Sunday Stories: “Camera Obscura”

Street corner

Camera Obscura
by Amy DeBellis

The party was held in a small apartment building that looked, from the street, like it might be about to topple over in any direction. “The leaning tower of pizza,” Jade said, because they had just passed a pizza place on the same block, but Will looked at her blankly. She thought of explaining, and then decided against it.  

The elevator was broken, so they walked up the stairs, which smelled like sawdust and paint. “Are you sure we’re at the right place?” Jade asked more than once. She was aware of how annoying she sounded yet was helpless to stop herself, because she had drilled into her brain years ago that the only thing worse than being annoying was being too quiet. 

“Yeah,” he said. But as they ascended the stairs, which seemed to be getting narrower and narrower, like a spiral cramping to a single point, even he looked like he was growing uneasy. “On the other hand, it’d be just like Sam to give me a fake address and leave me stranded for a laugh.”

Jade wasn’t sure she wanted to attend the party of someone who might be expected to do this. “He sounds like quite the character.”

“Mmm.” They reached the top floor, and Jade finally heard the faint sound of music filtering from behind the single door. Soft babble of voices, thudding bass like distant heartbeats. 

Will knocked, and they waited a few moments before the door swung open.

“Hey!” said the curvy girl standing in the entrance, chomping on gum and simultaneously baring brilliant white teeth. “Didn’t get lost on the way here?”

“Almost! Great to see you again. You haven’t changed a bit—except for finally putting on the freshman fifteen.”

“Oh, shut up. Aren’t you going to introduce your friend?” She turned her green gaze to Jade, snapping her gum so loudly it almost made Jade flinch. Those fifteen pounds had gone straight to her breasts and hips, Jade noticed. No wonder she wasn’t too sad about them. 

“Jade, my girlfriend, this is Sam. My best friend from college.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jade said. To her it sounded adolescent, obnoxiously eager and chipper: Howdy! Nice ta meetcha. 

“You too,” Sam said. Her voice was low, mature, sensual. “Let’s get this party started now that you guys have finally arrived, hey?” 

There were a few people meandering through the apartment, holding glasses of wine and less identifiable mixed drinks. They all seemed to have concluded some important discussion just before Will and Jade came in, and were now zip-lipped about it, regarding Jade with watchful eyes. Music wound through the room like smoke. The walls were covered in blue-green wallpaper, the shade of underwater light. Small round mirrors on the walls reflected Jade’s face back to her in shards, as though her reflection had been blown apart and the pieces now hung scattered all over the room. She kept catching sight of herself from the wrong angle. (Why were they all from the wrong angle?)

Sam showed them the drinks table and handed them glasses of some concoction that was supposed to be a much-improved recipe from their college days. Watching her mannerisms, listening to her speak, Jade realized that Sam was one of those girls who never worried about how she came across. Why would she? Her entire life had been one positive feedback loop, meaning she had no reason to anticipate rejection or mockery. She had been buffered with praise and reinforcement until the layer that surrounded herself—her ego, essentially—was as polished and hard as a conch shell. If anyone did dare to judge or reject her now, their negative impression would bounce off, powerless against all those years of self-confidence. 

Jade pictured her own outer layer cracking, moldering: the shell of a crushed egg.

“That’s when we just decided to dip,” Sam was laughing, “and we raced out of there.”

“No. Oh my god. You guys must be on some kind of list by now.”

“We probably are. On several lists. How’s the drink?”

“Somewhat stronger than I remember,” Will said, grimacing as he took a swallow. “But that’s good. I know you always wanted me to get fucked up as fast as possible.”
Sam chortled. “Good to hear. You guys have fun.” She disappeared back into the party.

And then, flooding from Jade’s mouth like an exhalation, like foul air she had been holding back and could no longer suppress—“Sam’s a girl?”

Said like that it sounded so bare, so ugly.

“Well, yeah. When did I ever say Sam was a guy?”

“I just—I remember you said—” She searched back in her memory, near-certain that he had said Sam was a guy he’d known in college. Jade had always had a mental image of Sam as a dorm room full of discarded basketball jerseys and beer cans and sneakers.

But it was possible Will had just said “friend” and her brain had filled in the gaps by itself. 

“But,” she said, remembering something else, “I said he about Sam and you didn’t correct me. On the staircase. I said he sounds like quite the character, and you didn’t say Sam was a she.” 

“Didn’t I? Uh, maybe it was because we were too preoccupied for me to bother correcting the pronouns you were using. But, yeah, you shouldn’t have assumed her gender. Happy?” He laughed, but he was looking around the room at the same time, as though searching for someone he’d rather direct that laughter towards. 

She tried the drink, which smelled like fruit juice and vodka; she’d had this same type of concoction so many times that it barely registered in her brain. Essentially, it tasted like nothing. 

“Let’s go talk to some people,” Will said. 

She followed him, holding the drink in front of her like a shield. Everyone here was better-looking than Jade, but it was the non-physical things that made them this way. They knew how to talk to each other, what expressions to make, what the right amount of eye contact was. The way they walked was smoother, the way they held their heads more balanced and graceful. As though they knew that what they had in their heads was more precious than whatever was in Jade’s, so they had to maintain it with care.

Will began talking to the first group they encountered, which included a dark-haired girl whose name Jade heard and instantly forgot—something with two S’s, the sound of a reptile flicking its tongue out—a baseball-cap wearing man who barely came up to Jade’s shoulder, and a man with a thick South African accent.  

They all began talking about Will’s major while Jade stood there and sipped her nothing-drink. Even when he wasn’t speaking, Will had the remains of a smile lingering around his face, a kind of muscular looseness that she had never been able to replicate. She tried smiling now, experimentally, hiding it behind her drink so she didn’t look too much like a psychopath. The expression felt like she’d shoved her face into a clay mask and was waiting for it to harden. She dropped it immediately, just in case someone did see and ordered her to leave immediately.

The baseball cap guy said, “Is it me or does this beer have a distinct undertone of cat piss?”  

“How do you know what cat piss tastes like?” his friend said. They chuckled together like twin goblins. Hee hee, ho ho. Fery vunny.

“And what did you study?” the girl asked Jade politely. 

Everyone’s gaze rotated to Jade. She almost heard the creaking sound as this happened, like their eyeballs were un-lubricated ball bearings. 

“I studied History.”

The girl looked pleasantly bemused. “Ah, cool! What do you want to do with that?”

She thinks I still want to do something, Jade thought in amazement. “I wanted to teach,” she confessed.

The girl didn’t seem to register the change of tense. “Nice. My dad was a teacher before he retired. There’s something heroic about it, really, being the last bastion to try to defend against every type of harmful input these students are getting from the internet and, like, popular culture and social media. Right? Societal impact can be seen through so many facets—but very few human ones.” The baseball cap guy was gazing up at her and nodding reverently, as though she were reciting the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. “What do you think, Darwin?”

The South African guy began extrapolating on the benefits of teachers in the current sociopolitical climate, while the baseball cap guy followed them back and forth with his gaze. Even Will was looking a little lost. Jade tried to catch his eye so that the two of them could share a glance, but his gaze remained fixed on Darwin and the dark-haired girl. The conversation now turned to the girl’s recent realization that her name was a sore subject for quite a few couples.

“Apparently Claire and her boyfriend, for example, they literally cannot talk about me. Like, cannot.” Her voice dripped with satisfaction. “He gets all tongue-tied and sad. I’m like, it’s been five years, and we slept together once! Get the fuck over me already!” She snorted. “I mean, really. Some guys cannot move on.”

“I guess it means she doesn’t compare,” the baseball guy said. 

“I guess it means whatever his girlfriend’s doing in bed isn’t making him very happy in comparison,” she said, just in case anyone had not fully understood baseball guy’s remark. Everyone (except Jade) nodded in bald appreciation of her candor. Her nose crinkled up cutely as she sneered. All three men leaned in closer to her, bending like flowers, drunk on the scent of her perfume.  

The music grew louder, drowning out people’s conversations, and the partygoers began to remove their heels and baseball caps and get up to dance on top of the tables. Now the great-in-bed girl was joining them, and Jade struggled to remember her name. Clarissa? Tessa? Something with a double S, something sibilant and watery. Her body swayed like a river.

So she could dance well and talk in a seemingly fascinating manner about how bad other women were in bed. Impressive, the skill assortment on display here. Get you a girl who can do both, Jade thought. Her limbs were tense and motionless.  

Someone shoved her, lightly. She turned. It was Darwin, saying something, but she couldn’t hear him. He was gesturing to the tables, laughing, and at first she thought he was mocking the dancing people. She summoned an answering grin onto her face and shouted, “I know, right?” She rolled her eyes, just in case he hadn’t heard. 

But he kept grinning and shook his head and said, “No, no. You go up.”

His face was hungry, but not in a lustful way. In a different, even more eager way. 

Her body stiffened as the realization hit. It was the same feeling she used to get as a teenager when she became aware that other people were making fun of her, that she now occupied the space in their minds that meant she was their amusement. Once you found yourself in that space, you could never get out of it.

She looked around instinctively for Will, but he was standing off to the side, nursing his drink and tracking the movements of the dancing girl.

Darwin kept insisting. “Join them. Have some fun! Dance!”

“No thanks,” she said, and then, when this didn’t work: “Stop it.” Why wouldn’t Will come over and rescue her? Why was he avoiding her gaze? She didn’t know what she was supposed to be doing with her body. She held her drink more closely against her chest, as though she were about to say, I’m actually slow dancing with this glass now, sorry.

Darwin didn’t seem to have gotten the message. He grabbed her free arm now, waved it over her head as though she were doing it herself.

Will turned around just in time to see her wrench her arm away, slam her drink down onto the table, and shove Darwin hard in the chest with both hands. Darwin staggered back, a look of dumb shock on his face.

“What the fuck?” 

Both men made the same exclamation at exactly the same time. Suddenly she was in between them, bombarded by their twin outrage.

“You didn’t have to shove me.”

“What’s going on?”

“Dude. Your girlfriend is, like, abusive.”

“Jade, did I really just see you push Darwin?”

Now Darwin had stormed away and it was just her and Will. Him glaring at her, his own fun ruined. Him addressing her like she was some misbehaving child, like she was the one in the wrong by default. Humiliation coursed through her; her face felt bloated with blood.

“He was manhandling me,” she said. “He grabbed my arm and waved it overhead. He wouldn’t stop.” 

“He didn’t mean anything. He was just trying to get you to have fun.”

Because it was everyone’s duty to make sure Jade had fun, right? Because Jade couldn’t be having a shitty time at a shitty party she hadn’t really wanted to go to anyway; no, that wasn’t allowed. She’d go to the party, and what was more, she’d like it. 

“But you didn’t even see—you weren’t even looking—”

“What on earth.” Will’s tone was flat with disbelief. “Why do you have to do this every time.”  

Jade struggled for something to say in response. Theoretically, there probably did exist a combination of words that would make Will see the reality of the situation and apologize for overreacting. But she had no idea how to find this combination. At times like these, she felt as though her mind were a darkroom pushing out an inverted image, a kind of reverse camera obscura that was meant to project something from the inside to the outside. Except the shape that it produced could hardly be recognized as an image at all. Feed any situation into it and, through Jade, the solution came out shapeless and unidentifiable, a parody of the supposed intelligence and aptitude of the human mind. 

Will said, “Jesus, Jade. Can’t you just act normal for once?”

The words echoed, grew louder, looped around in Jade’s brain. She couldn’t feel the heat in her face anymore but was instead starkly aware of everything outside her own body: the sound of the conversations around them, bright and cheerful, the threat of hostility hanging latent behind every word. Will’s voice, derisive and dry and soft, like rotting chalk. And the music, some nameless tune she would find herself humming later without realizing what she was doing, half-familiar and otherworldly and far too beautiful for this evening. 





Amy DeBellis is a writer from New York. Her writing has appeared in various publications including Pithead Chapel, HAD, Ghost Parachute, and Pinch. Her debut novel is forthcoming from CLASH Books (2025). Read more at 

Image source: Matteo Modica/Unsplash

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