Fiction by R.E. Hengsterman
To be honest, I don’t know what is real anymore.
From where I stand ocean air hurries past in wispy bursts, salty and bedewed. Overhead quintessential grey-and-white pink-legged gulls caw with curiosity as I hike, and I’m careful to keep one eye on the ocean pummelling the shore and the other on the rocky terrain. Right away I notice her at my side, her hand coiling into mine as if we’ve done this same thing a million times. From this moment on only the crunch of tiny pebbles breaks our silence.
Not long after sunset the path ends, and we spill onto a tree-lined street doused with a steady rain. We hurry underneath branches and zig-zag across asphalt until we find shelter inside a local diner where the salty locals measure our arrival with gaps of silence.
We snag a seat on a pair of worn bar stools just as a vibration shakes the phone in my pocket. Before I know it, the diner pulls a disappearing act, leaving behind a slice of moonlight and the stench of ammonia. Hours have passed, and it’s deep in the night. The thought of hiding out in the bathroom where I find my pajamas around my ankles and ass numbed by porcelain sounds crazy. I have one option, take my sweet time coaxing a pair of numb legs into the bedroom.
Once I settle the mound beside me shifts.
“I thought you pulled an Elvis?” She says.
“… Just reading.”
We both move, careful not to touch.
“For two hours,” She adds.
Pretending not to hear I drift off to sleep with my secret intact.
After a restless night morning comes and I’m on the hunt for my phone. The heap occupying the other half of the bed, and shying away from physical contact, snores loud. Even in the massive tangle of cotton I find salvation, quick to drop it low and out of sight, searching Instagram with the same guilt as porn.
There is a photo, so I click.
It happens in a flash – the switch from one place to another, from the bed to ankle deep water warmed by the sun. From a life crammed with addiction and littered with arguments, to a mind-blowing beach. It’s unbelievable – Instagram on acid.
Yards away on a crescent-shaped stretch of sand two smallish children play, laughing despite the burden of tropical heat. At the boundary where the beach meets the foliage, a squab hut of re-purposed wood and discarded tin hides under a canopy of thick leaves. There are orchids and bromeliads scattered beyond the stilt roots, and a single iguana roaming slow and unadventurous.
There is a long pause where I do nothing but stand and breathe before I plunge my hand into the crystal water, grabbing a handful of white sand. Tiny granules slip between my fingers and hit the water with faint plunks. There is no script, no map, just a photo and a place, so I continue towards the hut until a steady tug interrupts my progress, its firm and persistent. I try to shrug off the intrusion and focus, but the distraction takes apart everything – the water, sand and shack dis-assembling until the moment vanishes.
“Where do you go?” She yells. “In your head, where are you?” Her mouth twists two opposite directions of sideways and her volume is quick to offend my ears.
With the memory of the beach still fresh, I stay silent, safeguarding the sanctity of my obsession. The silence bothers her, I can tell. She leans in close, pushing the warm air from her lungs against my face. A huge fight follows, leaving the room heavy. The result is a half-hearted promise. No more Instagram.
Throughout the day I hide my phone in various places, but nothing kills the urge. Not even pity sex. Later that evening I cave and the detachment begins with a simple click.
Worn hardwoods contrast my pale feet. Outside I see a porch, long and narrow. An empty swing catches a breeze, creaking against dry, cracked wood. The air is temperate and burdened with dust – past the window everything is brown. There is a movement at the sink drawing my attention. That’s where I notice her standing naked – distracted; the wine she’s pouring overflows her glass. A playful shriek joins an easy smile as deep violet trickles toward her inner thigh. Without a word or concern for her vulnerability, she hands me a glass and heads toward the bed leaving me to stand and watch her melt into a twist of pure white cotton.
Before I can follow, every cell in my body shivers – as if a bolus of caffeine reaches my bloodstream and triggers a body wide convulsion.
Why! Why! Why!
“Why are you always on that damn thing,” she yells angry as cat meat.
The phone snatched from my hands before I have enough awareness to tighten my grip. The naked stranger in the bedrooms is now a fugitive memory. Only the taste of wine lags.
“I’m just looking at my photos,” I say.
“Your photos?” She says, rolling her eyes.
“Yes, my photos.”
“This is not you.” She says. “You’re delusional.” The phone finds the nearness of my face with a forceful, angry shove. Her hands with a violent shake, fail to steady as her rant continues.
“You understand you’re looking at … at strangers. That I’m right here, but you refuse to see me. You’re living in a make-believe world where you don’t belong.”
“You’re a loser,” she screams. “A loser!”
The phone slams against the countertop, glass splintering into tiny shards, as she runs from the room.
Filled with hopelessness, I thrust my hands into my pajama pockets and plunge my shoulders deep only to meet the moisture of wet sand on my fingertips.
The tears pour as I crumple to the floor in a pile, the shattered phone by my side.
R.E. Hengsterman is a writer and film photographer who deconstructs the human experience through photographic images and words. He currently lives and writes in North Carolina. You can see more of his work at www.rehengsterman.com and find him on Twitter at @rehengsterman.