And a memory crashes over me. A face that still haunts me. At times, I still feel that pain, like a hunger gnawing inside me. An identity hard to break. It sticks with me. That girl is foreign and familiar at the same time. Sometimes, she’s detached from me, and other times, she’s a suit I slip into, worn and familiar. When we join like twins, I feel her pain rushing from the past. One memory comes into vivid view.
A naked lightbulb emanates a harsh yellow brilliance stifled by the dark windowless, cinder-block walls and open-rafter ceiling of the outer basement area. The grey painted floor resembles hard, cold stone. Separating the basement from the large family-room-sized space, should be a plaster wall, but now just the wall studs remain leaving a clear view into the large room converted into a bedroom. A young, skinny, blonde woman sits in the middle of the room surrounded by scattered piles of photographs.
Leaning against the wrought iron footboard of her bed, she studies a picture. With knees drawn up against bones, she stares at the image of herself. The small window above the bed shoots sunlight like a spotlight onto the section of floor she sits upon. Bits of light reflect off the pictures littering the beige carpet around her.
A small-town family wedding snapped for the centuries. She’s twenty-one in the pictures. A single year ago. She remembers the day, the feelings. Happiness that weddings evoke, but sadness that the occasion is not her own to celebrate.
It was a third cousin’s wedding, but the whole clan showed up to celebrate the nuptials. A panoramic shot included a large portion of family members gathered at a long table enjoying the home-cooked meal of chicken-fried chicken and gravy with mashed potatoes and green bean casserole topped with real onion rings. She smiled demurely, picking at the food before her, pretending to eat, while her uncle, to her right, intently shoveled mashed potatoes in his mouth, and her mother held a bit of chicken mid-air with her fork, talking, most likely saying how, “Chicken-fried chicken is not a very elegant choice for a wedding, but I guess that is what you are used to in small towns.”
Another picture displays her in her black dress with a deep V in front exposing a boney, but well-tanned chest. Bronzed arms connected with another’s; she stood next to her fourteen-year-old cousin, already taller than her. Her blue eyes gazed into the camera as she flashed her one-dimpled smile.
The focus of the next photo captured the wedding party and guests doing the Bunnyhop. Clustered off to the right, another uncle and aunt grill her about college. She smiled quietly as, “What are you studying?” “Still music?” and “What are your plans after graduation?” were fired at her. Years of dance training and etiquette school taught her to stand erect with head held high. With her confident demeanor, projected and believed by everyone, along with three-inch heels, she appeared taller than her average five-foot height.
Later in the evening, the camera snapped her laughing wildly as her favorite uncle whipped her across the dance floor like Ginger Rogers. Another moment captured her and her uncle posing for the camera as he dipped her low. Another shot has her kicking her black strappy heels off as she prepared for a new round of dancing.
Flushed and out of breath, she’s snapped pretending to sip the amber beer contained in a plastic Dixie cup, not wanting to consume empty calories. A great-uncle tilted his beer back, exclaiming, “An attractive girl like you won’t stay single long!”
Each photograph is handled with care and placed in a tree creating a timeline beginning with a picture of her immediate family, dressed in their wedding attire, posing together for the first time in years, to a snapshot of straggling dancers waltzing to the final song of the night, “I Will Always Love You.”
Each picture displays a happy, smiling young woman, but one single shot captured the truth. One solitary picture shows her with the mask off. It is the photo she now sits and studies intently.
Staring at the picture of herself, she looks worn. She’s intent, trying to discover some truth about herself. A rare moment exposed displaying a part never meant for public consumption. She cradles the picture in her thin hands as if it could break, destroying some part of her.
The camera revealed her resting her head on a propped arm. Escaped tendrils of hair framed her face, her blue, almond-shaped eyes looked off into the distance. Sitting alone, tucked away in a corner of the reception hall, she believed herself unnoticed, but the camera caught her. Like an X-ray imprinting her soul. Always so careful to wear her mask. Never letting her guard down, only to be trapped by modern technology.
Placing this final picture in its proper spot in the visual timeline, she looks around the room. A blue “Happy-birthday” balloon hangs deflated on the wall surrounded by pictures from high school and college. She and two best friends from high school smiled in their red-and-white cheerleading uniforms.
Standing at the grand piano in the choir room, mouth opened as she belted “On My Own” from Les Miserable.
Engulfed by a boyfriend, the boy she thought she would marry.
She and a friend, arms clasped around each other’s shoulders, grinning on graduation day.
Sitting on a friend’s knee during a cast party for Cinderella.
A letter pokes out from behind a happy birthday balloon, a love letter from an ex. The letter is a reminder that someone in the world thinks she is special.
A poster hangs on the opposite wall displaying Kate and Leo at the bow of a ship. Next to this stands a tall bookshelf lined with books from Little Women to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to The Chronicles of Narnia.
Across the room a butter-colored dresser-drawer reflects her image in its large mirror framed by carved flowers. Quickly averting her eyes from the mirror, she takes in the glass bottle of Miracle perfume and the organized assortment of make-up compacts and brushes.
A Shabby-chic-style jewelry box is arranged on a corner of the dresser top, and necklaces hang on a pink heart-shape with tiny hooks protruding from the lace-overlay front.
The open closet reveals clothes hanging from shortest sleeve length to longest as well as being color coordinated.
Taking in years of memories and keepsakes, an era forgotten, she finally turns back to the reflection in the mirror. Her blonde hair is pulled back in a long, wispy ponytail, an attempt to hide the sections of hair that have fallen out with portions of scalp still attached. Head settling on boney knees, she wonders at her compactness.
Legs hide chest and stomach, rail-thin arms wrap around pointy knees. A pale, gaunt face rest on the knees. Her eyes are haunted.