Some portraits not taken haunt me.
A train conductor wearing the magenta uniform of the DB (Deutsche Bahn) standing past a glass door to the side of the Berlin Central Station. Buttons undone, he’s staring between his shoes, moving grains of gravel mixed with melting snow. The vapor from his e-cig swirls around his shoulders and head like an armor of clouds. In the background, a rare sight during the winter, the orange blaze of the golden hour lighting up the black, glass, and white office buildings.
The camera stayed in my backpack. I was spent after work. Not today, I thought. What if he won’t agree to a portrait? He must be just as tired as I am.
Later the same day, I’m sitting on the train back home, listening to my nostalgic playlist with Polish music. Perhaps it isn’t my job or my obligation towards the universe to capture absolutely every moment of beauty that passes in front of me. Maybe some things are to be enjoyed as they are in passing. I should be grateful that they’ve been there. And let go.
A character out of a movie sits on the seat opposite mine. Arabian Tony Soprano. Same fleshy face, parted lips, eyes taking the time to consider the compartment from under a frown, and a full beard in the arab fashion with the mustache shaved clean.
He looks friendly. He scratches the underside of his chin with fingers laden with signets. Odds are, he would say yes.
But I would need to put away my earphones, take out my camera, fiddle with the settings to get it ready, and for some reason, on this day, it feels like so much trouble that I hesitate.
We pass through Tiergarten, the Berlin version of Central Park, and the last slivers of golden light hit his face and make him squint, and I know this moment of perfection is now gone.
Some other time, I’m on my way back from Frankfurt. Tired. A common theme, I know, but work is no joke these days. I’m in the quiet compartment with two businessmen. First, composing something furiously on his laptop. Second, slim and serene, reading a book in the fading daylight. The light spectacle outside is something special. Blue, fading into sapphire, then lilac. I consider if I should ask him for a portrait; even his silhouette would look amazing against the frost-bitten suburbs.
But you see, when I’m low on energy, my inner introvert takes over and overthinks before I can act.
What if I disturb the man’s reading? I don’t want him to feel wierd or think I’m a creep. We’ll need to spend the rest of the journey in the same train compartment, and if he says no to the portrait—
Hey, I think, Isn’t this the town with the chimney stacks?
Two seconds later, we pass an industrial complex with chimney stacks billowing something into the atmosphere. At this time of day, in this light, the smoke is like gray velvet pierced by purple.
In some alternative universe, I took out my camera, engaged in a conversation, and took the shot. A silhouette of a slender man, turning a page in his book, while, past the window, two fat chimney stacks billow out smoke blocking out the sunset.
Beauty not captured is like an itch I can no longer scratch. Like all the relationships broken off at a time when you were a different person. Things you wish you had done differently. Closure is impossible, and yet you want it so bad.
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