The other day I was reading someone's blog (shocking, I know), and she said that checking her ex-boyfriend's flickr stream was the only way she had of knowing that he was still alive.
Ah, now there's a thought, my brain said to me. But James never had a flickr account. Ah well.
And then something shifted viscerally inside of me as my subconscious piped in with a "But..." and my conscious answered back menacingly, "But what?"
"But," said my subconscious meekly, in a very small voice, "didn't he used to have a smugmug account?"
"Yes," my conscious said, defeated. "Yes, you're right. He did."
From that point it was just a quick search through the e-mail archives and I had all the information I needed. My heart pounding, I pulled up his page. Perhaps I would finally get to see some pictures from his big trip backpacking through southeast Asia. Maybe I would see what he's been up to for the last twelve months. At first glance not much had changed. There were Halloween albums, Turducken albums, New Year's Eve albums. There were locked albums, too. Christmas 05, Old Orchard Beach, New Orleans 06. That was ok, I knew what those were. Those were us. There was a France album, too, unlocked, but to look at it you wouldn't have even known I was there. Not because he had deleted any pictures, but because he hadn't taken any of me to begin with. 16 days, 206 pictures (on his camera), and only two of us, taken at arm's length, at my insistance, I'm sure. The rest, blurry nighttime pictures of bridges, stained glass windows, and him in front of the Eiffel Tower. In retrospect, it is perhaps a fitting symbol of our relationship. But hindsight is always 20/20.
I continued forward in time. There was a Vietnam album, but it was empty. Updated Jan. 11, 2008. Why set up an album and then not put any pictures in it? I wondered.
There was a Maine album, updated May 29, 2007. I clicked on it, expecting to see him, and maybe his sister, at his parents' house. I thought maybe I would see some pictures of the kids. But I didn't. Instead it was the poison my subconscious already suspected, and my conscious wanted to ignore. There was a girl. There was a boat. There was him.
A girl. A boat. Sunglasses, smiles, and wind-blown hair. She was shorter than me. His head angled down to rest on top of hers. They were smiling. He was clean-shaven. Only six pictures, but I clicked through them again and again, trying to find answers to questions I never asked, never wanted to ask. In an ideal world, a world where everything is either black or white, in these pictures he would be holding signs, and they would say things like: Her name is _______________. We met ______________. We've had sex ____________ times. Instead I tried to piece together bits of a story that was killing me with its incompleteness. Him reading a magazine. Her posing in the rigging of the mast. Her in a pink sundress. Her. There was one sign, resting against a folding chair on the side of the road: Homemade Whoopie Pies. Regular and Peanut Butter.
May 29, 2007. A month after we broke up. A month and a week. Fine, a month and ten days, if you want to split hairs. A month and ten days...A month and ten days after we broke up, I was still crying at night. After a month and ten days, I was still writing things in my journal, like, "Every day I wake up and I walk around feeling like I've been punched in the gut. I go about my life, or what's left of it, trying not to double over from the pain." And the coda of all these journal entries, dozens of them, the same, tireless refrain: Is he hurting, too? Does he regret, does he ache, does he still think of me every day? And suddenly, almost a year later, the answer I always knew deep down, but never wanted to admit. The answer assaulting me, not even in the comforting simplicity of black and white, but in all the shocking violence of color, of pink dresses, blue skies, and mirrored sunglasses. No. No, he wasn't. No, he didn't. No.
There was one last album, though. Browsing through an album labeled Boston Graphitti (sic), hoping to find any more clues, I was shocked to see a face staring back at me. Mine. Four times, in fact, at the very end. I remembered taking them one morning after James had gone to work, and before I left for school. The photographic equivalent of a note left in the pocket of a favorite pair of pants. And like that note, turning up at the most unexpected of times. Did he even realize they were there? I wondered. Did he upload the pictures from his camera in a hurry and walk away without realizing? I suddenly felt very grateful that I'm not the kind of girl to leave more risqué surprise pictures on her boyfriend's camera. Phew.
No danger of that, though. Just me, fully dressed, with shockingly short hair. (When was my hair that short?) First picture: blank stare. Second picture: piercing eyes. Third picture: pursed lips. Fourth picture: my face obscured by my hand, thumb and two fingers outstretched in that universal symbol for I love you.
As sick as I felt, and as much as my stomach ached, I took a small comfort in that, in those four pictures. All I've wanted these past twelve months is reassurance that what we had was real, that I didn't imagine it, that it existed. That ending a relationship doesn't erase what you once had, that the last three years don't become a black hole, an unspeakable void. And though we don't talk, we will still continue to be a part of each other's lives, each other's pasts, even if only in the form of folders filed away neatly, 2004-2007. And no matter how many folders he adds, no matter how many photos he takes, and no matter who he's with, I will still be in there, somewhere, too, and he'll be there, and we'll be smiling.