“THINK OF ME AS A RAINBOW” – Christopher X. Ryan

In college I wore giant black T-shirts and spent Friday nights wandering around campus, taking photos of gutter debris and poorly lit obelisks. I was too cowardly to photograph people, such as the staggering sorority pledges with mascara streaming down their necks or the gamers hunched over their computers in the basement of the Student Union. One time I stumbled across a flock of Lambda Theta frat boys abducting construction barriers for a party, but all I did was crouch behind a dumpster and watch.

In truth I wasn’t a photographer at all. I’d grown up on a sparsely populated island in the Pacific Northwest, and with my bad skin and hard gaze, I wasn’t the type of person to confront a live subject. The camera simply allowed me to edge closer to something while shielding my face from their inevitable scrutiny.

My photos never came out right either. They were either oddly blurry or completely static, as if the subjects were imprisoned in a mold-covered museum. I blamed my cheap camera with its scratched lens, but I in fact had no idea how to use the settings. I just kept opening and closing the shutter and hoped something would stick.

Still, I developed the film, almost out of spite, and whenever I finished a roll I got on my bike and rode to the nearest Rite Aid, crossing the border between the university and the neighboring paper mill town. I would stick the film in the slot, ride back to my dorm, then pedal back 48 hours later to collect it.

Toward the middle of the first semester my sophomore year, the woman who was ringing up my order said, “The shots of the trees are real nice.”

I didn’t think the clerks were supposed to admit that they looked at your pictures, and she was lying anyway, but it was the first praise I’d ever received for my artistic endeavors. I was standing there wondering if I should file a complaint or just run away when she went on saying that her father had once been a foreman at the paper plant.

“Let me show you some real trees sometime,” she said, “the big ones.”

My disbelief must have been obvious and should have embarrassed her, but her behavior was unhurried, her mannerisms clinical. Her name tag read Eileen. “I got your number right here,” she said, tapping on the form with a long, robin’s-egg-blue fingernail.

The person behind me coughed impatiently. I took my overexposed photos and left. I was pretty sure I was being put on.

She did call though, a couple days later.

“Just wondering, but how old are you?” I asked her on the phone, my heart halfway up my throat.

“Thirty-seven years young,” she said, which surprised me. I’d assumed she was in her mid-forties.

“I’m twenty,” I said, rounding up ten months.

She coughed and said, “That’s the best age, doll.”

I wasn’t a virgin, but my experiences had been limited to a few bumbling dalliances with a chubby, equally terrified freshman the year prior. Eileen was eighteen years older than me.

I agreed to go. Not because I liked Eileen, but because she’d seen my face—and had still called. I wasn’t vaccinated as a child, and chicken pox and years of acne had ravaged my skin, leaving behind a topography of divots and pockmarks. Add to it my prodigious brow and large, wide-set eyes, and I was aware that I had slightly manic bearing.

Eileen offered to pick me up outside my dorm. I wasn’t sure if the sight of me climbing into a battered silver Lumina driven by a woman almost twice my age would titillate my dorm-mates or merely give them more fodder, but I opted for the latter. I said we could meet at the gas station just beyond campus.

We didn’t check out any trees on our date though. Instead Eileen took me to a gray-market complex of slapdash eateries, unsanctioned events, and a slew of random enterprises. It was situated in a former factory surrounded by abandoned potato fields in which barns sat wilting and huge insects bounded across the field in long noisy arcs. A rickety freight elevator with a gaping hole in the floor carried us to the top level. By the time we’d arrived, Eileen’s arm was hooked through mine. A few more minutes and my hand was against the small of her back. All the while my camera slapped against my chest like a massive, misshapen pendant.

We moved from booth to booth to see what “her people” were hawking: crafts, antiques, cranberry this, lobster that. It was interesting, but I couldn’t focus. My hand somehow ended up in Eileen’s back pocket, her tight little ass pumping against my palm.

“Starting to feel like spring,” she said.

Though I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, the slant in her smile made it clear. 

We then made our way to the basement level where, she claimed, the best food was sold. We sat at a poorly constructed picnic table and had some slushy fruit drinks and vegetable fritters while her friends cooed and teased us from afar. They were a different breed of townies, bereft of teeth, wearing auto repair jumpsuits and cleaning uniforms, sallow and weary-looking. One woman was pushing a wheelchair with a doll on the seat; Eileen gave her a hug, then asked the doll, Clarabelle, how she was feeling today.

“She wants ice cream,” the woman said on the doll’s behalf, “but she had some yesterday.”

Back at the table Eileen said to me, “She had three miscarriages before her uterus simply quit and walked off. And then her man Carl Robert up and walked off too.” Eileen gave me a sympathetic look and squeezed my hand. “I know, I know.”

I thought her friends would eventually grow bored and venture off, but they stood there transfixed, commenting in loud whispers about our every move.

“I’m going to use the bathroom,” I said, sweating.

“Do whatcha gotta,” Eileen said, winking.


In the bathroom I wiped my forehead dry and fixed up my hair. What did people see when they saw Eileen and I together? Me in my black attire and low-wattage scowl, and Eileen with her concomitant youthfulness and decay, her scarred-up knuckles, her hair bleached such a bright yellow it glowed under fluorescent lights, her long legs working furiously within those tubelike jeans.

I was finishing up at the urinal when a guy on a motorized scooter crept up behind me. His girth spread beyond the cart’s wheelbase, but his smile was shrewd—photogenic, even. 

“You with Eileen?” he said.

“We came together, if that’s what you mean.”

“Woah, woah. No need to get angry.”

I zipped up but remained facing the wall, hoping he’d leave. “Who’s angry?”

“I’m just saying. You probably don’t know her. We do. Know what I mean?”

The stink of sour feet and rotting food hovered, but I couldn’t be sure if it was the bathroom or the man. “I don’t. Eileen’s just showing me some of the local haunts.”

“During the fireworks one summer,” he said, lost in reverie, “her hair caught fire. What a sight. Know who put it out?” The guy jerked his thumb toward a small fire extinguisher strapped to his bumper and laughed. “She was white as a clown afterwards and couldn’t breathe right, but she’s still with us, thank the Lord.”

I gave my hands a swipe on my shirt and was about to breeze past when the guy saw my camera.

“You gonna take my picture or what?” he said.

“I, uh—yes. Ok.”

He twisted in his seat to present a full set of dentures. “Just make sure you get my good side.”

I flipped off the lens cap. “Say ‘Aw jeez.’”

The guy laughed so hard his glasses tumbled off his face and into his lap.

When I was done capturing him, he extended a small, soft hand for a shake. “Nice to meet you,” I said, and perhaps for the first time in my life meant it.

When I found Eileen, I leaned in and kissed her. She gave it a moment, then pulled away.

“You can use one of my toothbrushes,” she said. “I get them free at work.”


Back at her modular unit, the bedside lamp was already on and a bottle of lubricant sat at the ready. Eileen tossed aside the heart-shaped pillow and peeled back the pale-yellow sheets, faded from years of drying in the sun.

What we did was not lovemaking. It was fucking—not animalistic but coldly recreational. Eileen, for her part, was patient if not pandering, though at times it was creepily instructional. “Crawl closer,” she said in round one. “Smaller circles,” she muttered at one point. “Think of me as a rainbow.”

And while Eileen didn’t need the lube, by ten o’clock I’d been rubbed raw and just wanted to go home and sleep. Eileen slipped into a pink bathrobe, then put on a cassette tape of all-time-best country hits and settled onto her scratchy brown couch with a gin and tonic—though when I asked for one, she refused.

“You’re underage,” she said. “Now let me relax a moment, hon’, and then we’ll get you home to hit the books.”

As I dressed, I stole glances at the décor. Her home had no photos, paintings, or bits of art, save for four taxidermied crows and some ceramic blobs that were probably supposed to be angels. I assumed I’d never seen her again, that this was some sort of one-off conquest for her, and got out my camera and started documenting it all.

I badly wanted to photograph Eileen too—something to carry with me from city to city over the years. I’d ensconce it in a secret spot so that every once in a while I’d stumble across it and think, Holy shit—Eileen. I’d be reacquainted with those dark eyes in ponds of blue eye shadow, the pale lip gloss, the scars where a man had broken her wrist for reasons unexplained. But whenever I pointed my camera at her, Eileen blocked the lens and her face clouded over.

“This ain’t for us,” she said. “I’m not going in time.”


“Get dressed. I gotta work in the ay-em.”


That wasn’t our last date, however. Our second was a movie followed by pancakes at a 24-hour truck stop followed by sex in her car. On our third date, she took me to meet the matriarchs.

“Now listen, William,” Eileen said on the drive there, “you go right ahead and get used to the fact that Ma’s got a big old spirit of hate inside her. You can call her June or Mrs. Farwell but don’t call her Junie. That’s for close folks. And don’t say nothing about the wars, because Junie loves the troops defending our freedoms overseas.”

I’d originally balked at the absurdity of lunch at her mother’s house, but that sick new photographer’s curiosity welled up in me—except she demanded I leave the camera in the car.

“I—I can’t. I need it for—an assignment.”

At this she snorted, then stuck her gum in the pink wad already weighing down the ashtray. “I’ll write your teacher a note. Ok, hon’?”

Her mother’s obesity blotted out telltale signs of aging, making her and Eileen seem more like sisters. Mrs. Farwell worked as an administrator at the university I attended, which was troublesome. After welcoming us at the threshold, she waddled over to her thronelike armchair, pulled her TV tray closer, and commenced eating while taking in the latest college hockey game.

Eileen’s grandmother, a sweetly smiling woman, sat unspeaking in a much-smaller armchair in the corner. As I shook her hand, I don’t think I’d ever felt so disembodied from my own past.

“Burgers are done,” Eileen’s mother said, jutting her chin toward the kitchen.

“We brought our own.”

Eileen went off to prepare our turkey burgers. Her grandmother and I stared at the television and listened to Eileen’s mother chewing.

“This putz just can’t get off his backside,” her mother said while jabbing her fork at the TV. “Why is he even playing?”

“King is injured,” I said. I knew nothing about hockey but had seen the headline a few days earlier while eating alone in the dining hall.

“That’s right,” she said. “No wonder.”

She set her tray aside when the game heated up. “Our” team came close to scoring, but it was a near miss. I joined her in bemoaning their fate. 

“Their skates are too sharp,” I said. I had no idea what I was talking about, but she laughed.

“You got that right. Where did you say you work?”

“I’m at the university, Mrs. Farwell.”

“Which department?”

“Oh, uh, Liberal Arts.”

“What’s your title?”


“He’s a student, Ma,” Eileen said as she returned.

In the corner, Eileen’s grandmother smiled and wrung her hands together. Her skin was magnificently textured, and I briefly considered fetching my camera and risking offense.

“Ah,” her mother said. “Eileen’s robbing the cradle again.”

“Ma, come on.”

Her mother shrugged, picked up a large green tub, and held it toward me. “You do pudding?”

“No thank you, Mrs. Farwell.”

“Oh, stop it. Call me Junie.”

Eileen scoffed. I shrugged, reaching for the spoon, but that wasn’t what she had in mind: she was feeding me. I leaned over, and Eileen’s mother slid a spoonful of goop into my mouth.

When the game was over, Eileen got up to clear the trays and her mother leaned over the edge of her armchair and said, “What’re you doing with someone like her?”

“It just sort of happened.”

“You’re wasting your time.”

Eileen’s grandmother grunted with displeasure in the corner.

I shrugged again. “She’s fun to be with.”

“She makes you feel like a man, huh? I get it. I was with an older guy when I was young. That’s how Eileen came along.”

I nodded, unsure if any suitable response existed.

“Think about it,” she continued. “She doesn’t have skills for anything other than crap jobs. Young ones like you are her only excitement. You make her youth flow, if you know what I mean.”

Eileen’s grandmother shook her head and moaned quietly.

“She’s affable,” I said, “and has a lot of friends and—”

“Those losers are mostly former coworkers and classmates. Nah. If they were drowning, she’d be too worried about chipping a nail to throw them a life ring. Listen to me, hon, you—”

We heard Eileen’s heels transition from the kitchen linoleum to the carpeted living room.

“Is she chewing your ear off?” Eileen asked.

“Just getting to know one another,” I said, standing.

Eileen gave her grandmother a kiss on the cheek, then her mother.

“It’s been a real pleasure,” Eileen said and dragged me out of there.


In the days after that date, I called her trailer, but with no answering machine, the phone just rang and rang. Her neighbors probably could have heard it; it was likely something they heard often.

From then on I took my film to Shop ‘n Save, which had a better lab anyways. I was locking up my bicycle outside the store a couple weeks later when I spotted Eileen crossing the parking lot with her arm around some guy. By then I could have recognized her strut through a telescope—a nasty cock of the hips as each foot hit the pavement, a noticeable give in her lower back from two decades in high heels, legs as thin a model’s but stiffer and slightly bowed. The guy looked older, clearly an upperclassman. A bit fat, he was wearing a flannel shirt tucked into Carhartts—practically the fraternity uniform—and his thick brown hair caught the breeze. They stopped beside his red Jeep, kissed a while, then climbed in and drove off in a puff of blue exhaust.

I might have cried as I pedaled back to my dorm room, but it could have been the wind. I lay on my bed the rest of the day wondering if a leap from the fourth story would be enough to kill a person. The feeling was quickly usurped by relief, however. I wondered if I should get an STD test.

The phone rang in the middle of the night—Eileen was an insomniac—and I caught it on the first ring.

“Whatcha doing this weekend?” she asked.

“Are you serious? I saw you with some slick-haired rapist from one of the fraternities.”

“Oh, hon’.”

“Which one was it? Sigma Nu? Kappa Zappa Lambda?”

“Yes, I see other people.”

“Why? I thought we were a thing.”

I think she snickered. “Look, hon’, I’m a modern lady and—”

“Modern? You?”

I heard her sip something. I pictured her clutching a gin and tonic. Her curlers would be clamped to her bangs, her jeans and heels in a pile beside the couch, the crows watching over her shoulder. “What does that mean?” she said.

“Nothing. Never mind.”

“Say it or be a coward.”

I turned on the light and sat at my desk. “You really shouldn’t look at other people’s photos at work, you know. They’re private.”

“Don’t be foolish. You’re always sticking that camera in people’s faces and clicking away. You’re practically begging for someone to look at them.” She sipped, coughed. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Some are for show and some aren’t. I have to pick the good ones. It’s art.”

“Don’t you worry about that, youngster. Take lots of bad ones before you get the good ones. It’s just like love.” She laughed, coughed. “Now tell me your last name so that down the road I can find your pictures.”

I told her my full name.

“Fine. That’s a real rememberer of a name. You should be proud of it.” She took another sip, said, “Well, William Byars, I hope one day to see you among my people.”

She hung up.

“Your people?” I said to the dead phoneline.

It took me days to realize she meant the magazine.