It’s difficult to concentrate on little details when you’re staring at a naked woman.
That’s the operating principle of the touch-screen game bolted to the bar in front of me. Side-by-side on the screen, there are two almost-identical, semi-nude photos that Erotic Photo Hunt’s instructions insist contain five differences. But I feel like I’m fumbling, at best, my inexperienced digits desperately poking here and there, hoping to evoke some sort of a response.
Next to me, Heidi and Nathanael – our first friend here in Long Beach – lean against the bar, swilling well whiskey sours. Numbed by murky cocktails christened “Milk of Amnesia,” we had stumbled down Broadway from the somehow “World Famous” Reno Room and into—
“Wait, wait,” I slur, “what’s the name of this place, again?”
“The 36 36,” replies Nathanael, literally the resident expert on the neighborhood since he is within walking distance of his studio apartment. If he is still able to walk after last call.
“They’re missing a 24.”
“You know, 36-24-36,” I say. “As in—”
“Bust—,” Heidi interrupts, pointing out the appropriate part of her own anatomy at each of three terms, “—waist, hips.”
“Oh,” Nathanael nods, “of course.”
I try to stop staring at my girlfriend’s figure. “And, as in,” I shake my hammering head, “‘36-24-36: / ‘Something’s special ’bout her personality, / ‘Something’s special ’bout her physiology….’”
“The Violent Femmes!” Heidi shouts.
“The Violent Femmes,” I confirm. “Best band ever from Wisconsin, from Milwaukee—”
“Which is Algonquin for ‘the good land,” Nathanael unexpectedly contributes.
“Wayne’s World!” Heidi shouts.
“Wayne’s World,” Nathanael confirms.
“Actually,” I say, “there’s some controversy about whether it’s from the Potawatomi miniwaking or the Ojibwe ominowakiing. Both terms mean ‘gathering place by the water.’ But it’s not Algonquin.”
“It’s not Algonquin?” Nathanael looks crestfallen. “Yet another example of Alice Cooper corrupting the minds of America’s youth.”
I try not to let my gaze drift back to the half-naked women on the Erotic Photo Hunt touch screen, but there isn’t much else to see in the 36 36. Two pool tables, one jukebox, zero taps behind the bar. Bottled beer only, cash only. Older lady bartender.
In both photos on the screen, the model holds her hands over her own bare breasts. The only thing she’s wearing is a striped railroad engineer’s hat – an appropriate accessory, since she stands behind an elaborate model train landscape. On a track set up below her beltline, the train enters a tunnel.
“Don’t fixate on the breasts.”
“What?” Startled, I look up for the source of the unsolicited advice.
It isn’t Heidi or Nathanael, who are bonding about both being “children of divorce.” I pick out the word “alcoholic,” so Heidi’s probably babbling about her mother and stepfather. She tends to earnestly talk about their relationship – and how their relationship shaped her ideas about relationships – after we have sex, and I tend to absentmindedly nod. It’s difficult to concentrate on little details when you’re staring at a naked woman.
It’s the bartender, a weathered bottle blonde.
“The hair,” she suggests. “Men never notice hair. It’s at least a place to start.”
Sure enough: In one photo, the model’s hair is shorter. I touch it, and a jagged green line traces the outline of her hair, confirming I’ve found one of the five differences.
“Almost out of time,” she says.
I check the time remaining on the clock in the corner of the Erotic Photo Hunt screen. “What? There’s still—”
“Not what I meant.” Then she shouts, “Last call!”
Afterwards, as Heidi and I lie side-by-side on our bed, naked, I turn toward her.
“Your hair,” I ask, “did you do something different with it tonight?”
“I did,” she says. “Thanks for noticing. Only took you until 2 a.m.”
It’s at least a place to start.
“Photo Hunt” was originally published by Flash Fiction Magazine in 2015.