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I saw her first as a series of still images. The first one made my stomach lurch and my heart still, but each one following quickened my pulse, acted like sugar in my blood. The original is imprinted in my mind, I will be able to recall each pixel until they tip me into my grave. Her arm tossed casually but proprietorially over his shoulders, her eyes twinkling with lust disguised as love, his smile proud and indulgent. I zoomed in, zoomed out, I closed the laptop. Ten minutes later I was looking at the picture on my phone. So that was her.
I compared myself to her with the cracked logic of the broken heart. I showed the pictures to my friends. Maybe she has a really nice personality. My hair hung in long dark waves, my eyes brimmed black. Her straight hair was dyed cheap blonde, the roots a mousy brown, the ends broken. She poured herself into too tight clothes, her necklines dived right to her heart, her hems skimmed her buttocks. She looks kind of slutty. We huddled over screens, exclaiming over her poor choice of outfits, agreeing that he didn’t look like he was in love, wondering what they talked about together. If you’re Audrey Hepburn, she’s a Big Brother contestant.
She became my secret. In low moments I took out my phone and looked at her pictures and they propelled me forward. She filled me with a nervous energy, a desire to explode like a firework over the city, for him to see me, for her to spend tense hours flicking through photos of me on her phone. Their saccharine comments to each other, their sepia-tinted embraces, it all filled me with ambition, with a force that felt almost uncontrollable.
The first time I saw her off-screen was a disappointment. In my head I had turned her into a monster with a cheap dye job, a joke of a rival. But when I saw them together her appearance was toned down in person, her inferiority muted. They stood in the corner, near the heaped pile of coats, nursing glasses of wine and talking only to one another. His eyes roamed the room, hers tried to lock in his gaze. Seeing her in three dimensions after so many days of treating her as an idol, a magazine cutting, was disconcerting.
They moved out of their corner and into the party. He was gregarious as usual, engaging people in conversations that made them feel they were the only one in the room, laughing loudly at jokes that weren’t funny. My stomach ached to be the woman by his side again. She stood a little away from him, fingering the top of her wine glass, a small, shy smile on her lips. She let him shine, made way for his star to burn out the rest of the sky.
When I approached, he put his arm around her, defensive. We made small talk about the weather, his job, my holiday plans. She remained silent, always watching him carefully. I wondered if she knew who I was, if she had seen my face in other photographs of him, if I might haunt her in the quiet hours of the night, if she too might ponder how he could like her when he had liked me. “Nice to meet you,” she said softly as I walked away. I noticed her mascara had clumped. I could see a black bra strap under her cream dress. But the victories were becoming less sweet. It was exhausting finding endless faults in another woman, when all I wanted was for him to need me again.
They continued their circuit around the room. She was the nodding dog, the cued laugh. But she offered nothing of herself, clinging onto his wrist, her head leaning into his shoulder. I stopped following them. When I decided to leave I noticed him talking to another woman, his body angled close to hers, his laugh bubbling louder than usual. And the girlfriend stood alone, just to the side, watching, her green eyes glazed and resigned. I gave her a snatched smile and she returned it. “Good night,” she said quietly as I brushed past her. Our eyes held and in that moment I felt a thread of understanding, of connection running between us. I moved my lips to say something, but no words formed. I turned to leave, sneaking one glance over my shoulder as I reached the door, seeing the ogre of my fantasies reduced, watching him, never able to own him either, no matter how many selfies made up the flipbook of their relationship. She looked small and faded.