I have three photos from college that I keep together. They were all taken on the same night, in the span of five minutes, in a room that was warm in that way a room gets when everyone's drinking and dancing and celebrating the end of something really big.
In the first photo I'm sandwiched between two boys--two men--and there's a girl to the left of us. I can't tell you that girl's name. I can't tell you what instrument she played or why she was there that night. I haven't a clue who she is, but it doesn't really matter. It's not about her. The taller of the two boys--the two men--was holding my camera, using his long arm to take a photo of the four of us. The camera was on the wrong setting so two lines of light streak across the frame. Three of us are staring at the lens, all smiles, but the other boy--the other man, the one with no camera in hand, the one just on the other side of me, has his lips pressed against my cheek, his eyes closed, no smile.
What I remember most from that moment is knowing that the other two, the boy and girl on either side of us, hadn't a clue what he was doing. There we were, sandwiched between them, in our own private moment--a moment that lasted no longer than the the length of the flash.
The second photo is just the two of us. This time, the camera is at the end of my outstretched arm. I'm looking straight ahead and this man is in full profile, looking right at me. I laughed good and hard as all this was happening, both endlessly tickled and endlessly frustrated. Would you just look at the thing? I begged him. Can't I just have one photo of the two of us together?
I don't remember his response--what he said or if he smiled, but the third is the two of us, our faces pressed together, looking straight at the camera. Click. None of the photos are high quality. The lighting is wonky and the pixelation is grainy and I look tired in all three---a certain puffiness having just settled onto my face--one that would span and define the story of the next several years. And yet I value few things more than this set of pictures.
The second one in particular. Because it answers so many questions. Because it is the story all at once, in a moment, a single click. I never told that boy--that man--I loved him. I don't regret this. I don't regret it because there was some sort of bone-deep-knowledge--that said not yet, not now, another time, perhaps.
And bone-deep-knowledge, having nothing to do with fear, is the sort of thing that must always be listened to.
What I regret is that I never gave him my own version of that second photo. And I don't mean a physical photo, I mean I never looked at him with the full weight of my love for him. I never looked at him as though he was the man who split my world into a before and after, but he did, and he was. And if I ever revealed that, it was at best a glance from across the room, or a glimpse as I rolled to my other side, a fleeting sort of thing, done before it really began.
I was so good at seeming fine. Seeming detached. As though the thing between us wasn't terribly important. As though he himself wasn't terribly important and never was there a thing more untrue. If I could go back, if I could do it again, I'd look at him as myself--as my totally naked and in-love self. I'd look at him with all that I felt and all that I could not say.
There has been so much I haven't said over the years with a few different men for fear that those would be the words that would drive them away. And yet they left anyway. They left in the absence of my words, in the absence of my gentle unfolding before them.
So say yes. To coffee in the morning. Or tea. When he asks you for a second time, after you've already said no, you should be getting home, please just say yes. It may amount to nothing. It may be just what it is, a cup of coffee or a cup of tea. Or it may be the beginning of everything. Say yes to the shower offered. Say yes to a man's fumbling attempt at kindness. Say yes to saying what you're afraid to say. Say yes to being bold and appearing uncool and revealing just how deep you're in it. Say yes to the full power of your femininity--to the full extent with which you're capable of love. Let him pull you in close and nestle in the slope of his neck. Kiss him that second time even if he's already late and rushing out that door. Make him a little bit later. Say yes to what is so damn pregnant with potential that it utterly terrifies you. Say yes to anything that might count as experience or adventure--even if the adventure at hand is navigating the long, grueling road of heartbreak. Say yes to letting the guy help you get the dresser in the apartment--self-suffiencieny don't make you more of a woman and it doesn't protect you from the good, the bad, the ugly. Accept love when you want to accept it, accept help when you can, and accept that it'll be the second photo--the one you didn't plan for--that'll give a certain shape and meaning to everything that comes after.
photo by Sam Shorey