THINK OF SOMETHING happy, something good. At the photo shoot, the photographer tells you to think of some memory to remove the “haggard look” from your face. Like puppies, he suggests. Or a fat free mocha almond steamer. Skinny, no whip. Or, he goes on, a great fuck. You are a tiny bit wary, but decide that his crassness is offset by his soft feminine features and a genderless name. Sam, maybe. It’s too early to try to dredge up good things and the breeze blasts through your hairdo, which took hours to set in the makeup chair. The air is stale with the smell of popcorn and puddle water and the assistant’s coffee breath. She holds a small device to your cheek for the seventh or eighth time. Tilt your head back and away. Breathe through your mouth. Sam snaps at you for moving in the middle of a shot that is no good anyway. He says: “Emmie, chin down, eyes up! Remember?”
You are not terribly attractive, though you have been told that your hair is remarkable. It is straight and dull brown, like the bark of the tree you lean against, so fine you can almost see the shape of your skull. But in certain light, single strands glow and you are transformed. Aside from that, your eyes are set too far apart. Your mother told you early on this made you look vacant, lazy even. You were a bridesmaid in your cousin’s wedding when you were fifteen years old, wearing an ill-fitting forest green dress that was—and still is even now—too old for you. Your mother commented on the family pictures in front of the church altar, mentioned how you looked almost serpentine, with your hair pulled back, showcasing your wide-set eyes. You were young, and the image stuck with you. In college, before you dropped your minor in Shakespearean studies, you even got a snake and named him Falstaff. You don’t like snakes but you made sure to have him out every time your mother visited you at your dorm.
Eyes are important. Sam tells you, “Try smiling with just your eyes.” Squint your eyes so they get those crinkles at the corners. Widen them a little while still squinting after Sam shakes his head and sighs at his assistant. Decide that smiling with your eyes is an unreasonable request. Go back to smiling with your mouth even though this elicits a huffing sound from Sam.
You are not a model.
Three weeks ago, a girl with a camera saw you at the Rose Bowl flea market. You were wearing a dress that made you look at least six years younger (you might have even passed for twenty-three), and the early morning Pasadena sunshine must have created a falsely flattering glow. She snapped your picture that day for her street-style blog. Your face was flushed after the flash went off and that made the girl want to take another picture, and she did. She took your name down, and your number in case she wanted to interview you later, and walked off before you could ask where you could see the picture. Your boyfriend congratulated you with a slap on the back and some celebratory nachos. Weeks passed and you forgot about the incident until you received a phone call. The girl wanted to use you in a photo shoot for her online clothing label. She called it a look book. So now here you are trying to summon memories that probably don’t exist.
Something good. God, how long has it been? Your nursery is a failure. It will be closing soon and your mother worries at you through phone calls telling you that you should have been a dental hygienist like your cousin Joanie. Molars and bicuspids don’t interest you. When you tell your mother this, she says, “Of course they do. You have them, don’t you?”
Your only happiness right now comes from stupid things like when someone who cuts you off on the freeway later gets boxed in and you smile at them real big through the window as you zip past them. But that’s not happiness, because in those moments on the road you aren’t happy. Really, you are boiling with hate. Convince yourself that sometimes hate and happiness can seem like almost the same feeling. Or, at least, both make the back of your neck hot, make you loose control of your tear ducts. Remember being so angry at your father for cheating on your mother those times when he was supposed to be on business trips in San Francisco, and when you went to confront him he said nothing, instead looked at you with almost your same eyes, almost equally swollen.
Recent memory doesn’t produce anything helpful. Go back further. Think of things that typically make people happy. Anniversaries, graduations, first times. Think of when you first fell in what you presumed at the time was love. Your high school lab partner, Donny, the last of your parents’ whiskey in the den while they were out of town, a scratchy Velvet Underground record. Like a solution to a game of Clue. Shirts still on. No. That’s not good enough because the photographer is still waiting for you to do something, not lifting the camera to his eye but holding it at his side. Deadweight. Besides, love seems too generic. Look for something less abstract. Brush away the thought that maybe that might be shallow and materialistic.
Sam demands that you twirl.
“We’ll get back to the close-ups later,” he says. It’ll give you time to pick your memory. You are wearing a filmy, floaty vintage dress and no shoes. Adjust your nude underwear through the sheer wrinkly fabric. The dirt is rough through the patchy grass. Grab the hem of the dress on both sides to flare out the skirt. Turn slowly around and around. Gray, green, blue, gray again. You are a jellyfish swishing translucent in the water. Aimless. Your hair does that thing.
“Great,” Sam says. “Fantastic.”
Now you are clothed in an outfit from the designer’s lingerie collection, in her loft above Colorado Boulevard. The walls are brick and exposed pipes and high, wide windows looking out over the halal restaurant. Down on the street, a little blonde girl is digging her heels in, pulling against her father as he tries to lead her inside the restaurant. The designer tells you that the black chiffon two-piece you’re wearing is called the Fuego set. Tell her proudly you know it means “fire” in Spanish. For this outfit, you don’t need Sam directing you to ooze passion. He likes you to ooze things. You are timid when it comes to many things (like being the first to order at your table at a restaurant, or yelling out the answer at charades because you might be wrong), but you’ve never been shy when it comes to exposing yourself when need be. It’s acting. It’s not really you.
Look through lowered lashes to the side. You are long limbs and uncurled fingers. You’re great at not being you. Stretch your arms above your head on the all-white bed. The stark sheets smell of skin and vanilla. It’s easy when it’s in front of a stranger. Sam’s camera flashes. “Fuego,” he says with each zoom and click of the camera. “Fuego!” Realize this is first-rate feedback. You, with your dull hair and vacant eyes, are fire.
Strangers are easy. They’re drawn to you. That hair of yours is a curtain, and they seem so sure you want them to pull it open. And most times you do, their sureness is that convincing. You want them to because they are temporary. They don’t ask you things. They don’t want to know. And then they’re gone. But that was before. Now there is your boyfriend, and apparently he isn’t so temporary. For the most part, you’re okay with that. Later you will show him the pictures from the shoot and he will look at them with heavy lids and say: “How do you like them?” Instead of answering you will pull him on top of you on the couch, still oozing, still playing the part.
Now go to the window because, Sam says, you look cross. He wants to get a shot of you from behind, against the light. Press your hands against the windowpane and look over your shoulder at the lens. The glass is cold even with the lowering sun coming through. Breathe condensation on the glass and play a game of tic-tac-toe in which neither X’s or O’s win. Sam loves it, takes a picture of your fingertip swirling a C over the quickly disappearing game board. Cat’s game. He lets you take a break while he switches lenses and goes over lighting with his assistant.
Pick up a book from the coffee table in the middle of the room. The title is Pictures You Shouldn’t Masturbate To. Flip through to the middle of the book. Old men in underwear, all gray sagging flesh wielding—inexplicably—axes. Small dogs in wigs. An unflushed public toilet.
“It’s funny, right?” the designer says.
Nod slightly once. When she goes to make you some jasmine pearl tea, rip out the picture of a beagle wearing red pigtails and tuck it folded small in your purse. Right when you remember that you will have to go back outside to re-shoot the first outfit, Sam comes over and says that the light is all wrong (“Ineffectual!”) and you’ll have to come back Saturday, day after tomorrow. He says it’s just as well. Magic hour, the hour before sunset, is already almost over. Feel relieved and disappointed, but shrug it off. The designer tells you to keep the lingerie. Shove your own clothes into your bag and wear the lingerie out with just your long coat half-buttoned over it.
That night you and your boyfriend have dinner with his parents at their house nearby in Altadena. Help his mother make red chili chicken and rice while your boyfriend reclines on the couch to watch the basketball game and not speak to his stepfather. Your boyfriend’s mother adores you, calls you princess in a way that you secretly enjoy. You like her. You and your own mother have never cooked a meal together. The two of you have never stood side by side and held boiled chicken in your hands and pulled the breast meat off the bone, but of course you love her too and you call her every day. Your boyfriend’s mother shows you how to make a roux for the gravy out of flour and butter. Here, princess, use this spoon to add the chilies to the mixture. Your boyfriend comes to the kitchen to get a soda from the fridge and taps your butt when his mother isn’t looking. Accidentally put in too many chilies. Your boyfriend’s mother will applaud your tolerance for spicy food.
Later in bed, your boyfriend massages the hollow near your collarbone. “I could eat soup out your clavicle,” he says. He is a nurse at Huntington Memorial and you find it sexy when he uses the medical terminology for your anatomy. Your dainty malleoli. Your unassuming metacarpals. And, oh, your zygomatic arches drive him wild! You wonder, what kind of soup? “Miso?” you ask. “Chicken noodle?” No, he says, something heartier. He pretends to spoon clam chowder from your collarbone.
Look at his face. His face is a happy one. Ask: “Do I look happy right now?” “Sure,” he says, his focus still on your neck. “Aren’t you?” Say yes, of course. Think that as far as you can tell, you are. Before turning out the light, tape the picture of the beagle on the wall near your pillow.
* * *
At the stoplight on the way to work the next morning, notice a teenage couple waiting to cross the street. The boy leans into the girl while the girl leans against the street light. Her face is bright and fresh and willful. Look closer. Yes, the girl is smiling with her eyes! Feel envious of how readily young people give themselves up to sadness, happiness, rage. And how you were once just as capable. Decide you will never be that sad or happy again.
Take a mental note to mimic the way the girl’s gaze slants up toward the boy, how her eyes sparkle—literally sparkle!—with conviction. You have no convictions. Wait for the couple to cross before making a right turn.
Pull in to the parking lot of the nursery. There are only two other cars in the lot, but tell yourself it’s still early. You have your store for less than two weeks before it closes down for good. The greenhouse is still stocked with hedge shears, perennials, some trays of Spanish moss, and a few gnomes. Outdoors, though, inventory is dwindling due to the Going Out Of Business sale. Change the chalkboard sale sign from seventy to eighty percent off. Predict that more and more customers will come in. They will walk through without touching anything. You will hear some of them murmur about the poor condition of the ferns, their leaves yellowed and cracked like old pages in a scrapbook. They should be giving this stuff away at this point, the customers will say, and then they’ll get in their cars and drive home.
Your sister counts the drawers in at the cash wrap. Slowly, even though it’s been three years since you gave her the job after she graduated high school. Her fingers flutter over the rolls of quarters and nickels as if she were dissecting bugs. Hurry, you say, even though there is never any reason to rush. When she asks you how the photo shoot went, tell her that you have to go back tomorrow to redo some poses because, you say, you aren’t acceptible enough for close-ups. She says she isn’t sure what you mean. Say you have to go take inventory of the succulents.
Out back, there are only two trays of eighteen miniature succulents left, alongside one almost emptied tray. Spritz the plants’ swollen stems with a spray bottle once or twice because that’s all they need. One spray of water, even a heavy dew, is enough to keep them going for a week. Their resilience is impressive.
Listen to your sister’s voice carry over from the greenhouse. She’s humming a song you used to sing to her when she was a baby, when you would build her a nest out of blankets on the floor in the corner of your bedroom like she was your doll, while your mother was cooking dinner or out getting her nails done. Her baby skin was as smooth as the bulbous green stems you are watering. Tell your sister to be quiet; you can’t count with the humming sound. She stops but starts up again minutes later.
A customer, a woman with red hair styled just like the beagle’s in the picture, reaches in front of your nose to snag two of the hairy Sempervivum rosettes. When she cuts you off in the middle of offering maintenance tips, decline from telling her how these particular succulents bloom only once and then die, leaving a gaping hole like an empty black eye socket. Say nothing even though the two fuzzy blooms in her plump hands are well on the way to their demise. Offer to ring her up yourself in case your sister ruins the small enjoyment you allow yourself. Close early after only four other customers come in by two o’clock, except for one man who mistakes you for a florist and turns and walks right out after realizing his mistake.
Your sister suggests practicing looking happy. This is the way she says it: “Why don’t you practice being happy?” (Perhaps she is inadvertently suggesting you should actually be happy.) She also proposes that she take photos of you attempting to be happy, so that you can take a look at what you’re doing wrong, she says, and adjust accordingly.
She comes to your apartment with you and follows you to the laundry room downstairs, where, over the loud whirring of your boyfriend’s whites spinning in the heavy-duty washer, you make goofy faces into the lens of her camera phone. Be serious about this, she says, to which you reply: “Seriously happy?”
Later, after having busied yourself reading the label on the back of the fabric softener bottle, your sister asks you what you were thinking about as the camera flashed during the photo shoot with Sam. Take extra long while cleaning the lint trap in the dryer. There are orangey-blonde cat hairs mixed into the purple gray lint. You once had a tabby cat that you swore had a secret life with a homeless family. You’d seen a cat, fat and smug with a ring of white on his fuzzy orange side just like your cat, resting on top of a backpack slung over the shoulders of a rumpled old man as he walked down the street a few blocks from your apartment. Delight in the possibility of having a secret life. Not long after your suspicions, the cat never came back.
Tell your sister, after some thought, that you’re picturing your life after cancer. That’s a happy feeling, right? Surviving cancer? But, she says, you didn’t have cancer. Besides, that’s a horrible thought to have. You don’t even know anyone who has or had cancer. “Your inauthenticity is showing through,” she says. She shows you one of the pictures she took, and even you have to admit you aren’t fooled. In it, your hair is up in a sloppy bun on top of your head, so you’re all blank bewildered eyes and skin between those eyes. Wonder why a photo shoot for clothing needs to be so authentic anyway.
On the wall above the formica folding table is a corkboard bulletin with two lone flyers, one for a man collecting bibles (“of any size, or used”), and another that reads: “WHATEVER YOU DON’T LIKE DOING, I’LL DO IT FOR YOU” in loopy bubble letters. DeeDee, established housekeeper, 20 years, must have put up the flyer weeks ago, because the paper is curling at the edges, but not one of the strips with her number has been ripped off the end of the page. Quickly tear off her number—though you’re not sure what you’ll do with it—when your sister bends under the table to retrieve a wayward sock.
* * *
The next morning, the day of the re-shoot, set down a plate of eggs for your boyfriend and spread cream cheese on a bagel for yourself. The cream cheese is still too cold and stays in one hard clump. “I’m working a double shift tonight,” he tells you. People’s conversations are never funny at breakfast. They only ever consist of plans and lists and cursing because the coffee filters ran out. You hate that. All you want is to call your mother when you say you will, make fruit leather, and be funny all the time.
Your boyfriend wishes you good luck with the shoot and heads off to work, leaving you with the dishes. Set them in the sink and run some water over them to soak in.
Once your boyfriend is gone, pull from yesterday’s jeans the small rectangle bit of paper with DeeDee, established housekeeper’s number on it. When you call her the first time, hang up. Feel indecisive about what you want to say, what you want her to do. Think, maybe she even lives in your building! The thought makes you nervous for some reason. She could be your neighbor (somewhat elderly, you imagine), and when you finally talk to her, she’ll come over and you’ll eat the raspberry scones that she makes with the neglected ingredients in your pantry, and she will tell you how to act happy, or, if you’re lucky, how to be happy.
Still deciding whether or not to call her, think of what false pretense you can get her to come over for. She’ll likely ask what services you need her to assist you with. What is it you don’t like doing, she might say, which, when you think about it, is near close to asking what makes you happy but from a lopsided angle, like reverse psychology. Maybe you could borrow your sister’s dog for DeeDee to walk, but then you wouldn’t get a chance to talk to her with her out on the street and you inside pretending you hate golden retrievers or that you think it’s indecent to put them on leashes.
In the end, make some cheesy pasta and smear the congealing cheese across a few plates, squish some of the noodles between the tines of a couple forks and pile them in the sink along with this morning’s dirty dishes and the sticky cheese sauce pot. This way you can talk with her in the midst of her scouring your pots and silverware. While scattering bread crumbs along the tiled kitchen floor, dial DeeDee’s number, already from memory. She answers, sounds a bit younger than you’d guessed.
Ask to meet in order to discuss her hire. She suggests to meet at your place of residence since that is usually where she ends up working, though there have been times where she’s had to visit with clients’ parents in nursing homes, or run their errands for them around town. She isn’t surprised, and neither are you, when she finds out that you both live in the same building. In fact, it seems like she was expecting it. She says she can be up to 8C from 2F in less than a commercial break. In the background, you hear the sounds of a weepy hospital scene from a soap opera.
In front of the bathroom mirror, examine your nonexistent nose bridge and the freckles that cover your left cheek. When you hear a knock on the door, don’t answer right away. Don’t answer at all because you are having second thoughts. Slip out of your sneakers and pad across the living room towards the door and listen for another knock. It’s more insistent this time.
DeeDee knocks again, then calls out a hello. By the time you reach for the doorknob you hear her curse before leaving. Listen as her irritated footsteps move farther away from your door. Look through the peephole. You are just in time to see the back of a denim jacket moving down the hall toward the elevator.
AN HOUR BEFORE SUNSET, you are back outside the designer’s apartment. Zip up the crinkly chiffon and shake out the folds. It’s warm out, even this late, and Sam comments that the warmth feels good after the long cold spell this month. Say, it never feels good to be warm, and then take it back.
Say quickly: “Just kidding,” but Sam hasn’t been listening the whole time anyway.