I had a photo of L. that I took of her the day before she first said, “I love you.” The golden hour’s sunset lit Mobile Bay. Rose bushes in a roundabout unfurled with blossoms and jutted with thorns. L.’s wavy brown hair hung loose in the humidity of Fairhope, Alabama. She looked out from big ladybug-eyed sunglasses at me. I knew the deep wells of blue behind their lens. I had stared into her eyes and said “I love you” first.
L. hadn’t said anything back to me. She didn’t think she could. It was such a deep emotion—love—and to be so open meant to be so vulnerable. To be able to accept love also meant to be able to be hurt. I didn’t want to hurt her but I didn’t know that I would be hurt by her self-protection.
I had kept that photo of L. on my desk in grad school in the Midwest. Then, I hung it near my desk when we moved to the Southwest. By the time we returned to Orlando, I had moved the photo to a bookcase with a photo of her from our wedding. That photo of L. moved away from me until I moved away from her without a photo of her.
I searched for L. online—the only place I could find her in a quarantined world. She kept her social media accounts private. I wasn’t trying to find her life alone now; I wanted to find her life with me back then.
I found her on a resume site. She wore the pale orange shirt I knew V-ed down to buttons. I remembered her in dark jeans, but I didn’t remember her in lipstick. She wore two bright strokes that made her bleached smile whiter. She posed her head in a tilt and her bangs swept across her forehead and curled around her ears where I used to arrange it.
The resume photo was from our first apartment together where she began what became a career in supporting the people of nonprofits’ larger visions. She was so welcoming and organized and kind at a front desk entry-level job that of course, she moved into working with membership and events. I don’t know how many people knew that drained her, but in a way that she wanted to use her energy for a connective cause. I don’t know if any of her co-workers knew she kept a photo album of all the appreciative notes they wrote her. I don’t know if she knows that I keep her notes, the last pieces of her, the very language of the woman I had loved.
I found her on a craft site. She looked cooly serious and seriously cool. She wore the pink plastic glasses that she love, love, loved, but hated to lose when she went to spit out the window while I was driving her to the airport for a trip home. Her bangs were fresher, while the rest of her hair piled into a bun. Her lips pinked. Her lobes dangled with coin-like copper earrings. Her eyes looked direct. She wore the white sweater top that I don’t know if she had to part with from the Midwest.
Behind her in the craft photo, I could see the garage sale bookshelf that I had bought and she had stained. I knew the shelves held a hardcover of Charlette’s Web, an orange wooden pony, seashells from the Atlantic beaches, a case of quarters from certain years of her life, a glamour shot of her dad with a mustache, her old Florida license plate, and her alphabetized novels that she just liked to run her hands along the spines even though she ended up usually going to one of the six by Jane Austen. Above the bookshelf, she pinned prints she made and posters she bought. In an empty gray frame she strung with green yarn she hung Polaroids of her childhood Labs, a donut keychain, a postcard of a strawberry girl, and so many other discoveries, inspirations, and remembrances.
I found her on a streaming site. She wore black plastic glasses that framed her face with her bangs. She gave that photo smile of being true and goofy. Her denim jacket laid on her shoulders that carried so much.
The streaming photo was taken during my family’s Thanksgiving, L.’s last Thanksgiving with us. My five cousins and what we call the little cousins, my four sets of aunts and uncles, my immediate family, and several cousins’ in-laws all hugged L. close. She cut herself out of our photo.
I found her on her life-documenting site. Her hair was lighter than ever. Not as brown, but also not as thick. She straightened it and parted it down the middle. She wore reflective sunglasses that only showed what she wanted to show: her taking a selfie of herself. A red pole or a gutter at an airport or a shopping store gave a mysterious unsolvable clue. She looked like she was nowhere or places that were now abandoned.
I had always known L. as an intensively private person. I believed she felt like her life was only hers. I thought that the purpose of her life was finding the purpose in her life, by herself.
I found her on her profile site. Her hair looked freshly cut and sprayed. I wondered when she had last done either with everything closed. She wore a smile that I couldn’t tell if it was real anymore. She stood in our final apartment. It looked empty.
I wondered if L. searched for me.
Maybe she kept our wedding photos somewhere in storage. She could crack open a plastic container or cut open a taped box. She would see me in a tux with a rose on my heart and her in her gorgeous dress and us together in front of all our family, everybody in Orlando, all of whom we should have asked for help when we returned not as together as we had left.
Maybe she kept the photo of me in the Black Hills of South Dakota on one of my grad school trips. My buddy took it of me in my red running shirt and brown jeans with the plains behind me where we had seen a herd of buffalo spill across the prairie and then wash over the land’s saddle. I doubt she still keeps my photo beside her bed like she did.
Maybe she kept the photo of me in a green polo with saw palms behind me. My brother was cropped out of that photo. My parents had wanted photos of us before I left Orlando for the Midwest with L. L. kept that photo in a metal locket on a keychain so she could open the clasp whenever she wanted to see me until she didn’t anymore.
Maybe she didn’t keep any of those photos of me, or maybe she doesn’t want to look there. If she looked online she would find me with my writing.
She would see me downtown in Orlando at Church Street Station for a typical portrait in a stairwell and alcove with me sitting on metal steps and smiling in front of a torn poster when the SunRail was just a dream for commuting to work on a train. She would see my stubble darker, but the same buzzcut. She would see my goofy Write the Future shirt that I loved until it got stained.
She would see me at Brookside Park in the Midwest. She would see my closed-mouth smile. She would see my blue Oxford shirt spotlighted in the golden hour for our engagement photos. She wouldn’t see herself in her turquoise top and flower printed skirt holding my hand on a bridge over the brook.
She would see me at the Museum of the American Indian in D.C. for a conference. I had flown from the Southwest and she had flown from the Midwest. A prism fractured the white spotlight into reds and yellows bathing my hat hair, lighting up my round glasses, and illuminating my ready-to-crack smile looking at the camera, looking at her, looking at the woman I wanted again.
She would see me walking away from her through an orange threshold at Bryce Canyon. She would see the limestone belittling me in my sage baseball hat, blue fleece, khakis, and black backpack. She could probably hear the silence from so many hikes we took when we didn’t talk.
Maybe she found us when I wrote about us dressing up for Halloween:
She would see me in a brown wig with the bangs cut. She would see me wearing her ribbed blue shirt knowing that underneath was her padded bra that we had stuffed. She would see me in her long skirt I had worn so I hadn’t had to shave my legs. She would see herself under my orange cap remembering piling her hair up under there. She might remember buttoning up my blue shirt and sticking out her stomach like a bit of belly while caving in her chest to hide her breasts under two sports bras. She would feel the cinch of my belt around a pair of slacks. She would see our smiles again; hers behind faux stubble and my clean face with my Monroe mole.
She would see us fifty years in a now nonexistent future. She would see me trying not to smile from a scowl under a newsboy cap. She would see my red flannel tucked down into hiked up gray sweatpants. She would see herself in her white blouse and black vest with stars and cats and a crescent moon. She would know that we both held Werther’s in our pockets to give out to young folks at the party we attended. Would she remember her arm around me and mine around her both of us gray-haired and aged with dye and make-up that she put on us like a spell that cast us as slow but steady finishers of a fool’s golden anniversary?
No matter where we look we won’t find the feeling of the past in Fairhope. We won’t find ourselves at the Hangout Music Festival, since music festivals are probably gone like an encore’s last echo. We won’t find ourselves filling up water bottles at a shared garden hose. We won’t find ourselves walking across the sand kept in instead of out of a beach. We won’t ride hip to hip on a ferris wheel above it all. We won’t spend the night in a motel and wake up in bed together. She won’t say so bravely, so surely, “I love you.”