I have an unhealthy addiction to beautiful photographs of beautiful people.
I check Instagram every thirty minutes and log onto Tumblr for hours at a time. I go on Facebook to stalk the people with glittering lives and find them through what I can only imagine to be sheer desperation. The glitziest crowd is the Manhattanites. I once met a dark-haired girl over the summer who lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side, a true-life Gossip Girl in the flesh, hailing from Argentina’s international elite, with a backstory worthy of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel.
She vacations in Paris with her closest girlfriends, and they parade around the hotel room with thin flutes of champagne and dressed in nothing but white bathrobes, probably scented with roses. I know this because there are pictures of it all over Facebook. It’s an absurd life, but it looks amazing on camera, frozen into place and glossed over with a vintage filter. Nothing looks quite right these days without a filter over it. In fact, it would be a real discomfort, an act of defiance, to see a photo Instagrammed in unvarnished color, with no sepia or burnt-orange tinges and only the truth, black and white as ever.
But these days, black and white is out of date. I only see rosy-hued visions of my friends and peers. They greet me every morning at breakfast. Earlier today, as I ate my bowl of cereal, munching and crunching down whole grain oats, I scrolled through my newsfeed and watched them slide by. Mediterranean cruises, Paris by night, an artful arrangement of chocolate mousse, perfectly bronzed and endless legs. My cheerios were soggy and bland in comparison. As I reached for the milk carton, the newsfeed crawled to a stop halfway through a photo of Elise Burkeham. If Kate Moss had told anyone her secrets to life, it would’ve been to Elise. She lives her life as if it’s a montage of impeccable cinematic compositions, all pinned onto the mosaic of her Instagram profile. It’s detestable and irristable.
I looked down at Elise’s photo now showing on the silver screen of my phone. Her face was a smudge of pale amber, her hair the final stroke of a paintbrush running low on dark paint. In every picture Elise uploaded, she became a study in perfect contrasts, the lights and darks blending and blurring at the edges. It was nighttime in the picture, a balmy, glittering night. In the background, quaint blocks of buildings huddled over the narrow street. Up above, a scribble of lights zigzagged between the walls. Elise was in the foreground, artfully framed in the lower-left corner. She looked at her friend, her arm draped casually over her shoulder, a nonchalant smile glittering in her eyes. Her friend faced the camera with a deadpan look of mischief, her red-stained lips in a sullen pout. A sparkling martini glass dangled between her fingers, held up and away from her with an arm bent just so at the elbow and wrist. The caption read, “buenos nochesss old san juan.”
Funny story. I was the one who took that picture three months ago. I ran into the two of them strolling down Cambiando Avenue as I sulked behind my two parents and younger brother. We were there on a five-day family vacation packed with guided tours and cheap hotel soap. They were there on a long weekend getaway overflowing with tanning oil and coconut juice, or so I imagined. So yes, I was there with them that night. Imagine the impossible odds, I know. I could tell you about how that balmy evening wasn’t quite as balmy as it seemed on camera. And the soft, glowing lights overhead were really these flickering, naked bulbs of harsh white. And I remember the sweat sliding down Elise’s skin, greasing her face and making her hair flat at the top. Her friend Jo had that signature slump that looked perfectly slouchy on camera, but it seemed hunchback-like in person. When they posed for the shot, my family was watching, waiting for me off to the side. It took a few tries for Jo to figure out her pout and for Elise to decide if she would look straight on or away. When I finally snapped the picture, the automatic flash went off and it made their cheeks shine like metal and tinged their squinted eyes red. I’d shown it to Elise in dismay, saying something like, “Ah sorry, the lighting’s probably bad here.”
But she shrugged and said, “No, I’ll just add a filter. Thanks so much Emma! It’s so funny we ran into each other!”
“Yeah, of all places.”
“Really though. I never see you in school these days.”
Then there was a tense silence that only I seemed to squirm in as Elise flicked through color edits and I tucked my hands into my pockets. Finally, she looked up, saw me standing there, and smiled again.
“Hey, you should come with me and Jo tomorrow morning to the beach. We’ve got a cabana right on the sand.”
I nodded, in a calculated, casual manner. “Oh wow, sure. That sounds really great.”
“Okay cool! I’d get your number but I don’t want to get out of this app. I can just message you on Facebook and we’ll meet up.”
“Yeah that works!”
When I looked down at her phone, the picture I’d taken was transformed. My dismal shot that was directly centered on two sweating girls with pallid skin had been cropped at the corner and glazed over with a haze of sepia. The exposure was dimmed way low, the shadows turned up high, the glaring clarity fuzzed out. Jo’s mouth, a limp, sad red in person, became the pouting, noir-rouge smear you see now. Elise’s eyes, beady and sagging in the flesh, picked up a pixelated sparkle.
“Wow that really looks great!” I told her.
“Yeah, well, I’m not about to put up a subpar pic of me with greasy hair and gross skin. Gotta do what you gotta do. And I look like a sad mess in the original pic,” she said smiling and shaking her head, “but no one’ll see it anyway and that’s all that matters, eh?”
I shrugged, nodding slowly. It’s uncanny to see an actress out of character, namely the character you imagine she must be. Anyway, Elise never messaged me that night. I never got to experience an enviable day in their luxury cabana. Nevertheless, from that moment on, my life as others knew it would change forever. Elise had taught me a nifty lesson about the art of make-believe. Feeling inspired, I Instagrammed my first composition the next morning, Un Plaque de Gaufres, with the intended vision of these golden, buttermilk halos bright with light. The waffles were whole-wheat-brown and quite dull in person, but I sat down with them on my hotel bed and got to work. I arranged them just so in the center. I dusted confectioner’s sugar over them. I added two heart-shaped strawberries on top as a complementary accent color. Then I stood on my toes and loomed over the whole arrangement with phone in hand. In a few minutes, I adjusted the colors, brightened the shadows, and cropped it into the shape of a circle. And then voila! I had a food porn masterpiece with the caption, “waffles in bed 🙂 #oldsj”. Then I carried them to the kitchenette and ate them at the counter with my Dad. By the end of the day, my waffles had 87 likes.
Les gaufres were just the beginning. Now, I turn ordinary nights grungy with a filter effect of digitized smokiness. I trade in smiles for artful smirks. I do landscapes as stretched out panoramas, narrow strips showcased on a slab of minimalist white. I capture memories that never existed. Off-camera, life goes on per usual. My family plays board games on Thursday nights. I like eating cereal by myself at the kitchen counter. I live in a cookie cutter house with two and a half baths. But that’s all backstage footage. If you really want to get to know me, look at my Instagram.