A story about what happens when an intimate selfie gets sent to the wrong person.
Tess slid down the wall. The bricks offered little in the way of traction. She crashed into a puddle and didn’t bother moving. She couldn’t bring herself to look at James. Her focus shifted between the fire escape and the dumpster. She hated the way he’d been looking at her all day. He had a twinkle in his eye, like a child expecting a present. She hated the hang dog expression he was wearing now even more.
Wrapping her arms around her legs, ducking between her knees, Tess folded in on herself. “This is what I get for following my heart when it’s shit faced.”
She sobbed into her hoodie. In one day she’d shown James the broad spectrum of her: from an unhinged exhibitionist to a humiliated wreck.
“Who did you send it to?” Tess shouted into her belt buckle.
James’s coat scraped down the bricks. “I didn’t.”
“Bullshit,” Tess scoffed. Her face already stung with tears. The bouncer probably wouldn’t let her back in now that her eyes had gone bong-hit red.
Tess scratched the bridge of her nose to find mascara dripping down her fingers. She streaked it across her cheeks like warpaint. When she peeked out, she wanted James to know he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.
“Give me your phone.”
Tapping in his passcode, James gave it up without a fuss, knowing it was contraband.
Tess scrolled through his messages. He hadn’t sent a thing for months. The last message was a time-off request for a funeral. His missed calls alternated between his mother and a 1-800 number, likely a creditor. She checked his photo gallery. The pictures were all closeups of dewdrops, sunsets through treetops, and color swatches of leaves changing. There were no human subjects, not even in the background.
“I deleted them already,” James showed his palms. “I might be gullible, but I’m not that stupid. We all use our phones on the sales floor. We all show off the photo filters. I couldn’t have customers ogling you, even if it would help my numbers.”
James was giving Tess an essay answer. Volunteering too much information, to keep her from asking the right question.
Wiping her cheeks, Tess flicked her tears. They streaked like ink across the pavement. “Did you sync it with your computer?”
James rolled his eyes looking for the long way around the answer. He gave a half nod, a child caught steeling from his mother’s wallet.
“Fucking hell.” Tess kicked the asphalt.
“Of course I did. I thought I was supposed to.” James’s tone rose to meet her anger.
“They weren’t for you, James.” She told the bug zapper buzzing overhead. “They were for Jason. You just happened to be one name higher in the alphabet.”
James sighed. “Well with all your cold shoulder maneuvering in the break room, I didn’t realize the two of you were still on sexting terms.”
Tess gave that a sad chuckle. “We’re not. I just saw him hitting on this jailbait jezebel, with tights for leggings, twirling her pigtails, sucking her thumb. When he setup her phone, he added his number. I know it. I wanted to remind him of the fire still burning just around the corner from his apartment.”
James couldn’t help but smile. Not the smile that came from hearing a joke, but the involuntary smile that came from being overwhelmed. “I should’ve forwarded them to him.”
Tess scowled. “You should’ve known.”
James ran his face down his palm, “How? I thought you and I were kicking at the tires of something. I figured you were sick of Jason looming over us, so you fast forwarded to selfie sexts.”
Backhanding the bricks, Tess bit her lip. “Don’t call them that.”
James put his hands up. “Fine, these tasteful nudes-”
“I wasn’t nude!” Tess cut in.
James shook his head. “You’re counting the devil horns? When you play strip poker do you count your hairpins too?”
“No, there was a red corset in the first few shots.” Tess spun her hands through the air. “There was a succession.”
Tess realized how premeditated her actions sounded. “Fine, call them selfie sexts.” She wiped her nose down her sleeve. “I’m going to need access to your computer. I’ll need your backups, thumb drives, everything. Not tomorrow, but tonight.”
James went red. “That’s overreaching.”
Grabbing him by the collar, Tess spoke slowly and deliberately, over annunciating each syllable. “That doesn’t matter. You’ve seen me at my most personal. I think I am entitled to see you at yours.”
James muttered, “I thought you were just being forward. I figured that’s why you’d asked for my number.”
Tess let go. “I asked for your number because you said you could help with my Halloween costume. Remember, I wanted to build the exosuit Ripley wore in Aliens and you said you had a bunch of cardboard.”
James’s hands circled each other. “I know that’s what we said, but I figured…”
James shrugged. “Listen, all I’m saying is there was coffee and daylight in the fantasy I was having.”
Scurrying to her feet, Tess backed James into the wall. “You figured what?”
He put his hands up. “That you already had a Halloween costume, which you clearly did. I have proof.”
She nodded. “Right. Let’s do something about that.”
James’s apartment was a little too clean. There were fresh vacuum lines on the carpet, every surface was dusted, and the dishes were still wet in the rack.
“Hold back.” He stopped Tess at the door.
“There’s some things I’d rather you not see.” Rushing in James, scooped balls of yarn off the couch. Spinning toward the coffee table, he grabbed a pair of crochet needles and a scarf with orange and maroon stripes. Balling it all up, James tossed everything into a basket.
Tess stood on her tiptoes to see. “Were those the Gryffindor colors?”
She followed her host’s eyes to a pair of round spectacles and a whittled wand on the far end of the coffee table. She ducked under his arm.
“Are you going as Harry Potter for Halloween?”
James got out in front of her. “I’m not not going as Harry Potter.”
Tess gave that a long nod. She thought he could pull it off, but didn’t want to say anything reassuring. There was something about watching him squirm that was just too much fun.
Doing a lap around the living room, she wandered into the kitchen. “Where’s the cardboard?”
James turtled up. “I haven’t picked it up yet.”
Tess squint. “But you do have it?”
He tilt his head back and forth. “I asked around.”
“But you knew where to get it when you gave me your number, right?”
James gave that a quick nod.
Tess raised her head. “But you had to ask around? I’m still unclear about your timeline.”
His eyes darted back and forth. “I knew where, eventually, on that day, yes. Do you still want to make it?”
Tess rubbed her eyes. “What do you think? Of course. I want to go to a bunch of different Halloween parties, just so I can kick down the door and shout ‘Get away from her you bitch!’”
With that Tess kicked the bedroom door in.
She rubbed her hands together. “Alright boy, fetch all your tech. I want your jump, flash, and thumb drives right here.” She snapped at the bed.
“You do realize those are all the same thing, right?”
“Oh, and if you have any USB sticks, them too.”
Setting his laptop on the bed, James gathered a pair of thumb drives from the nightstand, an external backup from the closet, and the phone from his pocket. “That’s everything.”
Tess ran her fingers down the sheets. “Do you always make your bed?”
“Why wouldn’t I make my bed?” James stood in the doorway.
Tess smirked. “Well, I just sent you those photos. Maybe they inspired you to make your bed.”
“I’m struggling to see a correlation.”
She crossed her arms, taking a step toward him. “Really?”
He shrugged. “What? Sometimes I watch movies in my bedroom.”
Looking from the flat screen in the living room to the tiny tube TV on the dresser, Tess raised an eyebrow, taking another step forward. “Really?”
James looked guilty as sin. “Yes, I occasionally make my bed.”
“Occasionally.” Tess winked. “Well, it’ll make a fine office for my purposes.” Shutting the door, Tess pushed the lock in. Opening the laptop, she plugged James’s phone into the first port and his backup into the second, then she plugged his thumb drives into the back of that.
“You’re shutting me out?” James spoke to the door.
Tess’s response was the startup gong of the laptop.
James’s shadow paced the carpet. “You won’t even know where to find them.”
The desktop loaded a picture of a Jack-O-Lantern made to look like it was puking seeds onto the sidewalk, followed by the drives. The first thumb drive was filled with resumés and cover letters for various employers, the second was all college essays.
Every folder on the backup drive was dated. “You know, you haven’t backed up your computer in three months.”
The doorknob rattled. “Right, I should really get on that.”
Opening the photo application, Tess caught herself gasping.
There was flesh onscreen, just not her own. In every thumbnail, James was standing shirtless, looking awfully serious. He wasn’t bulky or broad shouldered, but damn was he toned.
The camera had taken pictures in bursts, in some James was posing, squinting with his cheeks sucked in, in others he struggled to keep his cowlick down. Tess wondered how his abs could be sopping wet, while his hair still defied gravity. She spotted the free weights peaking out of the closet. So that’s why he didn’t respond right away. He had to pump himself up first.
Tess could’ve scrolled through the gallery, found what she was looking for and been done with this whole incident, instead she explored James’s self portraits one at a time. She couldn’t help but notice how the hairs on his shoulders disappeared the further she went, or that his bed went from a heap of laundry to a nice flat comforter, or that the direction of the light source changed. She looked up to find, the desk lamp still aimed at the foot of the bed.
Tess watched a slideshow of James spinning around searching for an angle. She watched him flex and go slack. He was cut for a skinny dude with boyish features.
The last few shots were of James in his underwear: boxers at first, then boxer briefs. He hadn’t been brave enough to go the full monty, still these pics were something to see. When it came time to present his manhood to the camera, he broke character, blushing, laughing, and messing up his hair.
These were the photos she sent to herself in an email.
When James rattled the doorknob again, Tess returned to the task at hand. Scrolling through the gallery, she found the shots of herself unlacing the corset that cut off her circulation, unwrapping the red satin number that might have fit when she was younger, and wearing nothing but horns and a smile.
Tess couldn’t help but notice how poorly that smile complimented her eyes. That was her smile for Jason, as authentic as Saccharine. It didn’t say “come-hither” it said, “come-hither, please.” She highlighted the photos and hit DELETE.
When James gave up on the door knob, Tess sat in silence.
Running the cursor over the applications on the bottom of the screen, she paused on one. Taking a deep breath, she double-clicked. When the photo booth opened, she saw herself through the webcam, a hot mess with face paint like a quarterback. Licking her fingers, she wiped the mascara from her cheeks. Running her hands through her hair, she flattened her bangs. Unzipping her hoodie, she evened up her collar.
It felt wrong to take James’s self portraits and leave nothing in return, so Tess sat up and smiled for the camera. This time it was genuine.