“Where should we go?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Anywhere but that shitty, blue steel mill.” I like the shitty, blue steel mill. But he’s right; it’s been done, and it’s a dead trend. It’s just around the corner from our place on the south end of town, but I remember its quaint grunge appeal best when it’s been fixed in the backgrounds of engagement photos and glamour shots. People we know from all over the valley gather to strike their practiced poses before the dilapidated and unromantic structure, and almost monthly I cringe as yet another corrugated blue monstrosity tumbles from the folds of a delicate, hand-lettered announcement. Alone, the photos taken before this ugly, industrial tomb are striking and edgy. But arranged in a group on our kitchen table, they elicit a freakishly conformist vibe. How, and why, does everyone follow the same unspeakable laws of trend, and why does it never vary?
He drives. We search for a site with less shitty, blue metal and more character, something less cliché. He’s more original than that. It’s our day off from being creative, so we end up choosing a park with leafy trees and a white country fence. It’s pretty. It’s predictable. It’s easy. A family celebrates an elaborate reunion in the distance, and unrestrained laughter rises over the hill as we pick a spot. The whole scene looks suspiciously like artwork from a grade-school craft fair: picturesque and heart warming, but anticipated, rehearsed. We find an aesthetic tree near the ramshackle swing set, and I pose awkwardly while he adjusts his lens.
When we talked about shooting some photos, I imagine we both had perfection in mind. I would select an outfit that elongated my figure and hid my finicky midsection. My newly colored hair would spit in the face of physics, arranged into an untangled style that would hold its integrity throughout the breezy afternoon. He would find in me a model to mold into a star, and in his skilled hands my figure would retreat from everyday chaos, and I would be beautiful. My smile would beam, the camera would click, and he would make me shine.
“How come you never smile?” He positioned the camera again and again, doing his best to create art from my sterile visage. I looked as natural as a robot deep in the Amazon, and I couldn’t help but summon the comparison to Liz Lemon, that paragon of graceless femininity. Waving! You remember waving, don’t you? Shot after shot I stretched my mouth into a perfunctory smile, but the effect was unpleasant—something of an upside-down grimace superimposed onto a dowdy, wizened troll. His composition was flawless, but the subject left plenty to be desired.
Exasperated, we switched gears. “Make me laugh,” I said. “I want you to laugh with me.” It must have been an easy thing to laugh at just how stupid I was acting, trying unseriously to play the Marilyn when I’m really more of an Anita Loos: better penning the script than playing the coquette. The moment I fear that I’m trying, and failing, to look glamorous or sophisticated, I crouch behind my careful veneer and flee into sarcasm. So, we laughed. At me. And like the eerie latinate words of a spell, his loopy cadence roused something in me, and the resultant photos were stunning.
See, unless I’m laughing my ass off, I cut the figure of a pouty, unfunny hag. Well, at least to me. It’s exhausting to think how much of my day consists of my overcorrecting to keep the bitch mask from making an appearance. People always ask me what’s wrong, if they’ve offended me, if I’m having a good time. The answer is almost always nothing, no, and yes. I just wasn’t born with that infectious, heartwarming smile that turns up with nary a Simpsons reference in sight. Or maybe I was, and I lost it somewhere between the bassinet and the big, hungry world.
Maybe it was in the first grade. I was something of a teacher’s pet. Not deliberately, like that snotty asshole who sat by the radiator. But over the course of the first few weeks I’d done enough to establish myself as the charming, little redhead who had reminded our youngish, copper-haired teacher just why she’d gotten into teaching in the first place. Such singular intellect, I imagined Miss Quinzio cooing. I shall never stand before such a sparkling pupil as long as I live in this dreary world. She reminds me of a young Me! Beyond my parents, my teacher was the wisest, most sophisticated judge of merit I had at the ripe age of six, and I wanted to become the paragon of wisdom that she was. I wanted to sit before her and soak in all the knowledge and good sense that her twenty-three years on this planet had given her. I was her rapt student, ready for the molding.
Back when I was too young for school my older brother had taught me in the ways of cursive handwriting, advanced fractions, and defense against wet willies. The lessons were hard won but came in handy in those early weeks of homeroom. It turned out I was good at this school business. I spelled two-syllable words, knew all about Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, and had a firm handle on nouns and verbs. You could have asked me anything in the whole world, and after every inquiry my tiny hand would shoot in the air. I was a pint-sized rabbi with the whole of human knowledge swirling beneath my careful pigtails, and I beamed with satisfaction at a job well done. I was as confident and unabashed as a graduate student until the day that a heartless little boy wiped a booger from his nose and tore me down in one naked moment of scrutiny.
“How come Erin smiles all the time when the teacher calls on her?” the child sneered before scores of my friends. It was all so clear. Smiling, it seemed, was wrong. Smiling announced to the world that you had met your goals and were happy with the state of your life so far. Smiling meant you accepted yourself. And smiling was wrong. Six years old, and I was a goner. That day I became acutely conscious of my body and the countless signals its tiny motions would say about me to the world. I could no longer just be; now I had to do.
Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Erin, that’s seriously the worst thing that’s ever happened to you? You don’t feel comfortable smiling because you’re afraid that people will look at your mediocre life and laugh at you for being satisfied? Well, I’ve had WAY worse happen to me in the last twenty-four hours than you’ve had in your whole pathetic life! For instance, a dump truck ran over my cat, but it only got the back end, so now the cat is alive but has to walk around on a tiny chariot with a squeaky wheel, and she tracks poo all over my brand-new carpet and WON’T STOP MEOWING!”
To that, I say…maybe you should quit reading my blog and go take care of that.
It sounds trivial, but though I never dwelt with any serious consequence upon that first-grade moment until my adult neuroses forced it onto the table, it is unquestionable that it helped me unlearn smiling. I was ruined fast by a six year old in a Ninja Turtles sweatshirt, and it never occurred to me to write that kid off as an unenlightened asshole until I had a good twenty years of Mona Lisa camouflage behind me. Then too, I grew up in a paranoid, serious family with a crotchety gene stretching back to the Taft administration. The disease is as alive in me as an icy winter breeze, so even when I’m unspeakably happy I look like I’ve just wrestled half a kitten from beneath a dump truck tire. That’s not to say we don’t smile in my family; it’s just not our natural stasis.
I want to say the grumpy gusses in my life have meant positive things for me, that they merely allowed their world-weary paranoia and dissatisfaction to escape with untimely gusto. After all, Us v. Them is the court case that built humanity. It can be called Darwinian to have a family predisposition to draw inward at the first sign of conflict and retreat into the night with a sneer and a sarcastic rejoinder. It’s my pedigree, and it’s taken me years to come to terms with this austere defense mechanism.
So what does it take to make me smile? A Meg Ryan flick? Radical facial surgery to correct my un-used smile muscles? A thousand cat pictures? The answers are no, maybe, and yes, but with red pandas. My only hope—apart from red panda pictures—is to lose myself in the people who make me tumble to the ground in my genuine, unflattering laugh. It takes laughter and humor from behind the lens. It isn’t pretty. But like anyone searching to expand her canvas of existence—anyone preferring to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ (#gimmeabreak)—I simply love a ridiculous moment that gets you giggling the way you do when your defenses are down, the kind of moment that sets your face in a jack-o-lantern grin every time you think of it. If you’ve witnessed that unsettling phenomenon in me, then we’re friends. If not, I don’t hate you, and yes I am having a great time; you just need to try harder to make me really laugh. Then you’ll see it.