It was maybe sometime in the afternoon when the wholly unfamiliar sound of a phone ringing pulled Harold away from his computer. He’d spent the last several hours perusing job listings on the internet, and arguably more time avoiding it. So between this, the heavy bedsheet nailed and drawn shut across the one window in the room he rented, and the copious amount of marijuana he’d just smoked, pinning down which pile of clothes contained his phone proved a bit of a challenge. But even as he waddled and crawled about that semi-converted garage in his underwear, the possibility of even remote human contact was as good an excuse as any to call off today’s depressing search for paid work.
Unfortunately for Harold, the number on his phone’s screen was from an unknown caller. But fortunately for Harold, they left a voicemail.
“Harold,” a familiar voice spoke. “It’s Sophia.”
Harold got as far as hearing Sophia’s voice say, “I couldn’t stop thinking about you,” before he stopped listening and attempted to call her back several times. Dude, you just called, Harold thought. Why the Hell do people always call and leave a message, but never pick up when you call back–
“Harold?” Sophia eventually answered.
“Sophia,” Harold gushed, utterly failing to hide the way his nonexistent tail wagged. “I couldn’t stop thinking about you too.”
“What?” she replied, and in that way one tends to do when utterly and purposely misinterpreted.
Harold ignored this. “I said, ‘I couldn’t stop–‘”
“No,” she interrupted. “I got that.”
“What do you mean, ‘too?'”
“Your voicemail. You said–“
“You didn’t finish listening to it, did you?”
“I did not.”
“I said, ‘I couldn’t stop thinking about you–‘”
“–and your beautiful photos.”
“Gotcha,” Harold nodded, tucking his nonexistent tail between his– “Wait. How did you get my number? Your husband slapped my hand when I tried to give him my business card.”
“Yeah. Sorry about that.”
“I’m still kinda weirded out about that, actually.”
“Look. It wasn’t easy getting your number. Is that awful woman at the gallery always such a pain?”
Harold neither confirmed nor denied this, mostly because he was too busy recalling the way he and Brennifer had hotboxed the utility closet and engaged in some vague approximation of sex after the gallery had closed for the evening. It wasn’t so much that the high had made sex difficult so much as it resulted in them failing to remove the various mops, half-filled buckets, and various harsh smelling cleaning products before sealing themselves up for several sweltering, dizzying minutes. Certainly, this was not Harold’s finest hour. But it was mostly the way Brennifer had thrown several loose dollars and coins at him and refused to cuddle afterward that still left Harold feeling a little cheap.
“Sorry,” Harold said. “I just realized I make some really bad life choices.”
“So, you’ll do it?” she asked in that way one tends to do when they already know the answer, but really want to hear it anyway. “You’ll take erotic photographs of me in the privacy of my bedroom while my husband is away?”
“I’m flattered, Sophia,” he said. “A little creeped out by the weird way you guys keep phrasing it too, I guess. But, mostly flattered.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“You’re a married woman, Sophia. And your husband doesn’t seem like he’s onboard with this sorta thing.”
“Oliver said it was a wonderful idea, didn’t he?”
“Yeah. That was kinda creepy, too. You get that, right?”
Sophia considered this. “There’s five-hundred bucks in it for you.”
“When do you want me there?”
“How does tomorrow work for you?”
“Harold?” a naggingly sweet voice called from somewhere outside that semi-converted garage.
Harold stood there in his underwear for a moment, burying his phone in his hands. But when this failed to make the voice go away, he sighed. “Yes, Grandma?”
“Are you still going to give me a ride to my doctor’s appointment?”
Harold snapped, “I said, ‘Yes, Grandma!'” then realized he still had Sophia on the phone. “Yeah. Tomorrow works.”
A near-mint condition wood panel Ford station wagon creaked and wheezed to a stop outside what Harold would later describe to his grandmother as a “stately manor,” and Harold idled for another fifteen minutes.
It was an acceptable Sunday morning in an expensive corner of Southern California. The sun hungover in the sky, half-wrapped in a thin, frayed sheet of moisture that scattered the light like shards of broken glass into exposed flesh. The wind whipped at the eyes, and the salt stuck to everything. And far too many people dressed up for morning sermon but who were really just heading out for mojitos and brunch. A stark contrast to the thick, still air of that semi-converted garage where Harold stewed in his own juices all night, except for that hour or so when the air chilled and warm rain kicked up all the dirt. The sort of heat that wraps around you like a wool blanket and has you gasping for breath when the water of a cold shower hits your skin. Or has you sticking your head in the freezer until you realize how this is stupid and isn’t helping at all, taking your grandmother’s keys without asking, leaving Buena Park behind in the rear view mirror, and then cruising south along the 5 with the window cranked all the way down. Sure, you’ll get there a little earlier than planned. But you can just hangout by the beach for a bit, maybe grab some breakfast. Except there’s no parking, and there’s no way in Hell that you’re going to pay fifteen dollars for half a Cubano and some potato chips. So you drive around until you find a gas station with a restroom, and buy some donuts and an energy drink, even though that’ll just get you all wired up and shaky, and you’ll smoke a bunch of weed to calm yourself down. But then you realize it’s almost time for your appointment, and now you have to not only drive up and through a gated community located somewhere on a hill looking out over a stretch of the Pacific, but also do so in a rickety car that handles like a rickety boat. And once you arrive, you’ll spend another fifteen minutes smoking even more marijuana in the hope of forgetting that you nearly hit a family walking their dog and most definitely hit someone’s latest model luxury vehicle, even if nobody noticed or–
“Harold?” a familiar voice called.
Harold eventually turned to find Sophia standing beside his car. She was a comfortable mess of hair in sweatpants and a tattered Bon Jovi tee looking back at the very confused man holding a lit pipe in one hand while attempting to roll down a window that was already down with the other. When Harold inspected the window and found it to his liking, he cranked the handle several times more just to be sure.
“Hi,” he said from a cloud of smoke.
“Nice car,” she said, taking the pipe and a big hit.
“Thanks. It’s my grandma’s.”
The house was little more than a modest four-bedroom home condensed into a cramped four-and-a-half thousand square feet. The Brazilian walnut flooring was several years old by now, and the wine cellar too small for even a moderate day-drinker. Sure, the view of the crystalline waters of the Pacific from the third-floor master suite was every bit as breathtaking as it was majestic. But, it could be better. In fact, Harold hardly noticed the view because he was preoccupied with the massive, intimately detailed nude oil painting of Sophia hanging over her bed.
“My father-in-law used to be one hell of an artist,” Sophia smiled, strutting through the doorway in somehow less clothing than the painting.
“Your father-in-law painted this?” Harold replied, turning to Sophia, seeing she was somehow wearing less than the painting, and then immediately dropping some fifty pounds worth of photography and lighting equipment that he had still been holding for some reason.
“Yeah, but he’s dead now.”
Harold stood there in the bedroom of a mostly-naked married woman, among the several gym bags and rather expensive and broken light bulbs at his feet, a man at war with himself. On the one hand, he was an artist being paid to do his job. It hardly mattered that Sophia was a mature woman wearing only bits of tissue paper, floss, and a smile. The sort of haunting beauty many years removed from that painting, yet preserved by the carefree lifestyle of comically obscene wealth and the skilled hands of a well-compensated surgeon. But on the other less-skilled hand, Sophia hardly seemed to mind that Harold was gawking at her thighs and pondering aloud as to how soft they must feel, perhaps like very expensive toilet paper lightly scented in lavender.
“I thought you were a professional, Mr. Photographer?” Sophia said, seating herself on the foot of the bed.
“Yeah. Me, too.”
“Harold, I’m teasing.”
“I’m sorry. I think maybe this was a mistake.”
“Well. You’re married, for one.”
“Are you still on that? Oliver’s paying you to do this. He gave you a deposit, didn’t he?”
“Harold,” she groaned, rolling her eyes. “The mostly-naked woman on her bed is paying you good money to take photos of her. So quit being such a chicken shit, and whip your camera out.”
Harold nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Harold edited erotic photos of a mostly naked married woman by the glow of his computer screen, and his mind wandered.
There was a flash of a bulb, the click of a shutter. A low-angle shot of Sophia on her bed, on her knees, arching her back and cupping her breasts. Fuck-me eyes and a bite of her lip. Click, click, click. A fling and a tease of her hair. Extreme close-up, a squeeze and a thrusting of hips. Click, click. A parting of thighs, a delicate touch of her hips. Over-the-shoulder, zoom, click, flash, then from behind. Click, click, and click.
“I don’t have cooties,” she cooed at some point.
Harold looked up from his camera, his eyes never leaving Sophia. “Huh?”
“You’re so far away. Wouldn’t it help if you got a little closer?”
Harold shrugged from somewhere between the bed and that balcony with the expensive view. “Maybe.”
Sophia pouted. “Ya know. For someone who does this all the time, you sure are shy.”
Harold continued making with the clicking and the flashing, only a little closer. “To be fair, most of these girls I photograph are–“
“Harold,” she scolded with a huff and a furrow of her brow. (Click.)
“Most of them are wannabe models who will never make it, settle on being whatever an ‘influencer’ is, then turn to selling oils and pills and other people’s artwork.”
“Sounds a bit harsh.”
“I’m not judging,” he said with a shake of his head. “Just sharing.”
Sophia sat there on her bed for a moment, beneath that interpretation of her younger self, and spilling out of her bra. “So, what does that make me?” (Click-click-click.)
Harold stopped again, and considered this. “I’m not sure yet.”
Many hours later, as Harold sat in the mild discomfort of an otherwise dark kitchen, beneath the wobbly blades of a ceiling fan, looking at those dozens of photos of Sophia, he still wasn’t quite sure what to make of her. Like the photos on his laptop, no two Sophias were the same. There was the refined woman in the silk sundress he met at the gallery, soft-spoken, curious, and resigned to the whims of a man who drags her by the wrist and parks in handicap spaces. A carefree mess in her vintage Bon Jovi tee smoking weed with Harold in his car. That confident young woman bound forever in canvas and oils. And every photograph was another Sophia looking back at him, her emotions and thoughts and urges scattered. One moment, she’s aware of how little she’s wearing and reaching for sheets, pretending she’s only being playful. The next, she’s ripping off her top and reaching for Harold with her eyes. But it was the Sophia who caught his camera lingering too long on an old surgical scar that Harold kept coming back to.
“These?” she replied, her fingers gliding over the faint lines running beneath her arms and breasts. “Oliver’s work. He’s a magnificent surgeon, but you can only roll back the clock so far. And time still leaves its scars.”
Harold said nothing, and through his lens he saw how his silence cut at Sophia like her husband’s scalpel.
“Do they bother you?” she asked, looking elsewhere.
Harold lowered his camera, saw the mostly naked woman on the bed in front of him, and considered this. “No.”
Sophia smiled. “I tried to cover them up as best as I could.”
“They look fine. You look–“
Harold never finished his thought. Back then, Oliver had returned by bursting through the front door and announcing his arrival like Ricky Ricardo. Whatever Harold might have been thinking at the time was replaced by the conflicting desires of leaping from the balcony window with the expensive view and running to the toilet. But now, his Grandmother had walked in on her sweaty grandson in his underwear looking at erotic photographs of a mostly naked woman on his laptop.
“Harold,” the old woman sighed. “I thought we talked about you doing this sort of thing in the kitchen.”
Harold slammed the laptop shut. “I’m working, and it’s hot in my garage!”
It was a sweltering afternoon in a slightly more affluent coastal California “community” where nobody really likes each other, but are too medicated to care. The still air was thick and smelled of fish. And as Harold watched another yacht struggle to navigate the calm waters of the harbor, he concluded the world was wrong and life was meaningless.
“Would you do me?” Sophia asked.
They sat on a bench beneath the thinning shade of a patch of trees, yacht clubs and hotels to their left, families splashing about on a narrow stretch of sandy beach to their right. She was a fashionable mess of hair blowing in the wind, making her way through a stack of photographs of herself. He was very confused. “I’m sorry. What?”
Sophia ignored this, holding up a particularly flattering image in which she made creative use of a chair, a mirror, and the contents of a box she kept buried in the back of her closet. “I’d do me.”
Harold smiled. “I’m glad you like them.”
“I love them,” she gushed. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but how are you not getting more work?”
He shrugged. “What’s there to say? One minute, you’re young and full of shit and the world is yours. The next, you’re looking at a clock on the wall in an empty art gallery, wondering what the Hell you did wrong.”
Sophia saw the man beside her, and turned to the stack of photographs in her hands. “I haven’t seen myself–,” she started, then thought better of it. “I haven’t felt this beautiful in years. Thank you, Harold.” And then, she kissed him.
Wow. Okay, he blinked.
“Your lips are soft,” she whispered, gathered her things, and walked away.
Harold sat there watching this like an idiot, then realized he should probably say or do something. “Wait. What? Shit,” he poetically blathered. “I’m sorry, Sophia. I didn’t–“
Sophia stopped, and turned to Harold. “I know you didn’t. I did.”
“Then, what’s the problem?”
She smiled with her eyes. “No problem.”
To be continued…