“Who are you?” Ashley asks the computer screen. There is a man in her photo. He’s wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, a white shirt. “I’ve seen you before.” She flips through the photos, to the day after. The man is in another photo, standing in the doorway of a bookshop. He is wearing his cap and glasses. The same shirt.
Ashley sits back. The photos were taken a day apart, in different areas of the city.
“Hi babe,” says Jamie, on the phone. “Look, I’m not gay or anything – okay, might be – but I want female accompaniment at a lunch to root out this one guy who works in accounting, because he doesn’t pay me anywhere near enough attention. I have to figure this out one way or another. So yup, you’re invited.”
“Do I have to pay?” asks Ashley.
He says that she doesn’t, and tells her to dress nice. “Okay,” she says. “Look Jamie, I don’t honestly think you’re gay…”
“Why do you say that?”
“Just a feeling,” she says. Ashley keeps flipping photos. The man in the cap is in another one. He’s sitting on a bench in the St. Lawrence Market, a paper bag next to his knee. Most of the photo is filled up with a water fountain that happened to be catching the noon sun, almost like diamonds are being shot upwards by the earth. But one corner of the photo is this man and his paper bag. He’s staring at the camera. He’s looking right at it, as though this photo is about him, not the fountain.
“Jamie, I’m going to send you something, okay?”
“Sure babe. See you tomorrow for lunch. And thanks so much for this.”
Ashely sends the three photos of the man to Jamie. The apartment is dark, and when she gets under the covers, she can feel the lumps where she slept the night before. Almost without thinking, she slides into them again, and suddenly she’s warm and it doesn’t matter what day it is, and that she spent the whole thing in the apartment, sampling the world through a computer screen.
I saw a girl this one time. She wasn’t all that beautiful. She wasn’t one of the freaks that sometimes gets made by their parents, when genes come together and do something really right. But I liked the look of her. I remember her in the hospital, coming out into the atmosphere, looking around for a few seconds before she started crying. I mean, that’s the way to do it – have a solid look about and sum things up before you make a noise. I really liked that about her.
Her family lived in the suburbs, and I’d often go by to see what was happening. Her mom carried her around in one of those baby carriers, right on her chest. Now and then, I’d sneak up close to get a look at her. Nope, nothing exceptional there at all, but once again that same thing before she cried: that look around, as though to figure it out, to determine if it were worth the effort, before she let the screams ring. If that kid was going to cry, there had to be a reason. I really liked that about her.
Even though it’s 2015, and slipping along at that, Ashley keeps a mini-journal. In it, she describes the people she encounters, because while these people are not permanent in her life, they still matter to her. If she could, she’d take photographs of everyone she saw, a testimonial to their existence. She often hopes that others are doing this as well, and that somewhere, she’s in a remembrance, maybe more than one, where people wonder who she is.
But she can’t take photographs of everyone. So she keeps the mini-journal, and as she sits at the restaurant, she writes about the hostess (“friendly with a fondness for scum”) and the waitress (“overly oblong but loves to dance”) and one of the customers at a different table (“cute when trying hard not to pick her nose because I’m watching her”). These short notes are her convection current along the lines of people, the substitute for digital images, perhaps not filled with the same resolution or information, but a fair representation nevertheless.
Jamie arrives at quarter to twelve. Ashley scrawls words in her journal (“sometimes you don’t need to see someone’s butt to know that it’s excellent”), then hides the book.
He gives her a kiss on the cheek. “Ready? Order anything you want. Wait. How long have you been here?”
“An hour,” she tells him. “Did you look at those photos?”
He leans in. He only ever kisses her when he’s drunk, the type of kiss that means ‘you are the most amazing friend ever’. She often kisses him back in the same way. But not always. “Babe. I thought you were going to apply for some jobs?”
“I was working on the scrapbook.” His bottom teeth pinch a corner of his upper lip. Before he can say anything, she pushes on, “If I don’t take the time now, I never will. And we’ll forget everything. You even said yourself, once you start working, there’s no time for anything…”
“Yes, true. This better be one amazing scrapbook, though…” She nods to him that it will be. After that, the table fills up. It’s a long spine of connected table cloth, the nervous system of the entire restaurant. People move around it like they’re blood. Ashley orders a beer. Jamie’s sitting next to the boy from accounting, and Ashley is so tempted to bring out her book to describe him – “shakes hand with authority, and peeked at my cleavage – encouraging for me but not for my friend”.
“So you’re Jamie’s buddy. Nice to meet.” The blond lady on the other side is short, but her hair is large, and Ashley can’t help but peek at her cleavage, wondering immediately what this says about her. “What do you do for a living?”
“Still deciding,” says Ashley.
“Really? Aren’t you worried about time slipping away?”
“Oh no,” she returns. Ashley leans in. “I’m only twenty-five. I’m less than a third through my life. I figure I have another two years before I have to start a career. No point in worrying until then.”
“I’m sorry, two years to do what?”
“That’s exactly it,” she returns. “Two years to do that.”
“Yes,” she confirms.
The blond girl nods politely and tries to catch the eye of someone across the table, but they don’t see her. She squints instead, as though trying to make out the labels on the bottles behind the bar. When she finds one that meets her approval, she nods her head and squints harder.
Anyway, eleven was a banner year for this girl. I’d follow her to school, curious about the way her bike swayed when she rode. Then I’d sit in the stands at her swim meets, and watch her win a bunch of competitions. Marks were pretty good. Social standing fairly decent. She even got her first kiss out of the way, not much of an event, but a fairly sweet moment that she wrote about in her journal.
I’m always torn about whether or not eleven or sixteen was a better year, actually. It’s hard to judge these things. After all, you have to weigh three-hundred-and sixty-five days’ worth of progress and setbacks, and consider all the nuanced stuff. I wish there were a way to score this stuff. For my money, I’ll take eleven, but sixteen was good too: the first time behind the steering wheel, articles in the student newspaper, invitations to parties, and lipstick.
Christmas Eve, she stayed up late, but not because of presents. She didn’t really seem to care for those much anymore. No, she sat up writing in her journal, one of those really perfect moments when nothing is bugging you, there’s no pain in your life, and you feel so free and light that you have to write about it. She even stuck some photos into the note, one of her out in the snow, next to a tree. It was pretty sweet. I always liked that one.
Ashley leaves Jamie with the boy from accounting (“human with a touch of ennui”). They are walking to work, and leave Ashley on the sidewalk.
She takes her phone and holds it out front, to prove to everyone that she did indeed have lunch at Castro’s. When she looks at the photograph, a man is standing behind her. The rim of his ballcap is nearly touching her hair, and it almost looks like he is putting an arm around her. She spins. Then again. Looks in every direction, even goes into the restaurant again. But there’s no one there. He’s not here. He’s nowhere.
On the bus home, she stares at the photograph. She should have been able to smell him, he was so close. Should have been able to hear his breathing, but didn’t. She just didn’t.
By twenty-five, she had a little apartment and a cat. The apartment was small, the cat really annoying. You know, I can’t give everyone this kind of attention. It just wouldn’t be possible, and I suppose you could argue that it also wouldn’t be fair.
It wasn’t her best year, twenty-five. I mean, who really has a good twenty-five? Statistically, it’s probably one of the more difficult periods of a person’s life, just after school’s finished and before you’re really entrenched in a career. But it’s also a great opportunity. That’s the moment when you get to decide things. To blaze your path.
I think year thirty-two was when she really broke through and figured it out. I mean, it was a thoughtful year. Everyone needs that kind of period, when you plow through things and set them in the proper place, like putting clothes in the right drawers. She had a love affair, and dropped the guy like nothing. I loved it that she sent him a scrapbook afterwards, what a thing to give to someone you didn’t want anymore. But that was just like her. Everything was about thinking, no impulse at all. How she maintained that discipline, I really don’t know, but she did. Trust me. She did.