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The Safari

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Ellen wouldn’t call it “people-watching,” no. This was a study, if anything.
Sitting in her favorite coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon, Ellen, her phone, pen, and little black notebook having been prepared on the table before her, began to study.
“Table seven” she wrote neatly at the top of a clean page. The tables weren’t actually numbered, but she had mentally assigned them numbers months ago to make recording easier. “Three people: A man, about twenty-five, a woman, about the same age, and a girl, about three.” As the woman placed her purse-strap around the back of a chair and joined the man and child in line, Ellen casually positioned her phone as she would if she were writing a text and inconspicuously took a picture. She placed the phone down in her lap before even taking a look.
The girl was looking nearly at the camera and smiling, almost as if she were posing. The man is looking down at her from the side—only half a face. The woman, who had just stood up after marking their space at table seven, was only mostly visible, but it would have to do. Two and a half faces, Ellen suppressed a grin as she saved the image. Beautiful.
The family took their seats. Ellen leaned slightly to the side to see their table.
“The man purchased a caramel macchiato,” she recorded, “the woman, a latte, and the child, only a double chocolate chip cookie.”
Ellen sat back in her seat and looked tiredly around the room. Usually time there would be at least ten or fifteen subjects, but on this particular afternoon there were only six: herself, an extremely familiar employee, a family of three, and one other. A man with short blonde hair and wide brown eyes was sitting at a table on the other end of the coffee shop—table eleven, to be exact.
Ellen flipped back a page in her little black book. “Twenty minutes later—still here, doesn’t seem to be buying anything.” The man looked out the window; Ellen took a quick picture for a successful three-fourths shot. The man directed his attention back in her direction, stood up, and began to walk over.
“You ordered a while ago,” he said. “Would you be willing to talk for a little in exchange for some more coffee?”
Ellen smiled weakly. Young and attractive as she was, such encounters were nearly guaranteed to happen from time to time. “Alright,” she said.
He glanced at her cup, then said “Iced coffee. Decaf.”
In just a few minutes, he returns with two cups of coffee.
“So,” said Ellen, “I’m getting a feeling—“
“One moment,” he said.
“H-Hey!” Ellen tried to stop him, but by the time she reacted it was too late. The man with the crafty brown eyes had snatched her phone and was already pawing through the menu.
“Thought so,” he said, grinning. He turns the screen so that it faced its owner. The picture she had taken just moments before was displayed on it. “I imagine,” he said, “that if we looked through your gallery, we’d find photos of lots of people—am I wrong?”
“…” Ellen was starting to panic. “Give my phone back!”
The man smiled. “Here,” he said. “But you promised to talk to me. Can I see what’s in that notebook?”
Ellen blushed violently. “I-It’s none of your business.”
“Suit yourself,” he said. “But, just so we’re on the same page…” He reached into his coat pocket for his own phone, played with it a little, and turned the screen to face her.
“Ah!” Displayed was a young woman, holding up her phone (as if to write a text) and focusing her eyes in the direction of a young woman on the edge of the screen. “You… agh…”
“Now, Miss,” said the man, “let’s not be hypocritical. You’ve never encountered a person like yourself—like us, I suppose. I’m sure that you would have noticed if you had. I’m not sure what it is that we like so much about it—at first I thought it was the rush, but now I’m not so sure. The fact that just reading over my notes can recreate the feeling so vividly…”
“Ah, yes,” he said, holding up a faded green notebook. “Would you like to read some of it?”
Ellen reached out her hand to hold the notebook, but the man pulled it back. “Sorry,” he said. “No subjects can look inside.”
Ellen felt a chill creep along her spine. “S-Subject?” The man nodded.
“There’s a whole page devoted to you, dear.”
“So,” he said, “why do you do it?”
“Why do I…”
“Why do you… watch people?”
“I…” she began, “I guess… I like the idea that I can look at their photos, read the information that they’ve long forgotten, and know that… know that they’ll never know it exists.”
“It’s like… I have thousands of photos—photos of hundreds and hundreds of people. They might have died or had a sex change or gone on to become a serial killer, but I’ll never know, and they’ll never know that I’m even wondering about it. It’s like…” She paused for a moment. “It’s like the world is just a big safari—everybody’s moving on their own little way, and they intersect for a moment before they’re gone from each other’s lives forever, just like that. We’ve all interacted with thousands of people whom we’ll never think about again. That’s almost like a safari too—as long as you remember your camera, a generally unmemorable encounter can be held onto forever. Does that make sense?”
The man nodded and stood up. “I should be going,” he said.
Ellen stood as well. “Hey,” she said, “can I give you my—“ The man cuts her off with a gesture of his hand.
“Don’t you, see, dear?” he said. “That would ruin it. It’s like you said—this is all about one-time encounters. But hey—“
He took a final picture of Ellen and a few more steps toward the door.
“At least we’ll remember it.”

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