, warm and relaxed, giddy, detached, grinning, sarcastic. My right hand was on top of her fingers. She squeezed them, gingerly, unwilling to let go.
I placed my hand back on her hair, in the tender spot where her ear met her neck.
"Keep rubbing it," she purred, "keep doing that."
She loved it when I played with her hair. Her hair! A dazzling array of coppers and tans and beiges, not quite blonde but not quite brunette, smooth and gleaming before me like an unfurled dinner napkin. One thousand strands of light. Its rosy scent lingered on my fingers, in the air. I was lucid dreaming with my eyes wide open, a dream within a dream, an implanted memory. Like film stuck in the chamber, stuttering and spinning on its take-up spool, but it was the exact frame I wanted to remember. Before my roommates all banged the door down and stumbled across each other and laughed their asses off, drunken, stumbling, confident, carrying strangers across the threshold, I tried to capture this singular point in time, this galaxy of moments, in the hopes that I may never forget. The warped light, the double image. The camera in my mind, imperfect. She smiled and then she smiled again, giddy, energetic, as if the expression came from the depths of life itself, a smile that made me fall into her, over and over and over again.