Maribel hasn’t heard from them in years, but of course they’re still together. They share an email address.
When she downloads the photo and it appears on her computer screen like a still from some movie she can barely remember seeing, she thinks, How easily I was disarmed by the unexpected back then.
Nineteen years old and in terry cloth, crushing on Tim even though he and her best friend Judy were practically married already. Maribel had squared the two of them up in the viewfinder and was trying not to imagine herself in Judy’s place on the deck railing next to Tim, was trying to see instead what was right in front of her eyes, this happy couple. Her hands felt slippery on the camera’s plastic. It was impossible.
Just before she told them to smile—even though they had been smiling all weekend, even though they would probably be smiling for the rest of their lives—Tim unpocketed that Instamatic, and then she was the one flashing all of her teeth toward the sky.
A little over thirty years later—after the divorce, after she was laid off from her job in pharmaceutical sales, after a lot of time spent in tanning beds and at the gym—she bought a webcam.
She looked good for her age, much better than she had in that pale blue suit a couple of lifetimes ago, back when she’d believed in a certain kind of future—if not with Tim then with someone more like him than the man she married, whose shoulder blade, she sees now, looking at the photo, Tim managed to catch in the frame.
At first, she liked just showing off her body. She liked the idea of people she would never know receiving some kind of pleasure just from seeing her.
After a couple of months she showed her face, even her eyes, which she’d been careful not to. There were things about men she’d never learned when she was married. She’d known people’s desires were complicated, but not quite like this.
One man liked to pleasure himself to a close-up of only her mouth, so near her cam he could see the cracks in her lipstick, the minute stains on her teeth.
Another man sent her a doll, an expensive-looking and surprisingly realistic baby, along with a stained white V-neck T-shirt. He wanted her to wear only that particular shirt and nothing else when she cradled the baby and put it down for a nap. He wanted her to wear it when she sang the baby lullabies while affecting a Slavic accent.
But more than being on display, more than performing, she likes watching back, cam-to-cam.
A lot of the men are all pasty feverishness and unkempt body hair, but some of the younger ones are kind of cute. She likes how lonely and docile they are.
A lot of them, they won’t even touch themselves until she tells them how she wants them to do it. The power she feels in those moments when they are looking at her, waiting, their chests rising and falling in quick breaths.
What if, thirty years ago she’d held her camera on Tim?
What might she have told him to do?
What might he have done?
Chad Simpson is the author of Tell Everyone I Said Hi, which won the 2012 John Simmons Short Fiction Award and was published by the University of Iowa Press. His work has appeared in many print and online publications, including McSweeney’s Quarterly, Esquire, American Short Fiction, and The Sun. He lives in Monmouth, Illinois, and is an Associate Professor of English at Knox College.