I slunk through the cloth door, tears welling in my wide eyes, darkness immediately enveloping me. In my hand I held a roll of freshly developed film, still damp with the trace of mixed chemicals. I then slipped through another opening and I ran my fingers along the wall as I walked through pitch black rooms. I continued until my fingers caught on a smooth chalkboard, signaling for me to turn right.
By this time my eyes had adjusted, and although no lights had been turned on, I caught the outline of tables and machines. This morning’s fight became a blur as I felt for the corner of the farthest table and followed the rim until I reached the back of the room. There I fumbled for the outlet, my fingers clumsily finding their way to a switch. I pressed it.
Red light dimly illuminated the darkroom, two bulbs hanging from the low ceiling. I crossed the room in search of the other switch, which then turned on two more bulbs.
I scanned the trays of chemicals in the back of the room, of which there were four. One held developer, which darkened the exposed image. Another contained stop, which stopped the photo from developing further. There was the fix, which finalized the image and prevented any change. Finally, in the biggest bin, there was water. I turned the handle in the sink nearby, which ran a tube to the bin, and the gentle trickling of running water filled the empty room. I stood for a moment, watching the water cycle in and out of the tub, basking in the serenity the soft noise provided. The constant busywork I was faced with kept me from thinking about the events that had unfolded this morning.
My prints wavered slightly in my hand, returning me to reality. I found my way over to my favorite station, the machine pre set (by none other than myself) to the settings I prefer. It was the correct distance from where the print would lie, with the brightness adjusted so that the exposure time would always be approximately four seconds. This machine was something I could control; something I could change. I couldn’t make him love me any more than I could sprout wings and fly, but I could ensure that my machine was just the way I wanted it to be. I held my prints up towards the dim red light so that I could select the image I wanted to enlarge.
I decided on a delicate flower I had photographed in my backyard. The flower had torn petals with browning edges, its stem shrunken and dying. The negative displayed fragile black petals on white dirt, the focus so clear that I could even see the small grains of rock buried in the ground. I slid the tray out from the machine cloaked in darkness, my fingers inching the flimsy roll into its correct position.
Using a switch by the timer, I flipped the machine light on. My image immediately shone down on the blank space beneath the light, the flower enlarged and blurry. I turned a knob on the side of the machine, bringing the scene in and out of focus. I cautiously slid the knob to the right, the petals of the flower becoming crisp and clear.
I left my work behind to retrieve photo paper. Although it was put away, my teacher had shown me where he kept them, as he quickly came to realize that I spent more time in the darkroom after class than he did. He had shown me where all of the chemicals were, where he kept the film, how to turn the lights and timers on and off, and where the photo paper was.
It was important that I keep the paper tucked away in a thick black bag, then sealed into a plastic black case, when I wasn’t using it.[[ It had happened once before that someone had accidentally switched the wrong lights on, exposing all of the paper to harsh white light, resulting in many apologies and an irate teacher.
I slid a sheet from the bag, being careful to close the lid. I held the paper out towards my station, and walked proudly up to the machine, and found myself suddenly groaning at my mistake.
I had forgotten to switch the timer light off.
Luckily, I had only lost one sheet, yet I still found I was disappointed in myself. The humiliation of having to walk the ruined paper to the trash, and tossing away what could’ve been a beautiful photograph, was enough to slightly lower my self confidence. I had not been as cautious as I needed to be. My mind began to wander towards the other things I hadn’t been cautious lately, the fight from this morning replaying over and over again in my mind. He didn’t love me, and yet I still tried as hard as humanly possible to fix something broken. I quickly avoided the memory, tossing out the ruined sheet with a sigh.
I returned and switched the white light off. I slid yet another sheet into the tray below the light- which had been switched off- and adjusted it so that the border around the photo would be even and neat. I pressed the little metal button on the timer.
A buzz vibrated throughout the machine, and the light instantly snapped on, displaying my image below on the exposed paper. I counted the seconds silently to myself, the light flashing off just as I finished counting. I carefully slid the sheet from its tray and walked across the room to the buckets of chemicals.
The clock resting above the developer ticked softly, and I waited for the second hand to reach the twelve before plunging the sheet beneath the murky substance. I used a pair of tongs to force the paper beneath the chemicals, allowing for it to rest at the bottom. I had fifty seconds left.
I watched the hand tick painfully slowly past each number, my day beginning to weave itself into my realm of thought. I checked my phone: No “I’m sorry.” No “I miss you.” Tears sprang to my eyes as a sense of aching sadness welled up within my chest.
I rushed to remove the now developed photo from the tub, dropping it into the stop, which stopped the photo from further developing. The smell of vinegar filled my nose, causing the pooling tears to tremble and spill over the lids of my eyes. Thirty seconds quickly passed, and I transferred the dripping photo into the third tub of fix, which solidified the image’s crystals and make it so that the photo was unable to further change. I had four minutes before I needed to transfer the paper to the final tub of water.
No longer able to suppress my thoughts, I collapsed into the chair resting by the sink. Memories of him flooded through me, and I searched through all of the sent messages to find out where I went wrong. Our fight had started early this morning, over something as trivial as being unable to meet up after school.
I simply didn’t have the time. He wanted to see me, but I wanted to receive an A on my upcoming lab report in physics, and I needed time to work on it after school. I couldn’t go, and he wouldn’t accept that.
This, this simple “no” had exploded into a long argument about our relationship. Throughout the whole morning I had dodged class, slipping in and out of the bathroom and finding excuses to leave, just so that I could explain to him how my tight schedule was no reason to give up. I pleaded with him, even begged for him to stay. I wanted things between us to work out, and I wanted us to be happy together. After an hour of constant fighting, it dawned on me that this was never going to work. We were never going to be right for each other. And so I stopped responding, losing hope that he would ever love me the way I love him.
A piece of me still yearned for an “I miss you,” or an “I’m sorry,” although I was well aware they would never be said.
Glancing at the time, I found that four minutes had passed. I shakily rose from the wooden chair, emerging from the dark corner into the red light illuminating the bins. I used the tongs to tug the fully developed, crystal-clear image from the fix and dropped it gently into the running water to rinse.
I pulled my phone from my pocket once more, but found no messages. I stared hollowly at thedim screen until I was able to remove my photograph from the pool of water.
I clutched the somewhat soggy flower tightly, almost as if I was hoping it could fill the gaping void inside me.