You used to take pictures of the women you slept with. Every one of them had a forgettable face and some name that was on the first pages of dictionaries. They were always foggy-eyed when they woke up, whispering through unpainted lips and gathering their bag.
The pictures were taken on your Polaroid camera. Those were the ones that came in muted colors and lived at the drugstore. Teenagers used them but you were twenty-seven. The film was expensive but the pictures were worth it. After they rolled out of the camera, you pasted them in the scrapbook your aunt gave you years ago. Then you’d scribble the date and revisit the memory when feeling like nobody loved you.
On the first few pages of the book, there were insignificant dates. Delicate women, sitting cross-legged on your bed, knotting their fingers into their shoe laces. They all wore ugly variations of the same red sweater and army green boots. Their names you can’t remember but that’s a good thing because it was only for that one night.
Some of them thought it was to last. One girl inquired about meeting each other’s families. It was around Thanksgiving then, and you laughed and thought about your father. A tight-lipped man that hosted the holiday parties and clapped you on the back in front of his work friends. That girl did not last and you both knew it when you planted a final kiss on her cheek.
Your father is not proud of you. He is a man with an aging wife and two sons. One of them is gay and he does not approve. The other photographed the women he shared a laugh and drink with at the local bar, rather than attending business school with an unironed suit. Not much to love but he finds a way.
You think you’re still invited to the parties because you changed your career and tell good stories. You tell stories of those candlelit nights gone wrong and earn chuckles from bald men. You father chuckled only for the sake of it and is thankful you now photograph nature instead.
Nature is overrated, you think. Your thoughts are confirmed when you’re in the middle of a forest with your iphone camera, not the Polaroid, taking pictures of a frozen deer. You wonder if it’s dead because breath doesn’t puff out of its lips like it does for you. Its wide-open, brown eyes are what you focus on.
The squirrels are vexing and give you a headache. It’s light out with beams of sunlight tearing through the leaves, but still you’re unimpressed. Where were all the opportunities to take photos of the Aurora Borealis or capture the coral reef off the coast of Australia? Perhaps the problem was that you didn’t live in Alaska and you weren’t a professional diver with a lovely, chipped accent.
Tonight is the Thanksgiving dinner. Your father will be expecting breathtaking photos of nature and delightful stories of your ignorant mistakes. You’re only one year older, twenty-eight, but there are so many stories. And the older, richer men like them with the most detail. In your mind there’s those red sweaters and laces that never tie, but those are personal. You’ll never tell those and only stick with the retellings of broad-shouldered ones.
You type ‘beautiful pictures of nature’ into the search bar and find a few pictures that look like they could’ve been taken by you. The printer is on and has ink so you print them out, one by one, and add the photo of the dead deer’s eyes just for fun.
Then you get ready. A striped red tie, a collared shirt, and so much hair gel weaving throughout your hair. It feels greasy and looks black with hints of grey. You’re only twenty-eight, not sixty.
With a sigh you sweep the photos into a little briefcase that you own. It’s brown and soft on the outside. Pleather, fake leather, is what you think it is covered with. You rarely use it and when you do, it’s empty and busy impressing the business men you find on the street. You also slide your scrapbook and Polaroid camera into it, trying to give it no thought whatsoever.
Soon it’s time to leave. You check your watch and realize you’re already late. Your pocket is spacious, a sign that your car keys are missing. Mumbling a string of curse words that would surprise even your father, you decide to call an Uber instead.
Once you arrive at the party, you already know it’s going to be a bad night. Your mother greets you first, kissing every square inch of your forehead and insisting you taste the dry turkey and lumpy mash potatoes.
There are a lot of people listening when you tell her you don’t want to spoil your dinner. One of them is your brother. He wears a purple suit with ungelled hair. He asks with bouncing eyebrows about your love life. You want to show him the photo of the dead deer and say something snarky about that’s how his love life looks at the moment. Your brother busies himself with clicking glasses with any guest who stumbles by.
You call your father Benjamin when you’re alone but tonight you call him Father. Standing with him, beside his friends feels wrong in every kind of way.
When he asks about the pictures, you know just by seeing your reflection in his green eyes that there’s blush powdered onto your cheeks. Your voice cracks but you stick your hand in the briefcase and pull out every photo except the deer one. When you show them to your father and his friends they smile and nod and pretend their money is going to protect nature.
After dinner of lies that you’re allergic to potatoes and turkey and green salads, you think of your parents and how hard it must be to keep a straight face when around their sons. You are a failure and everyone at this party knows it.
Finding your father upstairs, sitting on his bed, staring into the fireplace, you know something is wrong. He’s in the same position that all the women were when you snapped the photo. And it gives you an idea.
You carefully set your briefcase on the bed next to him and take the Polaroid camera out. You step silently in front of your father. He wears a blue suit and only prickles of a mustache. Your finger hovers over the shutter button. But you can’t do it.
“I know it is hard for you, Benjamin.” you say, gulping and turning to look into fire as well. “I am sorry for being an unworthy son.”
Your father is shaking with rage and old age, but his lips press tightly together. Finally, he rises to his feet and wipes his forehead. “You are wrong. I love you and I always have.” The words are forced. You don’t say anything back. With one long swing of his arm, he knocks the briefcase off the bed. It spills onto the floor and the dead deer photo lays on top of the mess. Then he marches out.
It is now you know what you have to do. You bend to gather your photos and scrapbook, thinking about the incredulous thing your father said, but you pause. Instead, you leave the mess, take the scrapbook, and step towards the fire.
There are some considerations. And then you throw the book into the fire.
The last thing you see before the flames devour it is a photo of a girl and a name. Mary Ann. You wrote the name. You weren’t supposed to. It wasn’t supposed to last but it did, sitting on your shoulders and tugging at your hair. You promised yourself it wouldn’t scar but here you are, scarred and crying.