Steel Away – Anna Camilleri

She is splayed out on the bed wearing a white, mid-thigh slip. Her plunging neckline is trimmed in lace; one strap dangles seductively off of her shoulder. She’s projecting herself into existence: I am here. Manual exposure: open iris, slow shutter. Smiles coyly. Click. I am alive. Parts her lips. Click. Do you feel yourself dying? Click.

There are a hundred photographs like this one, different slip, different room, different year, but the same proclamation: I’m so sexy I could kill. My mother used to tell me stories about herself as a young woman, how men called after her on the street, drooled with their mouths agape like panting, circling dogs. How she smiled back, swung her hips with increased commitment. How they wanted her, but would never, ever have her. The magic, the money shot, wasn’t in what she showed, it was in what was withheld. Do you feel yourself dying? Withhold everything. Savour it under your tongue like candy—now it’s here, now it’s gone.

Image Credit: Still from 1000 Words, A Collaborative Video by Anna Camilleri and Leslie Peters

After I came out to my mother, I realized that it wasn’t my having sex with women that was the bitter pill, it was that I was giving it away. Lesson Number 1: Withhold. Body or heart, not both. Lesson Number 2: You’re only as good as your last performance. And the lesson that was never spoken, but I heard it anyway: Your heart hasn’t been broken, unless and until it’s been done by another woman.
My mother: goddess, diva, impresario.

My cousin Amanda sounded tentative. “Your mother gave me a tour of the house—it looked pretty much the way I remember it, but then she took me up to the room that had been yours. It didn’t look like your room anymore. Has your mother always been a crazy tchotchke collector? Anyway, I saw something that surprised me.”

My interest was piqued.

My mother had given me the tour several times—every time I visit in fact, insisting there are new treasures to be seen. She had collected hundreds of Royal Doultons and Cappo di Monte ceramics at yard sales and thrift stores. Even the chipped and cracked ones found their way home with her, where she mixed and matched parts with contact cement, and applied nail polish for a seamless repair. “Good as new,” she would declare. As far as I remembered, there was nothing racy in the house—unless you consider porcelain nudes with smoothed-over genitalia racy.

“It was strange that your mother brought me up to your room—I know it hasn’t been your room in a long time, but still— She marched me in, and pointed at a picture of you as if was a trophy.”

“What picture?” I asked. Amanda wouldn’t say. I mentally flipped through my mother’s collection of embarrassing photographs featuring me.

Oh God, that picture . . . I’m thirteen and I haven’t yet figured out that my hair must not be brushed under any circumstances because it becomes an uncontrollable mass of frizz. I had nothing to do with that hideous fuchsia pink and black plaid dress with the bow at the neck—my mother picked it, of course. She still had dominion over my wardrobe then and confused me for a life-sized doll and not a pubescent girl with low self-esteem and newly minted breasts. My shoulders are rolled in, and I’m wearing two-inch kitten heels that I haven’t yet learned how to stand in.

Amanda continued, “There’s nothing wrong with the picture, it just seems, you know, private—not the kind of picture a mother would have on display.”

“Oh— ”

A new image appears: I am ten years old and my long wet hair hangs like a sheet in front of my naked body. Mother believes that someday I’ll treasure this photo in which I have been modeled to look like Lady Godiva. My mother instructs me to stand sideways and tilt my shoulders towards the camera the way the models do. “The sooner you just stand and pose, the sooner the whole thing will be over with.” But I’ve never been very good at doing what I was told. Two years later, my girlhood officially ended on the day I sawed my braids away with a pair of rusty utility scissors.

Despite the fact that I’m ten years older and Amanda’s first cousin, she is unwavering. “You have to see it for yourself—just don’t tell her I sent you.”

I prefer having my parents over for dinner because we actually sit at the table and talk with each other—like normal families do. But normal backfires; conversations often become sparring matches. Still, I prefer it to being in their house—my mother in one room, my dad in another, television droning in the background, radio blaring, water running (the water is always running). But I’ve accepted my mother’s invitation to dinner because I’m on a mission.

While my mother is rinsing the spinach for the fourth time, I climb the stairs to the bathroom. On my way out, instead of turning left, I turn right into the small room that had been mine. My eyes land squarely on the picture. Heat rushes to my hands and face. It’s the one that had gone missing.

In the picture, I’m wearing a long black dress with a deep V. One of my legs is hiked up on the back of the couch revealing torn fishnet stockings, the tops of my garters, and just the curve of my ass. Hair fans widely about my face that is full of mischief, or a secret.

When I would reach for one of the items at the back of my fridge–coriander chutney, pickled beets, yogurt about to enter its well-deserved retirement–I would catch a glimpse of this 3×5 print stationed on the fridge door.

My mother had commented on the picture several times, how much it reminded her of herself when she was younger. She had asked me for a copy of it once, and I’d told her that I didn’t have the negative, which is true, but I wouldn’t have given it to her even if I had. I hadn’t wanted my mother to see it to begin with, but I hadn’t remembered to remove it before she arrived that first time. Removing it afterward would have been pointless, and I never thought anything more of it.

When the small photograph went missing, I assumed that it had slipped and gotten lodged in the space between the fridge and counter. I simply hadn’t gotten around to pulling the fridge out to retrieve it. It would be there when I was ready to see what else lay hidden behind the fridge.

I imagined my mother giving people the tour of the house, and marching them over to the memorial, as I’ve come to think of it, just as she had done with Amanda. What would they say, what would they think? Oh, your daughter is a dominatrix, how nice for you. Yes, we can see that she’s very well endowed . . .

I don’t really care what they would see, or even think, but I do care that they probably wouldn’t know they were seeing a picture of the elusive queer daughter who’s been off the family invitation list for twenty years.

When I came into my twenties, and then thirties, my mother was questioned with increasing urgency: Is your daughter married, dating? Where is she, why don’t we see her anymore? “Oh you know kids today,” she would answer vaguely. “They’re so involved in their careers.”

The 3×5 print had been enlarged to an 8.5×11 copy, laminated, and mounted in a wooden frame with a sun and moon motif at the top. I slip into the bathroom with it and dislodge it from its hideous frame, which is too large to fit into any of the cabinets. Hinges creak open and shut despite my careful movements.

“Are you repainting the bathroom?” My mother hollers up the stairs. “Dinner is almost ready.”

I didn’t think I’d been very long. “Yeah, just a minute . . .”

I run the taps on full to simulate normal bathroom sounds. Now I have two objects to remove from the bathroom, nowhere to put them, I’m on my mother’s clock, and I’m wasting water. I wash my hands just to alleviate my guilt.

Something must be done, and the something will not involve a shouting match with my mother about betrayal and theft and—to add salt to the bitter—just why my lover, who was in the photo that had been on my fridge, has been cropped out.

I slide the picture into my pants, and turn off the taps. I tiptoe back into my old bedroom, slide open the mirrored closet doors, tuck the frame in behind shoe boxes, and then tiptoe back down stairs and take my seat at the table.

Watching my mother in the kitchen has always produced anxiety in me. I have a thing about crumbs and counter tops piled with things. Makes my teeth chatter. The kitchen counters there aren’t big, but there’s plenty of room, or there would be if every square inch weren’t covered with something. I force myself to sit, to not clear the counters of disemboweled vegetables and plastic wrap because laminate from the picture is abrading my skin and inspiring small blisters in places where blisters generally don’t appear. Why I didn’t slide the picture down the back of my pants, I can’t say. I grab my bag from behind the chair, and make my way toward the bathroom again.

“Where are you going with your bag?” My mother calls out.

“For Christ sake, Mom— I’m bleeding.” I bellow down the stairs. “Day 4.”

What isn’t visible in the stolen picture is this: My lover is at the other end of my boot, devotional utterances spilling from her lips, followed by goading questions about the terrible things she hopes I’ll do to her later. I’m not sure when I became aware of the camera, only that I hadn’t been for some time, and then when I noticed my friend taking snapshots, I wanted her to record us. I wanted to be seen in that room on that night, so that someday I might remember it. The picture is sexy, but that’s not what’s remarkable to me, and that’s not why it was on my fridge.

I remember how the four of us carried on that night, but we weren’t posing for each other, we were being family–without stupid femme in the sheets jokes and diminutive stereotypes– where I could use the word femme as shorthand for heart, mind, spirit, culture, history, blood, spit, sweat, and they would know exactly how I was using the word because none of us needed to be weak in order for the others to be strong.

I lock the bathroom door behind me, tuck the picture into my bag, and zip it shut. This picture, like so much else, I steel away.

Anna Camilleri is playwright/performer of two one-woman shows, author of I Am a Red Dress: Incantations on a Grandmother, a Mother, and a Daughter, editor of Red Light: Superheroes, Saints, and Sluts, co-editor of Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity, co-author of Boys Like Her: Transfictions (Taste This collective), and writer/director of two CBC radioworks. She’s also founding Artistic Co-Director of Red Dress Productions, a not-for-profit arts company that creates and disseminates original performances, and large-scale community-engaged public artworks. Her book works are included in the University of Toronto’s Fisher Rare Books Library Queer Canadian Literature Collection, and she has performed and read her work across Canada and the US in theatres, festivals, and universities over the past 15 years, and mostly recently in Belgium. She divides her time between Toronto, and rural Eastern Ontario. Anna’s NMP contribution is the title piece for a manuscript of short works she’s working on. Her online domain is http://www.annacamilleri.com; her production company’s blog is at http://reddressproductions.blogspot.com