Picture Days

Pierre-Louis Pierson, "Scherzo di Follia," gelatin silver print from glass negative, 1863-66, gift of George Davis, 1948, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The worn blue robe, the unfriendly room. I’m just holding it together as I wait for the mammogram to expose parts of me I’d rather keep hidden.

I’m wrapped in a blue and white gown, one-size-fits-none, held together by my right hand. The belt is missing. I wait for my turn. As much as I want this to be over with, I’m relieved every time they call someone else’s name.

Hedge. Hedge Lepri, I hear someone yell down the hall. I guess that’s me. There is a steady stream of women flowing through every day, it isn’t easy to get the pronunciation right every time.  By the time she’s asked me to bare my breast, she’s mispronounced my name twice. The second time I don’t correct her, but settle for Hegg. That’s what another technician called me six weeks ago.

It’s no surprise the first set of pictures didn’t turn out. I’ve never been photogenic. From the moment I understood the connection between the black camera and the developed photograph, I’ve blinked, twitched a muscle, scratched my crotch and bit my lip every opportunity I had to be immortalized. I’m the girl who aced school but failed picture day. Aging hasn’t helped one bit.

“Do you mind if he’s present?” she asks. I don’t mind, and even if I did, I wouldn’t say it here, now. He’s barely older than my daughter—probably doesn’t even see me as woman.

The medical student is young and white and almost transparent against the hospital wall. Pink eyelashes. Baby-blue shirt under his white coat. I would hardly have noticed him if she hadn’t pointed him out. I hope his being here won’t slow things down.

“As you can see from the previous ones there’s an area that isn’t clear,” she says without looking my way. She’s not talking to me. I’m standing over by the machine and can’t see anything, but I feel it all. I’m cold by the time she gets up and helps me squeeze into a yogic pose, my breast so compressed between two metal blocks it’s almost detached from my body. She tells me not to breathe. The machine makes a deep humming sound, then another. When I’m allowed to draw my breath again, I almost faint.

“Just wait while we check these on the screen,” she says, gazing at the machine.

The robe is back on and I’m in the middle of the room waiting for directions. I glance over at the computer screen behind the radiographer and the medical student. It looks like a globe with many small lakes and waterways. Or maybe a moon with craters and shadowy valleys. I try as hard as I can to commit every dot to memory, but I’m not wearing my glasses.

Like a moth to a flame, I’m drawn to pictures of myself. I need to see them, need to see if the image they’ve produced of me reflects what I feel I should look like. I’m burnt almost every time. My nose is too prominent, my hair is too flat, I clench my jaw, close my eyes, or my eyelids look even more droopy than what I see in the bathroom mirror. Lately, wrinkles have been added to the mix. More than once, I’ve asked the mirror if I really look that old.

I make the worst ones disappear into oblivion. I delete, bury in boxes, untag myself when the picture tells only the wrong story.

“You see this white area here?” she says, “That shows some calcification.”

I can’t see where she’s pointing. She’s still addressing the medical student. I wonder if her accent is Greek or Slavic.

“Did the pictures turn out well enough?” I ask while holding on to my hospital gown.

“Yes, yes, this time they’re perfect,” she says, turning around. “You can go back to the waiting room. They’ll call you for the sonogram.”

In some hidden, primordial corner of my brain, I still believe that every photograph steals a part of my soul. For every snap-shot of myself, I lose faith in who I am and what really happened the day of the picture. The memory of the gold-brocade dress my grandmother made me—the one that made me feel lovelier than honey, withers against the hard evidence of how pale and thin I looked in it. I’ve skipped picture taking days when I could. There is no official picture of me at my old high school with the rest of the class. There is an open space above my name at the college where I taught for a year. I keep dreaming of a portrait where I recognize myself, where every piece is in its right place. Until I find one, I’d rather not be on display in hallways and albums.

Folding the robe, releasing it to the bin after the sonogram, there’s a stupid lump in my gut. I’m supposed to hurry back to my work, but I feel heavy. There will be other pictures, other exams, I know that, even if nobody’s telling it to my face.

I think of my growing file of mammograms and sonograms. This is not how I want to be remembered. This is not how I want to remember.

As I leave the building, my vision blurred by the moonscape that is my breast, the mountains, the valleys, the secrets, I suddenly want them back, all those picture days I never showed up to. I want to go back and pull myself out from behind the tree in those family portraits, I want my stupid nose exposed and my face off kilter and my hand to be seen in a hundred inappropriate places.

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