This story is by Adrian Mike Pearce and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The room I find myself in smells like vinegar and yet for me it is a comforting smell. It reminds me of the hours spent in the dark developing photos so that I don’t have to feel so awkward being the seventeen year old I am. Bum fluff is all I can grow on my face. Not even a moustache. Creating photographs makes me think that I must have some amount of artistic talent. Some worth.
The chemical scent that fills the room is only stop bath, a process meant to stop the development of a photographic print. Which reminds me that my own development is going nowhere, especially in the romance department. My status, which is pretty low at my high school, would surely be boosted if I had a girlfriend. I see other guys in my class – mostly jocks, with girlfriends and they seem to be very popular among the school crowd. That’s what I want.
For the first time in my life I have a gang, Don and Steve. Don has braces and spit flies out of his mouth when he gets upset. Of the three of us in the camera club, he is one of them. The other is Steve, who wants to be a doctor and studies medical books in his spare time, diagnoses nearly everyone he passes. His big thing right now is the term “myocardial infarction.” Whatever that is.
Here I am, a teenager and yet I have been entrusted with a key to the darkroom. The one room in our high school with not only a lock but also the culture of not having that door opened unannounced. An accident like the door being opened could ruin many hours work. And God forbid that a roll of film being developed gets ruined. It might actually contain photos of our school’s championship track and field team that are destined for the school’s yearbook.
Track and field is my school’s pride. The entranceway is filled with glass cases of trophies, none of which I have helped win. You see, gym class simply magnifies my ineptness. I can hardly sink a basket and I can’t climb hand over hand the ten foot rope hanging from the rafters. I do okay at volleyball in spite of my short stature but only because it was mandatory in elementary school.
Photography grabbed me one night when I came home in the evening to discover all the lights were off in the apartment. In the darkness, my mother sat in her favourite chair knitting a sweater .“Why are all the lights off? And why are you sitting in the dark? I asked. “Your father is in the kitchen developing some film.”
“Dad’s in the kitchen?” This I had to see. I could only remember my father entering the kitchen to get another cup of coffee. In the darkness, I could just barely make out my father’s figure. He was carefully threading a roll of film onto a plastic reel made to fit into a developing tank the size of a can of tobacco.
“Your cousin taught me about photography when your mother and I were in England,” he told me. I remembered there had been some discussion about my dad needing a hobby to take his mind off his stressful work.
I was quite fascinated with the photographic process. My father was an engineer, only too happy to explain in great detail the full procedure. Over many months we began to spend more time in the kitchen, measuring chemicals, mixing them with water at just the right temperature. My interest grew to such a degree that I eventually took over the kitchen as often as I could. Dad went back to sitting in his easy chair after supper and reading the day’s paper.
One evening I heard Mom, as she looked up from her knitting say, “You know that hobby was supposed to be for you. To help you relax.” Putting his paper down briefly, he looked at her and said “It’s relaxing enough to know where my teenage son is in the evening!”
That is how I ended up here, a darkroom key in my hand and a door locked behind me. This metal in my hand might just be the key to other possibilities I think as there is a sudden knock at the door. Since I have yet to start printing, I go through the inner door to open the outer door and discover my two friends Don and Steve. Yet there are three other people with them. Girls! Don and Steve are giving them a tour. When they all get inside we make introductions and I ask them what their level of interest is in the camera club. Christine, who seemed to be the leader, blurted out they thought that joining a club might be a good way to meet boys. ‘Nerdy boys’ she explained, as they were nerdy girls. I wondered about the other girl, Vicki who was dressed exactly like Christine. Their straight brown hair, parted in the middle, cascaded down to their shoulders. Both wore dark peasant dresses printed in tiny flowers. Their oval-framed glasses matched. The third girl was named Terri.
Don seems interested in Terri and Steve seems well acquainted with Christine. So I guess the one that I am supposed to go after is the Vicki, the skinny, hippy-looking chick. She has an English accent. I liked that. A small stack of books is cradled in her arms, protectively shielding her breasts. I like what I see and what I don’t see.
It takes several months for our relationships to flourish and the day finally comes when the girls have agreed to have lunch with us in the darkroom. There, we had everything we needed. A portable radio, a girl each and a room with an outside locking door.
There was a teacher with a classroom across the hall from the darkroom so we needed to be quiet. That was hard to do given our horny natures and three giggly girls. We came up with a foolproof system. At the sound of a key in the lock, five of us would quickly scramble into large cabinets beneath the darkroom counter and slide the doors shut. Steve would act as the decoy, standing at the developing tray.
While the rest of us hid, Steve would quickly turn off the radio and hide it in a tabletop safelight. He would gently rock an already developed picture in a tray of water. In the dark, someone unfamiliar with photo printing would not know that the tray wasn’t full of developer.
It did happen one day that the teacher from across the hall came to investigate the noises emanating from the darkroom. They were disturbing her class. After unlocking the outer door, she immediately began to open the inner door. Steve shouted at her, “close the outside door first!” It was unusual for a student to shout at a teacher, but for the ruse to work, it was necessary. Then she had the temerity to reach for the room’s light switch. “Don’t turn on the lights! You’ll ruin my photograph!”
Steve, whose eyes had adjusted to the dim light could see the astonished look on her face when she was confronted with a solitary figure rocking a developer tray back and forth.
“I could have sworn I heard music and laughter coming from this room!”
“Yeah. I know. I sometimes hear it when I’m here working at lunchtime. I think its coming through the ductwork from the lunchroom. You know how the principal allows music there now.”
Hiding in the cabinets, it took great willpower not to chortle as Steve bamboozled the teacher. We had the sense to wait after she left until we could hear her teaching her class again before any of us ventured out from the cabinets. Then the radio would be extracted from the safelight and the party would begin again.
We were young and brash and we thought we had everyone fooled. Every club in the school had a teacher sponsor and ours was a nice guy named Mr. Harvey. Years later while thumbing through an old yearbook, I noticed an inscription from Mr. Harvey: “The darkroom is for developing prints. Not romances.”