Google is nagging me to buy more storage. I have somehow used 15 gigabytes of digital space on email, PDFs, and photos. Mostly photos. Time to delete duplicates and blurry images. I jump into my Google photo collection and keep scrolling back all the way to 2002, the first dated picture I have stored there. Then I inch forward in time.
I have just gone back almost 20 years. Almost. The date of the first photo is January 17th, 2002. It is of my cousin and my dad on my dad’s Harley. My cousin, flashing a huge smile, has on a black leather jacket and helmet, and my dad is wearing a black leather vest, shades, black helmet, and black boots. They are in my dad’s driveway in Florida. I don’t think I took the picture, but there it is, first in line to open my digital history.
Next is a batch of photos of Afghanistan from a friend who was a war correspondent. Then there he is again in Japan on Mount Fuji. I could have been there with him on Fuji but turned down a teaching job in Japan and stayed in Pittsburgh at the last minute. I was working in a Greek restaurant then, making gyros, fish sandwiches, and salads. Later, I would use the long grind of kitchen work as motivation to go on and become a librarian. When I finally left, the owner, Gus, offered to raise my pay to $10 an hour. “Gus,” I said, “I can’t make gyros anymore. I’m gonna be a librarian!”
I see pictures of a friend’s house in Belize and a holiday feast with his family and neighbors. Then suddenly, the stream fills with babies. Babies and babies, and it doesn’t stop. Babies in baskets, babies on the couch next to dogs, babies getting baptized, babies dressed as giant pumpkins, and babies eating cat food. All those smiling, cooing babies, and laughing dads, and grinning grandmothers. And no, never ever take a picture of a new mom right after she delivers a baby. Let her get a minute.
I come across many adults, too, people I do not see or talk with anymore. I haven’t forgotten them, but the circles of our lives and the connections that bound us have changed. We are out of each other’s loops. Here is their imprint in my life, a digital impression to resurface the emotional one they made on me. I can hear their voices, but the sounds are faint, echoing off the walls of time.
I am clearly doing a lot of driving in those early days. There are pictures of woods and ponds, mountain vistas, oceans, flowers, trails, campfires, road signs, my cat, and my friend’s cat dressed as a shark eating a cat-faced person.
And then, just like that, when I least expected it, there’s a picture of my wife. Of course, she wasn’t my wife then. But she would be.
At first, the photo streams are divergent from one another. My future wife and I are living parallel lives. We don’t know each other. Only through the magic of the Cloud, our photo streams have met and intermingled in my Google account. You could say the photo streams are dating. Her stream introduces her as a happy young woman, playing flag football with a group of coworkers, then she is off for drinks with the gang to the local pub. A few weeks later, she is decorating her apartment for Christmas. Then she is in Puerto Rico, experimenting with her camera, taking over-saturated photos of the waves and flowers. Then she is in Deep Creek, cooking dinner for friends at a rental house. Every picture of her is colorful, light, spacious, and happy. Strong, positive energy follows her.
Me? There is a weeks-long stream of pictures of hot dogs and french fries. Hots dogs and fries. Hot dogs and fries. Was I running a contest? No such contest could be complete without cheese and gravy fries from The Dirty O.
So there is my laughing wife (to be), engaging with friends, traveling, and playing. And here I am comparing french fries. Strange that we ran across one another at all. Stranger still, she had any reason to be attracted to me when we did.
Finally came evidence of my tenure as a librarian. It is a memorable and happy job. I am working in a university library in Wilmington, North Carolina. Lots of pictures of magnolia trees, the outside of the library, my apartment, and all the Spanish Moss I could find. My wife’s stream is more friends, babies, and her at her brother’s wedding, which was right down the street from the library in Wilmington. This is interesting because we are both from Pittsburgh. We did not know one another yet, but there we were only a few blocks apart, in another state. She was celebrating a life milestone, and I, well, I was blowing bubbles for my cat.
After a few pictures of me holding an alligator in Pawleys Island, SC, I’m back in Pittsburgh with a new job and maybe more french fries. My future wife, meanwhile, is receiving awards at what looks to be a bigwig ceremony. Lots of photos of speeches, toasts, and plaques being passed around.
Then the streams merge.
It’s not an impressive picture, but this is the first photo I have of her from when I knew her, and we are in the same place and time together. We are camping in the Laurel Highlands, outside of Pittsburgh. She is sitting in the distance at a picnic table, waiting for me to join her. We were playing a game of Mancala. It may appear that a romantic mountain mist obscures the photo, but it is chicken grease on the lens from cooking over a campfire. Before this trip, my pictures show me on Pilot Mountain, on the beach in Santa Monica, and canoeing through Central Pennsylvania. And then, suddenly, there we are. It’s July 4th, over fourteen years ago. By late August, we would leave for a trip to Germany. What a year.
We met at a party for mutual friends. They eloped and afterward threw a party to celebrate their nuptials. My future wife brought a fruit tart for the dessert table, and I brought my appetite. I was simply crushing the pastry, and she had to come over and elbow me aside so she could get the last slice before I put it down. After some small talk, we agreed to make mojitos. We walked to a neighborhood grocer to buy mint. The store smelled like foul meat, and their mint was rotten, but we bought it anyway. We swung into the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, a Polish bar on the edge of a nearby bridge. Strange enough, the bartender was the sister of the groom hosting the wedding celebration where we just met. I guess she couldn’t get off work. She served us a few rounds and laughed while we flirted.
We left the bar with our rotten mint and returned to the party. There, we made terrible mojitos and tossed the rest of the mint, then walked down Main Street to The Thunderbird Cafe to get the real deal, but what were we thinking? Those were still the days when shot and beer bars dominated Lawrenceville and you laid your cash on the bar and no one touched it when you left for the bathroom. We settled for rounds of beer and chatted into the night, listening to a live rock band.
The cat eventually died, but that woman playing Mancala over the Fourth of July stayed with me, and we even have a house and kids to show for it. There is a point when the photo stream absolutely mushrooms in volume as I scroll forward in time. This is past all the camping trips and roadside markets, and flowering trees. It’s when our daughter was born. A new journey was beginning, one I was honestly not ready for, one we had no roadmap for, but one we knew we wanted to take together, hand in hand.
I am not sure how I will sort things out with Google. But I am grateful for the free warehouse of memories from all those years. I am not sure I turned out as successful as maybe I had hoped. For example, today, I am sitting at my dining room table eating sardines from a can, along with an entire sleeve of Nutter Butters. This is my lunch. I’m angry because there are fewer Nutter Butters in the box than there used to be, yet they cost more. And I spilled fish oil on my shirt. This is me at forty-nine. There will be no photographic evidence. There are some things the world does not need to see.
My family and I recently came back from a fall leaf tour in Harper’s Ferry, WVa. The most recent photo uploaded into the joint photo stream is from Highway 40, the National Pike. It shows an open road with pretty clouds quilted up into the skies. We crested a peak on the highway and are rolling downhill. There’s nothing ahead of us but endless possibilities.