“Come on,” she said grabbing his hand with an ease rarely seen on a first date. She pulled him forward. He could feel the inside of his cardigan sleeve slide up his arm. He stumbled to gain his footing as he slid on the wet leaves that carpeted the coffee shop sidewalk. He caught himself and was able to catch up to her strides. He tried to play it off.
“Sooo, where we are going?” he asked, knowing that the answer didn’t matter because he’d go anywhere to spend fifteen more minutes with her.
She looked back at him: “the cemetery.” Her eyes didn’t move, but he swore he saw them smiling. “Cool.” he said, not thinking twice. He wasn’t joking about wanting to go anywhere with her.
She loved his down-for-whatever attitude since the first minute they talked. He wouldn’t tell her it was because he was too shy to have an opinion on anything.
They stopped at the corner while traffic whizzed by. His coffee cup was still in his hand. He had trouble remembering to drink it during the date. His other hand was preoccupied in hers. Traffic opened up and they were off again. Coffee splashed on the base of his wrist. He didn’t feel it. The only thing he could feel right now was her palm.
“We’re here.” she said turning around to face him. She put both arms in the air sarcastically like she was in an overly excited Facebook photo.
It was one of those cemeteries where tourist and Instagram photographers outnumbered the people there to mourn. Part park, part cemetery. Branches reached out through the iron fence as it transitioned into a stone walled entrance. A large iron gate was hooked open and a house sat just beyond its latches. Rocking chairs on the wrap around porch swayed slightly in the wind. The original wood of the window trim peeked through the peeling layers of paint. If he looked long enough he’d probably see a ghostly hand gently pull back the curtains. It was a cool fall day, but the sun was bright as it reflected off a worn square sign that read “Hollywood Cemetery.”
Just through the gate, she slid her backpack around to her chest and started to dig through it. “Found it,” she said.
She handed him a mask. Not a Covid-19 mask. A homemade Halloween type mask with a cut rubber ban as a strap stapled to either side. It was heavy. Several layers of papier-mâché were coated in thick brush strokes of acrylic paint. Horns jutted out of trimmed fraying yellow shoelaces that made up the hair. It looked like a monster from “Where the Wild Things Are”, but if they were 2OOlbs lighter and lime green. She slid hers on. With a little hesitancy, he slid his on too. The rubber ban caught each hair on the back of his head stingy his scalp as it slid down.
They walked down a wide solid black path that curved through hills filled with gravestones, sculptures and ornate mausoleums. “Two United States Presidents are buried here” she said through the muffled echo of the mask. A hundred feet away a couple with multiple cameras draped around their necks were taking pictures. Just beyond them were more hills overlooking the James River. Quickly, she crouched behind a row of bushes and then scurried behind a tombstone. He followed. It was too late now for him to put up any verbal resistance to what they were doing. What were they doing?
She was whispering now. “When they’re about to take a picture peek out a little and photo bomb their shot”
The people were only a few feet away now. The shady side of the tombstone felt cool against his back as she adjusted his mask straightening the eyeholes. He was sorry for leaning on it but figured whoever was buried there once did something crazy for love too. He could see them start to lift their cameras. If he ever questioned what they were doing it was in this split second.
“NOW,” she breathed
He jumped out as fast as he could. The force pushed his mask sideways and all he could see were slivers of branches and the fall sky. He took one step forward and felt the toe of his shoe catch on a nearby root. The sky swirled now as he floated in mid air. It felt like an hour before he hit the ground. His landing was quieter than he thought. He forgot he had a coffee cup, but was reminded when the warm spill soaked into his shoulder and started to trickle down his back. He could hear her trying to hold in her laughter from behind the tombstone. It sounded like coughing in a library when you don’t want to make too much noise. He decided in that moment that he loved when she laughed like that. He pulled his mask center, sat up slightly and could see the photographers. He probably would’ve run away if he wasn’t wearing a mask, trapped, but all he could think to say was a sheepish “Boo?!”
Pulling their cameras down they glared at him confused. “Asshole,” they said walking away. He laid back and let the dead weight of his entire body touch the ground.
She sat down next to him with her arms loosely wrapped around her legs and her knees pushed up to her chest. She still had her mask on, but he could tell she was smiling. He had to squint to see her through the sunlight. They both slid their masks to the top of their heads.
“What was that?!” she said laughing. “The whole point is for them not to see you”
Confused. “You told me to jump out!”
“Nooooo, I said peek out. NOT run out like a vinyl tube blow up outside a used car dealership.” That made him laugh. “The point is to be in their photo without them knowing. Then maybe hours, months, years from now someone might see a creepy mask in the photo and say “WTF, is that?“
“If they don’t know, then why are we doing this?” he laughed
“There’s joy is in doing it. When that happens the outcome of what we’re doing or making doesn’t matter. Once a photo with my hidden monster is out in the world it has a life of it’s own. Maybe never discovered, maybe passed around and laughed at between friends, maybe posted on social media, maybe deleted……who cares. My journey closes after creating it. It’s the universe’s job now to decide what happens with it”
He could tell she’d explained this before. It almost sounded like a script, but in this moment listening to her talk he felt happy, a real happy, not like the happy people pretend to be on social media.
“Got one more in you?” she asked.
This must be what living instead of existing feels like, he thought.
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