Tina sits on the floor of her bedroom, her back against the mattress, the grey parachute hanging above her head. I can see the outlines in the silk of the pieces of plaster that have collected there since the last time she emptied it. I don’t know how there can be any of her ceiling left above her by this point.
“I found a ladybug in here yesterday,” she says. “I have no idea where she came from. I thought it was too cold for them to live in December.” She touches her lower lip, which I know is her tell for wanting to have a cigarette, but I am wrong this time. “She landed right here, while I was in bed. I let her crawl around until she was finished, and then she flew off into the living room. Haven’t seen her since.”
“It’s here someplace,” I say. “Check the windows. It’s probably trying to get out.”
“It’s colder in here than it is outside. She’d have better odds out there.”
“You’d have better odds too,” I say. “Either the cold is going to get you, or the ceiling is going to come down in the next earthquake.”
“This building is strong,” she says. She gets off the floor and lays down on her mattress. “It’s not going anywhere.”
I sit in the ratty chair by her window. I am looking through an old box of photos, which Tina has told me to search through. She wants three images for a triptych she is putting together, and she wants me to find the ones to use. “What about this one?” I ask, turning the photo for her to see. It’s of a woman in a pool of water, a small white house behind her, and a snowy mountainscape behind that.
“That’s Whitney,” she says. “And in a hot spring.” She waves her hand at it. “You’re picking, not me. Find the ones you like the best.”
I set the photo on the windowsill and go back into the box.
“I’m going to change,” she says. “We can go get Thai once you’re done.” She gets off the bed and goes to her closet. “Take your time. There’s no rush.”
I shuffle through a handful of images—an handsome Asian man smoking in a field at dawn, a nude woman holding a blue coffee cup in a dark kitchen—before finding another I like, one of Tina herself in a snowstorm, flakes in her hair and on her black coat, her eyes wide and her lips red. I put it with the first photo, and continue searching.
“I need to get some film,” she says. “While we’re out.”
“I’ve got nowhere to be,” I say.
“Sure you do. You’ve got to be with me.” She takes her shirt off and tosses it on the bed. After years of photography together, I’ve seen her in much less than a bra and jeans, so I don’t bat an eye at it this time.
More photos—a woman in glasses wearing a newspaper crown, Rivi with a lollipop in her mouth, a man in a pinstripe suit playing a trombone. I chuckle at the next image, of a large dog sitting miserably inside of a pram, which itself is parked in the surf of the grey ocean. I add this photo to my small pile of usable prints.
Tina puts on a clean shirt and sits on the mattress to put her socks on. “My hair is a mess,” she says, “but I don’t feel like screwing with it.”
“I’m a mess,” I say. “Nobody is going to be looking at you.”
“You do need a shave,” she says. “And some new clothes.” She stands and looks at me. “And a haircut. You’re right. You’re the bigger mess here. I’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“Thanks for your opinion. Go get your shoes on.” She leaves the bedroom, and I look through the box, wanting to be sure of the images I am choosing before settling on my three picks.
A smoking woman shot from below, with carnival lights filling the entire space of the background. A woman I know named Georgia, in profile, her red hair curled back around her ear. A picture of me, standing at the window of an anonymous hotel, peering out into the sunlight, squinting against the brightness.
I remember when Tina took this photo, on a trip we took to Truckee in the winter. She decided to quit smoking while in that hotel, a vow she made to me through the open bathroom door while she soaked in the tub and I watched television from one of the beds. She lasted about two weeks before going back to cigarettes again, and she was irritable and difficult to deal with until she gave in to her cravings.
I put this photo into my pile.
Tina comes back into the room. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
“I’m still looking through these,” I say.
“Finish when we get back. I’m more hungry than I thought.”
“Remember this one?” I ask, and I hold up the hotel photo.
She takes it from me and looks at it. “Oh yeah. Barstow. Right before we left.”
“That’s not Barstow. It’s Truckee. And we just got there.”
She puts the photo on the windowsill with the others I’ve selected. “No, that’s Barstow. I remember those curtains.”
“The curtains? They’re hotel curtains. They all look the same.”
“Barstow,” she repeats. “Come on, let’s go.”
I put the lid on the photo box. “I’m taking this with us. I’m not done yet.”
“Don’t pout,” she says. “I know you want to.”
“I’m not pouting. But it’s Truckee.”
Tina puts her hand against my chest as I start to walk out of the room, stopping me. “Wait,” she says. “Look over there.”
She is staring at the bedroom window, and I look out of it, thinking there’s something outside she’s trying to call my attention to, but I see nothing. Then a slight movement catches my eye, and I see what it is that she’s noticed.
“There’s my ladybug,” she says. She walks to the window and I join her, watching the insect crawling on the glass. It opens and closes its wings a few times, but doesn’t fly away.
“I guess they do live through the winter,” I say.
She unlocks her window and opens it. The ladybug crawls onto the window frame and begins to walk the edge of it, in no hurry to leave the apartment. Tina taps her fingernail on the glass near the insect, trying to move it along into the outside.
“It’s Barstow,” Tina says again. The ladybug crawls onto her fingertip. “You know how I know?”
“How do you know?” I ask.
She leans out the window and raises her finger in front of her lips. With a quick and solid exhalation, she blows the ladybug off, and the insect flies off into the city. “Because that was the trip I decided I might be able to fall in love with you.” She closes the window and looks at me. “Not for sure. Just might.”
“That was three years ago.”
She nods. “I know. I’m still making up my mind.” She reaches out and takes the box of photos from my hands. “Leave this here. You can finish later.”
I don’t know how to respond to this, so I just say, “Okay.”
She puts the box on the bed and then touches my cheek. “You always take things so seriously. Just let it go for once and chill out.”
“I’m not good at chilling out,” I say.
“You chilled out in Barstow. That’s what did it.”
“Did what?” I ask.
“Shut up,” she says. “No more talking. Let’s eat.”
She leaves the bedroom, and I start to follow. However, I stop myself at the door and turn back, taking the picture of myself in the hotel off the windowsill and bringing it with me.
I never would have guessed.