'Learning to Pose'
To take the perfect picture: I tilt my head to one side (toward the group), tip my chin out and down to get rid of weird chin shadows, square my shoulders front and tilt them a bit less than my head, turn my hips just to one side to make my body look thin and curvy. The angles vary according to the position of the camera and my placement in the group.
I do this in every picture I take. I plan my pose as everyone gets together for a group picture or as the photographer readies the camera for a picture of only me. I know what I will look like when the film is developed and what impression of me the glossy or matte rectangle will give.
My favorite picture of me doesn't look posed; the artifice is almost completely hidden. I may be the only one who can tell that I am posing with intent. I am at a friend's wedding a few years ago, seated at the reception table. The lights are low, and the flash reflects back from my eyes and lips like a natural shine. My skin looks perfect—smooth and pale next to a red smiling mouth framing white teeth and thick black lashes curling under thin brows. I am wearing a green and blue strapless dress that picks up the gold in my hair, falling in perfect curls on my shoulders, just as it picks up the green in my eyes, deeper and brighter. Just enough cleavage shows above the table, but my body doesn't look posed because the table hides the shift in my hips, the tilt of my shoulders. I know they are there, but they don't show. I look like I always want to look: natural and beautiful.
That is grown-up me, where the perfect pictures are posed but look natural.
Small, young me wasn't posed or careful at all. My favorite picture of young me sits on my desk today, between two candles I have never lit. It is a photo of my family—my mom, sister, brother, and me. A woman who helped my mom like a nanny is in the picture, too, but I don't remember her or this photo as it was taken. In the picture, I am only three. On my mother's lap, I grin without worry, a big toothy smile filled with small, new teeth and an abundance of pink gums. My hair is just past blonde and my eyes are squished up from the smile, hiding the blue that has not yet changed to green. I clutch my favorite stuffed animal, MeeMow—a Minnie Mouse in a pink shirt I always insisted was really Mickey in different clothes. My own pink and white dress matches that shirt, its ruffles smoothed down by my mother's arms. She holds me, and her hands are lost in the folds of my dress. Her hair is almost the color of mine, thanks to Miss Clairol, but her shirt is tan, her eyes clearly green. A few scraps of her blue jeans show under the ruffles of my dress, but they are almost the same shade as the background. Her smile is toothy and wide, just like mine but somehow bigger than life. The smile reaches her eyes, and they are laughing. She is beautiful, and I look like I belong to her—me especially, as she holds me on her lap. This picture is the only time we look alike.
The rest of what I knew my mother to be in the eight years of life we shared comes from scattered and fragmented memories. I remember this same smile over and over again, and I can almost remember her voice as she grins and talks. But I don't hear words, only her laughter. More clearly than anything, I remember her with men— laughing, leaning, smiling. She came alive with men.
With the gas station attendant in the days of full service, she sat in the car and leaned out the open window, even in winter, to talk. She would smile that wide smile, toss her head back and laugh, sending a quiver through the short layers of her hair, too short to toss. He smiled back, blushed often—his young face pink, his own smile nervous. She flirted like a woman who didn't have three small children huddled together in the backseat of the car, and he liked it. They would talk about anything—the weather, the growing town. After many visits and talks with the same guy, he started leaning in the window and she started lounging against the front seat of the car. Sometimes she would even throw one arm back over the seat, casual but conscious. She was beautiful then, too.
But it wasn't just the gas station attendant, whom she always tipped generously.
On the side of the road with a tire flat and a summer storm coming, she was different but the same—helpless and quietly in need, not brazen and free. The trucker who stopped between loads from the quarry nearby called her “ma'am” with a shy grin as he pushed his grease-stained, green and white company hat back from his head after changing the tire. They had talked the whole time, his country drawl thick and hers coming back. She leaned against the car with relief and let tears stand in her eyes so they were shiny as she looked up to thank him. His Adam's apple bobbed hard when he swallowed before saying, “No problem.”
I use words of calculation to describe my mother's actions, but I can't know if she really intended to put these faces on, was aware of what she was doing. Half the time, I think I am not aware of these same things. They have become second nature. I could recount night after night in restaurants, with waiters, men at bars. I too come alive with men. I flick my eyelashes in a two-second flurry, toss my hair, plenty long enough to toss. I have even been known to lounge across a booth or uncomfortable wooden chair, and I am certainly whatever woman they want to find in me.
That is the girl who won the man I used to think I would marry. All of eighteen, in my first week as a college student, I played pool for the first time, and Charlie taught me how. I was free from afternoon class and stopped to talk to a friend in the Student Center. She was playing pool with a guy we had met, and after a few minutes talking about new classes, Charlie came charging in, also free for the afternoon, and insisted that we play in teams. He and I were a team even though I had never met him and he just vaguely knew the other guy playing with us. Before each turn, I stood next to him, one hip tipped out, my body close to his. I leaned into his chest with my back so he could whisper in my ear. I could feel his breath on my neck even though my hair almost brushed the top of my low-slung jeans. By the second game, he was resting a hand on my just-bared stomach below a boxy, summer sweater, and I was leaning against him even when neither one of us was shooting.
And these weren't accidents or the marks of instant attraction. Each time I moved back toward him or he moved back toward me, I considered how far apart we had been before, which parts of our bodies had touched and made sure this next time we were closer somehow. I even made sure to bend across the pool table in a fine stretch from my hips—not just a bend from my waist—that showed every curve he might have missed. I wanted his attention, and I got it. In the four years we spent together, rarely more than a week passed without him mentioning that day, how good I looked, how good he felt. He blamed it on chemistry and love-at-first-sight. I smiled knowing how my mind had charted the course of that afternoon: go this far, but not too far in each, successive minute.
I want to find a moment like this that tells how I don't do this for gain, for me, to get something, but the truth is that I always get something, even if it's just a smile or blush. The whole truth is that I want to get that smile, that just-too-long look. The other night I pulled into a gas station, no longer full-serve, and stepped out of the car with conscious care. I pulled my shoulders back, stretched my neck up, and shook my hair a little like I needed to clear my head or had felt trapped in the stuffy car. I thought about the way my body would move with each step and put a little extra shake in my hips in the three steps to the pump and the back of my car. I watched from the corner of my eye as the man standing at the pump across from me watched me walk and kept watching while I pumped gas. As I walked inside, a teenage boy at the register stared full-on and let his mouth fall once or twice as he blinked. I can't say what they gave me, but I know that I got what I wanted.
These same things are what my mother found in those moments I remember. Did she want these reactions? The moments I don't remember, but that come to me in stories include her friend's husband picking her up and tossing her across his own waterbed fully clothed while they both laughed, my father as a young husband jealous of my mother's male friends always at the house while he was at work, my mother and his best friend meeting for lunch and locking us out to play in the yard on hot days with no water except the garden hose.
But it's not just for men. I remember her with women, groups of friends. Waiting with other mothers at the end of a Girl Scout meeting, she leaned into the small group of mothers, lowered her voice and whispered with them. They seemed older than she did when they weren't in a group, but once she had moved in to talk, she was one of the crowd. She reacted when they reacted to some piece of gossip or the story of some child's success. She was shocked, happy, amused, indignant—whatever she was supposed to be in that moment. She was one of them, and I wondered how she could do that with people she saw for ten minutes once a month. She just could.
With small groups or just one friend, she was different, almost the leader of the pack. She told jokes and laughed loud. I remember her with one friend whose daughter was also my friend. We girls were in their sandy yard digging clam shells and twisted bits of wood. We burrowed fingers and plastic shovel and rake into the sand with a serious air, but they laughed loudly from the porch, each holding a beer in a rubberized blue holder to guard against the August heat. My mother kicked her feet up onto the porch rail and leaned back in her chair. She wore boots that day, not her traditional Nikes, and they were of a worn, dark brown that complimented her olive green T-shirt. The other woman sat with her feet square in front of her, shoulders hunched a bit. She was watching my mother, laughing back at her. I remember thinking that neither of us could take our eyes off her.
I feel something of that on nights like the recent one at the gas station. I want people to look at me; I want each movement to come perfectly after the next, to seem natural and accidental but right. Perhaps I need to describe me, the physical me that they are looking at. Without heels, which I wear everyday, I am five feet, three inches tall. I am curvy, neither skinny nor fat. I have days when I think I am both, but I know that I cannot argue with numbers. My hips measure thirty-six, my waist twenty-six, though this measurement varies the most. I have never known how to present the bust measurement, but I can say that I wear 36C bras on the smallest hook-and-eye closure. No one really measures lower than the hips, but I measure around the fullest part of my butt, which is just past forty inches. My hair is brown, with both red and gold lights, and a loose natural curl. I have never colored or permed it. My eyes are green now, like my mother's, and large. I have my mother's full lips, heart-shaped face, longish forehead, and pale skin. I pluck my eyebrows to a thin arch and have lashes that touch above my eyelids without help. This is the physical me that moves with intent, that knows how close to stand, how much swing to let into my hips as I walk.
But it's really more than that. I am whatever I need to be, whatever each “you” wants me to be. Sometimes, I am a serious student nodding at the teaching while taking careful notes. Sometimes, I am the teacher trying to sound knowledgeable and hoping the students believe I am older. Other times, I am young and naïve hoping that my grimy bag and scratched shoes make me look like an intern or just-out-of-college secretary.
Occasionally, I am voluptuous and seductive and could pass for a stripper. Other faces come out for strangers and friends, and I know that I do this. Inside, though, I am always the same woman, always trying to be perfect, whatever perfect happens to be.
Sometimes, the plan fails and perfect doesn't happen the way I want. On a long weekend trip with friends not long ago, I searched my bag in vain for the trusty black pants I was sure I had packed. They weren't there. In my mind I saw myself packing, laying the pants out on the back of my futon couch, and leaving them there. Half the outfit I had planned for our big night out was hundreds of miles away in my apartment, and I didn't know what to do. I tossed everything in my bag on the floor and started to make new outfits. I began with the pants—black and pinstriped with wide legs—the wrong shape to go with the loose and ruffled red shirt I had planned to wear. I moved on to T-shirts, white button-downs. Everything was wrong or too dirty to wear (even though I considered them). I cried and was on the verge of refusing to go out. They told me, all of them, to just wear the pinstriped pants with the red blouse, black boots, and red lipstick I had planned. All night long I felt dumpy and went to the mirror to stare at my square shape, the thick middle created by the loose blouse and wide pant legs. By the end of the night, they all looked annoyed, and I felt guilty and uncomfortable and ugly all at once. They had seen beneath the veneer that hides the real me so much of the time—the confident and secure that glosses so much of the opposite. They hadn't liked the insecurity under there, and they hadn't liked knowing I had been hiding beneath that other outside for so long.
The real woman beneath my mother was ugly. She took her mask of beautiful off at home, with my father and with us. We saw the “real” her all the time. Most afternoons before my father came home, she was through the second six-pack of Miller Lite and raged at us for everything and nothing. With her face red and puffy from crying, she would hurl words at us that twisted her face into something less than human. Her mouth, which I admired for its width and fluid movement, looked like it would be split by the anger, forcing white seams to run up and down her lips. They were pulled back from her teeth in a smile that wasn't a smile. Her forehead would stretch back and her arched eyebrows would climb halfway to her hair. I didn't think she could blink, but I knew she could run. Top speed for a five-foot, three-inch woman of 110 pounds with a leather belt clutched in one hand above her head was faster than my small legs could move. I was afraid on those afternoons and tried to stay quiet and out of the way. If I was quiet, if I was good, she wouldn't hurt me. If I was the daughter I was supposed to be, she would stop. She didn't stop until the day she died.
My own anger rarely spills over for other people to see; I can count on one hand the people who have seen me truly angry. For me, hiding isn't about hiding anger, and I am not buried so deeply in myself that anger is the only thing that frees me. It is masking everything that isn't wanted—by someone else and, therefore, by me.
I tried to be the perfect, whatever-you-need-me-to-be girl even for her. I watched her fit herself into other people's image of what she should be, and I was already doing that for her when I couldn't even brush my own hair for school. Years after she died but when I still thought it was a bad dream or a lie, I believed that she could come back if I was good enough, if I was worth coming back for. I still have no idea what that could have meant to me, to her, or to anyone, but she never came back.
And now, I find satisfaction in glances and smiles and acceptance. I seek them from strangers in passing and friends up close everyday. I want to belong. But she wanted to belong and sought those same things. Who taught her? I can never ask. Her own father was violent and drunk in the evenings, just like she was. Did she try to stay quiet and out of the way like I did for her? Is that where she learned to want to please? If she was good, did he leave her alone? Was it easier because she was pretty?
These are questions no one can answer, not even her family who watched, who remember. Only she knew what was in her mind when she was a tiny child hiding from violence and anger. Only she knew what made her flirt boldly each week with the kid at the gas station or turn quiet and helpless on the side of the road with a flat tire. All I can do is lay our stories side by side and say, “Yes, this is me,” and, “Yes, this is the mother I remember.” What I have of her is interpretation, and most of it comes from faces and times she wanted others to interpret with varying results. With these pieces of false faces left to me, how can I know my mother? Perhaps I know her as well as anyone can because I read in me the same sort of woman she was—faces, interpretation, posing for life.