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Snapshot by Brittany Hailer | Word Riot
Creative Nonfiction

August 22, 2016      

Snapshot by Brittany Hailer

The black and white photograph is the only one I have of us. All of us, together, climbed into a photo booth one summer afternoon. The boardwalk was splintered and sun-bleached. Dad hiked me up to his lap, my brother followed and Mom squeezed in beside him.
      The light flashed our faces frozen:
      My brother and I are smiling, my teeth gnashed into a grin. Dylan’s mouth hangs completely open. Too young to know any better, we stare at our own reflections. There isn’t a wrinkle on our faces. We look like miniature versions of our parents. Dylan, blonde and blue-eyed. I’m dark with my mother’s Italian blood.
      Mom is not looking at the camera. She is at the edge of the frame resting her chin on my brother’s head. She is vacant, her mouth a flat line. She doesn’t seem to be looking at anything.
      My father takes up most of the picture. His mouth is wide and white. Electric eyes squint above high cheekbones. He is seated in the middle, arms around my brother and me, probably drunk. His pupils are large, hat tilted back.
      If I could take the picture over again, I’d sit my mother alone in that booth. Instead of an automated camera behind plexiglass, I would be there. I’d set up an old film camera shaped like a spider, gargantuan black legs spread wide. I’d hide under a long dark blanket, my index finger hovering over the trigger, waiting to shoot.
      Mom would just sit there.
      I’d snap and snap and snap and snap, until she got so fed up she’d throw her head back, mouth wide, and teeth gleaming. She would laugh.
      But I wouldn’t stop.
      I’d snap and snap and snap and snap, pressing the shutter until she wept, until she felt exposed. I wouldn’t let her out. I’d want her to cry, really cry, for the first time in front of me. I’d want my mother to smash the glass between us, to pull the blanket back and see it was me. I’d let her wrap us both in the dark cloth. I’d ask her explain everything. I’d ask her, Why does the river water build between us? What do you hide the eyes that are exactly like mine? Why won’t you let me touch you?
      I’d want my mother too look at her reflection, who is me, with her heart open like a lens.
      Outside our photo booth little strips of little square photos would spew out in the hundreds, thousands, thick as holy scripture. The dispenser would clog with the weight of it, the machine chock full of my mother’s eyes.
      I’d take my father’s portrait too.
      I’d crack his teeth until he was bleeding onto his buttoned shirt. I’d make him sit on the little bench, bloody and looking at me. I wouldn’t have the blanket then. I’d stand with the trigger over my head, daring him to move. He’d plead with me, baseball cap wringing in his hands, his feet turned inward like a child’s. Maybe he’d whimper, or even cower.
      Maybe he’d ask, “Why?”
      I’d wait.
      I’d wait until he threw his hands up, licked his lips, kicked his teeth across the floor and said, “You’re right, I give up.”
      He’d stand and turn his back to me.
      I’d tell him, “You can leave now.”
      And if he did, I’d snap a picture of the blank wall and empty bench.
      But I’d have to take another portrait of my father because I have more than one. A parent who is an alcoholic is multiple people. I’d have to find the little boy my father once was. Before the priests got to him. Before alcohol was the only thing that could drown their hands, and lips and open collars. Before the crucifix became a dagger.
      I’d find that boy and put flowers in his hair. I’d feed him chocolate and fairy tales. I’d take his picture while singing a lullaby. When the negative developed, I’d hold it to my breast and tell him to run. I’d watch the gentle face in the photograph disappear into white, knowing he’ll never really know how to love us.
      My brother and me.
      We are the dark room in the back of the white house where we hid while the plates and windows smashed. We are my mother’s screams, and her mother’s. We are my father’s cracked knuckles. We are their darkness and their light. We are the broken children of broken children.
      There’s no picture that can show you how we’ve held hands while our parents tried not to fail us: my mother climbing deeper into herself, with Botox, and wine, and strange men; my father clawing at his own flesh, waking up in the middle of the night screaming.
      There is no portrait I could take.
      There’s nothing I can show you.
      Instead, imagine a time from way before. Imagine the glittering cosmos, the dinosaurs, the cell and its mitochondria. Imagine blood and water and amoebas. My brother and I knew each other already. My cells stayed behind after I was born, swirled around in my mother’s womb while she was pregnant with him. He carries me in his bones.
      Our picture is infinity, of whatever star matter found its way into our perfect bodies, of the journey that lead us to each other, of the stuff that made us.

Hailer_HeadshotAbout the author:

Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of Chatham University’s Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Gravel Magazine, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. She is the nonfiction editor for IDK Magazine and MFA program assistant at Chatham University.

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