BY ANDY TU
Copyright is held by the author.
I HADN’T seen Kirsten in over 10 years. It was only by chance as I’d breezed through the magazines at my etymologist’s that I recognized the article blurb on the cover of the Cosmopolitan: Sex Moves That Change Lives! in pink and white bold. We’d laughed back then over the fact that the preceding page was the Chanel advertisement with her first full montage in a major magazine.
The fold of perfume sample along the edge had long-faded, but I could still catch the scent of vanilla, only now slightly soured. Her hands laid atop the oversized, hexagonal glass bottle, a gold and silver ring on her middle and index fingers. Her hair was layered with loose strands that clung to her check, and the clear light brown of her eyes were held stoic along with the subtlest of smiles within her lips. A laced black dress presented her pale, fragile skin. Seeing her made me feel sorry in a very physical way, a cold pricking through my arms.
She was happy then. She was probably still happy now.
“The question is,” she’d say when she used to show me her shots. “Who is the girl in the picture?”
“It’s you,” I replied, rolling my eyes.
“No, no, not at all. She’s someone entirely different.”
I laughed. “Okay, whatever you say.”
“It’s like your art thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“What you draw isn’t you. It’s another part of you. A part of you that you don’t know exists. A … what’s the word… manifesto…”
“Yes,! Manifestation! It’s a manifestation of another self. So the question when you look at a photograph is: which part of you is this person? Who is she, really? You know what I mean?”
I scrunched my eyebrows, thinking she might be a better philosopher than model. “I didn’t know it was that complicated.”
“Oh, gorgeous… just gorgeous.” Javier, the photographer, snaps shots while his legs maneuver like a crab for the best angles.
“Those eyes. Zoey, those eyes are just…”
Snap, snap. Snap.
“So much intensity… Yes,! Right there!”
He says intensity but I don’t know what he’s talking about. What intensity? From where?
“I need more lighting here,” he says. His assistant brings the lamppost closer, stinging my eyes.
“Zoey, you’re squinting. Try to re-focus.”
“They’re too bright,” I say, covering my eyes.
Javier nods and his assistant angles the light a few inches to the left.
“Better?” Javier takes another photo.
“Okay, now… the intensity, again!”
I laser my focus on the camera. Intensity. What’s intense? Bulls torpedoing through a crowded alley at a festival. A woman falling as a frozen lake cracks beneath her. Intense. Intense.
The camera goes click one more but then Javier stops, lowering it.
“What are you doing, Zoey?”
“Where’s that intensity? I need the intensity. The eyes. I need the eyes.”
“I thought I just—”
“No, no. No, no, no. The eyes, Zoey. Where are you? Are you even here?”
I gulp. The truth is I’m an imposter. And if they find me out, they might toss me away like a used napkin.
But he already has the camera back up, readjusting snapping more photos.
“Oh, yes. Perfect,” he says. “Right there.”
Kirsten was my roommate my sophomore year. Apparently, we both hadn’t connected well enough with anyone during our first years to warrant living with them, so we both opted for random arrangements again. Fate enclosed us within the same 20×25 feet walls.
“You need to take a break,” she said.
I forced my eyes back open. I was falling asleep at my desk while studying through a watercolor magazine, trying to pick up what I could from the sploshes of seas, owls, and birds cutting through waterfalls.
“No.” I jerked my head to wake myself. “Gotta keep going. I’m not gonna succeed unless…”
Kirsten laughed, then leaned back into her bed, pulling the blanket up and turning to face the wall. “Too much work amounts to not much,” she mumbled, yawning. Within seconds she was snoring like a boar. I grimaced at how easy I imagined it was for models, even aspiring ones—wake up, makeup, look pretty. Their talent was given to them in the angles of their cheekbones and the curve of their lips, not wrung out of their sweat. Aspiring to be an artist, though, made me feel like a cat clawing at a window, hoping my scratches would one day break through the glass.
I looked up Kirsten on social media. Her Facebook picture was a landscape shot—a field of yellow and orange grass bending in alternating directions like a checkerboard. A single hill stood in the distance and above stretched clouds that looked as they were rapidly rising rapidly. I thought about how she used to never be without her cell phone and the way she screeched when a moth had snuck into our room. Yet there she was, surrounded by wind, nature, and insects. Her profile pictures had always been glamour shots back in college, but the only sign of her presence in this photo was a portion of her shadow.
She did not list her location, but I sent her a message asking if she wanted to meet and catch up sometime. A few months passed before I got a response.
Kirsten glanced at her phone. The waiter came by and slipped us our coffees. “It’s not like we just stand there in front of the camera and all the work is done for us.” She said this as if she’d explained it many times to many people.
“But I mean… what can you actually do? In terms of preparation?”
She scoffed, rolling her eyes with a smile. “It’s hard to explain. You’d understand if you were in the business.” Her eyes locked toward the entrance. “He’s here! That’s him.”
I got up and found a seat in the corner of the shop. Then I watched as she shook hands with this photographer who’d wanted to meet her. But instead of feeling glad for her, I felt jealous.
Zoey! I’m so glad to hear from you! I’ve been well, thank you so much for contacting me! I’m not near Atlanta now but I may be sometime this year. I wish I could give you a more specific time that I might be able to see you, but I simply don’t know! Tomorrow is a mystery and I’m still unwrapping the present of today! I’ll be sure to contact you if I’m near, if i have the funds to make it. How are things on your end? Have you gone back to art? Or are you still modeling? I wish you the best. God bless you!!!
I was about to get on the train when I felt the hand on my shoulder.
“Wait,” the voice said. “I know you.”
I turned around and heard the doors slide closed and the engine exhale.
“Shit,” I said.
The man laughed. “I’m sorry. Didn’t mean for you to miss your ride.” He had brown skin and grey, piercing eyes. “I’ve seen you before, though… haven’t I?”
“You were at the Lunar Cafe two days ago.”
“I—” Ah, yes. It was the photographer Kirsten had met with.
“I noticed you sitting in the corner. You’re very beautiful. I’m sure you know that.”
I felt myself blush. “I’m not—”
“What’s your name?”
“Zoey, you have such gorgeous, gorgeous eyes.”
“Wait, and then what?” Kirsten turned her head left, then right, then back left in front of the long mirror, inspecting her new self-made hairstyle, multiple braided locks bound at the end by rubber bands of every color.
“Well, then he gave me his card and… told me to call him if I was interested in doing a shoot…” I glanced at her in the mirror. She kept her eyes on her own, raising her chin a little.
“Oh,” she said. “Are you going to? Did you tell him you knew me by the way?” She giggled.
“No, I didn’t…”
She took herself in a while longer. I waited for her to say something. I felt like I was intruding into her space, similar to crashing a date.
“Well,” she said, as if it were no big deal. “It might be a good opportunity for you. I mean, that art thing looks like it’s killing you sometimes, to be honest.” She smirked, then opened the door and left.
I contacted her on Facebook several times again, asking how she was and if she’d be around sometime soon to meet. It was two years before she was nearby.
I’m only here until evening, but I’d love to see you!
It was already 3:31 in the afternoon, but I had the feeling that she’d become a butterfly, and that if I didn’t see her this time, she’d float away into the sunlight forever.
I showed up at the sandwich shop nine minutes late. My agent had called just as I was heading out the door and stalled me about doing a two-page spread in O Magazine. He said it’d broaden my appeal and put a family-friendly aspect into my portfolio. I’d agreed and agreed, not really caring. But he still managed to make me barely miss a departing train, the doors hissing closed as I nearly stumbled down the steps to the platform.
Twenty minutes crawled by at the shop before I started to worry. It was like I was on a blind date with an old high school sweetheart and was being stood up. When I checked my Facebook, I saw the message alert. Before opening it I already knew…
Hey Kirsten… I’m so sorry if you’re still at Lunar waiting for me. but I went there and you weren’t there. I felt that perhaps you’d become busy or forgot. A guy started talking to me about something, and we got carried away. he’s traveling to Minnesota and I decided to go with him. I know it sounds crazy but I can assure you everything will be okay! I had to leave right away, though, he was in a hurry! Once again I apologize if I disrupted yoru sechedule in any way. Please let me know you’re okay! I miss you!
“They turned out absolutely beautiful, Zoey. Trust me. People will be talking about these!”
Javier spread my prints before me across the table. I scanned the photos.
“Oh, I love that subtle look you’re giving in these,” he said. “I don’t know how you do it sometimes. The eyes are positively gorgeous in this one here—this one is my favorite. What do you think?” He pointed to one, my skin pale and fragile with traces of blue veins running underneath.
“I—I think it’s—it’s…”
I could see me gazing back at myself, like Kirsten as she locked eyes with her reflection in the tall mirror of our old dorm room. Who was the girl in this photo before me? What part of me was in her, and what part of her was in me, asking these questions that I’d always been too afraid to ask? I couldn’t tell, but I knew the answer was somewhere right there in front of me.