Pictures Only I Can See

Submitted into Contest #144 in response to: Start your story with somebody taking a photo.... view prompt


Contemporary Friendship LGBTQ+


I always wished I could take a real photograph just by blinking, my eyelids acting as camera shutters, silently fluttering closed and open again in a split second, the image projected and then frozen into the darkness of memory – permanent and only mine.

Sometimes, on days when I spent all day outside of the apartment, I pretended to do it. I would capture my friends, grinning with their teeth sparkling and eyes catching the warm light. I would pause an unknown stranger waiting for a train, staring out at the road and the cars endlessly going in opposite directions. I always wondered where they were going. It fascinated me to snap my eyes closed and live in a moment of my own perception for a few more seconds, to drink in the fleeting mundanity of something so unimportant, something I couldn't quite grasp with my fingers and pull back to me - the past. 


Through the plastic viewfinder, I watch as the flash brightens the brick wall again, adding a layer of white light to its gritty red, smoothing Carol M’s skin, but at the same time sharpening her edges and plastering a black outline around her body. 

‘I think that one’ll be nice,’ I say.

She tucks her hair behind her ear and turns away. Half of her face is shrouded by her bangs, the ends brushing her lips. 

‘Okay,’ she replies softly. ‘Let’s go. I’m cold.’ 

The alley creates a wind tunnel, as if it’s trying to spit us back onto the main road. For a minute,  I get the feeling we’re the only people outside, like a blizzard is coming and everybody else in the city is warm and cozy with their soup cans and bags of rice and hot cocoa, waiting for the first flakes to fall from the sky. I try to imagine we’re in a movie and she’s going to step forward and kiss me, but I’m sober, and sometimes you have to be drunk to romanticize things. Sometimes you have to be drunk to believe in things that will never happen.  

‘Emily,’ Carol M beckons. She’s left the wall and ambled back down the alley. My eyes flash toward her, silhouetted by stain-yellow sodium lights lining the empty road. Immediately, I want to take another picture of her, half-turned and looking like she’s in the middle of a decision.

Carol M could never speak to me again, I think, and I would still love her. I’d still want her like I do now. I suddenly wonder if she relishes in the way she looks, if she runs her hands down her hips like they’re clay and can shape them however she pleases, if she pinches the skin on her stomach and smiles to herself like she’s Goldilocks: just curvy enough. I wonder how she looks at me, if the person I really am is a stranger to her, and instead she sees me as lopsided, helpless, and overly idealistic. But then again, isn’t that the person I really am? 

Looking at her poised between the brick walls, I marvel at her hair, spiraling up in tendrils like she’s underwater. It’s mysteriously symmetrical, framing her face, flying behind her and exposing her previously hidden right eye. The wind parts ways on her high cheekbones and her eyes are closed. She’s beautiful. 

Carol M is a complex person. Yet her personality is without mistake, perfectly intertwined and connected with itself, like a fresh spider-web. Some days I feel like I’m the spider who spun her, like I know my way around and she feels like home. But most days I’m like the fly, caught and entangled in her gluey strings, the more I squirm the tighter her hold becomes. 

We have been friends since we were eighteen and terrified, standing in the corridor of our thirteenth floor dorm. I remember watching hoards of girls coming in and out of rooms, shuffling from elevators with cardboard boxes and mattress-toppers, their eyes caked with inky mascara. Dads held  back tears or folded their arms across their chest in protest. Moms hugged and hugged their daughters like they’d never let go. Alone and staring down the long hall, I pretended there was a camera at the opposite end. I closed my eyes and pictured what it would capture as it zoomed in slowly toward me, past split-ends and denim shorts with pockets sticking out, bodies moving frantically in fast-motion, but all the while, me standing still, arms at my side. And when I stopped the fantasy to open my eyes, there she was, the blonde and charming Carol M – Hi, are you Emily?

 In the top drawer of my wardrobe, I have a messy library of printout photos stuffed in cookie tins my grandmother used to collect. None of the photographs are of me, but that’s okay. I like the idea of keeping a fraction of somebody else’s life with mine. If I ever tried to explain that to anyone, they’d probably think I’m lonely and pathetic. But when I  show my friends, I keep my mouth shut, and they normally just tell me the pictures are very intimate. They never tell me whether or not they’re good, and I never ask. 

While I’m shivering and looking at Carol M in the alley, I feel a sudden flood of sorrow for myself. The night before last, I watched history of the entire world, i guess on YouTube, but all I could think about was the countless tortured lives of romantics before myself, and how there were bound to have been millions of untold stories of unrequited love, and that maybe mine didn’t even matter because someday, it will be forgotten.

Now, I’m thinking about what makes something significant and about how later, I’m going to write all of this down so it isn’t forgotten, how Carol M looks and how I feel about it all. I’m thinking about Shakespeare and how none of his stories actually happened, but people still remembered them, how real life never compares to what we wish it to be, and even if something devastating comes, there’s never sad music playing and you never look pretty when you’re crying. 

I think about what Scarlett Johansson’s character says in Her, that the past is just a story we tell ourselves. Maybe Carol M never liked me in the first place and now she just feels bad for me, an indifference turned to misplaced empathy. She no longer laughs at the magnetic poems I arrange on the fridge. She spends her time at her friends’ apartments and goes on walks alone to the lake. 

I try to hate her. I try to ignore her text messages and stop flipping through the photos I’ve taken of her, sliding my thumb over the glossy surface of her face and wishing I knew what it really felt like to touch her cheek. It gets old after a while. 

‘Wait,’ I say to her, and she’s miraculously paused in time, balancing on her tiptoes above a sewer grate. 

My fingers tremble against the disposable camera. I almost bring it to my eye and press the button. But the flash would blind her and ruin the background, freezing the snow that’s beginning to come down and hiding Carol M’s face. I think about how I’d stare and stare at the photo after I printed it out, knowing it would be tainted by some awful nostalgic feeling but not knowing why. Slowly, I place the camera in my pocket. 

Carol M is still and silent, then cocks her head slightly.

‘What?’ she says. Not impatient, not annoyed. Curious. 

My thoughts turn like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. I really do love Carol M. I don’t need to say it to her. I just remember. Memories can turn to love, when you think about them long enough.

And suddenly I’m flipping back through the photographs I’ve taken in my mind, each lost memory flying by as I lock eyes with her.

I see Carol M sitting on a sofa drinking Coca Cola and looking out an open window. Carol M warming her feet on the dashboard of my car in Colorado. Carol M washing off a face-mask, bent over the sink, and me, looking at myself in the mirror behind her. Carol M helpless on her stomach with her face in a pillow, sobbing for the loss of her grandfather. Carol M rowing a canoe and wearing a baseball cap too low on her face. 

It might be over soon, Carol M and I, the years of friendship. I’m not sure why I believe this or how it will end, but I don’t think it’s going to be too bad. I want to chase after her, but it feels like she’s nearly forgotten about me. But I  really think I’m going to be okay. 

Carol M flattens her feet on the sewer grate and relaxes. Smiles.

‘Come on, Emily. What is it?’

She knows me better than anyone else and I hate it. I hate how much I still want her, how much I love her, and how it feels like she no longer loves me. 

But I want to remember how she looks now, when I’m the only one she’s waiting for, when we’re alone in an alley and wasting time before we go out for pizza and a beer.

I swallow a smile and feel tears coming. In a few seconds I’m going to blink and it’s going to be over. I keep my eyes open, letting my peripherals become blurry. Carol M doesn’t notice. She’s still wearing her silly half-grin and a tilted head. 

I think about us twenty years in the future, accidentally bumping into each other at somebody’s wedding and spilling champagne on our dresses. There’s an embrace and a promise to get lunch sometime. But in this fantasy, we probably live far away from one another and she has a husband. It’s hard to picture myself then.

So for now, I take one last picture in my mind, before we change. I blink, letting tears spill down my cheeks, and I leave my eyes closed. I hold it inside my head and wish it would stay forever, wish she would stay forever. Maybe it will. Maybe she will. 


May 06, 2022 16:44

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Mária Stašová
00:15 Jun 01, 2022

I've read your story a while back, so pardon me for possible inaccuracies, but your story simply got stuck in my head. While it may be of no authority, I am one of the lower-grade reedsy judges and have shortlisted winning stories in the past. Yet, I've only read two or three that have touched me quite as yours have. And that is for a simple reason. Many people can talk about unrequited love, but only a few can make the talking worthwhile. You worked on a common theme, but gave a unique taste not only to the theme, but thanks to the concep...


Kyle Sager
15:49 Jun 04, 2022

Maria thank you so much. This comment really means a lot to me as an amateur writer. Sometimes I wonder if it's worth continuing or if it actually means anything to anyone, so it's quite reassuring to hear this. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. It makes me so happy to hear that my story has stuck with you.


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J. S. Bailey
13:44 Aug 27, 2023

Click. I have wondered myself, at times, if I could just capture a moment perfectly. No camera because 99% of photos can not capture a moment. Cannot capture the ambiance, the feeling in the air, the emotions and thoughts going through our minds at the time. A photo can mean a thousand things to someone but most of that is the memory behind it. I love how you weaved the concept through the story with mostly character thoughts and little interaction but we were always present and aware of what the character was seeing around them while in t...


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19:45 Aug 12, 2023

Wow, Kyle... You're a writer.


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Sharon Hancock
01:35 May 12, 2022

“I’m thinking about Shakespeare and how none of his stories actually happened, but people still remembered them, how real life never compares to what we wish it to be, and even if something devastating comes, there’s never sad music playing and you never look pretty when you’re crying.” —this is beautifully written with so much heartfelt emotion. So well done! I love how it’s not just sad or happy …it’s everything and the reader feels it all at once. I was hooked on the beginning bc it reminded me of teaching preschool . To help the little...


Kyle Sager
11:19 May 12, 2022

Aww thank you so much! That means a lot. I love that idea for helping little kids remember moments, such a cute idea


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Racheal Pelter
19:50 May 06, 2022

Brilliant. “And they normally just tell me the pictures are very intimate. They never tell me whether or not they’re good, and I never ask” “I’m thinking about Shakespeare and how none of it actually happened but people still remembered it, how real life never compares to what we want it to be, and even if it’s something devastating, there’s never sad music playing and you never look pretty when you’re crying.” "Sliding my thumb over the glossy surface of her face and wishing I knew what it really felt like to touch her cheek. It gets ol...


Kyle Sager
13:23 May 07, 2022

Love youuu


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