What’s considered impossible has changed. In the distant past, crossing the ocean and landing on the moon, these were near impossibilities. Now, ignoring my cell phone during dinner has fixed itself a notch below impossible. As with most addicts, I have cycled my addictions more than once.  Asian porn for sex, alcohol for weed and weed for heroin. Then in reverse: heroin for hashish, narcs for juice cleansing, and fasting for food. Nothing in my life occurs in moderation. And now this includes Instagram.

My current human relationship had marched passed the honeymoon phase with little trouble until Instagram. As a couple, we were six months into sharing an apartment and discussing the next step, a pet, when everything went sideways. Once again, I found myself addicted.

It began at dinner one Friday night with me stoned, and her rambling. I was doing my best to listen and search my phone at the same time. I’m not sure if she picked up on the fact I was answering every one of her questions with “huh?” If she had, there was no disruption to the verbal onslaught thrown across the table. Maybe it was the weed or the fragility of my mental state, but after that first experience with Instagram, everything changed. To be honest, I don’t know what is real anymore.

I find myself seaside. The ocean air rushes past in wispy bursts, salty and bedewed. Above, quintessential grey-and-white, pink-legged gulls caw. I’m careful to keep one eye on the ocean pummeling the shore and the other on the rocky terrain. It’s only seconds before she arrives at my side, her hand coiling into mine. There is something familiar in her touch. From the moment we connect, only the crunch of tiny pebbles breaks our silence. Together we walk the path ahead until the sun vanishes behind the ocean. A steady rain peppers the landscape as we spill onto the tree-lined street. We hurry underneath branches and zig-zag across asphalt until we find shelter inside a diner where the salty locals measure our arrival with staring eyes and gaps of silence.

We snag seats on a pair of worn bar stools just as male voice violates the space. “Cash or card sir?” The waiter appearing off my right shoulder repeats himself, but louder. “Cash or card sir?” Across the table, my girlfriend does not conceal her annoyance. The waiter senses the discomfort between us and fumbles with the takeout boxes she requested. I pay the bill, and we leave. On the way home, she drives. Speechless and aggressive. We each navigate the apartment with limited contact until she heads to bed, still silent, and I sneak off into the bathroom and click.

Time passes until an alert on my phone brings me back. Judging by the stench of ammonia and the numbness in my ass from the toilet seat, I’ve sat awhile. I contemplate hiding out in the bathroom and avoiding confrontation, but opt for coaxing a pair of numb legs into the bedroom.

I sink into bed, and the mound of blankets beside me shifts.

“I thought you pulled an Elvis?” she says.

“…. Just reading.”

We both move, careful not to touch. There are the traces of anger percolating in her words.

“For two hours?” she adds.

Pretending not to hear her I drift off to sleep with something more important on my mind. After an uneasy night of sleep, morning comes, and I’m on the hunt for my phone. The shadowy heap on the other half of the bed and shying away from contact snores. Amongst the massive tangle of soft cotton, I find digital salvation and I’m quick to drop it low and out of sight, I comb through Instagram with the same guilt as porn.

There is a photo that intrigues me, so I click. It happens in a moment, the switch from one place to another; from the comforting folds of the bed, to ankle deep water warmed by the sun; from a life crammed with addiction and littered with arguments, to a mind-blowing beach. This beach is where I belong, a crescent-shaped stretch of sand under the burden of tropical heat. At the boundary where the beach meets the foliage, a squab hut of re-purposed wood and discarded tin hides under a canopy of thick leaves. There are orchids and bromeliads scattered beyond the stilt roots, and a single iguana roaming slow and unadventurous.

There is a long pause where I do nothing but stand and breathe before I plunge my hand into the crystal water, snatching a handful of white sand. Tiny granules slip between my fingers, hitting the water with faint plunks. There is no script, no map, just a photo and a place, so I continue towards the hut until a persistent tug interrupts my progress. I try to shrug off the intrusion and focus, but the distraction takes apart everything—the water, sand, disassembling until the idyllic moment vanishes.

“Where do you go?” she yells. “In your head, where are you?” I have no answer.

Her mouth twists in two opposite directions and her tone is sharp and biting. With the memory of the beach still active, I stay silent, safeguarding the sanctity of my obsession. The silence is troubling her, I can tell. After a few minutes, she leans in close, pushing the warm air from her lungs against my face in choppy bursts.

“Something has to change,” she says. “Yup, ” I respond. A huge fight follows, leaving the air laced with friction. Part of me feels guilty. So, I make a half-hearted promise… no more Instagram.

Throughout the week I hide my phone in various places trying to quell my addiction, but nothing kills the urge. Not even pity sex. One evening I surrender, and my detachment begins with another click.

Worn hardwoods contrast my pale feet. Outside I see a porch, long and narrow. An empty swing catches a breeze, creaking against dry, cracked wood. The air is temperate and burdened with dust, and passed the window everything is brown. There is a movement at the sink drawing my attention. That’s where I notice her standing naked and distracted; the wine she’s pouring overflows her glass. A playful shriek joins an easy smile as dark violet trickles toward her inner thigh. Without a word or concern for her vulnerability, she hands me a glass and heads toward the bed, leaving me to stand and watch her melt into a twist of pure white cotton. Before I can follow, every cell in my body shivers as if a bolus of caffeine has reached my bloodstream, triggering a body-wide convulsion.

“Why, why, why are you always on that damn thing,” she yells, angry as cat meat.

The phone leaves my hands before I have enough awareness to tighten my grip. The naked stranger in the bedroom is now a fleeting memory; only the taste of wine lingers.

“I’m just looking at my photos,” I say.

“Photos?” She says, rolling her eyes.

“Yes, my photos.”

“Instagram is not your life,” she says. “You’re delusional.” My captured phone finds the nearness of my face with a forceful, angry shove. The rant continues. “You understand you’re looking at strangers. That I’m right here, but you refuse to see me. You’re living in a make-believe world where you don’t belong.”

“You’re a loser,” she screams. “A loser!”

The phone strikes the countertop, its glass splintering into tiny shards, as she runs from the room swearing never to return. I have found the bottom again.

I push my hands into my pockets and plunge my shoulders deep, only to find the moisture of wet sand on my fingertips. The tears pour as I crumple to the floor in a pile, the broken phone by my side.

 

R.E. Hengsterman

R. E Hengsterman is a writer and film photographer who deconstructs the human experience through photographic images and the written word. He is a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee, proponent of self-flagellation and a grossly flawed human who writes under the beautiful Carolina sky. You can see more of his work at www. ReHengsterman.com and find him on Twitter at @rehengsterman.

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