There was pop and a sudden searing sensation as the hot dog released its juices into his waiting mouth. The sun overhead was relentless, like the needle on a sewing machine, it imposed upon his bare arms and his cleanly shaven face with unnerving precision. His hair was too hot. His clothes were too close. He stood some feet away from the vendor, near a tree. The tree was decorated mostly with old shoes. It provided little in the way of shade or holiday spirit but he liked the idea of it. The idea that simply by changing ones’ shoes you could become someone else, you could take a different path, you could discover an entirely new mode of being.
The hotdog left him feeling vaguely queasy and not altogether satisfied. He licked the mustard and ketchup from his fingertips and threw away his soiled napkin. If only it were so easy to throw away blame. His wife blamed him for a great many things that hadn’t worked out in her life. She couldn’t cope with the loss of her youth, with the loss of her beauty (according to her), with the fact that he looked ten years younger than she did even though they were the same age. He wasn’t entirely sure how his youthful appearance offended her but it did offend her greatly. She was jealous now. She hadn’t been jealous at the beginning of their relationship. He was just as loyal but for some reason she didn’t believe him anymore. She was, to him, still the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, only now she was angry most of the time.
He fingered the bishop in his pocket, it was all that remained of a chess set that his grandfather had given him when he was a child. It was his good luck charm and whenever he felt something uncomfortable he held it between his fingers very gently to ground himself. He’d never really developed an interest in the game but he could remember playing with the pieces much the way another boy might play with toy soldiers or superhero figurines. The bishop in his pocket was made of dark wood and his caresses had worn it very smooth. As he stood there wondering precisely when he had lost his enthusiasm for life his eyes fell upon a red pair of Converse sneakers suspended from the tree beside him. Good condition. Right size. He took them down and exchanged them for his own shoes.
As he walked around the city, in his borrowed shoes and his borrowed identity, he felt more like himself than he had in years. His whole life had been a myth. Love. Success. Beauty. It was all just an elaborate social hoax, a game of chess, a caste system which split the world into the haves and the have-nots. He was technically on the winning side. He loved his wife, however she felt about him. He had a job. He was a photographer and he was good at it so the pay was good. Only in the process of making money and getting good he’d lost interest. He wanted to take imperfect pictures of unlikely people. He didn’t want to take pictures of people who posed like museum sculptures. He wanted to take pictures of people who hadn’t yet had all their humanness wrung out of them.
Just then he saw a young woman in a red dress leaning over to kiss a young man in a white t-shirt and faded jeans. The man fumbled with his phone and offered her a weak, fictional smile. He could see the scales in their relationship were unbalanced. He could see her heart broken and eager surging up in her throat like vomit. He watched her smile, then grimace as she swallowed her disappointment. He watched her pick up her own phone and jab at it half-heartedly while throwing her disinterested lover the occasional wounded look.
In her he witnessed a desire to connect, a desire crushed by mediocrity and indifference. Conversation. Affection. Intimacy. These were archaic notions. Civilized humans networked and stigmatized. Civilized humans didn’t build foundations, they built facades. Civilized humans walked in the park while looking at pictures on their phones. Pictures which had been carefully edited to remove all that was genuine, vulnerable, and imperfect. Graham, for that was his name, decided that today he was going to pick flowers for his wife instead of buying them. He was going to dig them up by the roots and plant them in a little ceramic pot and give them to her. He hoped that she would laugh at him. Not a mean, derisive laugh but a sweet, giggly laugh. She looked younger when she laughed, when she was happy and her nose crunched up and she forgot the symmetry of her face.