Chuck’s challenge this week: Interestingness. In short, find a photo, write a story. I found my photo here. Something about it immediately haunted me, though I guess there’s nothing overtly creepy about it.
This one went in an unusual direction for me. Sometimes you just have to ride where the story takes you.
Elise has been gone for four months now.
Every day or two I’ll go combing through her old facebook account, looking at her pictures, reading the stupid little things she wrote, choking back sobs at the tearful farewells of friends and families. Her pillow still smells of her shampoo, and sometimes if I go to sleep hugging it, I’ll have dreams where Elise is alive, warm. Feel her arms wrapping around my neck and her hair like angel’s breath brushing my cheek. But it never lasts. I wake up and it’s worse than ever; I feel her absence like a rash under my skin, like I want to claw at my insides to make the pain stop.
My sister asked me for a picture of myself last week. I told her I was fine, but she wanted proof, so I sent her a selfie, and I guess I didn’t convince her. The deep-set, drooping eyes, the hair plastered ridiculously straight up by pressing my face into her pillow, the week’s worth of scraggle under my chin, the t-shirt stained with Monday’s Taco Bell salsa, Tuesday’s McDonald’s ketchup, and maybe Wednesday’s bowl of tomato soup. (I may have been wearing this shirt for longer, but I only have proof of those three days.) The moment I snapped the picture, I nearly deleted it, but that was when I saw Elise for the first time.
It was the strand of hair just over my shoulder. At first I thought it was a trick of the light, just an overexposure, or an artifact on the lens causing the sublime glow over my shoulder, but the chill on my spine, the tingle on my neck, the cold sweat on my forehead told me it was her. My sister didn’t see what I was talking about, but it was as plain as a message etched in fire to me.
Was she with me, still? Watching me, waiting for me, looking over my shoulder? I snapped another picture, and again, that trick of the light, but this time there was still more — the ghostly blur of an outline just behind my ear. I know the curve of her face like I know the feel of her touch, the touch that I felt on my shoulders, the ghostly warmth of her embrace from beyond, as I was certain it was by now. It was as if in her first picture, I had merely sighted her like a distant ship on the horizon, and now, she was striving to be seen, being etched more clearly despite the shimmering veil she had to peer through.
I began to take pictures at every opportunity — with the rays of the morning sun streaming through the window, on the front porch in her favorite rocking chair in the hazy afternoon heat, by the window as the evening chill sets in — and with each one, I saw her more clearly. Like the slow advance of a glacier, Elise took shape over my shoulder: first that lock of hair, then her cheek, then one gleaming, eternal eye, then the other. Her face snapped more and more into focus, becoming more and more visible, the phases of the moon recreated in her too-pale flesh, peering over my shoulder with that smile like she knows what I’m thinking even now, long after she’s gone. My sister can’t see Elise at all in these pictures, or so she says. She says I’m trying too hard to hold onto her, that I need to let her go. More likely, she’s afraid; afraid that I’ve found a way to connect with her, to be with her, even though she’s gone. Even though she’s only a faded echo of herself, forever behind me, gossamer and translucent and present only through the lens of the cell phone camera.
Last night, on a whim, rather than taking my selfie as usual, I caught sight of my grandfather’s antique Nikon on the shelf. He was an avid photographer, believing that the right picture could literally capture a person’s essence. I found some film in a box of his things in the attic, loaded the camera, and pointed it at a mirror. I drove to the Walgreen’s at what felt like 100 miles an hour and waited in agony for the shot to develop.
Maybe there’s some ancient artistry at work in the camera, maybe it was the mirror, or maybe the electronics of the modern age muddle whatever wavelength she’s appearing on. In the photo Elise appears as real and as lifelike as if she were truly there, her chin propped on my shoulder, her eyes dark and knowing, her lips parted as if she wants to tell me a secret. She’s there, frozen in that moment, waiting for me, calling out to me through the film and the clockwork of the camera.
My sister still doesn’t believe. She looks at the picture and insists that nothing is there. I think she’s afraid for me, but it’s I who fear for her. She’s determined to believe that Elise is gone, that all who leave us are gone, and my insistence that I can still see Elise, feel her, through these pictures upsets her. But that doesn’t matter. I’ve ordered dozens of mirrors to hang all around the house, and found a trove of old film on ebay. It’s all right that she’s gone. My life with Elise doesn’t have to stop. I plan to fill the house with pictures of us, as blissful and enamored as the day we met. I can live our vacations, our date nights, our quiet nights at home and our rambling road trips, as long as I can find a mirror and keep my camera loaded.
My sister says that’s creepy. But I don’t care if she can see Elise or not. I don’t mind that she’ll see a house full of pictures of me all alone. I’ll always see her.
Because she’ll always be with me.