This is Me
Copyright © Julie Frayn
Carol Ann stared at each picture that hung on her wall. A mug of sweet tea, light with too much milk, warmed her hands.She touched her fingers to her temple, shook her head and moved on to a photo taken seventeen years earlier.
Jeremy plodded into the room, kissed her cheek and rested his head on her shoulder. “Morning, Mom.”
“Do you remember this?” She pointed at the picture. The family stood on a beach with their backs to the ocean. She had assembled the tripod, secured its feet in the sand, and set the timer on the camera. It took four tries to get one portrait where all five of them were looking at the camera, smiling, not blinking.
“I was only two.”
“Right. I bet Jacob and Justin remember.”
“Maybe.” He put his elbow on her shoulder. “We sure looked happy.”
“We always did in pictures.”
She ran a finger over the glass of another shot of her young self. Jacob, her first born, was cradled in her arms.
This is me. Young woman. Young bride. Young mother.
“So innocent, so full of hope.” She dropped her arm to her side. “So stupid.”
“You’re not stupid.”
“I’ll buy that. Do you want me to bring up a box? How many do you want to clean out today?”
“I’d like to finish. I think there’s ten left. Will you bring up two for now?”
She sat at the kitchen table and pulled the dusty lid from an old cardboard banker’s box. Right on top, without warning, was the police report. One of them.
She sighed and lifted it from its tomb. Clipped to the front of the file with a rusty paperclip was a picture. Her profile, cheek bruised, cut above her eye. She flipped the file open. Two more pictures slipped out and landed on the tabletop. His handprints blazed red on each of her arms. White scars on her belly from three cesarean sections met the black and purple tread pattern of his size twelve boot print at the diagonal. It was kind of pretty from an artistic viewpoint.
This is me.Battered woman, cowering at the hands of the man who claimed to love me.
“Uh oh. Bad box?” Jeremy peered at the folder.
She held up the picture. Tears stained her cheeks. “I wish I could have been stronger. For you and your brothers.”
“If you weren’t strong, you wouldn’t still be here.”
She stared at the broken drywall by the back entrance where his fist punched through. Where he plowed her face until her nose was a bloody pulp. That report was in the box too. She pulled out a plastic container. Her retainer. From when her teeth were braced back to where they belonged after her jaw had been wired shut. She’d dropped fifteen pounds that summer. Small mercies.
This is me, the optimistic doormat, looking for one ray of sunshine in a bottomless pit of despair.
Jeremy sifted through the box. “More of the same shit.” He took the reports and files and photos, set them back in the box and put the lid on. “I’ll take this one out to the fire pit and burn it. You don’t need to go through all that. Again.”
Jeremy would never understand that she went through ‘all that’ every day. Each hole in the drywall, each unpainted spackled patch, even the ones that were covered by art or fixedor invisible to the naked, unabused eye, were like fresh wounds. She didn’t have to see them, just had to pass by where they continued to live. To haunt. To taunt. ‘All that’ is forever.
She wiped dust from the lid of the next box then lifted it. Weeds. Bugs. Broken glass.
She rescued the first framed print from the box. A macro shot of one of the pieces of the broken kitchen window. The one he shoved her against and shattered. That’s what she called the series –Shattered.
But the prints got tossed in a box and stuffed in the basement along with her other work that he never understood – weed garden and housefly,spider and moth. She shouldn’t have taken pictures of all that crap, not painted and textured and sealed in encaustic wax. She should’ve pulled the weeds, killed the spiders and flies, swept up the shattered glass stained with her own blood.
Carol Ann closed her eyes and searched her memory for her mother’s words. “Beauty from simplicity.Simplicity from complexity. Complex beauty from ugliness. Emotion on canvas,” she recited out loud. A small smile graced her lips and she opened her eyes.
This is me, the artist. Finding beauty where wickedness lives. Creating, nurturing, breathing life onto film.
She freed the pieces from their cardboard prison and placed them around the living room, setting them against walls, atop tables and on the backs of chairs. She would ask Jeremy to hang them. To give her creations back their light. Give her art back itslife.
A spasm knotted her stomach and she bolted to the bathroom. She vomited her meager breakfast of dry toast and tea into the toilet. She heaved until there was nothing left, dry-heaveda few more times after that. She hovered over the bowl, both hands gripping the seat, and waited for more. But the pain subsided. The nausea dissipated. For now.
“Mom, you all right?” Jeremy tapped lightly on the door.
“I’m fine, hon. I’ll be out in a minute. Put the kettle on for me?”
She sat on the edge of the tub and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. A face stared back at her from the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet. Each day her reflection became more like a stranger in her home.
She rubbed one hand over the fine silken stubble on her otherwise bald head, inspected the four or five eyelashes that remained. Not even enough to hold a tiny bit of mascara. Not that wearing makeup mattered now.No amount of foundation would cover the black circles that lived in the bags under her eyes. Hide the leathered skin, poisoned and marred by three rounds of chemotherapy over five years.
She stood and faced the full-length mirror on the back of the door. Her fingers fumbled with the buttons of her flannel shirt. She opened it fully and traced one finger along the scar, starting under her armpit, over the odd lump of skin and scar tissue like some bizarre new nipple, but too low and too far left. She traversed her rib cage and followed the trail that ended on her breastbone just half an inch from infiltrating her good breast. Her only breast.
This is not me, the mother, the daughter, the sister. It is not the artist, not even the battered woman. This is cancer. This is not me. Not. Me.
She covered herself, blew her nose, and shuffled into the kitchen. The kettle whistled. She butteredher toastand tossed another teabag into a cup.
Jeremy snapped a picture of her with her own camera.
She held up her hand. “Oh, no. Why’d you do that?”
He stood beside her and held the camera up. The small screen showed her dying face. “Look at you. This is you. Not all that other stuff. This is you. You’re a warrior. A survivor.Don’t ever forget that.”
She touched her hand to his cheek and he kissed her fingertips. “Thank you,” she whispered.
She took her tea and toast outside and set it on the table next to the padded chaise lounge.
She lay on the chaise in the open air of a perfect summer morning and let the sun bathe her in warmth. She closed her eyes and shut out reality, freed herself of the trappings of physical life. Escaped the tethers of toxic relationships and other peoples’ expectations of who she was or how she should be. Emancipated herself from the shackles of illness and disease.She soared above the earth, the wind in her face and at her back. She smiled.
This is me.
Julie Frayn is a Canadian multi-award-winning author of novels and short stories that pack a punch. And a few stabs. She lives in Alberta, near the foot of the Rocky Mountains.