I used to photograph girls back in the 80s when it was still about novelty and vanity. My studio was a shaded bench hugging the lesser-traveled trail of an oft-visited park. There my old Hasselblad captured girls who were beautiful in their own ways. They had kinks in their backs and lopsided noses. Bodies strewn with curves where there shouldn’t have been curves. Extraneous lumps dangling like Christmas tree ornaments. The lens often found more than my eyes, somehow always zooming on their best features.
I discovered the spot by accident. I hadn’t known what exactly I was seeking, but I knew it was something different. Bored by all the normalities of life—everywhere I went every girl looked exactly the same—I escaped to a secluded spot in the park. Everyone visited the park, even the people who didn’t go anywhere else. As I sat and pondered why the world offered nothing but similarities, a woman hobbled by on a beautiful long leg and an even more beautiful stubby short leg. Instantly in love, I clicked and wound until my film was worn out. I returned every day and found a variety of girls worth photographing.
The girls didn’t know. No one wanted their awkward figures, so they walked where no one would see them. They limped and sagged and wobbled down the path. To them I was the statuesque artist, always sitting, always photographing. How many pictures of trees and birds does he need? they must’ve thought as they kept coming down the path. They avoided eye contact at all costs, and my occasional smiles and nods were always unreturned, although the camera sometimes caught a slight curling of the lips.
At home I developed the girls in a room the sun couldn’t find. They were mine, and I wasn’t going to share them with any drugstore clerk. My girls deserved privacy, a place where someone wouldn’t judge those magnificent malformations.
Leather-bound albums secure the photos, and I page through them in public places, tracing my fingers along my favorite parts. The vinyl protectors feel smooth, and even though I know the PVC has eaten the paper and ink, I imagine my girls are still perfect.
Occasionally I see one of my old girls, or at least one that reminds me of one of them. My favorite was always Lacey. Watching her glide along the path on marshmallow feet nearly paralyzed me. I have a whole album devoted to her. She keeps my bedside table warm and welcomes me each morning, her soft body in mid-stride, left foot dangling just above the ground like she’s afraid her body will shatter if she brings it down too hard.
The other day I was at a diner, caressing my favorite photo of Lacey. She’s glancing over her shoulder, almost at me, and the lens is focused on the magnificent bump in her lower back. I looked up from the photo to catch my breath and spotted her pressed against the fabric of a nearby booth, a distant mirage of her former self, hanging upon the molecules of the air, wavelengths beyond what any other person could be. I scarcely recognized the aged face faded to common wrinkles and grays. The lonely index finger circling the rim of her coffee cup announced her depression. As she stared at the black liquid that mirrored something from the past, I knew it was time to give up my treasure.
I slipped to her booth, dropped the photograph on the table, and moved on to pay my bill. At the counter, I glanced to see her reaction to the ethereal photo. Her eyes caught mine. The change met my hand just as Lacey stood. I waited for our long overdue embrace, but she greeted me with a faceful of lukewarm coffee that spilled down my body and soaked my memories. As I wiped the liquid from my eyes, I spotted the crumpled photo on her table. I looked to the retreating woman and shook my head before slumping out the door. Must’ve been the wrong girl. My girls would never do such a thing.
Nathaniel Tower writes fiction and manages the online literary magazine Bartleby Snopes. His fiction has appeared in almost 200 online and print journals, and he has a novel and novella out through MuseItUp Publishing. When he isn’t writing or doing any of the other standard things writers do, he can be found joggling (running while juggling) through the streets. Visit him at www.nathanieltower.wordpress.com.
Lead image: “The Creepy Camera Guy” (via Flickr user Bart)