The Girl in the Photo
Lauren had big tits, swollen and weighted down with bologna-sized areolas, like she’d been waiting a very long time for someone to milk her. Maybe it was her tits, maybe it was the pink ribbon tied in a bow around her neck, but the sight of her made me want to moo. She stood in the mirror’s reflection with her arms raised to make her body look slim and add some perk to those bags. In one photo she bit her bottom lip and I could see the hint of a double chin. She was framed by a Hollywood mirror atop her purple vanity, and set behind her were purple walls, purple sheets pulling off her bed, a Saw 2 movie poster, a magenta bra on the floor. Her room was just askew enough to look natural, as though she hadn’t cleaned for the pictures. On her stomach, she’d written backward so it could be read in the mirror: Property of Zack Simmons.
I showed the photos to Brett under flickering fluorescents in an NYU dorm. It was the weekend after finals, and except for us, the common room was empty. At a round wooden table, I stretched my head out on my arm and stared into his face as he looked at the photos.
“Is this what girls do?” Brett asked.
“And what does that bitch have around her neck?” he said. “At least dudes have the decency to leave their faces out of dick pics.”
He pushed my computer back to me and I left my head on the table, concentrating on Lauren’s face, searching for acne. Brett opened Grindr on his phone and started showing me pictures of dicks, showed me how guys used their hands to make themselves look bigger.
Brett spent many of his nights on Grindr, seeking anonymous hookups, submerging himself in the BDSM world for a sense of order. Sex felt safer when he didn’t recognize the face above him. A few months earlier, in the summer before we left for college, Brett’s best friend William died in a car crash. From the way he talked about him, I often wondered if they had been more than friends. I thought about what I would do if I lost a lover like that.
“She didn’t even spell his name right. Zach hates when people spell his name with a ‘k’.” I wasn’t done with Lauren.
“How’d you get these pictures?”
I’d been home to South Carolina a few weeks earlier, and Zach and I had spent the weekend together. I’d known about Lauren for a while, maybe as many as six months. Zach knew I knew. They worked together at a pizza place and after I found out they’d slept together, I told Zach he had to quit his job. And then I asked him to please quit his job. And then I accepted that maybe the economy really was bad, and maybe he would only stay there until something better came along. After a while I began to get pleasure from checking her Facebook page and looking through his messages. When Zach went to shower, I found the photos on his phone and, unable to fully digest them then, I sent them to myself for later. There was a secret pleasure in seeing their sex behind my back, like smelling your own stench.
“Girl, you just need to let him go,” Brett said.
With that, I twisted my ribcage and rolled my head to face the ceiling, closed my eyes. I’d started to come up twenty minutes earlier and decided to give myself in to it. We were on AMT, which I could only remember by telling myself that, rearranged, the letters spelled ATM, the machine I had used to suck my bank account dry. We’d gone to Kevin Fun Times—as he was known in my phone—for acid, or anything fun, and AMT is what he handed us, with the addition that it was an “NYU finals week special.” We bought four doses for the price of three.
When we got back to our freshman dorm, we opened our plastic bag to find four sugar cubes individually wrapped in foil. To convince ourselves we were being safe, we searched AMT on the website Erowid, learning that it is “a long-acting, synthetic psychedelic and euphoric stimulant known for causing nausea and vomiting.” Brett clicked through a few more links and determined it was safe to take with my SSRIs, and we each placed two sugar cubes on our tongues.
“Bottoms up,” he said.
Now I could feel my pulse accelerating. “You know she just started going to my boarding school? She learned about it through him.”
I didn’t know how long he’d been sleeping with her but it was long enough that he’d encouraged her to apply to the arts boarding school I’d gone to. She was a junior in high school, two years younger than me, five years younger than Zach, only sixteen, and it made my stomach flip. I’d thought I had plenty of time until guys started leaving me for younger women.
“I want to make her pay,” I said.
“Shouldn’t you be mad at him?”
I’d been mad at him too long. We were coming up on three years together, and I’d been mad so long I was exhausted. Better to refocus it on the person who was stealing the life I’d left behind in South Carolina.
I raised my hands up to the lights and thumbed the rings on my left hand: the engagement ring and wedding band Zach’s father had given his mother more than twenty years earlier. It wasn’t a diamond engagement ring but a band of sapphires. The kind of ring I’d spent years thinking about, something colorful that skirted a diamond’s predictability. I wound up with the rings in a gesture of assurance from Zach. Not exactly a promise ring, definitely not a proposal for marriage, so we called them Forever Endeavor rings, our cute way of saying, “Maybe one day.” He’d found them while cleaning out his car several years earlier, realizing that his mom had lost the rings there after removing them to cheat on his dad. His mom, now remarried, was still looking for the rings, didn’t know where they were, but Zach said she didn’t deserve them. He gave them to me.
“I want to get her kicked out,” I told Brett. “I know she keeps drugs in her room at school. She has to.”
“How do you know?”
“I know that she and Zach smoke a lot of weed together. I know that if someone reports drugs in a student’s room, the staff is obligated to search. If she isn’t actually doing anything wrong, she won’t get in trouble.”
“Sounds a little sticky,” Brett said.
My head felt heavy as I raised it from the table. All it took was creating a fake email address: something like ConcernedAnon@gmail.com or AnonymousStudent123@gmail.com. I drafted an email to the head of residential life at my boarding school, explaining that I was a peer living on Lauren’s hall, and my concern wasn’t so much with Lauren’s personal choices re: drugs but the helpless victims who fell under her wing, my friends, whose lives were being left to an uncertain fate.
Brett and I had some laughs with the language. We were laughing at everything. We went outside to the stoop for a cigarette and we bit the cold. My fingers fumbled with my lighter, and giving up, I pressed my cigarette up against Brett’s, trying to hold steady enough for it to light. We bounced from one leg to another and I tried to differentiate between the frost of my breath and the smoke I exhaled. A long steady current of white pulled out of my mouth.
My eyes were on the potted monkey grass on the stoop. The wind rustled the leaves a second before it stung my cheeks. The more I stared, the more it felt we were in conversation with one another. Rustle, rustle, sting. Then the bush began speaking. I couldn’t understand it, could hardly believe it was happening.
“Brett,” I whispered. “The leaves are speaking Korean.”
“That bush. It’s talking. In Korean, or Mandarin, something.”
A moment later a group of Korean students rounded the corner. Brett looked from the chattering students to my confused face and started laughing. He doubled over until he had to sit down on the stone steps.
Back inside, the email draft was still up on my computer.
“Maybe I shouldn’t,” I said. “Maybe this is wrong.”
“Oh whatever, the bitch fucked your boyfriend.”
Brett reached over me and pressed Send. Suddenly I was nauseous and ran to the trashcan, but nothing came out. The website had warned about this.
“William and I used to have nights like these,” Brett mused. “I’d watch him spin glow sticks till I puked.”
Though Brett talked about William a lot, I’d only recently learned he was dead. The details were brief, just that he’d crashed his car and nobody else was involved. I didn’t know if William had been fucked up while driving but it wasn’t hard to imagine: the throb of music in his ears, the headlights stretching around the bend in the tree-lined road, the stomach drop as everything in his vision ripped apart. Brett, a straight-faced gay with tattoos and neon leopard print dyed into his hair, wasn’t one for talking about his feelings.
I sat on the floor by the trashcan, one hand on the rim to steady myself. It was silent.
“I guess I miss him is all,” Brett admitted.
This was it. His moment.
“Hey,” I said, the thought suddenly occurring to me, “just because I’ve been sleeping with Will, my Will, doesn’t mean this Zach and Lauren thing is okay. It’s not like I’m cheating on him. He’s been cheating on me for so long, it’s fair.”
“Right,” he said, eyes turned up to the tiled ceiling, “your Will.”
“I’m not a bad person,” I added. It’s just you wake up one day and you’re talking to a girl in a photo.
Mary Jean Murphy is a native South Carolinian, currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction at Columbia University. She is the recipient of a 2012 Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Award, and her nonfiction has been displayed at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Her writing has more recently been featured in the Washington Square Review, Word Riot, and Literary Orphans. By day, she manages a martial arts school in Tribeca and takes long walks with her dog named Story. Find more of her work at maryjeanmurphy.com