She nervously examined her fingernails, not wishing to see the seething contortions of his face. His anger came in waves. Her attention did not waver; she seemed convinced that staring carefully at each nail would file the rough edges and paint them bright colors. He tried to force his breathing back to normal. A cup of coffee on the table between them soundlessly released steam into the air. The ambient sounds of the coffee shop came to him: clattering, chattering, jabbering. He reached for the cup and touched his fingers to its edges. He could not lift it to his lips.
Finally, after a dramatic measure of silence, he spoke:
"You're being unfair."
"I'm being reasonable and polite," she said. "Will you give them to me?"
"They don't belong to you."
"I don't want to -- "
"Please don't be this way," she said, looking into his eyes. "I want them back."
"No." He slammed the conversation shut. Standing up, he bent his shoulder at a peculiar angle and stuffed his hand into his pocket to search for change. Finding some, he dropped the coins on the table to pay for the coffee. One nickel hit the table at an odd angle and bounced into the coffee cup with a pathetic plop. She glanced at the muddy ripples but kept her eyes on him. He said nothing and stormed away.
The very first time, when it all began, neither one of them placed much importance on what had happened.
She was still in high school; he had been in college for nearly two years. She didn't want to attend prom but he insisted that she would want those memories when she was older. He borrowed a tuxedo from a wealthy friend and escorted her to senior prom, and speedily regretted everything he had said. While she giggled and danced with her friends, he burrowed into the corner of the cafeteria with a glass of punch and thought about the hotel room he had reserved with his brand-new credit card. Before too long, she would be in his arms, and this would all be worth the trouble.
They stopped at a grocery store on the drive across town. It had been hours since dinner and she was hungry for a light snack. They caused a scene by breezing through the produce aisle in their formal garb, which he enjoyed. While she picked out a basket of strawberries, he scanned the shelves for whipped topping in a spray can. When they got to the cash register, she asked how come he wasn't buying Cool Whip.
"No reason," he said. "I like this stuff." He had other motives, but she failed to guess them. That was all right with him. He paid for the groceries with a twenty and they were off.
The hotel check-in did a number on his nerves, for reasons for propriety. The law doesn't take kindly to adults shacking up with minors, and she was still only seventeen. All his worry was happily misplaced when the clerk handed over the key. The two lovers rushed to their room on the third floor, tossed the key on the nightstand, ripped back the comforter, tore off their clothes and tangled their limbs. Sweat came quickly.
Urgent and breathless, he fairly begged her make a little noise for him. Over the months, he had grown accustomed to the shrill expressions of pleasures, yelps really, that came from her throat when they made love in his car, out in the country, with the seats pushed back and the windows rolled down. She refused to yelp for him; certainly the neighboring hotel guests would hear what was happening and complain. He dropped the issue and concentrated on the rhythmic sound of their slick bellies slapping together, again and again and again. They reached a new level, and then another, and then it was over.
Taking care not to gasp, he kissed her deeply and savored the salty taste of her upper lip. He could feel her face shifting into a smile, and she said, "Thank you."
"You're welcome," he said.
She took a deep breath, raising him a few inches into the air, and released it. "Where are those strawberries?" she asked. He reached for the grocery bag, taking care not to slip out of her. He was not ready for the moment to be over quite yet. She stretched her slim arms over her head and rested them on the backboard of the ample hotel bed. He retrieved the basket of strawberries and selected a plump one. She opened her mouth wide to accept it. Her teeth cut through the berry. A dribble of juice hung from the corner of her mouth, and he quickly kissed it away.
"Want some whipped cream?" he asked. Balancing on one elbow, he plunged his hand into the grocery bag and found the can of whipped topping. He spurted a dollop of sweet stuff on a second berry and fed it to her. He took a bite, too. They chewed together.
"Thank you for taking me to prom," she said. "You're a wonderful man."
"And you're a pretty girl," he said. The sweat on his skin had started to evaporate, and the itchy tingle made him feel uncomfortable. "You look great in a slinky dress." The whipped topping was still in his hand. He leaned to the side, keeping their groins together, and pointed the nozzle at her nipple.
"What are you doing?" she tittered, knowing the answer. Sweetness spurted onto her breast. She started to laugh and repeated the question as he moved on to her other nipple. Another sloppy pile of white stuff appeared, obscuring any glimpse of her pink tips. While she giggled, he moved his face to her bosom and licked the cream away, taking a moment to savor the texture of her flesh against his tongue. He cleaned both breasts and aggressively punctuated the action with a deep kiss.
She tried to squirt a mustache across his face but he would hear nothing of it. They wrestled playfully for a few seconds as he wrenched the can out of her hands. She yelped and twisted, and he fell out of her. "Oops," she said. He rolled from his perch atop her body and tiptoed to the hotel sink, where he rolled off the sagging condom and washed himself with warm water.
"Do you hate these things as much as I do?" he asked. "Condoms, I mean?"
She opened her drowsy eyes and looked at him, shrugging.
"We should get you on the pill one of these days. How old do you have to be to get a prescription?" He returned to the bed and touched her arm tenderly. "What would your mom say?"
"I don't know," she yawned. "Mom has a weird attitude about the pill, like it's a license to screw."
He smirked. "You can still drive without a license," he said, sliding one finger along the contours of her slender body.
She picked up the can of whipped topping and put it into his free hand. "Go ahead. Mark your territory."
First, he squirted a bit onto the tip of his nose to keep her amused. Then he directed the nozzle at her bare belly and drew big block letters on her soft skin. Three letters: his initials. "There you go," he said.
"You're silly," she said, shaking her head.
He wanted a photograph. She had brought her point-and-shoot camera to prom and snapped some pictures of her friends, but he knew a few exposures remained. When he asked her where she had put the camera, she looked suspicious first, and then a little distressed. She refused. He pleaded with her, kissing her neck softly and saying "please please please" until she turned around.
"The camera is in my purse," she said. "Take the picture, but leave my face out of it. Neck to hips -- that's all you get."
Until he snapped that photo, he never noticed the little birthmark to the left of her belly button. From that day on, he went out of his way to kiss her there.
Months later, after she had started going to college with him, it happened again. Spring had come and she was housesitting for her aunt and uncle while they took a second honeymoon. He watched television while she watered the plants and put some food out for the cats. She joined him on the couch and put her hand on his thigh. He leaned over and kissed her cheek.
Before long, two bodies were rolling on the floor in a lusty embrace. Having removed her t-shirt and bra from her body, he tossed them aside and kissed her breasts with feverish enthusiasm. She playfully scratched his back as he worked his way up to her neck, then her lips. "I love you," he said, and she nodded. This encounter ended in the bedroom, and then she took a shower while he lay in bed recovering.
He remembered that he had left his camera in the glove box of his car. He threw on a pair of shorts and stole out to the curb to retrieve the camera. When she emerged from the bathroom in her aunt's robe, he was naked again, sprawled on the bed, with the camera pointed at her. "Smile for me, pretty girl!"
She shrieked and told him to put it away, but he used persuasive words and puppy-dog eyes to seduce her out of the robe. The camera flashed so brightly that she had to squint. He took more pictures.
"Have you noticed those blue veins?" he asked.
"Yes." She used her arms to cover her chest. "I used to think I had nice breasts until I started taking the pill. I don't even recognize them anymore, with these ugly veins and stretch marks."
"I don't think they're ugly."
"Don't talk like that," he said. "You're beautiful."
"No more pictures," she said. "Give me the camera. It's my turn to take some beefcake shots." They switched places. He thrusted his shoulders back and took a masculine pose while she aimed the camera. She clicked the shutter, but nothing happened. She looked closely at the camera. "You're out of film."
He gathered the nude photographs, all ten of them, and stashed them in a shoebox on his closet floor. He sometimes looked at them when she was out of town or too busy to see him. He flipped through them quickly, like a slide show, and noted how some of her features seemed to change from shot to shot. Other times, he pulled out the shoebox when he was on his way to her place, and stared with alarming intensity at her vibrant smile, the fullness of her breasts, those veins, the round shape of her buttocks. When they came together, he craved the warmth of her body so badly that he ached. He found it difficult to be near her if they were not touching, snuggling, kissing, fucking.
He requested another photo session and she kept putting him off. She was rushed to the emergency room to have her appendix removed, which bought her a few months. She gained a few pounds in college, and told him that she would not pose for any pictures until she lost weight. He didn't care about that. He said, "You were a girl and now you're a woman. You have a woman's body now, and I love every inch of it." She continued to put on weight, a little at a time.
When Christmas came and she couldn't afford a store-bought present for him, he suggested that she pose for him. She consented. He planned everything in advance, as if they were engaged in a professional contract with a strict deadline. They rummaged through her closets and dresser drawers for sexy outfits and revealing underwear. While he made editorial decisions, she collected clothes from her skinnier days for a donation to Goodwill. She looked miserable.
"How about this one?" he said, holding out a silky pink bra.
"It doesn't fit anymore," she said. "I've gotten too big to wear it."
Shocked, he read the size from the tag. "This is my favorite one."
"I haven't worn it in months," she said, and grabbed it from his hands. She threw it into the donation pile.
He bought three rolls of film. They went to his apartment and she changed into the first outfit while he removed posters from the bedroom walls. The stark white surface would resemble the walls of a studio, he thought. He loaded the camera and watched her slip out of her jeans to reveal a pair of cotton panties.
She ran her hands along her hips and sighed. "I look fat."
"That's not true."
"I can't do this. I'm sorry."
"You look beautiful," he said. "Don't be so hard on yourself. You look like an angel."
"Let's do something else," she said. "Can we go out for a movie? Can we visit my mother? Please?"
"You made a promise," he said.
She posed in a white tanktop for a few shots and then changed into tight jeans and a lacy black bra. "Look at that cleavage!" he said. "You're fantastic!"
His sincerity moved her to laugh. Her mood brightened. She took off her bra and arched her back for a few topless shots. Her body had become quite voluptuous in recent months. As he took the pictures, he thought about the shape of her body in the previous pictures. He wondered how the old pictures and these new shots would compare if they were laid side by side.
At his request, she slipped out of the jeans. She stuck out her rear end for a cheesecake shot and giggled. He belted out phrases like "oh yes" and "you're so hot" and "that's perfect" -- words he often said when they were making love. The photo shoot went on for quite a while, pausing for wardrobe changes and tender kisses, and he wondered if she would want to finish the evening in bed. This was not meant to be. By the time the time he burned through all three rolls of film, she had grown tired. She changed back into her street clothes and lay with him on the couch for a few minutes before she went home.
He ran his finger against her cheek, and said, "You're amazing."
"I don't think amazing is the right word," she said. He couldn't imagine what she meant.
Everything fell apart within a few weeks. To him, the breakup felt like a punctuation mark to an excessively wordy sentence. He knew that the end had come. She seemed to agree. They acted calmly and rationally, and he came out of the crisis feeling quite mature.
Much later, after he had graduated from the university and started a new job, he answered the phone and heard her voice. She wanted to see him in person to discuss something important. They made plans to meet at a downtown coffee shop where they had been regulars in those months when they were courting. He grew anxious as the hour approached. He took fifteen minutes to decide that loafers were more appropriate than sneakers, and went on to blow a fair chunk of cash on a standard haircut. He arrived at the coffee shop ten minutes early so he could find a seat in a strategic location. He wanted to see her face as she walked through that door.
He thought she looked extraordinary. She wore a sun dress that he recognized; in fact, he had found it for her at a fancy boutique across town. The weight she gained in college was no more, and he couldn't remember her hips ever being so slim, though they must have been. His mind wandered to the can of whipped topping for scant seconds.
"You beat me!" she said, leaning over to kiss him on the cheek.
"I'm being punctual these days," he said. "That's my new project."
"Good," she said, taking the seat across from him.
The waiter brought them two cups of coffee. She asked about his job, and then they discussed her plans for graduate studies. They talked about a movie that she enjoyed and he despised. They laughed about a mutual friend who had dropped out of school to become a go-go dancer. He knew that the conversation would eventually turn serious, and he was right.
"When we broke up," she said, "I didn't take everything into consideration. I've been thinking a lot for the last few months, and this one thing keeps coming back into my head."
He leaned forward without realizing it.
"I need to ask you something," she said.
"Anything," he said.
"I want the pictures back."
A blank stare. He couldn't muster anything else.
"And the negatives."
Seconds after the nickel landed in his coffee cup, he was on the street, marching toward his meter spot. He pulled out his keys and tried to find the one to unlock his car door. Right now, they all looked the same. She called out to him, and he spoke more loudly than he had intended: "I have to go!"
"Please," she said, struggling for a breath. "We can talk about this."
"I don't want to talk about this," he said. He found the key.
Her face now looked white. "This means a lot to me."
"Why?" he raged. "You have all the photo albums. You have dozens of letters and cards from me. You have a bunch of my sweaters and -- "
"I don't have any of your sweaters."
"Bullshit," he said. "You have the brown knit one, and the black cardigan, and -- "
"Don't do this," she said, almost begging.
He took a breath. His neck felt hot, and his heart was pounding so hard it almost scared him. "The pictures are safe. I keep them in a shoe box in the closet, and I can't even remember the last time I looked at them." That was a lie; he had flipped through the photos on Valentine's Day this year after having a few lonely drinks in his apartment. He took a long look at each one before falling asleep on the couch. "You have nothing to worry about."
She stayed quiet for a long time. "That's not the issue," she finally said.
"You are being crazy," he roared. "What are you trying to do to me? You're taking back a gift, and that's fucked up. Totally -- "
"Stop it!" she screeched, in a voice so forceful that he missed a breath. "What are we talking about here? My body. It doesn't belong to you. It never belonged to you -- even though you'd like to think that it did." She started to cry, and he found himself twitching. "You made me into an object. Pretty girl, pretty girl. Why didn't you care that I loved you?"
"I don't think -- "
"I would hope that you'd want to keep that instead of the pictures."
He dropped his keys. They hit the asphalt with a clinking clatter, and he crouched to recover them quickly. By the time he stood up again, she had removed herself from the argument. Her small feet carried her back to the coffee shop, and he watched her go. Her hips swayed sweetly, in three dimensions, the real world, just as he remembered from his dreams. Then she was gone.
He watched the sun go down from his back porch and then drove across town to her apartment. He stood at her door holding a large envelope with a three-by-five bulge. He listened for signs of life within the apartment, having been too scared to call ahead. Even though he heard nothing, he knocked loudly and waited for her to answer. After a minute, he knocked again. He made the decision to leave only seconds before the lock made a clicking noise. The door opened slightly and there she stood, fresh from the shower with a bathrobe around her shoulders. A trickle of water rolled along her collarbone.
"These belong to you," he said, presenting the package.
She took it, but said nothing. The water on her fingertips stained the envelope slightly. Her bathrobe fell open, only an inch or too, but enough to partially reveal the curve of one breast.
"The negatives are in there," he announced. "I never made any reprints. Everything is in there. I promise."
"Thank you," she said, pulling her robe closed.
"This is hard for me," he said. "I hope you appreciate that."
He took a breath and tried to make a bold proclamation: "Nothing will change if you can burn that envelope. I'll still remember what happened, and so will you. All you're doing is destroying the evidence. That's all." He turned to leave.
"I'm sorry," she called.
He looked back, feeling tears welling up. "When I praised your beauty, it meant more than you think it does." He looked into her eyes and felt the irony: now that she was lost to him, he knew what he had done wrong. She stepped back into her apartment and closed the door, leaving him with empty hands.