It’s five-thirty AM, and I’m sitting in a musty station waiting for a train. Nobody else is awake, save for a few irritable, busy individuals, and nobody talks. When the train rushes into the station, we file our way in and sit in weighted silence, some lulled by the movement of the train and others too preoccupied to notice. I fall asleep on the train. Nobody bothers to wake me.
Work presents nothing out of the ordinary: mothers towing screaming children, people presenting me with twenty-dollar bills for a three-dollar purchase, customers angrily demanding to speak with my manager. When I clock out, I take my time walking back to the train station, hoping that the fresh air will do something to revitalize me. I reach the smog-scented tunnels more quickly than I would’ve liked, feeling anything but revitalized.
That night, after the realization that I’ve forgotten yet again to go grocery shopping, I collapse on the couch, turn on the TV, and fall asleep with my phone clutched in my hand, ready to wake up once more and restart the cycle.
The only time I feel truly alive is when I’m on the streets with my camera in hand, wielding it like a knight would a sword, ready to capture what the world has to offer me. Not having anybody with whom to occupy my time, I instead turn to photography as my outlet, the only thing keeping me sane. On one such day, I’m wandering through a rundown neighborhood, my messenger bag slung over one shoulder and my finger lightly resting on my camera’s shutter button. A flash of color catches my eye from a flower box outside a little faded house that seems to be empty. In fact, I’d guess it was abandoned if the garden weren’t so impeccably kept.
Unable to stop myself, I meander closer to the house, fascinated by the bright red-and-pink roses in the flower box. I bend over, raising my camera to my face, and barely have time to snap a photo before I hear a voice, strong but quiet, carrying on the breeze.
I don’t even flinch, completely unused to being acknowledged, dismissing this as a greeting meant for somebody else. I’ve changed my angle for another shot when I hear the voice again, slightly more insistent.
“Hello, you there,” it calls out. “You, over there in my roses.”
I jerk upright, startled, before I lay eyes on a tiny wisp of a woman, likely weighing less than ninety pounds and looking so wizened I wonder if she’ll collapse on the spot. I glance from her to my hands, still holding my camera over her flower box, and stumble back, stammering apologies.
“I-I didn’t… I didn’t realize…” I raise my hands up, unsure whether I’m surrendering or trying to protect myself.
“Oh,” she says with a little closed-lip smile. “It’s quite alright. I just wondered… are you from the newspaper?”
I can’t help but laugh at this odd question.
“No,” I reply. “I noticed your flowers, and I think they’re beautiful.”
“Would you like to come inside?” she asks. “It’s cold out. I could make us some tea?”
I open my mouth to decline, unaccustomed to small talk and unsure whether I even trust this woman yet, but the hopeful glint in her smile-crinkled eyes crumbles my concerns like dry leaves. She must be lonely, I realize. Lonely like I am.
I follow her into her house, noting my surroundings as I go. Everything is covered in a fine layer of dust, from the doily-clad end tables to the framed pictures on the walls. The woman glides into the kitchen and fills up a tea kettle in the rusty sink, setting it on the electric stove to
“If you’re not with the newspaper,” she says, going into the cabinet and fishing out a few tea bags, “why were you taking pictures in my yard?”
“I’m really sorry,” I apologize, guilt twisting my stomach. “I didn’t mean -”
She waves her hand dismissively.
“Don’t apologize,” she shrugs. “I just wondered. I haven’t seen a nice camera like that in a long time… there was one at my wedding, did you know that?”
“I, um, didn’t know that,” I reply. “And, yeah… this camera belonged to my grandfather.
He gave it to me before he died.”
“Hm,” she murmurs.
The room is filled with the whistling of the tea kettle as she pours steaming water into two floral teacups and presses one into my hand. I don’t know what to do as she leads me into her living room and sits me down in a plush blue armchair. She crosses her ankles and leans forwards, sipping her tea, and begins to talk.
When she starts, she doesn’t stop. She tells me her whole life story, from her childhood in New Orleans to her husband’s experience in Vietnam. I expect to be bored senseless by this lengthy conversation, but I find myself clinging to every word as though what she was speaking about had happened to me. I suppose, in a way, we both needed this.
A few hours pass, and the shroud of night begins to fall around us. I pick up my teacup, its contents long past cold, and stand up, stretching out the crick in my back.
“Thank you for the tea,” I smile, handing her the cup. She gives me a small smirk.
“Thank you for your time,” she replies, taking it and setting it on the kitchen counter.
I come back the next day, and the next, and the next, always remembering to bring my camera.
One day, I catch her staring fondly at it, mindlessly running a hand absently through her hair. I glance from her smile to my camera to a picture hanging on the wall of her, years younger, her hair done up and her makeup flawless, and it all begins to click in my head.
“Would… you like it if I took your picture?”
She glances up at me.
“Would you mind?”
“Not at all.”
The sun is shining down on her face, her rich, dark skin velvety in the soft light. I’ve carefully dethorned five roses and wound them through her hair, framing her face with color and bringing out the caramel browns in her eyes. I haven’t known her for long, but the surge of joy I feel as I frame up the picture is unlike anything I’ve felt before. She looks utterly serene, perched on a bench in her garden, white chiffon fluttering around her like angels’ wings.
I press the shutter button, hearing the distinctive click of a photo being taken. She doesn’t move, instead readjusting the tilt of her head and patting a curl in her hair.
She doesn’t ask to see the photos, even when taking them becomes our common pastime.
She’s always ready for me when I arrive, her hair styled in whatever way she sees fit, not wearing much makeup but glowing nonetheless.
I never told her, but I’ve pasted all the photos we’ve taken into an album – I couldn’t stand leaving them in a drawer to collect dust. The very first page houses the radiant image of
her in the sunlight, framed with petals. The second holds a softer photo, one of her standing in
the kitchen with fragrant steam curling up from the mug she’s cradling in cupped hands. Each photo features that same look on her face, though. That look of pure elegance, of muted joy. The look that elevates her from a woman to a goddess. As I flip through the pages of the album, that divine elegance remains. In the photo where she’s perched in a wheelchair, hands folded in her lap. In the photo where she’s propped up in a hospital bed, combing what little remains of her hair. In the photo where a cannula is resting lightly on her cheekbones and her eyes are barely open, that look remains on her face. Although I think about her nearly every day, I never visit, always unsure what to say.
One day, though – the same day I stumbled upon her flower box all those years ago – I finally decide to make the trip. Kneeling beside her, I gently place the book on the grass, propping it open to the very first page – the first picture I ever took of her.
“I know it’s been a while,” I say, the autumn wind whistling through my hair. “I’m sorry I didn’t come to talk sooner, but I’ve had this album on my mantel for a few years now, and I figured you should have it.” I pat the ground fondly. “I thought you might want to see how
beautiful you are.”
As I turn to walk away, I’m almost convinced that I can hear her voice, carrying on the breeze, thanking me.
“You’re welcome,” I smile. “Thank you too.”