Before she left she printed out photographs digitally amassed over the past few years. It seemed appropriate; proof that it did, in fact, all happen. Tangible, taxidermied trophies of a life fastidiously built, just to be stamped out in her wake. How we mourn the things that can’t miss us.
Her foot flexed and contracted over the spongy insole of her boot, damp and gummy with the soot and rain and nervous tick that it was holding in, holding onto, not letting go. The noise echoed throughout the empty store, striking a chorus with the buzz of the fluorescent lights and the finger-tap of an irritated employee hunched over the register, open gossip magazine between his elbows but all attention directed at the hiss and wheeze of her feet.
It was late at night and nobody was printing pictures. She turned on the self-service machine and waited as it hummed awake. Minutes passed. It was late at night and nobody ever prints pictures anymore.
Everyone was too busy being in the present, ever reminded by clichés smeared across pamphlets embossed to the floor of the subway under a high-sheen semi-gloss of grime, forever encased in case we missed what the “CAUTION” sleeves protecting us from our morning coffee had to say about our lives. The finger-tapping stopped as the register attendant swigged from his Starbucks cup, and she squinted to see his truth of the day. Some singer-songwriter prophesized that “Patience is a virtue, life is a waiting game. Peace must be nurtured, but live in the now.” Well, shit now, ain’t that deep.
She looked down at her own cup. There was some quote by Newt Gingrich.
The photos were finally sloughing out of the machine, and each may as well bear some sort of barista wisdom, all half-truths, functional disenchantments. They tempt you with nostalgia and the tendency to think too strenuously about your whole life. And that gets dangerous. Everyone was furiously living moment by moment – like an addict: drink or don’t drink; work or don’t work; drugs or no drugs; sex or no sex.
It started drizzling outside, and the tatter of the rain on the scaffolding was the only sound other than the echoed shuffle of the photo printer. Then the clerk let out a groan as he got up, begrudgingly tending to her nostalgia with five minutes until close.
“Starting a scrapbook?” he asked, sleepily, uninterested.
Neither one of them wanted any interaction, it was palpable. He stared at the photos spitting out of the slot as she focused on the plastic photo frames stacked on a clearance rack near the machine, vibrating gently as the printer groaned on. In each sleeve was a carefully inserted stock photo of some happy family or a silly pet or holiday cityscape or remote destination, one brand of which had “Live for the moments you can’t put in words,” as the watermark.
It was all very dramatic, how the machine spit out the steady chronology. Frozen clips of time consecrating moments of unmatched happiness, communal successes, retrospective heartbreak. All of it gleaming in its gloss as tributes to memorials or evidence, depending on how you looked at it. But together like this, it all felt symptomatic of something. Face after face, each burrowed in concentrated happiness, coevolving through the photos in dressed-up idealizations of themselves. Overcoming fears and doubts and heartache rather than just folding, succumbing and learning to live with it all logically, since, hell, they were living with it anyway.
Maybe they were winning this way. Romanticized or not, this timeline had led everyone somewhere.
She collected the first batch, frowning slightly at the glossy texture, hot to the touch, sticky with warm ink, rather difficult to peel apart, like they didn’t even want to be seen: a defense mechanism. There may be nothing in life that contains more sorrow than a photo. With its nauseating anticipation of moving on, uneasy speculation at what could have possibly happened to damn the moment. Because photos are so carefully curated, such deliberately poured portions of ourselves at our best. So there’s always a decrescendo.
But in the moments before the shutter snaps, the flashbulb is like an interloper that brings with it everything tragic and ridiculous and alive and infinite. Everyone laughs loudly, pours more wine into their glasses and through their eyes you can see their hearts. They speak at each other. They speak near each other. No one says anything particularly incendiary but it’s all of unequivocal importance. And with that moment now captured, all of their next now bevel with possibility.
That’s what it was like then. Saturated optimism, fearlessness.
Another generic photo frame brand suggested,“These are the memories that will deliver your future.”
The clerk tried to hand her envelopes to file away the finished prints, but she ignored him until he just blurred into her periphery, thumbing through the photos slowly, finger securely on the pulse of each moment. It’s all that memories want anyway, for someone to hold their hand as they die.