This is how I like to imagine her:
Standing in front of her family farmhouse in Kingston, its white clapboard siding crumbling, smiling, because that’s what nice white girls did when given a nice white dress to wear, when Mama did their hair, when Papa paid for a photographer to come on a bright spring Sunday. Still, posing, she imagined herself away, so far gone that even with a working compass, she would not know how to get home.
When the man got his picture, she asked if they could switch places. Let me take yours, she said. He laughed, told her she didn’t know how to use the camera. So teach me, she said, refusing to see ignorance as obstacle. He was young, handsome, his hair and eyes dark like she liked them. At nearly fourteen, she was tall as she would ever get, which wasn’t very, and knew what she liked.
Before the photographer could say yes, which she was certain he would, the creaky back door burst open and her brother and baby sister came running like peas launched from a spoon. Mama hurried after them with her belly leading, so big by now she sometimes balanced her teacup and saucer on it when sitting by the radio. Last, frowning at the dust cloud raised by running feet, came her least favorite sister, just two years younger and dainty to a fault.
Everyone stopped short of where she stood. Gooseflesh rose on her arms and neck at the tableau—baby sister’s fat little arm clutched by brother’s hand, Mama sighing with relief that she didn’t have to bend down to stop the toddler herself, dainty sister still stepping slow like a show horse at the county fair.
It was as if the camera’s gaze protected her from intrusion; she could feel on her skin all the places she was not touched: Her knees had not been knocked into by the enthusiastic baby’s strong and eager body, nor was her hip made to tilt in accommodation of its weight; her dress had not been yanked by her brother’s need to be noticed and counted among all the girls; her cheek had not been patted dismissively by Mama’s calloused hand; she hadn’t been knocked off-balance with a sly shove nor shocked into shrieking by pinch from the dainty jealous one.
She wanted nothing more but to retain this powerful privacy. Take another one then, she told the photographer, I think I blinked when you said not to before. Her tone, imperious, she regretted immediately, but he smiled, and she felt an inkling of what it would be like to be a woman with a voice.
And if he was only pitying her? Indulging the eldest girl-child’s whim because he could remember what it was like to be young and curious and desirous, because he had not always lived in a bustling town like he did now? Because he, too, had once spent his days in dullness, trying and failing to love the cattle ranch that his father and two brothers worked harder than he ever would and loved easier than he ever could?
Well, if that was so, she did not know it. She only saw that he nodded and put up a finger, that he knelt and looked through his satchel for something, that the back of his neck below his fresh haircut and above his shirt collar was very red. Sunburned.
A cry ripped clean through her attention and she looked to the familiar sound. Her brother, it appeared, had pushed the baby down and now the little one’s clean clothes were dirty. She looked at the dainty sister and for once, they were in agreement: having a brother was no good, no good at all. It wasn’t true that boys were more violent—she and the dainty sister had the marks to prove it—but this boy, at least, was so much messier with his hurt.
As the baby, not getting enough attention, screamed louder, and she felt her resolve beginning to break at the look on Mama’s face, so weary and nearing tears too, the man asked if she was ready and she snapped to attention, the empty space she had occupied moments before rushing back, even richer. Time is money, Papa said, and they were paying for the photographer’s, weren’t they? So, this was important. The dainty one could care for Mama this time.
Yes, I’m ready, she said, and I’ll smile this time. She did. A light breeze blew throughout the brief moments during which he leaned down to the viewfinder and did whatever it was he did with the lens and all the little knobs on the camera, then made a show with his finger of clicking the button to take the picture. And on that air, she smelled something green and unfamiliar, a future that she couldn’t identify yet, an idea of how different her life could be, would be, if she made it so.
I like to imagine her like this. A child growing, hopeful, unaware of how the world would use her words, her voice. Innocent, as yet, of her future reputation.
Then again, maybe in that moment she already sensed something. Not the world, or the reputation, but me, waiting for her.
Ilana Masad is a queer writer, founder and host of The Other Stories podcast, and a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and author of the novel All My Mother’s Lovers.
Photo by Joshua A. Redwine