Originally published in FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry, Issue 53
This is the comment that I provided at the end of the story on why I wrote it: Life is layered with new experiences as time passes, while these static images of our memories remain preserved. In this instance, a photograph—specifically, a yearbook photo taken at a much younger age—embodied this sort of preserved state of mind and the untold promises that we presume the future holds.
Evie wasn’t proud of taking the pills, but they leveled her moods, smoothing out the peaks and valleys. Gave her serenity so life could flow through her—at least, some of the time.
Things didn’t go as hoped the morning she called in her prescription. The doctor’s office told her the order was ready when it wasn’t, causing her to have to wait 24 hours and not get to the pharmacy until after work the next day, which meant sitting in rush-hour traffic.
Her car inched along as she waited behind the pile-up at the stoplight, eyeing the trash on the side of the road. An empty liquor bottle was pitched into a shrub with nearby broken glass flecking the sidewalk. Traffic at that hour was a slow procession—endless, funereal, and symptomatic of some deeper problem plaguing humanity.
People didn’t seem to be moving much faster on foot. Once in the parking lot, she waited impatiently for a throng to clear the crosswalk.
“Fucking meanderers,” she muttered as a gray sedan with a Baby Up In This Bitch sticker attached to its rear window veered into the lane.
Once inside, the pharmacist cast her a smarmy grin—the same grin she’d seen on him before when he’d been the one working at the pick-up counter, like instead of a pharmacist, he was a brilliant alchemist who’d concocted the drugs in his home lab and to whom she now owed something more than an obligatory smile and payment.
He was handsome in a clean-cut way. Normally that would have kindled her interest, but today she was tired and annoyed and wanted to get her supplies and go home.
“You’ve taken this before, right?” he asked, stapling the receipt and instructions for the prescription to the paper bag in the consultation booth.
“Can I wash it down with vodka?”
He served her a suggestive look, even winking.
“Sorry for the delay,” he said. “Something happened between here and the doctor’s office that caused us to be unable to fill it until today.”
Her smile tightened. Yes, obviously something happened, though it wasn’t clear what.
“That’s all right. They’re here now,” she said.
The man tucked his chin down into the collar of his white coat. Beneath the neatly pleated lapel and smooth front, she noticed his body, picturing the bones under the nerves and muscles and skin and the hard lattice composing the marrow inside them.
Something about him struck her as familiar.
When he noticed her gaping, his mouth peeled back into a pristine grin.
“Asshole,” he hissed, drawing the word out under his breath. It was an insult she’d heard muttered so many times by total strangers that it now felt as routine as traffic and hidden fees and spam in her inbox and missed phone calls and dogshit on sidewalks and sudden shocks from static electricity that built up on carpets. Asshole didn’t hurt as an insult anymore. It bounced right off her.
He reached out to hand her the bag, which crunched loudly enough to be heard by everyone within earshot. When their gazes traveled up to meet each other, his eyebrows lifted expectantly, as if he were waiting for her to respond. In those intervening seconds, unspoken words were exchanged between them: She was asking him in a pleading, babe-in-the-woods type of voice if she were really the person for whom the pills were intended or if there’d been some mistake and they were really someone else’s—someone who switched places with her while she daydreamed in line, maybe. A double who snatched her identity and went around pretending to be her while she stood there with a headache that radiated out and up toward the fluorescent lights and walls, wondering where she was.
The man focused his deep, chocolate eyes on her blues. The corners of his mouth twitched into a little smile. It was a look of awareness, like he was quietly reading her thoughts. Then, the muscles in his face defaulted to a serious expression.
“Take care,” he said, with a tinge of disappointment.
As Evie left with the bag, she overheard him say something to his co-workers. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the entire pharmacy staff turn toward her in unison and break out in laughter, as if something were so funny or outrageous it caused them to pause what they were doing and share in it together.
The farther away she walked, however, the more she became convinced the incident had been imaginary.
* * *
Once at home, she reclined on the sofa and switched on the TV, which offered 20-some odd channels picked up through rabbit ears. The trek to the store was a hassle, but at least she had the pills. The rest of the night would be nice and relaxed like she planned. She’d recline and let herself melt into the cushions until her body took on the form and texture of a marshmallow. It was just as everyone said: Serenity was what she needed right now.
A few hours later, she lay in bed with her eyes closed, enjoying sedation, when an image of the pharmacist appeared suddenly in her subconscious. It was a paper-thin remnant of the man she saw hours before—more like a child version of him.
She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to sharpen the edges and bring out the contrasting tones. As it came into view, she realized she was looking at a small, thumbnail-sized picture about the size of a yearbook photo.
Oddly, the person in the photo also resembled her at a much younger age. A time when she looked less like a boy or a girl than an entity—the idea of a person—with a blank slate for a face, a short, wavy haircut, and wearing a macramé sweater. The subject’s half-smile reminded her of the one she offered in exchange for the bag of drugs.
Turning her head to the side, she gazed out the window to track the signs along the highway. A neon cowboy in a ten-gallon hat stood next to a whirling bucket of chicken. Double exposure. One image superimposed on another. She’d inherited her mother’s photographic memory. Images forged from anything her eyes happened to land upon: coffee mugs, tears of wine on tablecloth, water drops suspended on faucets, street festivals, storms, the collection was endless.
The image-memories dated back to when people’s faces were only smudges, like wind-blown features on the nascent earth. She remembered her mother painting in sun-streaked rooms and tending to beds of daffodils and white-hot sunlight cutting the blades of grass at sharp angles. The flowers printed on her dresses and the broken eggs she fried sunny-side-up on Saturday mornings. How dad showed her his science experiments—light refracted through a prism and 10 pounds of iron filings wriggling with freakish speed onto the heels of the horseshoe magnet.
She remembered seeing the stains in her underwear when she first got her period. The watery, pink strokes resembled the ones left behind in the chrysalis when her butterflies metamorphosed. Her mother buried her head in her lap, telling her that even though people called it the curse, it was supposed to happen.
It hurt badly at first. She spent all of that summer moping around the backyard garden, trying to shed the process like an exoskeleton, an unwanted skin.
Shuffling through the old mental images, Evie landed on the one of the yearbook photo again, the boy-girl’s androgynous good looks assembled by the tiny dots of toner onto the coated stock paper and embodying a promising gaze.
She once met a guy who had that look when she went to the carnival with her friend, Marie. They ran into each other in the funhouse. She stood next to him as they observed their figures distorted by the mirror, thinking that was one of the few times she felt a connection to a guy. She might have fallen in love with him at that instant.
Was that the pharmacist? Had she recognized him from there?
Marie pulled her away from him. Said it wasn’t time to chase boys because they were still busy with girl stuff.
But the boys came eventually. Boys who eyed her nervously from the booths at the pizza parlor where her parents took her on Friday nights. Boys who drove her backwards through drive-thrus of shuttered restaurants and out to the countryside in their pick-up trucks, parking at the end of dirt roads where the headlights lit up the fields. Boys who seemed kindred, soft, and cruelty-free, like human-sized rabbits.
Boys whose hot lips caressed hers as they sprawled in the grass behind the house while deer watched from the woods, their eyes glinting in the moonlit dusk. Those same boys undoing the button on her jeans, shimmying her pants down her thighs, and pulling them off one leg at a time, burying their mouths in her breasts and belly and inching their way down between her legs.
Their bones jibed with hers. They were like mastodons—giants that roamed the layers of ice formed by glaciers some 15,000 years ago.
They murmured into the curve where her leg joined her hip. Teenaged boy murmurs. Teenaged boys whose skin smelled like a mix of sweet grass and sweat and who had no idea what the hell they were saying or doing, only that they thought it might sound good if they told her she was a beautiful goddess and had the nicest body they ever saw.
Amateur pre-college-try shit that made them look experienced when most of them couldn’t even undo the clasp on her bra.
That was about the time the anxiety started. Anxiety about the world she’d been introduced to—land of heaving machinery and XXX signs and erotic bakeries, where entire lives were drilled down assembly lines. The world in which she arrived at a specific date and time, though her birth felt somehow ambiguous. The world where her body never seemed to be good enough no matter how beautiful it was, simply because it was female.
Despite that, she relished the delicious, icy thrill of their breath in her ears and along her neck, their fingers sliding under the lining of her panties, how they made her feel so alive.
Evie shot up suddenly in bed, recalling something that happened one of those nights. She and her boyfriend were kissing in a damp, muddy patch of grass when they decided to get up and move. It was night and the woods were dark and she couldn’t see and she stepped in a hole or tripped over a tree root and lost her balance, falling and landing horizontally on her shoulder. There was a sharp pain upon impact along with an audible snap.
They took a dozen X-rays at the emergency room. She studied the ghost-like shrouds of her collarbone’s jagged, separated ends. How cool the X-rays looked. How she anticipated showing them to her friends.
Her friends were all like Evie—fleshing meaning out of the stillborn shots of themselves and each other. They’d all grown up believing they were the child stars they saw in magazines—wonders for the world to see.
Evie knew why the yearbook photo popped into her head: It was she and the pharmacist in the woods that night. The photo was a fusion of each other into a separate person—the child they might have had if she didn’t fall.
Snap. She heard the sound of her collarbone breaking again. A snap like the sound of a picture being taken. There’d be more pictures and trips to the store, where she’d study the man’s handsome face as he handed her another prescription. Another bottle of pills she’d take indefinitely while wondering if anyone really cared whether they were taken correctly or if she didn’t take them or what they did.
Evie turned her head toward the window again. Smelled the highway smell of fermented syrup and wafting tobacco, saw the pantone ribbons of light and the cars circuiting rapidly east and west. She focused on the distant buildings that receded like mountains—flat, Coptic, geometrical shapes that made no impression on her—the building blocks of an indifferent mineral world. But the mineral world was serene. Serenity was what she needed now. She embraced it like she would the sight of an ancient pyramid or monument, coveting the twinkling lights like jewels or amulets that protected against sickness or peril.
Feeling the back of her skull indenting the pillow, she thought the yearbook photo might be like that. Something locked in another time that surfaced to remind her of the past—a former version of her now crystallized. She could fall asleep to that. When she awakened, there’d be plenty to consider, and more memories to channel like new.