Tik Tok Boom!
I’ve never been much of a literary type, but I’m certain when Dante sat down to pen his infernal tale of woe he missed a circle—the Walmart photography center.
Don’t get me wrong, most days I enjoy my job. I love the hell out of putting newborns into little bear costumes and sticking their tiny little bums into tiny little baskets to take their first pictures. Bliss. Their precious coos and squeaks fill my heart to the brim before I happily hand them back to their parents.
Or the elderly couples picking out photo packages so they can give physical pictures to family members who probably have a thousand digital ones on their phones already. The longer they’ve been together, the better, mostly because of the gentle teasing and soft looks shared between them as I buzz around arranging hair and straightening collars to ensure I get my shots as efficiently as possible.
Strangely, my hands-down favorite pictures to take are passport photos. Those are the conversations I leap into with far more enthusiasm than I ought to show. I genuinely get pumped to find out where people are traveling. The businesspeople who travel a lot for their jobs tend to be a bit jaded, the allure of the road long since gone—until you ask them about food. Oh my God, then I hear all about the best places, discovering where to find the best mole (Blue Iguana in Utah), best desserts (chocolate ganache torte at Pampas in Cupertino), or the best maritime donair (King of Donair in Halifax).
Then there are the first-time travelers and their unadulterated excitement as they tell me about their planned adventures—shit, there’s nothing better. I immediately picture myself there with them, visiting countries I’ve only ever seen online, wondering if Iceland is as cold as I think it is, or if New Zealand’s grassy hills have a different scent than what I’ve experienced here in Ontario.
Those are the good days. I adore those days. Need them to feed my soul so I can continue to function as an adult-shaped person.
But then there are days like today.
The previously undocumented circle of hell. There’s certainly enough screaming to qualify.
“Okay, let’s get some pictures done.” I smile as I speak because sometimes if I fake happiness, it influences others. Holding my worn and dirty stuffed duck, I pump the squeaker in a mad attempt to grab everyone’s attention. “Hey, look right here. Hello. Hi there!”
Not only is no one looking, but I seriously doubt anyone is aware of my existence.
The screaming four-year-old triplets, named—and I’m serious here—April, May, and June are in various states of climbing over the prop bench in the middle of the cramped studio. They’re dressed in carbon copy outfits—purple and white polka dot dresses, black patent leather shoes, their curly brown hair pulled into tight ponytails that are strangled by white bows atop their heads. Their replicating likeness creates a bizarre morphing effect that somehow makes it appear as though there are a dozen toddlers instead of three.
Samantha—the mom—leaps once more into action, frantically trying to organize her chaotic children. “I’m so sorry about this.”
“It’s fine. I only need a minute to snap some pictures you’ll love.”
“Oh, that’s good.”
Then the toddler on the end turns and pukes into my garbage can.
Samantha has that weary droop to her shoulders that I often see in some of my college students. Her smile is present but so far removed from her eyes that it makes me believe real life Photoshop is a thing.
Let’s take the eyes of a sleep deprived mom, the body of a supermodel, and the smile of a psychopath. Perfect!
The smell of cooling McDonald’s french fries, initially pleasant, begins to turn my stomach as the scent mixes with the tang of vomit. I feel more than a little guilty about standing there watching her, but I’ve learned from experience that a stranger jumping into the fray won’t do much to help.
I want to go home. I want to disappear online and look at pictures of countries I can’t afford to visit and excursions I’d be too chicken to attempt. Like ziplining through a jungle or kayaking in the Arctic.
“May, baby, I need you to calm down.” She wipes vomit from her toddler’s mouth with a baby wipe, looking at me with obvious embarrassment. “I’m so sorry about this.”
“Don’t even worry about it.” I take a step closer to help, but the other two triplets glare me off before continuing to shout and tease their sick sibling.
It reminds me of my relationship with my sister, Cara.
The triplet on the opposite end of May—I think it’s June—momentarily stops screaming as she stands on the bench and stares at something beyond me. I awkwardly twist, trying to spot what has caught her attention. My gaze snaps to the mocking yellow smiling smiley face on a sign declaring the rolled back price on a stack of Blue’s Clues dolls.
“Hey, do your girls like Blue’s Clues?”
Samantha looks back at me wide-eyed. “They love it.”
“Josh, Josh, Josh, Josh!” The triplets chant, first one, then the other two. Even May, who appears a delicate shade of green, is smiling and clapping her hands.
I want to slap myself directly in my silly face for not thinking of it sooner. My tablet is in my purse; it only takes me a few moments to grab it and search for Blue’s Clues and You on Netflix. My smile this time is equal parts relief and joy as I turn my tablet to face them. “Hey, everyone! Heeeeerrreee’s Josh!” I’ve never seen three children sit down that quickly before in my life.
The mom frantically buzzes around her girls, fixing ponytails and straightening skirts while I hold the tablet up for them to see, silently praying that they’ll sit long enough to see this through. I tag-team handing the tablet to the mom so I can set up the camera … and—
“We just got an email!”
The triplets giggle at something Josh said.
Snap. Snap. Snap. “Okay, I think I got some good ones.”
She looks over the tablet at her children. “I was hoping for different poses.”
“Sure, we can do that.” I long ago perfected the art of smiling as I clench my teeth. “Let’s try some of them standing.”
I don’t want to claim that I’m a miracle worker or anything, but I somehow manage to get pictures of them in three different poses. They even appear happy—mostly. Samantha’s ecstatic.
“We have several photo packages you can choose from.” I pull the pictures up on the computer and slip into the sales spiel by rote. I try not to go crazy with the upselling because honestly, this poor woman would agree to buy anything I put in front of her at this point. While my manager would love it, I couldn’t have lived with myself. She settles on a mid-range package with the option of making a photobook online when she gets home.
Looking exhaustedly triumphant, Samantha pays for her purchase and begins to gather up her belongings, shoving them deep into a diaper bag that appears to have seen more than a few toddler battles. The triplets smile and wave once as she shoves them into the shopping cart, acting as though the last thirty minutes of insanity never occurred.
And this is why I’m happily child-free. I can barely care for myself, let alone muster the emotional strength to raise a child. No, nope, and no thank you.
I’m still cleaning up the props when Alex, the customer service manager, comes in. They freeze as soon as they get close to the garbage can, their face contorting into a grimace. “Shit, what’s that smell?”
“Regurgitated McDonald’s fries.” I scoop up the bag and knot it off, hoping that will contain any further spread of the acrid scent. “How are you doing?”
“Transit was on time for once, so my day was made.” They shrug before plopping down onto our small rolling stool. “Any other appointments or are you ready for your break?”
“I have two passport photos at four but nothing until then.” It’s a husband-and-wife booking, and as usual, I can’t wait to hear every detail of where they’re going.
Alex dramatically sighs, tips their head all the way back, and spins blindly on the stool. “Exciting.” They stop nearly as quickly as they started, slapping their shoes against the floor. “You should go have your lunch break, then. If there’s a puke-filled bag, that means you had a rough session. I’ll get the rest of the cleanup for you.”
What they’re really saying is that I’m responsible for vomit disposal. “Thanks. I’ll see you in an hour.”
I grab my bag, shoving my tablet deep inside, careful not to scratch it against my personal camera’s case, and snatch up the offending garbage bag in the other hand. Giving Alex a small wave, I slip into the bathroom beside the photo studio to dispose of the vomit in the garbage can and bolt from the store.
The humid downtown Toronto air feels amazing.
I stand there basking in the warm weather until sweat beads and soaks the underside of my bra. There won’t be too many more warm days like this now that we’re creeping toward the middle of September, and I’m determined to enjoy every single one.
I might love the heat, but I swear after I turned forty-five three months ago, my body decided to revolt. Things that never used to bother me, now send my internal thermostat haywire. Have two glasses of wine instead of one? That’s a hot flash, baby! Eat an entire large bag of chips? Let’s be bloated and uncomfortable for three days!
Getting older sucks.
Surreptitiously rubbing my sweaty boob through my shirt, I slip the long strap of my bag over my head to rest across my chest and head toward the park. I don’t get to simply relax outside very often because of my work schedule, so I do my best to take advantage of being outside whenever I can. Rent in Toronto is bloody expensive, and as much as I wish my part-time teaching job was enough to pay the bills, it isn’t.
I teach night classes at St. Simon Community College, and at seven o’clock tonight I have a photography class with my newest group of students. I really should sit down with my laptop to prep, take the opportunity to get ahead of things. I rarely have extra time like this, and if I’m the least bit smart, I’d take advantage.
But because I’m an adult and I can do what I want, I instead decide to take photos.
I almost immediately regret my decision as the heat from the sidewalk radiates up through my work slacks as though it were a broiler and my thighs are on their way to being well-done. I know things will be better once I reach the park; the grass and trees change the feel of the air. As long as I survive the short journey, everything will be fine.
I pull my camera from my bag, adjusting it so it bumps against my hip as I turn from the sidewalk onto the dirt and gravel path of the park. This is one of my favorites to visit in the city, not only because it’s close to work, but because it has both a ballpark and walking trails. I’m always able to find someone or something interesting to photograph. Not that I normally do anything with my personal pictures. Well, not anymore. That’s a dream long laid to rest, replaced with the need to eat and pay rent in a city that’s far too expensive for my liking.
I love Toronto, even if sometimes it feels like the city doesn’t love me back.
The park is busy today. There appears to be a group of students practicing cross country running around the community ballpark. The piercing sound of a gym teacher’s whistle easily reaches me, making me cringe. I need to rest my brain and have some quiet, so I turn and make my way down one of the walking paths. The shouting fades the farther I go, replaced with bird song and the crunch of my footfalls against the dirt. I have my camera out, snapping the occasional picture of a bird, the flowers that dot the path, a heart cut into a tree that I’ve snapped before. With each picture I take, I feel the muscles in my neck and back start to relax.
This is nice. For a short time, I know I didn’t have to worry about anything, that I can simply be me and ignore the stress of needing to pay my rent, of not knowing what to say to my sister who is coming for a visit in a few days. Hell, I can pretend that my life has gone exactly the way I intended. So what if I didn’t get to do some of the things I’ve always wanted to.
Who gets to fulfill their secret dreams? Not the average person. Well, not the average person I know. I mean, sure, dreams can come true. People accomplish their goals all the time—going to school, getting the job they really want, finding love—but those are the normal goals.
I really wanted to move from my small hometown and come to Toronto to be a famous art photographer. So, I moved! I did that incredibly hard thing when I was nineteen, and I don’t have a single regret.
And no, I’m not famous, but come on. How many people actually get to be rich and famous? I’m a forty-five-year-old GenXer. I long ago came to terms with the fact that I’m not going to take pictures for National Geographic or open my own art studio. I won’t have pictures in Vogue or even be good enough to teach at a prestigious art school.
I work in the Walmart photography studio and teach photography at a community college. There are worse lives to have.
I reach the end of the path and check the time on my phone. If I don’t want to be late for my next appointment, I need to turn around and head back to the store. I don’t want to go, but real life is once again knocking against my brain. Just as I turn, I see a man sitting on a bench off to the side near where I just walked.
You know in the movies when you hear that silly record scratch noise when someone sees another person who’s just so fucking gorgeous that their brain breaks? I’m certain I hear that sound in my head. For real. He’s just …
I’m not normally a person who goes nuts over someone’s physical attractiveness, but this guy hits every button I have in a way that I’ve never experienced before. He’s around my age, maybe late forties or early fifties, and he has that vibe. Like he’s been around and seen some shit, but he’s cool with it. The kind of guy you sit down with at a party, and he casually tells you fantastical stories about his career but does it in such a way that you totally believe they’re true.
From how he’s sitting, I can tell that he has a small belly. The gentle swell that I know would be soft beneath my fingers if I were lucky enough to ever be able to touch the skin. I can picture him standing in a backyard, beer in one hand and his phone in the other, showing someone a funny YouTube video.
His hair is black but it’s starting to go gray along his temples and sides. It’s a little longer than most guys wear these days, but it suits his face. I can only see him in profile as he stares out at some distant spot in the park. He doesn’t exactly look sad, but his expression is such that I can imagine he’s contemplating something serious. My eyes keep drifting to the exposed forearm he has draped along the back of the bench, the flex of muscles visibly dancing that I can see even from this distance.
He is, hands down, the most attractive man I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Without thinking, I do the one thing I almost never do—I lift my camera and quickly snap a few pictures before he notices. Normally, I’d go talk to him and get his permission before taking any pictures, but there’s something about that look on his face that screams Leave me alone. I’m trying to sort out my shit.
Still, I find myself moving closer, wanting to get a better shot of him, wanting to try and figure out exactly what he’s thinking about that’s causing the deep furrow of his brow and the downturned bow of his lips.
I’m getting dangerously close to having him see what I’m doing. If he spots me, I’ll have no choice but to approach him and ask for his permission to keep the pictures. A part of me hopes he will.
Maybe I should pull up my big girl panties and go talk to him? The worst that can happen is I bother him for a moment and he tells me to delete the pictures. My feet apparently agree with my brain because before I know what’s going on, I’m halfway across the path toward him, my mind rehearsing possible scripts.
Hi there! I’m a local photographer and was wondering if I could have your permission to keep these photos I took of you.
Too boring and a bit creepy.
Hey, hi! I’m Andie. You’re really fucking attractive, and I was hoping I could strip you naked and take some intimate—
Hahahaha. Yeah, no.
Hello. My name is Andie and I’m an amateur photographer.
Hey, you’re hot. Want to go on a date?
I can picture the look of rejection on his face without trying.
Mr. Handsome stands up and starts looking around the park, which stops me dead in my tracks. You know that sick, sinking feeling you had in school when the teacher was looking for someone to read the next passage from the novel you were studying, and you’d have done anything to shrink yourself into a ball so they wouldn’t pick you? Well, that sensation erupts inside me when I realize he’s looking for someone to speak to.
Now, I’m an extrovert. I normally can talk to anyone in any situation. I’m the friend who gets invited to parties because I can bring anyone out of their shell. Where I don’t excel is talking to men I find attractive. Inevitably, I say the dumbest shit ever and make a fool of myself. I’ve had a few boyfriends in the past; the brave few who stuck around got to see the real me. None of those relationships lasted, which is for the best.
Maybe this time it will be different? Maybe I’ll look him in the eyes and the perfect thing will fall out of my mouth. It could happen!
I see him turn my way in my periphery, and it sends my heart racing. What little bravado I had, the fleeting confidence that had me believing I could go up to someone like him and strike up a conversation, poofs in a blink. Running will only draw his attention, so instead I turn toward a patch of clover on the grass and kneel to take some closeup shots, hoping he’ll ignore me.
It’s strange, but I know the moment he sees me. I feel his gaze on my face and body as though he’s reaching out and running a finger down my spine. I snap several more clover pictures—blurry, too close, is that a chip bag?—despite my now shaking hands. The sound of his footsteps against the crushed gravel and dirt announces my worst fears. He’s heading directly for me.
The realization and sudden rush of anxious energy has me standing so quickly, my head spins from the motion.
All thoughts of what I’m doing, what I hoped to say to him, flee my mind, leaving me with two realizations.
The first is that he’s obviously coming to speak with me.
The second is that I now have to pee.
Whenever I get nervous about doing anything, my bladder decides to help get me out of the situation to the safety of the nearest bathroom stall. Most of the time, that’s a helpful problem to have, but not when you’re standing in the middle of a park and you’re about to be approached by an absurdly attractive man. First, there’s nowhere close to pee. More importantly, it’s painfully obvious that I’m about to run away. I don’t know why I panic but I do. The second I see that he’s opening his mouth to speak, I blurt out, “I have to go to work.” I turn and fast-walk my ass all the way back to Walmart.
Better to exist in the circle of hell you know than talk to an attractive man you don’t.
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