While importing photos from a family trip to Disney World I came across one which showed “the real me,” the one behind the cheesy smile—the one without props or people to hide behind, without shoulders to hang off of.
This is me in Animal Kingdom. My husband and I were riding Kilimanjaro Safari which, for those unacquainted, is a kitschy, pseudo-safari—half ride and half zoo/nature preserve—through sub-Saharan Africa. (Wrong continent, I know.) In-between photos of antelope and elephants my husband snapped one of me.
Of the hundreds of photos from this trip this is the one that stood out. Of the thousands of digital memories I have, this is the moment that haunts. I remember the shitty pizza I ate that morning for breakfast, the ache in my arms and neck from a rough night before, and the overwhelming sense of sadness I felt as I sat in that fiberglass seat. I couldn’t muster a smile or any ounce of artificial joy.
What gets to me most is the blank, vacant gaze.
I know that face; I’ve met her lifeless form in mirrors, car windows, and on glass doors. Once or twice I’ve even caught her hollow glance wrapped around the curved surface of a shiny Christmas ball, warped and red but otherwise the same.
Flash forward four years later and that me is still there, I have just learned to hide her better. I always smile around people and when I see a camera, hoping my crooked front teeth and slight overbite hide the lump I am swallowing in my throat. (I’ve gotten so good at hiding her that, sometimes, I am able to hide her from myself.)
As the flash fades from my eyes, or the friend or family member behind the lens frames their shot I hear one of two phrases, “Oh stop: give me a real smile” or “Perfect. You look so happy!”
I don’t know which is worse. I don’t what a “real” smile is. I’m sure I’ve done it—smiled naturally that is—but I don’t know how to not slap on the cheese or make a silly face. I am overly enthusiastic or I am straight-lipped (like above). There is no in between.
And maybe that is okay. Maybe I don’t always have to be “on.” Maybe I should stop hiding, stop pretending, and stop saying I am okay. Because maybe, just maybe, it’s okay if I stumble and fall. Maybe It’s okay let people know I’m not okay. Maybe my empty eyes can peer into yours and let you know it’s okay to not be okay.
And maybe, just maybe, that will be enough for today.