Tori looked so picturesque that Zach cursed himself for not bringing his camera. She’d called at two in the morning, needing a ride, and then begging off and telling him he could go back to sleep. But she was downtown, and it was a two mile hike uphill to her dorm at Vandy. He was pulling up beside her three minutes after leaving his trashy-chic studio loft near Five Points.
Her black skirt swished a half-beat before the rest of her body followed. Her red hair seemed to absorb the glow of the bar front neon. He would have honked, but the familiar rattle of his old Wagoneer gave him away, and she waved to make sure he could see her. Of course he could see her.
“Tell me again why we’re not dating?” she sighed, climbing in and leaning back in her seat.
“Your giant, giant boyfriend, mainly,” he told her. He pushed in the cigarette lighter below the dash. He didn’t smoke, it was just something he did. Some folks touched their nose. Others tugged their collars. He played with the cigarette lighter in his truck. “Also,” he added, curling his fist and lowering his voice, “my art is my true love.”
“Oh, Jesus. What do you call it when someone cliches a cliche? Hypercliche? Megacliche?”
“I’m a barista and a photographer, living in a studio apartment above a pizza joint. I am the Voltron of cliches.”
“You’re not too cliched! Didn’t you sell something recently?”
“Sure did. From that gallery there.” They passed by a tiny storefront, the picture window covered in white blinds. In huge Veranda font the numbers “465” were stenciled in black. “Dude bought a picture of mine for a grand.”
“What? Hell yeah!” She punched him on the arm, and he added to his cliche gestalt by pretending the punch hadn’t hurt. “How are you not more excited about that?”
“Well, it might not happen again.”
“Oh, Jesus.” She shook her head. “If you’re gonna be broody I think I’d rather walk.”
“I’m not broody. I just don’t wanna get too comfortable with the idea I can live off my photos.” He’s in a good space now, but when he worked two grueling jobs just to survive, he’d sometimes wake in the middle of the night unable to breathe. But things evened out for him. He starves now, making coffee and hustling photos, but at the price of finally living.
Ben Folds was playing in his stereo.
And all this wanderin’…
Got you nothin’…
“So I guess I’d be the chipper one.”
“When we’re together. I’ll clearly have to be the optimistic one.”
“Yeah.” The lighter popped back out, and after a beat he pushed it back in. “But we won’t be together.”
“Yeah,” she nodded.
You were ready to…
But never could…
“So was it a bad fight?”
“Not really. Just…” she sighed, “a stupid one.”
“So you’ll call him tomorrow.”
“Guess I gotta.”
“Yep,” and in the flash of a street light he could see her smile at him, “now that I’m gonna hold ya accountable and all.”
He pulled up to her building. The campus police call box by the door flashed blue and red in the still night. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “You’re a lifesaver, man.”
“Cherry flavored and everything.” And he smiled after her as she climbed out. He caught himself a little too late watching the swish of her skirt against her thighs as she went in.
“Come on. Get your head on straight.”
At a light, he caught his reflection in the rear view mirror, saw the faint pink imprint on his cheek where she’d kissed him. He snapped a quick pic with his phone, and back at home he toyed with filters and exposure until her lipstick was a steel-gray print, framed by flecks of stubble along the slate white board of his cheek. He printed a copy, then scribbled along the gloss with a permanent marker. Once the words had soaked in he made two more prints, one to hang, one to hustle. He could easily get thirty bucks a copy for this print. He was gonna try for three hundred.
He texted a woman he knew, but she never responded before he fell asleep. Beside his whirring laptop, the corner of the print hung over the edge of his desk. It wafted in the eddy of his ceiling fan. Across the gloss, beneath Tori’s steel kiss, was the title, scrawled in black ink.