We assume that pictures offer us a uniform, indisputable reflection of reality. Picture proof, so to speak, of the way things were. Full stop.
But as I read your responses to my old pictures yesterday, I was surprised at how differently we interpreted the exact same images.
We forget, sometimes, how much our own experiences color, shape, and distort our own perceptions. Sharing those childhood photos with you was an interesting reminder for me of the backstory behind the pictures – the moments captured in freeze frame that were part of larger lifetimes – and the ways that those stories have shaped me.
This may be the only picture ever taken of my collar bones.
I have, by nature, a generally cherubic appearance. My face is round, my body a series of rolling hills and gentle slopes. I’ve lived most of my life under the protection of some form of baby fat. Even in a size 6, I’m safely padded from the dangers of sharp corners (I like to think of that as Darwinist evolution).
But in this picture – in this extracted snapshot of reality – I have collar bones. And pointy elbows. And, if you look close enough, an almost complete jawline.
At a time in my life when I was fascinated with the power my body could wield, I was beyond thrilled to find myself in a newly thin and shockingly angular model. For that brief moment in time I felt like I was sexy in exactly the way that society had defined it.
My mother hates this picture.
She, too, sees the collar bones. And the newly defined lines in my neck. And she is reminded not of the lithe body of a healthy teenager, but of a constant fear that plagued her home for months not so many years ago.
I had stopped eating. Not on principle or conviction or some new tabloid touted diet. But from grief.
A month before this picture was taken I suffered my first heartbreak.
Except that sentence isn’t enough. That word – heartbreak – is too common place and overused to describe the savage beating my insides took back then. I was not just broken, I was shredded. I was cut and ripped and left bleeding and sobbing in pieces in a wasteland I didn’t recognize.
Even knowing now, as an adult, that everyone endures a painful break up at some point – it is hard to let go of that old belief that no one had ever hurt as badly as I did.
I know. I know. But reason is useless in the face of that much pain.
I suppose that’s why my mom still hates that picture so much. The grief is simply too big for logic. Or perspective.
Even though time has told her that her little girl will heal and grow up and live to eat another hamburger, her own pain was too much to outgrow.
When she describes it to me now, I am ashamed at how my hurt cost her. She tells me about listening to That Damn Song play on repeat over and over again for days, the lyrics taunting my parents from behind a closed bedroom door. And about how she wished I would ask to leave the house, wished I would latch on to anger instead of sadness. Wished I would do something, anything, to show there were signs of fight in me. But mostly it’s what she doesn’t tell me…
I was so afraid that you’d…
that you might…
I just didn’t know if you could…
My mother thought I might die. Kill myself, more specifically. And she stood vigil over me for months in the hopes that she’d be there to catch me just in time if I ever decided to fall.
It’s that waiting, I think, that she sees. Not the cheap blue silk or the perfectly piled hair. Not the new waistline or the borrowed shoes. Not even the diffident smile that says I’m trying.
But the collar bones. And the hours spent outside my door in hopes that her daughter would emerge again someday.
But not me. Oh, no. That picture holds no ghosts for me. I know I was on my way back by the time this picture was taken. I know that the poor bastard standing beside me, the one who so generously offered to mend my broken heart, would all too soon become collateral damage of my recovery.
And I know that junior prom would be the very last time those collar bones would ever see the light of flashbulbs. So, it’s not that picture’s story that tears me up.
It’s this one.