Semiprecious Memories

Semiprecious Memories

In Issue 75 by Katherine Orfinger

In the five years Jason and I have been together, never once has he said, “I love you.” Still, I know that he does love me even if he won’t say it in those words. It’s just not how he grew up, and he’d rather lovingly stroke my hair as I’m falling asleep, he’d rather surprise me with my favorite iced coffee when he says he’s not even going to the drive-through, he’d rather write me into whatever creative writing piece he’s working on that keeps him up until 3:00. He loves me in the spaces of myself that I cannot articulate; he loves all of the parts that make me into a whole person.

Jason has a past. Everyone does. We just choose—every day, every hour, every moment—not to live there anymore, even if that means we have to continuously rip ourselves out of it and exist in this strange, cold present. All I see when I look at him is our future. I see waking up next to him every morning a stable place to live, coffee cups, a vegetable garden. Neither of us grew up with any continuity. Our respective families were constantly “starting over,” packing up all our meager possessions into boxes or trash bags and hauling them to the next temporary place. For both Jason and for me, “I love you,” in our families came with baggage. It came with the knowledge that our mere existence meant we were obligations, responsibilities, if it weren’t for us things could have been different, though we only had an ephemeral concept of “different,” back then. We were children.

When it came to building walls, I wanted deep blue ones with white molding, a heavy oak dining room table with at least twelve chairs around it, a sunroom, a sleek, stainless-steel refrigerator in a kitchen that we didn’t have to share with anyone else, and an endless stack of pristine, white dishes. Spending my formative years bouncing off the walls in my own mind and testing the strength of the boundaries my parents tried to enforce left me starving for something permanent and heavy.

When the words spring forth from my hungry lips, gleaming like raspberries tumbling onto a white tablecloth when I cannot help but tell him, “I love you,” Jason reminds me that his mind doesn’t work like mine. His is a piece of silk stretched tightly on a frame where colors are free to bleed into each other, where chaos defies order. In the white spaces, I wait. I wait for him to realize what he won’t admit he knows.

*****

I watched my mother die when I was twenty-eight. She died alone and I watched her die alone. My father’s cancer had gone unnoticed until it was too late. He was in hospice for two weeks, and mere months later, my mother was hospitalized. I did not debate. I did not watch light leave her eyes, nor did I hold her hand and feel the life escape the cage of her body. I came when I was called, and I did what I was told. And I felt the balloons of hope I hardly knew I was still harboring from my childhood until that moment escape my grasp and I heard them pop.

That was something no one could have prepared me for, something that wasn’t in the pamphlets the hospice nurses gave me, something that wasn’t on any self-help checklist I could find on a pop psychology website. Hope can be a prison too.

*****

I never thought I would return to Florida under these conditions. I thought my brother Paul was going to take care of all the affairs relating to our mother’s house. After all, he is the lawyer in the family, the one who made something of himself. But Paul informs me, in his spare, clipped manner of speaking, that he can’t possibly come to Florida right now. “It’s just not in the cards, Nora. You understand, don’t you? I’m looking at becoming a full partner right now, the firm is very hush-hush, you know. Simply put, I can’t. It’s about time you realized you’re part of this family too.”

“Paul,” I try to steady my voice. A display of emotion will get me nowhere. “I don’t have the funds to get all the way down there. Where will I even stay?”

“In her house!” Paul retorts. “Free rent.”

“How am I supposed to figure out what to do with all of her stuff? There’s got to be years of, oh, God, I don’t even know what she’s got in there. What if—”

“You’re a grown woman, you’ll manage,” Paul says.

“I... I don’t want to,” I finally plead, my voice breaking.

“Well, we all have to do things we don’t want to do in life, Nora, I hate to be the one to break it to you. Do you have any more questions, or are you finished wasting my time?”

For the briefest of moments, for the increment of time it takes Paul to end the phone call, I imagine that there could have been answers to the things I want to know, words for the questions I could not articulate and identify. For Paul, it will always be our fault that we had the misfortune of being born to two people addicted to chaos. Robbed of anything even close to a normal childhood, the wounds of being loved less, loved wrong, do not go unhealed just because one becomes an adult. Paul has spent his whole life planning his trajectory, obsessing himself into a way out. While he is as ordered as clockwork, I am quietly chaotic. Like Florida herself, I am prone to sudden storms, irascible moods that unexpectedly give way to sunshine. Where I hope to hear his breathing, there is only silence. Where I hope for compassion, there is only empty air between us.

*****

Jason has been couch-surfing these past several months and has been hard to get a hold of. He won’t call me on the phone, it’s not activated, and he can’t afford the minutes, but when he has Wi-Fi, he’ll text me recordings of himself speaking, which I listen to on repeat through my headphones, so my roommates won’t think I’m being ridiculous. I listen in the troughs of his breathing, let his voice encircle me as though I can see the sound waves as he narrates his tangled thoughts to me. I listen and I wait, and I listen, and I wait.

Moths are drawn to a flame because they believe it is the moon’s light by which they travel. When they go careening into a flame or bulb and meet their death, it is only natural. When I am drawn to a flame, when I singe my fingertips reaching out for something hot and enticing, I, too, recoil. But unlike the moths, I neither die nor do I learn. Imprisoned by the warden I’ve come to know as hope, I continue to smolder. I continue to try to elicit love from an empty vessel.

As I said, my mother died alone, and I watched her die alone. After my father passed away, thus ending their forty-eight years of chaotic matrimony, my mother wept endlessly that she had nothing to live for, that her allotted time on Earth was dwindling and devoid of meaning. She lived and died as a shadow of an individual, or perhaps she was so willing to let the people around her tell her who she was that when she found herself alone, she could no longer hold her shape, no longer support her sense of self.

As with Paul, I had the vague sense of a question, of a lifetime of questions, of doubts, of uncertainties with my mother, but when I tried to articulate them, I failed. I couldn’t bring myself to shine a light on all that was shrouded and hazy in the twilight of my mother’s life.

I arrive in Florida after a disjointed and dreamlike bus ride away from the city I came to dwell in without calling it home. I slept lightly here and there as the Greyhound bus carried me and my temporary companions on this errand. I had no desire to inquire about anyone’s destination, choice of transportation, or business. I felt as though everyone was staring at me as I boarded the bus carrying only a backpack—and by “everyone,” I mean the mothers who couldn’t have been much older than I was with their toddlers, soothing the squalling children, reaching for their husbands’ hands, looking adoringly at each other, the family a complete unit. I avoided their eyes, uncomfortable and afraid of being found out for the vagabond I am becoming.

*****

My mother’s father was an amateur photographer. Although I hardly knew him—I was eight when he died—he doted on me when he could, when my parents could stay still long enough for him to find our street address. My family used to make fun of him for how long it took him to compose a snapshot. When he took photos of me, he’d crouch down to my eye level and look into the viewfinder of the old, boxy Minolta that accompanied him everywhere. By the time he’d adjusted the shutter speed, the F-stop, and made sure the lens was focused, my smile had melted off of my face like the ice cream I was missing out on while Grandpa made me his subject.

For this reason, there are innumerable photographs of me as a child. Digital cameras had been invented well into Grandpa’s lifetime, but he was set in his ways and had no interest in pixels and memory cards when film canisters and a darkroom came naturally to him. When his lifetime was finally curtailed and the shutter no longer captured light, I had my first brush with grief. I was allowed to play with the old Minolta, and through a series of trial and error, I learned the rudimentary workings of the camera. My mother let me run through Grandpa’s backlog of unused film and took my precious, little yellow Kodak canisters into town and came back with stacks of prints. I never knew where she took them, how she kept finding places that processed and developed film no matter where we went, but if I loved her for anything, I loved her for that one indulgence, for letting me document whatever tale my life was becoming, for the fragments of stability that boxy camera offered. At times, it seemed the camera told truths I could not yet visualize, could not reconcile with. Things I once thought were complex, adult secrets, I now recognize as ordinary drug paraphernalia. Mysteries and fables I felt compelled to document are, upon review, merely a part of the inescapable mess of being human. Other times, it was the mechanism through which my mind developed the images that became my safety, a skittish stray dog I used to feed whenever I had something to spare, a bed in a real bed frame with a complete sheet set. Grandpa never let me take a photo of him. “I’m old and ugly,” he used to say with a smile. I wish I had insisted because his face is now fragmented in my memory, and my memory is imperfect, while the camera is absolute in its truth-telling.

*****

I have not told Jason that I am coming to Florida, and I expect to surprise him. I’ve replayed his gravely recordings for the past thirty hours or so as I slink closer and closer to him. I have finally arrived and am ready to stretch my legs. I want to run­—not away from anything, but towards something. I want to fling myself and my life in a single, focused direction, and I want to victoriously cross the finish line and collapse into the arms of my supporters.

My cousin Julie picks me up from the bus terminal. “Is that all your stuff?” she asks incredulously when she sees my scant belongings.

“Yeah,” I say sheepishly.

Julie is nineteen and waits tables at Hooters. She’s one of those extremely compact, yet curvy women; she can't possibly weigh over one hundred pounds, yet she has heavy breasts and thick thighs that further dwarf her tiny waist. She wears low-rise jeans and crop tops so that her belly button ring is always visible. We ride in silence for a while. She drives with one hand on her phone, ostensibly for purposes of using the GPS, the other hand clutching a small, iridescent blue e-cigarette which produces tremendous clouds of sickly-sweet vapor and gives me a headache. She steers with her knees, and I am thankful that the roads in this town are as wide as they are desolate. At first glance, hardly anything has changed, but when I look more closely, I see that some of the houses have been repainted. There’s a golden retriever in an ultramodern-looking front yard with strategically placed faux-granite boulders and grass mowed in a swirled pattern. By the time we’re back on the main road, I’ve seen two Priuses, three BMWs, and one Tesla. They stand out against the backdrop of tiny clapboard split-levels and houses that look like patchwork because they’ve had so many contrasting additions put on over the years.

“Nora?” Julie says impatiently.

“Huh?” I realize she’s asked me a question while I’ve been observing.

“Where am I taking you?” she taps her phone screen with a long, French manicured nail, indicating the GPS’s need for a concrete address.

“Sorry. We’re going to my mom’s house,” I murmur.

“What’s the address?” Julie says.

When I don’t respond, she thrusts her phone at me and takes a huge pull off of her vape. I am momentarily obscured from her view, and when I put the address I remember into her phone, the artificial voice of the GPS instructs, “Turn right at the next stop sign. Then, make a U-turn.”

“Great. We’ve got to turn around,” Julie huffs.

“It says we’re seven minutes away,” I say, trying to pacify her. “Thank you, by the way. I appreciate you coming to get me.”

“Oh, sure, yeah, you’re welcome. Where’s your guy, though? Not that I mind, I’m just... wondering... why he couldn’t come get you,” Julie says.

I can’t explain to Julie that although she and I are cut from the same cloth, we are not the same garment. I try on the idea of asking Jason to come through for me on something as mundane and temporal as picking me up at a specified time and delivering me to a specified address. While that prospect may be laughable, at least he doesn’t make promises he can’t keep. Sure, Julie may have been stuck with the burden of transporting me from one place to another, but Jason is a home unto himself. He is the only one who makes hope feel less like a prison and more like a palace.

*****

My parents’ house, which now legally belongs to Paul and me, is a ramshackle, colonial style home with a caved-in front porch and a green front door. It was only after Paul and I were no longer living with them that our parents put their money into a little place to call their own. In a way, it felt like a betrayal. I never knew it as “my home,” or even “my house.” It was always the parents’ place.

Now, it seems all the more formidable as I jiggle the key in the lock and the heavy door creaks open. I had, for whatever reason, only imagined doing this work of sifting through my parents’ effects in total darkness, and the sunlight streaming through the unadorned windows strikes me as bizarre, yet appropriately jarring.

I move slowly, wondering where to begin. My fingertips graze a coffee table, thick with dust and devoid of any sort of adornment. The dust cyclones into a tiny storm, and I cough hoarsely as it enters my mouth. My throat burns slightly. I move on.

I decide I will peek into every room of the house (there are six, altogether, not including two bathrooms), and then I will simply take on one room at a time: top to bottom, left to right. Paul has given me no direction, guidance, or even suggestion on how to decide which items to keep, which to sell, which to donate, and which to discard. The thought of burning the dwelling down flits through my mind like the futile flickering of a single flame. Surely, someone thought to plan for this. Someone somewhere has a practical mind and can conceive of the horrifying, commonplace realities of death. This is why wills exist, why DNR’s are honored. Someone has extracted the grief, the anger, the terror from this privately universal experience and made it into a formula, a map. Regardless of how tumultuous a life can be, there is no doubt about how it will end: a body breaking down, a psyche decaying until it is silenced. Dying is perhaps the most human thing we can do, yet who can say they have ever been prepared? How could I have truly said a sufficient goodbye?

What my parents chose to hold onto has little to do with me, I decide. What I choose to hold onto is anything that will not slip through my fingers. Whatever I find in this house has no bearing on the value of my life. I call Jason. “Where are you?” I ask his voicemail. “I’m back in town for a few days. Come find me.”

*****

Julie drops me off at a park near the river and I wait for Jason. In my memory, this place is secluded and often thick with the odor of marijuana. People used to sleep on the benches, which are now partitioned into sections, making lying down impossible. A family is barbecuing under a pavilion, which is also new, and a scowling teenager toys with a portable speaker.

And finally, as I’m staring into the reeds and watching a heron stalk a fish, I hear footfalls behind me and I fall into the embrace I’ve been yearning for, seemingly for my whole life.

*****

The house is as sprawling as it is compact. Where my memories fail me, there is drywall and plaster to contain me. As a child, it seemed so important to me that I had things and a place to put them. I wanted a doll collection on a shelf. I wanted a cupboard full of ceramic mugs and hot cocoa with real milk to spill from the brim onto a white rug, worn threadbare by the tread of numerous jovial visitors. I knew this, then, as my selfishness, my acquisitive ways, my unhappiness with what should have been enough. And at the time, it was not. I was a child with an innate need that was not met, though I had no way to articulate this to the world, and the world did not ask, the world did not even spare me a second thought, and instead found me careening headfirst into anything that even vaguely shone with the promise of stability.

So, what is there to do but attend to the wreckage? The house, though not decrepit yet, is in the early stages of crumbling. I hear movement within the walls, dust motes swirl around me, and the fickle sunlight entrances me until I am dumbly stumbling forth trying to organize a shadow of a life’s accruing. I find dresses crumpled on the floor of the kitchen, as though removed in a flurry of great passion, but when I pick them up, I find the tags still on them. Some of them look expensive, but one seems to have come from a thrift store. The orange tag on it reads, “Everything must go.”

*****

If I had to find out, I didn’t want it to be revealed in such a banal, everyday kind of horror. I would have rather pieced together the awfulness myself. I would have rather noticed the smell of someone else’s perfume on Jason, would have rather seen a strand of stranger’s hair on his pillow. Instead, I received a text from Julie and a screenshot moments later. At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing. Julie’s text read, “Is this your guy? Ouch.” And the screenshot depicted a Tinder profile—Jason’s Tinder profile. “Let’s keep it casual,” read his bio, beneath the last photo I’d taken of him before I’d gone to Milwaukee, before I’d kissed him goodbye and promised that even half a country between us couldn’t deter me from loving him, that wherever I went, my heart would hold space for him.

Alone in my mother’s house, surrounded by her effects that tell the story of a separate life, my thoughts bounce off the decaying walls. The silence is stifling. I long for the crackle of a flame just to bring my fingertips near the brightness, a test of how alive I am, despite how numb I feel. Again, the thought of arson smolders in the forefront of my mind. Why? I ask myself. Why burn the place to the ground if it can be saved?

I leave the kitchen and trudge into the living room. I turn the reality over and over in my mind. I am not who I thought I was. I have no idea who my mother was. Do we even look alike? Do we share the same nose, the same smile? Yes, I have looked at her, but have I seen her? And what prevented her from seeing me for all those years that I shrunk smaller and smaller in order to fit into an increasingly cramped space? Did I become so small I was imperceptible?

There is not a single mirror in this house.

*****

As I sift and weave through the house, things I once thought were clear become clouded. Why did my mother own an excessive amount of paint brushes and canvases? There is even an easel, which seems as though it’s never been used, standing upright like a soldier awaiting orders.

While I would like to claim an imperviousness to fear of ghosts, at my core, I am terrified. The pasts rises up from the floorboards of this condemned house, tugging at my hair, my sleeves, my fraying edges, inviting me to return to what and where I once was. They envelope me and I let them, like the way the house has peacefully fallen to ruin. I imagine that I am ruined too, lived in and abandoned; the chimney, my spine; my fingernails, broken windowpanes. The boundaries between house and earth are decaying, as are the boundaries between body and building. When I fold into myself, howling and wailing with unbridled grief, I almost hear an echo. A string of pearls—are these real? A hand-embroidered cushion—who made this? Does any object have inherent meaning if unowned? Without the context of my mother—remote even in life, and unreachable in death—how am I supposed to decide the value of this erratic array of a lifetime? Can I decide anything at all without the framework of external approval? Paul’s criticism, “You’re a grown woman,” ricochets in my mind and I feel childishly wounded. I spent my formative years trying to grow up without growing out, trying to be responsible enough to be both needless and wantless. To this day, there is a child within me desperate to hear, “I love you,” not withheld, not begrudgingly, not with consequences. The string of pearls breaks as I turn it over in my clumsy hands and the opaque orbs roll to all the far-flung corners of the house.

*****

My conversations with Jason are as stifling as the offending Florida sun. We walk by the river, and he points out all the spots he’s seen an ibis or a rabbit. He’s broke, he informs me, and none of the jobs he’s applied for are panning out. The cicadas are screaming, as close as the blood in my veins and equally commonplace. We turn sharply to avoid a passing jogger. I watch Jason to see if he will notice her. I want him to. I want him to see me looking at him looking at her and I want him to drop his gaze, guilty. Instead, his transgression is imperceptible, his guilt a mere projection on my part. He’s talking of the possibilities of us relocating elsewhere, says we have no tethers to the places where we currently reside. The idea of “home” has become amorphous for me: it’s not Milwaukee, it’s not Florida, it might not even be this lifetime. He’s outlining potential plans, possible routes our lives could take together as if anything is ever as singular as he can make it sound.

*****

I decide I am going to seek out my mother’s final resting place. I have to explain several times to Jason that I am undertaking this task alone, and he finally slinks off as though he has somewhere to be. Maybe he does. This is not a walkable city, nor an especially amicable one. The prospect of taking an Uber to the cemetery behind the abandoned baseball fields is daunting, as is the prospect of walking there in the heat. The decision is made for me by the blunt fact that I cannot afford an Uber, which seems a far more righteous reason to walk than to admit that I am unwilling to make awkward small talk with a stranger who’s taking me to the cemetery.

The cemetery used to be a community garden, spawned from some politician’s performative gesture of goodwill towards the low-income families in the area. All that’s left of its former vivaciousness are a few tomato trellises and a massive, sprawling oak tree that seems to divide the sky into fathomable pieces with its branches. A cloud here, a lifetime there. I keep my eyes on the horizon as I progress through the overgrown baseball fields, imagining that this place, too, was once abundant with life. The pitcher’s mound has sunken into the earth like a mouth that hasn’t uttered a sound in years. My own breathing seems harsh and raucous, as though I am disturbing the past just by bringing my present to this desolate place.

The trees seem to bend in the shimmering heat, a kind of crazed dance beckoning me closer. As I watch, it seems I am not gaining any ground at all until suddenly the cemetery is upon me, and I am upon it. How fitting there is no one around, no one whose eyes I would avoid, no one to nod at me or make some other futile gesture at camaraderie.

Unafraid, I push the waist-high gate open and enter the grassy plot. Perhaps I was subconsciously anticipating resting once I crossed the unused baseball fields, as though my destination were not a trip in and of itself. It hadn’t occurred to me until now that navigating this sprawling, uneven place would be equally taxing on my body. Foolishly, I imagine calling out, “Mom?” I imagine sensing her presence—her physical presence, at least—and being led by love to her grave. And if I couldn’t be led by love, then I wanted to be led by belonging and by loyalty. And if not by that, then I hoped the obligation we had to each other would be enough.

I’ve never had reason to contemplate the organization of a cemetery, if there is any such thing. I yearn for the systematic style of a library: graves alphabetized by last name or in numerical order according to date of death. If I were someone else, someplace else, and someone else’s daughter, I would find humor in my insignificant and selfish will that the universe be organized to my liking—or at all. But I don’t laugh, don’t even smile. I feel dizzy with the heat and even heavier is the weight of grief.

Worn footpaths crisscross the unkempt and patchy grass, vaguely reminiscent of the liver spots and plum-colored veins that erupted all over my mother’s hands in her last few years. I imagine that decades from now, mine will look the same. Tentatively, I pick a path at random and follow it until its end. I take another, and another. The feeling that I have forgotten something shrouds me like mourning, like the skeletal fingers of the past pulling at my hair. In the harsh sunlight, I am not afraid of ghosts, but fear prickles its way through my chest, nonetheless. There is only the knowledge that nothing is permanent, not even all of these stone markers, ellipses for entire lives, now rendered unreadable by weather and age. That and the vague sensation that I am forgetting something vital. My current path ends, and I choose another at random. I circle around and around, wishing I had something to say to these people, these kaleidoscopic lives left here to rest eternally alone. What would I say? What could I say? Again, the urge to cry out for my mother swells in my chest.

After what feels like hours of walking among the dead and the peaceful, after it seems I have seen every grave save for my mother’s, I leave. It feels as though she’s right in front of my face, and I am too distracted to see her. It feels as if I had just tried a little harder, had I sought a little better, she would have revealed herself to me. As the metal gate clangs shut, I realize what I’ve forgotten: water.

*****

I don’t know what Paul would do if he were here, but he’s not, so I can’t ask him. “I’m just a phone call away,” he’d replied when I texted him that I was boarding the Greyhound. I’ve become more familiar with my brother’s voice just from listening to his recorded voicemail greeting these past few...however long I’ve been down here in Florida. The days have begun to melt and shine in the heat, glistening like the sweat that beads on my face. I’m not really crying. I’m cried out. I got it all out of my system far before my mother was even in the ground. Alone, she died while still living in my mind, a sort of stand-in for an imaginary friend or a conscience. A purpose or an identity.

In life, she was somewhere between a promise and an omen. In death, she was only the finality of relief: never would there be another screaming match, another failed expectation, another cop banging on the door, another hellish night spent counting the fiery contrails as the sun went down on the Armageddon of my childhood.

You’re so strong.

I’ve heard it whispered, shouted, and sobbed. Before I learned to be silent, back when I used to exude tragedy to those who had never known it, that was the solemn response I was met with. Eye contact would be the first to go. The tapping of the foot—I’d run too, if I were you—Casting the gaze about for a distraction—anything will do.

Was what I lived through worth the strength with which I was fortified? And what to do with empty arms that seem capable of carrying anything?

My eyes dart frantically around the room, as though I could possibly discard my heart’s litany of aches here with my mother’s cable knit sweaters, the unused pots and pans, and all the rest. But as I look around for anything to take me outside of myself, all I find is my grandfather’s old camera sitting plainly on an end table adjacent to the sofa. “How did you get here?” my voice reverberates, mocking me, it seems, for my loudness, which would be better served if I were talking to Jason, or Paul, or Julie, or absolutely anyone other than an empty room crowded only with memories.

When I take the camera in my hands, it is heavier than I remembered. Muscle memory guides my fingers to the lens and body; I drape the neck strap over my head, remembering how Paul always used to say I looked like a tourist. I can practically hear him now, “Where are your white socks and sandals?” In the fractured second it takes me to advance whatever film may be inside the camera’s dusty body and fire the shutter, the image of adolescent Paul floods my vision, ridiculing me for wanting to make memories. If I was not creating my own memories, then I would be forced to recount and relive the past as it was, not as I made it. I wanted—it didn’t matter, and that was the crux of my affliction.

I dampen a dish rag with water from the kitchen sink and gingerly wipe off the camera’s lens. It’s dusty and has a nearly imperceptible scratch on the top of the lens’ bowed glass. I am no skillful photographer, especially not in this modern age of digital cameras. I cannot fathom being able to take upwards of two hundred photos in a few hours. What would I do with hundreds of nearly identical images? Film is slower, more intentional. There is more waiting involved, more trust. For this reason, I cannot open the camera to find out if there is film inside, a little spool that may be holding my mother’s last sights or forgotten family moments or something else entirely. Perhaps a more adept photographer would know how to tell without opening the back of the camera’s body (which would immediately destroy any potential undeveloped film hiding within), but I, with my limited capabilities, am left to wonder.

*****

I’ve emptied an empty house. Any keepsake I may have scavenged will sit in storage. On my final day in Florida, I find myself at the beach on Jason’s insistence. Despite being a native Floridian, I cannot stand the beach. It makes me hyperaware of my own skin. It feels constraining somehow, as if my feelings are too big for my body. As I sprawl awkwardly on a beach towel, trying to hide my discomfort, I know that I must make a decision. A life spent imprisoned by hope, hope and love-hunger, has culminated in a choice that was thrust on me without my permission. I have always deferred to the desires of others, proclaimed, “I don’t care... It doesn’t matter...” as though apathy were the path to acceptance and approval. No one ever taught me how to care about myself.

I prop myself up on my elbows, facing the ocean where Jason is wading deeper into choppy waves. He raises his arms and his back ripples. Five years of bated breath. Five years of anticipation. Five years of hope. Why does the idea of love feel like the pinnacle of my existence? Why do I feel as though love is the only thing that can break me and remake me, the only thing that can heal this god-awful soul-sickness that leaves me a shell of a person?

I hardly brought anything with me to Florida. I fit all of my belongings into a backpack, and anything worth saving from my mother’s home will languish in storage indefinitely. The camera, though, remains with me, a reminder of the way things once were.

I turn my knowledge over and over in my mind. Jason is hardly visible and is shrinking as he jumps and splashes—how free he looks. Somewhere, there are other lenses for the camera. There are macro lenses, wide-angle lenses, and at least one telephoto, but I never found any of them. All I have is the kit lens, which does not allow me to zoom in or out. I hold the camera up to my sunburned face and peer through the viewfinder. I see Jason and I focus on him. He is hardly more than a dot in the vast ocean. I adjust the settings and the light meter’s needle hits right in the center: a perfect exposure. My finger hovers over the shutter button. I know what to do from here.

About the Author

Katherine Orfinger

Katherine Orfinger is a writer and artist based in Central Florida. She earned her BA in English from Stetson University, where she was active in Jewish life on campus as well as organizations aimed at ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. Katherine's work is influenced by her Jewish upbringing and her Floridian hometown. Her work has appeared in Beyond Words, Touchstone, Outrageous Fortune, and others.

Read more work by Katherine Orfinger .