Friday, December 28, 2007

The Crack in the Mirror

This was the suburbs. Strip malls and parking lots. Kids that raced the main drag in hand me down Subarus and skipped school to take the train to the city. The subdivisions were called White Eagle, Seven Bridges and Countryside. The rich kids skied, the cool kids snowboarded. The ones in between drank codeine cough syrup and hung out in their basements. Subdivision committees ticketed houses for leaving the garage door open too long and decorated the tree on your sidewalk for Christmas if you didn’t, so there wouldn’t be a break in the look of the street.

Some people really liked it. Some people grew up there. Went to kindergarten and middle school and high school with their best friends and bestest best friends. Went to CCD and Eagle Scouts and played on soccer teams in matching Umbros. They left for college trailing an umbilical cord made out of bungee that would snap them back for holidays and weddings and when they were sick with loneliness in the other cities of the country where they tried to make a go. I envied them. I dated them, but that bungee umbilical cord always snapped them back to some place I couldn’t go, not because I wasn’t willing, I just didn’t belong.

I know about the way the subdivision committees worked because my mother had a house. Maybe two miles from the apartment where I lived with my Dad. Two floors, four bedrooms, three baths, with a Jacuzzi in the master suite and an unfinished cement basement where my mother stored soggy unread newspapers (coupons included) that she’d been saving – some were at least ten years old – and that I wasn’t allowed to touch.

My mother’s house was the mirror image of the house two doors down. The two houses between were mirror images of houses three and four doors down respectively and that was the way it was street after street in Countryside subdivision.

What separated her house from the others on the street was a lawn grown in three to four inches higher than any others. In the several years my mother owned that house, whether it was occupied or not, the lawn was a constant source of distress to the subdivision committee. Complaints piled in the mailbox and under the welcome mat. Neighbors paid their own sons to mow our lawn when it got out of hand.

I could never tell if my mother was embarrassed by this. She was one for appearances. On the other hand, my few attempts at mowing resulted in a half ass job and when my mother tried she broke the heel on her good slippers, and if the neighbors felt compelled to mow it for us, she didn’t stop them. My mother hid inside the house on those days.

Also frustrating to the subdivision committee was the name my mother submitted to the local directory – my name at the time included my first name, my middle name, my father’s last name, my second stepfather’s name and my mother’s chosen name (the last name of her first husband). The committee wanted her to shorten the name (so did I). People who chair subdivision committees and live in mirror image houses have trouble with this sort of variation.

Even with the unmowed lawn, the outside of the house was positively inconspicuous compared to the circus going on inside.

The rooms in my mother’s house were themed.

The family room was in the style of a British Hunt –a green tartan couch, prints of red-frocked gentleman on horseback, hunting dogs and foxes. There was a smattering of mallards. The coup de grace, ordered via catalogue, was a mallard telephone –the duck phone – you dialed the left wing and spoke into the beak. It was in this fantastically appointed setting that my mother, my second stepfather and I ate our dinners off hunter green hunt themed TV tables from The Bombay Company while watching Married With Children and whatever was new from Aaron Spelling.

The sitting room was themed in the Victorian era, the centerpiece a scrolling high back, silk brocade dollhouse sofa purchased at auction. Complimenting the sofa was an eclectic collection of velvet chairs and ottomans and lamps with fringed shades. The sitting room was not for sitting. All the seats were already taken. Wide-eyed and alert, propped on pillows in the velvet chairs were several lavishly attired antique china dolls, which featured prominently in an unfortunate Christmas Day massacre shortly before I moved out. The Madame Alexander dolls, locked in a glass case, could only watch in mute horror.

The kitchen was farm style – a heavy wood table with benches on either side (anticipating company that was never invited), an actual butter churn served the affect – but the wagon wheel seemed out of place. Urns of cattails periodically burst into fluff from the stale air. The patio doors were always locked, and the shades drawn against burglars and bill collectors and cheap -suited men attempting to serve lawsuits.

Everything was arranged with absolute intention (she liked to caddy-corner furniture), from the books on the shelf to the kleenex fanned out in the guest bath. If something was out of place, she knew it. I was not allowed to have friends over. In our first house, my stepfather discovered a little girlfriend of mine, her name was Brittany, peeing in the bushes in the front yard because my mother wouldn’t let her in.

My mother decorated my room too. She took every care to make it nice for me. It was pastel, very white wicker – very Spiegel Catalogue. I was not allowed to add or subtract. No posters, no personal touches. There was nothing of me in it, but the mess I made.

As my mother’s world grew increasingly out of control, the interior of the house took on a cement-like permanence. Even when the house was abandoned, each piece remained as it always had, gathering dust behind its invisible plexiglass. When she lived there, her bedroom was the exception, drawers hung open vomiting bras and underwear, shoes flung in corners, clothes in open luggage – her door was always closed. And there was the unfinished basement, hiding what secrets, I don’t know.

She was afraid of something. My mother never answered the front door. Yet she changed the locks every few months. If the doorbell rang, and we were anywhere in the vicinity of the two windows that looked in on the foyer, we dropped to our knees. If we left the house it was through the garage. I never knew who my mother was hiding from.

On only one occasion, sometime in junior high, I snuck some friends into the house. In giving them the tour I opened the door to my mom’s room expecting her not to be home. In the center, in front of the bed, was a salt circle and candles and in the middle of the circle, a Ouigi board. I understood then, the folks that brought the witches to trial in Salem were probably from the subdivision committee.

In the next edition of the local directory, my name was left out altogether.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


1982. A perfect couple, framed by the gold glow of the photographer’s light. There is a blush of uncertainty on her cheeks, and in his eyes, a forced assurance.

She is worrying about her hair, her favorite feature, about her smile, should she show her teeth? She never does. She dwells on last night’s fight, the shattered light bulbs on the driveway, and the fat baby girl in the carriage who makes her feel like a third wheel. Everybody is so excited about the baby, but what about her?

He enjoys having his picture taken, there is nothing like a flattering picture to remind a man of his strengths. He has one of his father, framed in dark, substantial wood, the old man at his desk in a tailored suit, relaxed and self-satisfied. The son has no desk to hang his father’s picture over. He keeps it wrapped in a shirt at the bottom of his knapsack, one of his few unpawnable properties.

That’s the kind of portrait the son wants. To look back someday and see the promise of success in the confident set of his shoulders, in his thick hair, and the smile that has brought him so many rewards over the years. But the truth is in his eyes. He knows a man can’t shy away from the camera, he must convince it. In twenty years, when he looks back at this photograph, the eyes will give him away.

The strip mall photographer is full of energy, joking as he adjusts the lights. He compliments her choice of dress, snaps a picture, “just a test” he says, catching them off guard. This is his business, and he is a long-term thinker. He has watched families over the years. He notices, makes a business of noticing, the tell tale signs, a gesture of disappointment when the father arrives late, the story of whether a family will be back for next year’s holiday shots, and he calculates those details into his yearly projections.

With this couple, he sees eighteen years of family photos. Guileless gaped-tooth smiles, cheeks sharpening in the teens, portraits for the mantel. The parents enjoy the attention. They’ll be back again and again, if he does his job right.

The photographer is ready, he's adjusted his meters and devices. This is the moment he loves, their silence as he sees them through the lens. The apprehension visible in a slight tension in the muscles of the face. After thousands of shots, he can anticipate the instant the question appears in his clients’ eyes. "Is this really me?" He waits for the uncertainty to pass before he shoots. This isn’t that kind of picture. What they want is something to remember, not who they were, but what they wanted to be.

The photo they took that day sat in my grandmother’s kitchen until she died. Our family portrait. I don’t know what’s happened to it since. I remember the day it was taken, the false memory of a photograph. It is a moment I have imagined over the years – my parents rushing into the studio late, the anxiety before the flash, before the orangey-gold glow captured them in a moment of possibility.