The Girl in the Picture

by Lily Dolin 

Every Tuesday, Jeanie takes the subway five stops downtown to stare at herself. She waits in line with everyone else, listening to white noise through her headphones as she studies the throng of people around her. She pays a fee like everyone else, hoping that no one notices the crumpled napkins and uncapped pens in her bag as she searches for her wallet. She walks through the halls, her footsteps echoing on waxed linoleum floors, ignoring the signs and guideposts to a maze she already knows.

 

The gallery is at the back of the museum, nestled between an exhibit on American folk art and a room filled with early 20th century tables. It’s a small space, easy to miss unless you know where to look, ignored by tourists who visit the museum to take pictures of the few art pieces that everyone recognizes, and who leave immediately after.

 

Jeanie hangs on the eastern wall. A slight black frame and behind it, a glossy photograph of someone that Jeanie recognizes, but doesn’t. It’s her, of course, head thrown back mid-laugh against the summer sun, surrounded by a crowd of partiers standing in a fountain downtown. The photograph reeks of youth and naïveté and liberation and Jeanie is smack-dab in the middle of it with flushed cheeks and wild hair, looking like the patron saint of those who think they’ll never die.

 

She barely remembers the day it was taken. It was the summer, blazing hot, a weekend where everything seemed possible and, under the hazy blanket of warmth and sunlight, nothing seemed real. She was high on mushrooms and wearing a black top that cost five dollars. The party was by word of mouth only so naturally it was filled with strangers, and Jeanie can recall the feeling of soft flesh against her back and the hum of electric music in her ears. There was also a man in a t-shirt with a camera. Some questions and forms to sign. Months later there was an email and an invitation to an opening. By the time that came around it was winter and Jeanie was cold inside and out, seemingly chained to her bed and tired, so tired.

 

Jeanie is alone in the room today, as she often is. She prefers it that way. She hates it that way. To be alone with only herself is hell and euphoria. Drawing her coat closer she steps towards the photograph, hesitant and slow, as though asking permission to enter a place she has known for years.

 

The Girl in the Picture is beautiful. It’s easy to forget that, and each time Jeanie visits she is once again surprised by just how lovely this Girl is. Jeanie starts as she always does, by studying the contours of her shoulders, perfectly sloped, free of stress knots and back acne. Jeanie remembers the way Adam used to trace those lines, dipping his fingers in and out of the covers, smiling as a golden morning light bathed them both. On those mornings he whispered lies in Jeanie’s ear, although she didn’t know that then.

 

I wish we could stay like this forever.

 

I wish I could paint a picture of you and keep it in a locket like they did hundreds of years ago.

 

I will love you always.

 

The Girl in the Picture has nice lips, too. A good shape, red and bowed and trapped forever in a perpetual smile. It’s a smile Jeanie recognizes, but barely, the way one remembers an old camp bunkmate or a high school classmate worn away by age and weight. Different, faint, and a reminder of things lost. The Girl’s eyelashes are longer. Those eyelashes that fluttered and drew people in. Adam once said he had never seen anyone’s as long. Jeanie’s eyelashes are clumped and ragged. Always drooping and heavy these days. Before Jeanie are perfect hands, perfect dimples, a perfect stomach. A complete anatomy preserved in glass. Jeanie is overgrown fingernails, moth-eaten sweaters, stale breath. She is a wonder to Jeanie, this Girl who was happy and loved and worthy of being photographed.

 

A sound comes from down the hall. Jeanie hears shuffling feet and rustling paper. A man, maybe forty or sixty, enters the gallery. He is likely the only person to have visited this place, besides Jeanie, for months. He wears a long tan coat, the expensive looking kind, and a red scarf—cashmere, probably. The man is elegant, and Jeanie imagines he belongs to a family that throws lavish cocktail parties where they discuss things like getting their children into private school and vacations to the Alps. This man has the kind of life Jeanie once wanted and believed she could have, before the weight of life and disappointment and unpaid phone bills caught up with her.

 

Hi, the man says.

 

Jeanie nods back. She thinks he looks like Adam, and starts to cry.

 

The man strolls around the room, each step too sure of itself and not mindful enough of the unspoken rules of walking around a museum. He stops in front of a photograph and stares at it for a few seconds before moving on to the next frame. In the old days Jeanie might have spoken to him, might have laughed at his jokes. Now her mouth is filled with bitter spit.

 

He notices her staring and quickly looks away, embarrassed. Then he looks back again, holding his gaze, before eventually focusing in on the photograph behind her. His eyes jump between Jeanie and the Girl. He clicks his tongue before leaning in slightly, as if preparing to share an embarrassing secret.

 

Is that you? he asks, flicking his head towards the picture.

 

Jeanie smiles, a real one this time, but without warmth. No, she says.

 

Huh, that’s funny, the man replies, you sort of look alike.

 

Maybe, she says, once.

 

The man, satisfied, turns back to the picture in front of him. Jeanie, restless, walks away.

About the Author

Lily Dolin lives in New York City and works in publishing. Her work has been featured in Allegory Ridge, High Shelf Press, Slack Jaw, Sad Girls Club, and Chaleur Magazine, and her award-winning poetry has been shown at The Grey Art Gallery in New York. When she isn't writing she can be found reading, painting, and resisting the urge to join TikTok.