The large red bow on the collar of my dress nearly covered my mouth. If it hadn’t, my lips would have been blurred from movement, forming an opinion (“This bow is terrible, just terrible”) or an obvious statement (“That camera is going to take our picture”) or question (“Why do we want to remember what we looked like today?”). Ryan’s mouth was closed in the picture. He had just turned four and still wasn’t really talking. He had words, he was smart—he’d later score a 1580 on his SAT—but his words were stuck in his throat, resulting in guttural sounds only I could translate. My parents still tell the story when Ryan said ‘Buhhhh rahh’ and I said ‘He would like some apple juice’ and Ryan nodded, smiling because I understood him. On his small blue shirt, a train was puffing its whistle. Trains comforted him then—the amount of load they could carry, the cheerful chugs of the wheels, how the pitch of the whistle could be heard miles away. My father’s glasses were the size of my face, as if he needed lenses that big to hold his dreams, dreams of accessible education for all, fair pay for teachers, and being the hero that made it all possible. He was an associate professor at the university. My mother’s long fingers splayed on my left shoulder and Ryan’s right shoulder. Her hands were elegant yet firm. She always swore to Ryan and me that we would never doubt we were loved.
We all wore denim—denim shirts, denim jeans. My hair was long and sun-streaked. It was the first day it had been out of a ponytail in months. A few years before the picture, I’d had a bowl-cut and been mistaken for a boy on several occasions. Ryan’s hair was light brown and curly. It had lost its softness, but not its energy. Ryan had recently discovered his musical talent and played the piano during church service once a month. The older women of First United Methodist treated Ryan as if he was the strawberry filling between bland cookies. “Oh, when he plays the piano,” they’d say. “And his hair. His hair.”
Ryan’s First Haircut—1992
I’d cut off most of Ryan’s hair with red Crayola scissors. My memory of doing so fogs over every time I try to recall why I did it, as if there is another pair of lungs deep in my brain breathing over a pane of glass. I’m glad, because I don’t care to remember it. My mother was devastated. She had a thing about documenting notable moments, even if they hurt. Ryan with his patchy baldness and I both looked directly at the camera. The red Crayola scissors were on the floor; the dull blades were open, pointing at me.
My Father’s Mug Shot—2012
He was not wearing glasses, and his eyes looked small, like two seeds that were losing their chance to grow. My father is blind without his glasses. He looked just beyond the camera’s lens. I put a printed copy of his mug shot on my refrigerator. I got a couple texts from Ryan the day we found out. “What in galloping fucks was he thinking?” the first text read. “A DUI? Is this the same man? He didn’t even drink over me coming out. LOL,” the next text read. I imagined Ryan’s face as he typed these texts. He wouldn’t have been smiling. His hard frown hurt my imagination. He had formed a habit of expressing the opposite of what he truly felt. But, to me, whatever layer Ryan had built to cover his feelings was made of Saran wrap, and I could still see the blurry colors. I called him. “Hey,” I said. “Hey,” he said. I could hear his bong bubbling. I almost pleaded with him to be real with me. But I didn’t. “He looks pathetic without his glasses,” I said as I drew a pair of glasses in permanent ink on my father’s defeated face. I then placed a smiley-face magnet over his heart.
Ryan and I were muzzled with braces. My parents were half-awake. My father had put on fifty pounds of late-night snacks. Ryan’s insecurities were protected by blue hair and pierced ears. My mother and I were smiling, afraid of what unhappiness might look like.
My Mother and Her Carrots—2014
Her body was half-lit by the sun, the left side of her body. Her left hand was gripping a fistful of carrots, holding them high, and the left side of her mouth was smiling just a little bit more than the right, as if all of her was trying to lean the correct way. She’d started a carrot garden when she decided that happiness was a choice. The people she depended on—me, Ryan, and my father—had all punched holes through the television set that was our life, cut off the show that usually aired during the beginning stages of a family, a show where everyone was a round peg in a round hole, an uneventful show depicting only goodness. That year, Ryan had moved in with his boyfriend Jan and was happy, but he’d stopped playing the piano entirely because, according to him, carpal tunnel syndrome had made his fingers swollen and useless. But we all knew he just wanted to be left alone, that the piano drew attention he did not want. My father was teaching again, but it was at the local community college instead of the university. He spent most evenings with his friends from Alcoholics Anonymous, getting coffee and talking too loudly about intimacy and what it meant to truly be happy, to feel love without the help of a substance. He and my mother existed together in the same house, but a mouth had closed over it, refusing to open and say, “This isn’t quite right anymore.” I, on the other hand, was on my second divorce. My second ex-husband had replaced the carpet of the dump-house we’d decided to buy, so when I left, with an armful of hangers and clothes, I purposely left a trail of green footprints behind with the green paint we’d picked out for the empty bedroom of our theoretical future child. I moved in with my parents after that. I’d snapped that picture of my mother, the one of her edging toward the light. We pulled carrots together sometimes. Our similar bodies produced similar movements when we hunched over the vegetables, grabbed the exposed green leaves, and pulled out the orange roots. But the emotions driving our muscles couldn’t have been more different—I wanted to be back in a marriage, any marriage, and she wanted out of hers.
Ryan’s Drawing of the Family—1998
We were each gripping a red balloon that suspended us. Our bodies were tilted forward because we were moving forward. We were all smiling. Ryan had drawn shoes for everyone but himself. And he’d not only left his feet exposed, he’d drawn in jagged red painful veins that would be throbbing if the drawing were made into an animation.
The picture was of hands—mine and Ryan’s—with fingers spread wide, knuckles cracked and bloody. My cuts were deeper—smiling and frowning red moons. I was thirteen and Ryan was eleven. Our father wanted to take a picture so we could look back later and laugh. It was a game called Bloody Knuckles. We played it during lunch at school with our friends. Here’s the game: Two players spin a quarter between them on a cafeteria table. The player whose touch causes the quarter to fall has to put their knuckles on the table while the winning player gets to shoot the quarter across the table at their exposed knuckles. The game is played until someone quits as a result of the pain. I never quit. The bell would ring and lunch would end and I’d be bleeding. Ryan never lasted very long. I imagined it was because he’d already been hurting for years, and that collision of dull, inner doubt, working its way around his bones, with the surface nicks and cuts may have felt to Ryan like being gunned down from the inside out.
Photo not available. After we took the picture, the photographer went to grab a quick dinner at Chipotle. He accidentally left the camera hanging on the back of his chair. When he returned, the camera had been stolen. He offered to recreate the session in addition to offering Ryan and me free senior pictures. We didn’t reschedule. I didn’t want senior pictures, and neither did Ryan.
My First Tattoo—2011
I’d gotten a pair of upside-down legs tattooed on my ankle. The idea was that the rest of the body—head and heart—was inside of me, pointing toward my foot. I’d hoped at the time that the hidden mouth would whisper secrets into the nearest vein so my feet would know which direction to take. My first marriage had ended that year. Ryan came to visit Florida from New York City, where he’d become the pianist for a new off-Broadway play, “Paris in Space.” He came with me to get the tattoo at a place called Anthem. “At least it doesn’t look bloody in the picture,” he said after taking a Polaroid picture of my tattoo and waving it to dry. We both smoked enough weed that night to drain our skin of color and land us in fetal positions in the corners of my living room, weeping, laughing, affirming each other.