The stoplight was red. I stared out the window at the city park, past the railroad tracks, to where the trees were all silhouetted by the sun sinking deep behind them. They looked almost black now, and the branches stood stark against the last bit of daylight. I looked back in front of me, finding the light had turned green, but that was okay. There weren’t any cars waiting behind me.
The walk to the bar from the parking spot I found would take fifteen minutes. It was dead-of-winter cold in fall, wind stinging my skin. My jacket wouldn’t button any higher around my neck. I weaved through people on sidewalks, shoved my numb hands deeper in my pockets, and stared straight ahead as a man smoking a cigarette asked me if I had any change. Usually I walked slowly to the bar, contemplating turning back a handful of times before I ever even made it there, but the prospect of a heat-filled room propelled me forward.
“You made it!” Clay grinned when he saw me walking towards our table in the corner. I felt the warmth rush over me as I undid the top buttons of my jacket and slid onto the stool next to him.
“I always do,” I said.
Every Friday night, after work, the same bar—the four of us would meet up. Clay treated it like the highlight of his week, ending up too drunk to drive himself home half of the time. Devon and Catie saw it as their one night away from the baby. They’d have a drink—two if it’d been a rough week—and usually walk out of the bar shortly after ten. At this point, it was obligatory to me—like a contract I’d unintentionally entered into and didn’t have a good enough reason to break away from.
“Beer?” Devon asked.
I nodded. “Beer.” We walked over to the bar, and so the night went.
Drink after drink. Catie got promoted at work, so the first round was on Devon, but Clay and I both offered to buy. We were all finally at that point where buying a round of drinks for the table wouldn’t be a devastating hit to our wallets. I ran into a guy I’d had a class with in college on my way back from the bathroom—small talk ensued until I made up an excuse to walk away. There was a pretty girl in a purple shirt at the table to the left of us and I watched as a guy spilled his drink on her. She and her friends rushed off to the bathroom. Friday nights were a low budget movie, and I’d memorized the script a while ago.
I didn’t hate it, but I was bored—bored in a way that made me feel like there was something wrong with me. The people were all the same at night, and there was this look in their eyes that I couldn’t possibly have mirrored—even in the eyes of the people who were one drink away from being on the bathroom floor. This look of contentedness, whether it happy or sad. People were the same during the day, but it felt different to me at night. They were indistinguishable—all outlines and no real details, like the trees silhouetted at the park. Different and beautiful and boring all at once. I’d have a conversation with a girl and not be able to pick her out of a crowd five minutes later. I knew it was my fault.
Devon was asking me how my work week had been.
“It was fine,” I said, and there was nothing else to add. Four years in the same career and I had repeated the same static day at least five days a week for all of that time, ending each night with the knowledge that there was nothing else I would rather be doing, but that I didn’t want to be doing this either.
“How did that wedding you were shooting last weekend turn out?” he asked.
“Good. It was a small wedding. Short and simple,” I said.
Devon worked an office job and frequently expressed how jealous he was of me for having found bill-paying success in a career that allowed me to do something a little different each day. Freelance photography—it was what I had said I wanted to do even when we were young. At this point, I felt like there wasn’t an inch of downtown I hadn’t photographed, not a single couple left in the city that I hadn’t taken engagement pictures of—but there always ended up being something else or someone else.
I rushed to ask him about his week before he had the chance to question me further about mine. I’d already lived it. I didn’t want to relive the mundanity of it all through a recount.
Time ticked on. Catie started yawning. She and Devon hugged me goodbye, promising to see me next Friday. Maybe we could meet up for coffee one day this week, Catie suggested. Empty words—they never had that kind of extra time on their hands, and if they did, it went to the baby, as it should. But I said sure, knowing it didn’t matter.
Clay and I ended up playing pool. Neither of us had ever been any good at it, but it was the way we always wound down the night. He wasn’t all that drunk, but he was loud and talkative, telling me all about his week and the girl at his work and the new show he was watching. He thought I would like it.
“Hey, Ryan,” he said, the tone in his voice shifting. I looked up from the red felt fabric of the table and saw his face. “How are you doing?” It was that change in his expression, the way his gaze was intent on holding mine—he was asking a whole different question.
“I’m doing really well, actually,” I said.
I nodded. He took his shot.
“I just wonder, you know. And worry,” Clay said, something catching in his throat. “I still can’t believe it some days, man.”
“You must really miss him.”
“Yeah.” I gestured with the pool stick. “Eight ball. That pocket.”
My dad was great at pool. One of his greatest disappointments in life must have been when we went to a bar together for the first time after my twenty-first and he realized just how much I sucked. “Is it because you’re drunk?” he’d asked, looking dumbfounded, and I had laughed for the rest of the night.
I looked back at Clay after I missed the shot. “Hey, let me give you a ride home tonight, man. You drank a lot.”
He laughed. “What? No, I’m fine. You don’t need to do that.” He laid his pool stick on the table and demonstrated his unimpaired ability to walk a straight line. “I’m good to drive, officer.”
I knew he was fine. I’d seen him drink double what he’d had tonight and still drive home. “You should let me drive, Clay.”
“Really?” He suddenly looked like he was doubting himself. “Am I drunk? Do I seem that drunk?”
Clay shrugged. “Whatever. Bring me back for my car in the morning?”
For fifteen minutes we were in the cold, then we were finally back to my car, slamming the doors closed as quickly as we could. I maxed the heat, but my hands were still icy when I touched them to the steering wheel. Clay was rocking back and forth in the passenger seat, sitting on his hands, and loudly cursing the weather.
We were warm in just a couple of minutes. It always occurred to me how ungrateful I was for this. Like how I was never thankful for my health until I was sick—I never felt grateful for warmth until I was cold. So the car heated up, and normally I would have relaxed back into my seat, but I tried to hold onto that feeling of being cold and uncomfortable and frustrated. It only lasted a moment before it faded and I couldn’t feel anything. Clay was settled back in his seat, content, head leaning up against the window. He could fall asleep anywhere, and the fifteen minute drive back to the neighborhood we were both renting little houses in was more than enough time for him to knock out.
Normally I would have let him fall asleep.
“Clay,” I said.
He lifted his head. “Hmm?”
I had nothing to say. I pointed at the moon. “Is that a full moon?”
“Uh.” He leaned forward and squinted. “Looks close. Maybe not quite.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right.”
He made a noise of agreement. When I glanced over at him, his head was slumped back against the glass.
I sighed and kept driving further out of downtown. The stars were never visible around here, and tonight was no exception, but the moon stayed bright and high in the sky as I drove further away from all of the lights.
I remembered being young, leaning my head against the window in the backseat of my parent’s car, thinking that the moon was chasing after us. Everything felt fast-paced and exciting then. We were moving and the moon was racing to keep up, but now the clueless, childhood appeal of it had disappeared. The moon was there, static—it was all static. Moving, but barely. Sometimes it all felt as still as a photograph, like I was living in a frame and the world around me was frozen, unchanging.
I thought about the wedding from the weekend before. Weddings were supposed to be stressful to photograph—they were the definition of fast-paced. The couple usually requested that every second of the day be caught on camera. Somehow, I was never rushed. Each click of the camera felt unhurried, and when I went to develop the photos later, they appeared exactly how I remembered them in the moment—completely still, individual snapshots. Moment after dull moment being captured from a series of different angles. All of this black and white and smiling combining in front of my eyes until it turned into one easily displaceable snapshot in my memory.
“Your dad sang this song.” Clay speaking from the passenger seat almost made me jump. I looked over and his eyes were closed, but there was a small smile forming as he uncovered a memory. “He sang this at Devon and Catie’s wedding, right?”
I hadn’t even noticed that the radio was playing softly. I turned the volume up a notch and there it was—one of those songs I avoided now.
“Yeah, he did.”
“He was hilarious that night.” Clay yawned. “Well, to be fair, he was always pretty hilarious.”
I only took one picture that night. It was on my cell phone, it was blurry with a blinding flash, and I didn’t know I had taken it until I was scrolling through my phone a few days after the wedding and a picture of Clay passed out in the parking lot of the wedding venue appeared. My parents and Devon’s sister were posed around him, pointing and laughing. I remembered all of the important moments that I photographed in brief flashes—weddings, school portraits, maternity shoots—, but I remembered all of the important moments that I didn’t have a photographic record of with this intense clarity. I could see my dad, tie loose around his neck, throwing his head back and laughing after he stole the microphone from the wedding singer. I could see him holding his drink high up in the air, telling embarrassing high school stories about Devon and me. I could see him looking around the room, searching, until his eyes caught mine and he grinned.
I could see him in May, in his hospice bed. I could see it in my mind like it was happening in real time, right in front of me. The smell of the room, the sound of the nurses voice, the pattern of the wallpaper—all recorded in my mind, ready to run on a loop at any given moment.
“You must really miss him,” Clay said again. “I miss him.”
How was I supposed to explain to Clay that I had sat there for days, listening to his breathing slow—this horrible, unforgettable noise—and then pick back up, wishing that he could just hurry up and die so that I could start grieving? Had I known that every moment from then on would feel like it did—like I was constantly looking through a lens, unable to commit to or feel present in anything I experienced—then maybe I would have clung on to that moment and willed him to keep suffering, so that I could keep feeling like my life was more—more than just flashes of moments in time that leave me with a black and white wall full of these pointless, empty frames.
Sometimes I would close my eyes and wonder if I was even missing anything. The world seemed motionless when my eyes were open. Like now—I was driving, but how long had it been? I knew from the clock on the dash that we had probably only been driving for about ten minutes, but it could have been hours. My shoot from earlier in the day, the conversations I’d had with Devon and Catie in the bar—they felt so distant, but they had felt distant when they were happening too. Just flashes of happenings. I could close my eyes and it would just be another flash.
I could close my eyes, but Clay was beside me. It would just be the shutter of the lens, and then I would open my eyes.
I could close my eyes.
Suddenly, it was slow: My eyes shot open and there were headlights blinding me. Clay’s hands were grabbing for the wheel, frantic. I found the brake. The car laid on their horn as they skidded past us and we came to an abrupt, crooked stop. My headlights were trained on a house. There was a porch swing—someone was sitting there in the dark, smoking a cigarette, staring at me.
“Ryan,” Clay was saying, but his voice sounded muffled. My heart was pounding in my ears. “What happened? Did you fall asleep, man? We were just talking. Ryan, weren’t we just talking?”
“Yeah. We were just talking.”
When I pulled into his driveway a few minutes later, he was still asking if I was okay and what had happened. I must have dozed off, I kept saying. Every few seconds he would hold up a space between his thumb and his index finger, illustrating how much distance had been between my car and the other car on the road.
“That was scary, Ryan,” he said, unbuckling his seatbelt.
Scary. He was right. It had been scary. I was scared. It was replaying in my mind—each distinct second—with a vividness that made my pulse quicken.
“Are you sure you’re okay to drive home? You could always stay here and go home in the morning.”
“If you say so.” He pushed open the door and climbed out, shaking his head as he did. Cold air was rushing in, but he leaned back in to look at me for a moment. “Well, shoot me a text when you get home, buddy. Please?”
“Alright. Thanks for the ride.”
My heart was still pounding. “No, man. Thank you.”
I fumbled with my keys in the dark when I got home. Once inside, I went around turning on all of the lights until I got to my office. The walls were lined with pictures from years of shoots. I stood at my desk, staring at the ones above my computer. They were all black and white, 5×7’s, matted on the same white background. Couples and families and babies, weddings and parties and all of these milestone moments.
None of them were mine.
“Where am I?” my dad had joked the first time he had come over to check out my new place. He had circled the room the same way I was now, leaning in to look closer at certain pictures. “Where are you?”
“These are just from work.”
“That’ll get depressing,” he’d said.
It had been depressing then, but now I was looking around and I couldn’t breathe with all of these strangers eyes on me. All of these important moments that I had observed, but that didn’t belong to me in any way, surrounding me. I tried to live in them, imagine myself there, but they weren’t mine. I’d always felt this way, but then I had let that feeling start to seep—to infect all of my moments.
I logged onto my computer and started scrolling back through my photo library. One year ago—there was Clay, passed out in the parking lot. My dad’s eyes were red from the flash. I printed it in color and went around the room, tearing each black and white photo down, throwing them into a pile in the center of the room. When the picture finished printing, I taped it above my computer, sat on the floor, and looked up at it.
Jamie Biggs is Gibson’s owner. Gibson is a three-year-old Border Collie. He’s a good boy.