They sat on the steps of the old capitol building and smiled at the camera. His right arm was reaching over her left leg, and both of her arms were wrapped tightly around his right arm. The flash clicked and a picture fed through the bulky, brown camera.
“Mama, who’s this?” she asked her mother, running her bare feet into the kitchen. They made a smacking sound against the floor. She ran the way she danced, and in her hands waved a tiny black polaroid.
Mama briskly wiped her wet hands on her skirt and turned to her daughter to examine what she had been waving. Upon the child’s eager handoff, Mama squinted at the polaroid and the child contained her buzzing anticipation by lifting herself up and down on the balls of her feet repeatedly. When Mama’s eyes focused in on the two smiling faces of the picture, she smiled too and her hand found its way thoughtlessly to her heart. It was warm and so was her face. Her lips came together in a smile that spread across her face – the kind that people try with little success to hide.
“The old capitol,” she said, quietly remembering. Her hand moved, again thoughtlessly, from her chest to her mouth. She cradled the bottom of her face in the crook of her hand, smiling from her eyes now that her mouth was being pressed against her fingers.
She examined the man’s face in the picture again, tracing her eyes over the shape of his body over and over and over. Her eyes sometimes wandered over to the woman, but only because their bodies were so entwined in the photo. Her eyes pulled back to him every time.
“What do you want in it?”
“As much of the building as you can get.”
“So not a close up of your faces?”
They looked at each other, and together shook their heads.
“Not too close or too far, if that’s okay.”
“Whatever you do will be perfect – thanks again for doing this!”
He grabbed her leg. She held his arm and held herself closer to him. They both smiled for the camera. They smiled for each other. They smiled for their future.
The child looked up at her expectantly. It was clear that the faces in the picture had been recognized. “Mama?” she asked, as a reminder of her patience.
Mama kneeled to her little girl and wrapped an arm around her small, child waist. She pulled her baby girl close to her so they could examine the picture together. The girl giggled because it tickled, and drummed her fingers on her Mama’s knee.
“This is a very special friend of mine from many years ago, before I met Daddy, before you were born. We met in the first college Mama went to, and then when I transferred, he went to visit me by surprise at my new school. That’s where we were in this picture.”
The little girl looked at the picture with her chin tucked into her neck and didn’t ask many questions. She seemed satisfied to know who he was. Mama, however, felt incomplete. The whole truth had not been told, and it seemed to be a lie to omit such a huge part of who he was to her. What’s more, she felt she was lying to him – somehow – in a way that maybe didn’t matter but did to her – wherever he was in the world – by not adding the most important part of the story.
“I loved him, honey,” she said. “Still do today.”
The little girl turned to examine her mother’s face. “You love him? Like you say ‘love you’ to Daddy?” she seemed ready to declare that something was not alright with this picture.
Mama shook her head. “No, honey, not like Daddy. It’s a different love, but it’s still love.” She kissed her daughter’s forehead and rubbed the side of her waist. The girl giggled again, and she was glad to see her daughter’s smile return. “Don’t worry, baby, there is a lot of room for love in people’s hearts, and I have love for both of them…in different ways…and for you, and Baloo, and Goldie, and everyone else.” She pecked her daughter’s shoulder with a kiss – then one, two, three more in a quick order. The girl laughed again, throwing her head back and trying to escape the kisses.
When they settled, they were still smiling but calm again. “Where is he now?” she asked her Mama.
A sharp pang in her mother’s stomach. Where was he. What was he doing. How was he. It hurt a lot, more than any of the words humans have to describe things that are painful.
“I don’t know baby…”she murmured, looking with a furrowed expression at the dark face in the picture. Her own reflection glimmered back at her in the shine of the photograph.
“I’m going to go find Baloo,” her daughter said out of nowhere, demonstrating that she was, indeed a child, and her attention for the topic had expired. She pulled away from her mother’s grasp and dance-ran out of the kitchen to find the family dog.
Alone in the kitchen now, Mama held the photo in both hands, close to her face. She was still kneeling on the floor. She didn’t have the energy in her heart to stand up just yet. Where was he. How was he. Her heart tightened. Soon she could not see his face anymore because she was staring at his image through a shimmering wall of tears. Everything that they had. Everything that they had been. The love she felt was different – that was sure – but it was eternal, and part of her felt she would be unsettled until they were together again. But of course that was stupid and would never happen. Stop it, stop it, stop it. She felt guilty, and then guilty for feeling guilty. She loved her husband dearly, with all of her heart. They were happy – they were the perfect she had always dreamed of. Yes, she was sure – all of her heart. Or…well how does that work then…? She shook her head quickly to clear the madness from her thoughts and pushed herself up to stand by the sink again. She shoved the revived vintage picture in her skirt pocket and promised herself to feel better, although suddenly every thought found its way back to him.
They exchanged the camera and the photo again. It developed in a few minutes.
She grabbed the photo from his hands and looked at it. She threw her head back and laughed.
“Why are you laughing? It’s cute!”
“I love it. It’s perfect.”
“So why are you laughing?”
“Because look at you! You’re so cool with your legs draped casually over the steps like that. What a cutie, what a cool guy.”
He looked at the picture again and smiled sheepishly.
“And then look at me, holding as tightly to you as I can, scrunched up in the physical form of ‘mmm I just love him so much!’” She scrunched her nose in a smile and mocked herself with a high-pitched voice.
Then they both laughed and they were holding each other again. It was true, he did look a lot cooler than her.
“I love it. I love you.”
They held each other under the night light of the old capitol.
They smiled for the picture. They smiled for each other. They smiled for their future.