I'm leaning against a tree. The back of my shirt is beginning to itch and my palms are sweaty. It's a humid August day, but on our ride home he insisted we stop.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona
"Isn't that a nice tree?" he had said. It is: The branches hanging low, filtering the light like fireflies. There was no power I could have possessed that would have stopped him from taking a picture there.
"What's bokeh mean, sweetheart?" I say as he adjusts his tripod set up. His lean arms are at a ninety degree angle, his fingers gliding lightly across his SLR, fussing with the focus and the aperture. "You say it all the time about your pictures but I've been too embarrassed to ask."
"Why were you embarrassed?" he asks, leaning down and pressing his face to his camera, squinting through the viewfinder.
"Because you know a lot about cameras. I didn't want you to think I was stupid or something."
The only film camera I have is a Holga, a cheap toy camera people get into because the plastic lens refracts light in an interesting way. It's kind of hipster-y, I know, but it's light and the pictures it takes are interesting. I showed Prompto how easy it was to take a double exposure with it and he used up all my film fiddling around. I try to keep up with him and ask questions, but cameras are very much Prompto's thing.
"In Japanese, boke means 'stupid' or 'clueless'," he says. "As a photography term it just means… when things go out of focus in a cool way. Like when the lights in the distance are just fuzzy balls of colour."
On a line of fishing wire above my bed there are dozens of photos like that attached with clothespins — of Ignis wrapped in Christmas lights, frowning, or Noctis framed by the city at night, or Gladio laughing, a beer in hand. There are only a few pictures of Prompto alone. He's the one with the camera, after all.
Noctis and the gang have done a lot for Prompto. At least he's not alone any more. On the rare occasions he tells me about his childhood, it's always pre- and post-Noctis. Before, he was alone, eating junk food, wishing he had friends or a real family. Now, he has a family. And he has me.
But Noctis is a prince, with all the privilege that entails. There are still some things he doesn't understand about Prompto and how he feels, things that Prompto could never tell him. Noctis doesn't really understand that Prompto actually gets his feeling hurt when the gang makes fun of his hair, for starters. Which is why it's my job, as his girlfriend, to make sure I tell him I love his hair as much as possible.
"Does it really look like a Chocobo's butt?" he'll ask me, mumbling into his hot cocoa, his brow furrowed in worry.
"Sweetheart," I'll say, "you're really handsome. And your hair doesn't look like a bird's arse."
It's never enough to push the worry away — I, too, remember how lonely it was to be a child, convinced that you were ugly, convinced that something was wrong you, with your body, convinced that you needed to change yourself fundamentally to deserve love. Prompto isn't alone any more, sure, and he doesn't feel as much like an outsider as he used to. But he's never beaten the worry.
"It's why I take so many pictures," Prompto is saying, back under the tree. "I always want the bokeh to be really emphasised, and there's just no way I'll know what's in focus or not. But yeah, anyway, it's called that because, well, it's literally a fuck-up. Like, the picture is wrong."
He looks up at me suddenly.
"Why would I have thought you were stupid for asking?"
"Because," I start. He tilts his head, like a puppy.
"I just wanted you to like me."
Prompto sings to himself whenever he does anything. In my lowest moments, I tolerate this. When I'm hungover and cranky and he is, somehow, bright and bouncy and singing something he just made up at a volume that is just on that side of too loud, I tolerate the singing.
"It's because of you," he says, sometimes, bashfully, blushing bright red and swallowing his words. "Your name means song, right? You're as pretty as a song." And I smile, wincingly, and ask for water and aspirin.
On an average day, I hardly notice the singing. But if you don't tell him, Prompto will sing for anything. He sings as he dodges cracks in the footpath, or when he gets a new text, or when he nails a selfie. He'll sing along with the tea kettle if you don't stop him. After a while it blends, and I don't notice it any more than his blinking or breathing. The song is just a part of him.
Catching him singing on purpose, though. When the door to the bathroom is cracked open and he's fussing with his hair and I'm wondering where the hell is he we're already late and his soft and sweet voice is pulling out a tune, mumbling the words to himself. I can feel him holding back, not wanting to sing so loud I can hear. I resolve to never mention it to him, but his voice is lovely. I close my eyes for a moment, try to block all the other sensations out so I can remember. When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we see…
After what feels like years of urging, I convince him to come to karaoke with me. After a few drinks he fucking crushes it and the room explodes in applause and hollering, Noctis clapping him on the back. I hardly even notice I'm crying.
"Why wouldn't I like you?" Prompto says. "You're really funny and pretty, and you like my songs, and you don't mind when we stop and take pictures for half an hour when I know you just want to go home."
I'm laying in the grass at this point. Prompto took a dozen or so pictures of me, and then the tree, and the the view across the meadow, and then the grass… But it's a nice day out. The sun is shining. Under the tree, the heat doesn't bother me. There's even a breeze.
"If anything," he says, the camera to his eye, "I sometimes wonder… why do you like me?"
When I turn my head to him, his back is facing me. I wish that I could see his expression, those freckles and his bright blue eyes. I wish I knew what to say to him. That he's not stupid, or worthless, and that his friends do love him. That he can put away those memories of loneliness. That Noctis never hated him and had always wanted to be friends. That he doesn't have to keep these things inside, because I care and I want to listen. That whatever mistake that he feels he is, that is the thing that people love. That his most beautiful pictures are the ones that are slightly out of focus.
But instead I tell him to lay with me and take a selfie. Of all the pictures from that afternoon, that's the one that turned out: That moment just before we kissed. And now it hangs above my bed, on the fishing wire.