The girl in the photograph is on the right, the man is on the left. The girl is looking at the camera, the man is looking somewhere else. He is looking off, past the girl, not looking at her at all. He doesn’t have to look at her. He knows she’s there.
The girl is young, not deeply into her twenties. The man is older than he looks and he looks old enough. Old enough that the casual observer, picking up the picture, might assume it is a photo of a man and his daughter. Or his granddaughter. The casual observer would be wrong, and if they looked closely at the two people in the picture they would realize this.
The man is pale, his hair gray, but not all gray. Gravity has been pulling his face for some considerable time. The skin next to the eye closest to the camera is furrowed like a satellite picture of a river delta.
The skin around the girl’s eyes is smooth. Amazingly smooth. And soft. As is the skin defining her cheek, tracing her throat. She looks straight into the lens. She has nothing to fear from the camera.
The man used to turn away when someone took out a camera, but he doesn’t anymore. Photographed or un-photographed, he would be as old, he would look as tired. He came to understand that the pictures don’t betray him. They simply record the facts. No malice is intended.
So, there he sits, the girl close to him, smiling.
The man is granted proximity in proportion to his lack of threat. What that proximity brings is something the photograph can’t capture. This close, the powdery essence of the girl can be inhaled by the man. An impossibly light, impossibly translucent scent. Insubstantial, flower-like, but not flowery. Weightless. Not a perfume, less substantial. Vapor with the strength of steel. Something in the air that melts a man down to his inner Poe.
It’s not that girls ran from him when they were all the same age, it’s that they lived on the other side of some impenetrable adolescent membrane. The membrane’s gone now, and they draw close. Close enough to lean a cheek against the cheek of the man so the photographer can contain them in the viewfinder.
And this proximity, this nearness, it isn’t licentious. It is restorative. And perhaps just a little licentious.
He inhales the essence of the pretty girl and feels it cool the back of his throat on its way to dance much warmer along his spine.
All the girls he was afraid of, all the girls he never got this close to, all the fragrances. The girls who turned him into an awkward collection of angles and inhibitions.
That’s all gone now. Now they sit close, very close, startlingly close, smile at the camera and put their hand on his and let him put his arm around them.
He thinks, “How sad it is, to be trusted by a pretty girl.”
Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.