Assignment 3 in Personal Essay and Memoir course
FIRST: Choose a selfie from your phone. Examining the selfie, describe the following elements, in 400-600 words or so:
- the specific location in which the photo was taken, and why
- your attire in the photo, and why
- one detail in the photo that stands out as unique or remarkable (and why you find it so)
- at least one element about the environment that could not be deduced from evidence in the photo, for example, smells, sounds, activity in the next room, etc.
- your mood at the time the photo was taken, and why
- the person who was physically closest to you in the photograph (Keep in mind this may not necessarily be someone visible in the photograph.)
Writing from the level of the frame (again, you can think of this as the level of the voiceover or quasi-omniscient narrator), describe your mood, or what was likely the case, based on past habits and routine behaviors. Think about how you move between the details you do remember and those you don’t.
Then, writing from the level of the story, as if the events captured by the photo are unfolding in real time, repeat the exercise using a photograph of you taken by someone else. This photo should be completely unrelated to the selfie except, of course, that you are the subject of each.
Selfie: Susan and I have come to Pioneertown, located in the high desert just out of Joshua Tree State Park, to visit her as-yet undeveloped property. While she walks the boundaries checking for traces of flooding patterns, digging out thorny bushes and other unwanted interlopers, I sit in a folding metal chair she’s brought to accommodate me. After several minutes tracing her dwindling figure among the lightening-amputated Joshua trees and fire-seared cacti with my phone camera, I accidentally flip it back on me. I’m not a big one for selfies as the portraits I capture inevitably appear to be of no one I recognize. But this time is different. This time it is ME looking at back at me, the me of decades ago – aged, for sure, but still within the general outlines of the person I recognize as my Self.
I am wearing my beloved J. Peterman hat that appears to be cowboy grade leather but is actually a cotton acrylic blend that fits my head so well it looks like it grew from it. I can feel the gentle, sage-scented breeze that lifts my longish blonde hair, providing a cooling counterpoint to the desert sun. Several rounds of braided black leather from which a tarnished charm and a polished bit of amber hang encircle my neck; beyond the shoulders and upper neckline of my black tee shirt, not much more of me is visible. (This is how, along with the pinpoint focus of my gaze, I can tell it is a selfie and not a photo Susan took of me, which is how she remembers it – oh the vagaries of memory!)
Perhaps it just evidences the amount of weight I’ve lost in the last year that my real face has emerged from the black hole it dropped into during my forties. For years, the puffy, mildly confused person staring back at me from photos appeared lost within the frame, unclear how she arrived in the tableau, unsure of the way out. Now, in this photo, I am slightly amused, relieved to see my own eyes, a bit red from the sun and wind, staring back at me.
Or maybe the reappearance of my Self is indicative of the welcome exhilaration that an exodus from suburbia has provided – Susan just as enthused as me to put Orange County in the rear-view mirror in favor of open horizons and the bird-tatted silence of the desert. I am now counting years since I have left the United States; its intangible borders feel more and more intractable and stultifying these days. Within the frame of the selfie, though, I am the emigrant who can see free again.
Photograph: I am sitting aslant on John and Emily’s living room couch, the only person seated in a nighttime babel of drink-holding, costume-clad, party-voiced revelers. Fortunately, the anime-face mask I’m wearing hides the misery and exhaustion I’m feeling. Emily, who has yet to discern my marked lack of enthusiasm for the celebration, hands me another glass of alcohol (there is an untouched Moscow Mule in a plastic cup gathering beads of sweat on the end table beside me) and squeals “Hurry Mike – over here! Let’s get you guys’ picture!” Mike obligingly drops down heavily beside me, causing me to fall against him. Draping his arm around my shoulders, he beams at the camera, one bushy eyebrow raised. An irrational fury adds hiss to the roiling of my stomach: three days of continuous vomiting, vertigo, and diarrhea have left me humorless and hating everyone. I landed in Cincinnati a mere four hours ago; we immediately got on the highway to make the two-hour drive to Lexington for this party. I so hadn’t wanted to board that plane, worried about both the uncountable ailments that had persisted despite all my efforts to appease them and how I would manage them for six hours in a cramped airline seat. But when you live 1600 miles from your spouse you don’t cancel conjugal visits lightly.
Now, husband beside me, I can’t even manage to hold his hand for the photo. Instead, my left hand clutches my right, white knuckles glowing, in a silent plea to make it stop, return to normal, quiet the mounting dread I have that something is really wrong. My mask is askew; the eye holes are black and bottomless, no sign of myself peering out.
Three days from now I will wake up to neon-yellow tinted eyes, sallow skin and brown urine in the toilet bowl. Five days from now I will be informed by my horrified primary care physician that my liver enzymes are the highest she’s ever seen and within a week I’ll be discussing liver transplants with my new gastroenterologist. But the night of the photo, I have no information, only uncountable pain and misery, irritating people surrounding me, and a plastic mask to hide behind.