FICTION | Self Portrait
On Sunday, Ellen and her daughter, Alex, eat cornflakes at the kitchen counter and upload a picture of Alex’s face to a Chinese eyewear company, using the virtual tool to try different pairs. The frames are large and dark-rimmed. They remind Ellen of 1950s newscasters and Malcolm X and Lucille Ball.
“Who’s Lucille Ball?” Alex says.
“A television star,” Ellen says. “She was funny.”
Alex bites her lip and swirls her fingers on the touchpad, half-listening. She is fourteen years old and barely needs glasses, but is at the age when the right pair of frames seems like the difference between her face and the face she wants. She settles on a pair of tortoiseshell Clark Kent glasses and enters her mother’s credit card information, pausing to look at her phone when it chimes. “Kara.” It chimes a second time. “Her parents are fighting.” She closes the laptop and hands the card to Ellen. “You and dad never fight. It’s strange.”
“He’s too good-natured to fight with.” Ellen lifts the bowls from the counter and sets them in the sink. She and Alex’s father have been divorced for three years. He lives an hour and a half away, sees Alex every other weekend, and sends Ellen a check for $400 every month, faithfully. (Four years ago, on what turned out to be their final anniversary, he gave Ellen a memoir of an Olympic gymnast. Never once had she expressed an interest in gymnastics.)
“Kara’s parents fight constantly,” Alex says. “She thinks they’re both narcissists.”
“Honey,” Ellen says. “Most people are narcissists.”
“Maybe.” Alex picks up the phone and swipes at the screen. “But Kara’s parents are like real narcissists.”
Ellen is forty-two years old. She works at the small college where she studied English literature and, as a sophomore, met her ex-husband at a Prufrock-themed party. Now, she updates the donor database, attends poorly-attended wine tastings, and writes different variations of the same sentence imploring people to give money. Every fall, she contemplates enrolling in a class at the college, and then becomes overwhelmed by the vastness of the course catalog. Every summer, when her daughter is at the beach with her ex-husband’s family, she contemplates a trip abroad. She has never left the continental United States. She has a recurring dream in which she goes someplace exotic—New Zealand or Japan or Greece—and spends the entire time stuck in a Starbucks, trying to order a toasted bagel.
The Clark Kent glasses arrive in the mail. Alex wears them around the house, studying her reflection in windows, the toaster oven, the television. She takes them off, puts them on again. She examines her face from different angles, unsatisfied.
“Do I look like a cartoon character?” she asks her friend, Kara, who has come over on a Saturday afternoon.
“No,” Kara says. “You look like a scientist.”
Ellen has met Kara on only two previous occasions; she listens for any trace of derision, but hears none. She chops cauliflower into florets while the girls make tea. Making tea is a thing fourteen-year-old girls do. They find it charming. The girls add milk and too much sugar and sit next to each other at the kitchen counter, scrolling through their phones. Kara arranges the teacup, spoon, and sugar bowl, then takes a picture. She adjusts the spoon, takes another picture, shows it to Alex. “Should I post it?”
“Caroline Scully posted like a thousand pictures,” Kara says. “Then she deleted them all. It was awkward.”
“She and Luke Fenner broke up.”
Kara presses her lips together, draws the phone closer to her face. “Do you think she’s sitcom-pretty?”
Alex takes a sip of tea. “Prettier.”
Ellen spreads the cauliflower on a baking sheet and drizzles it with olive oil, hoping that if she seems occupied, the girls will keep talking. But the next time she looks up they are intent on their phones. “Want to stay for dinner?” she asks Kara.
Kara grins. “I’ll text my mom.”
Ellen slides the baking sheet into the oven, sets the timer. “Tell her I’ll drive you home.”
Ellen keeps a mental list of things she wants for her daughter. She wants Alex to avoid narcissists. She wants Alex to make statements that sound like statements, not like questions, and to ask questions, and to recognize instances in which it is better to say nothing at all. She wants Alex to take pleasure in small, solitary acts. To travel. To read novels. To take interest in the natural world, learning the names of common birds and trees and constellations.
“Just so you know,” Alex says. “That’s what the World Wide Web is for.”
They drive Kara home after dinner. Alex sits next to her mother in the front seat, Kara in the back. Caroline Scully’s Instagram remains a subject of interest. So does Caroline Scully’s ex-boyfriend. “Did Luke Fenner break up with her?” Alex says.
“She broke up with him,” Kara says. “He’s troubled.”
“Her dad died. They’re both troubled.”
“If he had a slightly less handsome brother,” Kara says, “that would be ideal.” They drive a few more blocks. “It’s the house on the right, with the red door.”
The house with the red door is very large, with a two-car garage that resembles a cottage. Ellen pulls into the driveway. A thin woman with white-blonde highlights appears on the front steps, illuminated by a porch light. The way she stands, with her oversized sweater wrapped tightly around her, gives the impression of someone who feels strongly about her neighbors’ landscaping choices. She moves toward the car as Kara opens the door. “I said six,” the woman says. “It’s seven-thirty.”
“Mom,” Kara says. “Calm down.”
“Inside,” the woman says.
Ellen lowers her window, resisting the impulse to peel out of the driveway. “I think there was a misunderstanding. I thought Kara had texted.”
The woman sighs and draws the collar of her sweater around her chin. “There are lots of misunderstandings with Kara.” She watches her daughter sulk across the lawn and turns back to Ellen. She smiles widely, transforming her face, and extends her hand. “Gwen.”
“Hi,” Ellen says.
“Alex is terrific,” Gwen says. “We’re secretly hoping she’ll rub off on Kara.”
“Oh,” Ellen says. “Terrific.”
“Promise me she will.” Gwen’s laugh is clipped, anxious.
Ellen pulls the corners of her mouth into a smile, unable to form a verbal response.
On the drive home, Alex switches on the radio. “That was weird.”
Ellen turns on her signal, changes lanes. “Very weird,” she says.
Kara is easy to find on Instagram, and she has curated the eleven pictures in her feed with great care. In one, she hovers mid-air over a trampoline, all hair and limbs, eyes shut, teeth gleaming. In another, she is sprawled on a Monopoly board as if on a beach towel, hair fanned behind her, a flurry of pink and orange and blue money tossed in the air. Ellen pauses at the picture with 107 likes: Kara’s unsmiling mouth painted a glossy red, her lean arms flexed to hold the phone in position. She wears a thin white tank top, through which the cups of a neon pink bra are visible.
Ellen takes a sip of tea, returns the cup to the kitchen table. She enters Alex’s name in the search bar, as she has done a handful of previous times, and finds the small round icon of her daughter’s face. The picture is new. Alex in the Clark Kent glasses, cradling her chin in her hand. The account is still set to private, accessible only to followers. Ellen is not a follower, in part because she does not want to be a mother who monitors her child on Instagram. She closes the laptop and sits there a moment, relieved that her daughter has resisted the impulse to share her life with everyone on the Internet.
Two nights later, Alex and Kara assemble nachos in the kitchen, debating what movie to watch. Alex has recently discovered the 1980s and morbidity and Christian Slater; she wants to sell Kara on The Heathers. She sprinkles cheese over the tortilla chips and puts the plate in the microwave. “Do you know what Christian Slater looks like?”
Kara consults her phone. Her eyes are rimmed thickly with black liner, giving her the appearance of a feral creature. “He looks like my mother’s alcoholic brother who lives in a detached garage. My mother pretends they’re not related.”
“No,” Alex says. “When Christian Slater was young.”
Kara tries her phone again. “Okay,” she says, after a minute. “Yeah.”
The microwave beeps and Kara sets her phone on the counter, retrieving the nachos. She follows Alex down the hall.
Ellen hears the door to the TV room close. She takes a wine glass from the cabinet and uncorks the bottle on the counter, pouring generously. She thinks about her weekend, how her ex-husband will pick Alex up the next morning, and then the next thirty-six hours will be hers alone. She thinks about the travel guide for Mexico City she checked out from the library yesterday, on a whim. On the cover is a white, orange-domed building, an elaborate construction of arches and pillars.
The phone on the counter vibrates and she glances at the screen. Hey. She takes a sip of wine and watches the screen fade to black, rolling the liquid in her mouth. Alex walks into the kitchen and pulls a paper towel from the roll. “Do we have hot sauce?” Kara’s phone vibrates a second time, and they both look at the screen.
It’s a picture of a dark-haired teenage boy, taken in a full-length mirror, naked except for navy blue boxer-briefs and a pair of sunglasses. His chest is hairless, and the sheen of his skin looks artificial, almost plastic. His mouth is uncertain, unsmiling.
The picture fades and the refrigerator motor clicks on, rattling slightly. Ellen looks at her daughter, who looks at the floor, cheeks burning. They both turn as Kara enters the kitchen.
“Red pepper flakes are good, too.” Kara lifts the phone from the counter, deposits it in her pocket. “If there’s no hot sauce.”
Ellen can feel her daughter staring at her, willing her to leave it alone. “The cabinet over the microwave.” Ellen speaks slowly, unsure of her voice. “Top shelf.”
Alex’s father arrives promptly at 9:00 the next day and waits in the hall as Alex dismantles her bedroom, searching for her phone charger. He always waits in the hall. He and Ellen have come to regard each other with the polite strain of two strangers trapped in an elevator. “Coffee?” she says.
“No, thanks.” He jangles the keys in his pocket, nods in the direction of Alex’s room. “How is she?”
“Shifty,” Ellen says.
“I can hear literally every word you’re saying,” Alex calls. “You know that, right?”
“She’s fine.” Ellen clasps her empty coffee cup, grateful to have something to do with her hands. “She has a report due next week on Frida Kahlo.”
“Ah,” Alex’s father says. “Which one is Frida Kahlo?”
Alex appears in the hallway with a backpack slung over her shoulder, a charger snaking from her hand. “The one with the eyebrows.” She speaks in their general direction, not quite making eye contact. “She did self-portraits.” Alex looks at her father. “Can we stop for donuts?”
“We can.” He takes her backpack, fake-staggering at its weight, and smiles at Ellen. “I’ll have her back tomorrow afternoon.”
“Great,” Ellen says. “Bye, honey.”
Alex’s head is bent over the zipper on her coat. “Bye.”
Ellen knows there is an appropriate response for when a fourteen-year-old girl receives a picture of a half-naked boy, but she does not, for the life of her, know what it is. She pours a bowl of cereal, watches it grow soggy in milk, and moves to the dishwasher, unloading three clean plates, four bowls, a handful of forks and spoons. She wonders if she is overreacting. She wonders if she is underreacting. She tries to imagine a telephone conversation with Kara’s mother, Gwen, of the red-doored house, in which she uses the word sext. She pictures Gwen’s closet, piled with precise stacks of oversized sweaters; a medicine cabinet lined with orange prescription bottles, one for every form of anxiety.
She wanders away from the dishwasher and finds herself in the doorway to Alex’s room, which is surprisingly neat considering its teenage occupant. The bed is unmade, a tumble of green sheets, but the objects on the dresser are meticulously arranged. A row of five evenly spaced lip glosses, a shallow bowl for coins and earrings, a lavender-scented pillar candle. Tacked over the dresser is a fortune cookie fortune—You are the architect of your fate—and an arrangement of nine tarot cards in three rows of three. Ellen has never noticed the cards before. She leans forward to study them. The Magician. The Queen of Pentacles. The Ace of Cups. The Hanged Man is suspended upside down by his foot, one leg crossed behind the other, his expression blank, as if waiting for a bus.
Ellen struggles to remember if she has ever heard Alex mention tarot cards. She tries to ignore the feeling that the person occupying the room is a tenant, not her daughter. She places her hand on the surface of the dresser, moves it to a knob, and pulls open the top, right-hand drawer, encountering a dozen rumpled pairs of cotton underwear. She moves her hand to the bottom, feels around the perimeter, and brushes against a small, rectangular object: a box of matches. She studies the box, glances at the candle on the dresser, and returns it to the drawer, closing it, wondering why she is looking for something—anything—incriminating. Alex has done nothing wrong.
She returns to the kitchen and pulls her keys from the hook on the refrigerator.
In the car, she wonders if sexting is a precursor to sex. She wonders if it is her job, as a parent, to shield her daughter from sex. She pictures herself and Alex crouched behind a large, medieval shield, and then remembers the sex she had when she was seventeen, in a Toyota Tercel, with a boy who smelled of moss and clove cigarettes. It did not damage her irrevocably. It did not damage her at all.
Ellen drives past Alex’s school, past the college, past the Target, past the even bigger Target. She drives because it is better to drive than to not drive. Because she takes comfort in the hardness of the steering wheel. After a few miles, she turns left into the parking lot shared by a Food Lion, a craft supply store, and an independent movie theater that is always on the verge of going out of business.
She buys a ticket for the movie set in outer space. The theater is empty except for a pair of teenage boys in the back and an older woman in the second row with hair the texture of dried flowers. In the movie, the astronaut is separated from her ship on an exploratory mission and drifts aimlessly in space. She runs low on oxygen and remembers the man she loved and beholds the planet Earth, which appears far away and inconsequential, longing for the difficulties that await her there. By the end of the film, Ellen’s difficulties seem far away and inconsequential.
Alex returns on Sunday afternoon, and she and Ellen talk about any number of things, except for Kara. It is easy to avoid a conversation that neither of them wants to have. Ellen asks about Alex’s weekend, and Alex lists a series of activities with minimal embellishment. They stopped at the good donut place. They went to Target. They watched Diehard, which was funnier and stupider than Alex had expected. They had grocery store sushi for dinner.
“You eat sushi?”
“Mom,” Alex says. “Everyone eats sushi.”
“I thought you had an aversion to fish.”
“It was temporary,” Alex says.
The evening is unseasonably warm, and Ellen suggests that they walk to the sandwich place where all the sandwiches are named after scientists. At the counter, Ellen orders a Marie Curie and Alex orders a Galileo, and they sit on the stools in the window, swiveling back and forth as they wait. Alex is in a good mood, chatty. She talks about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. “He was like a hundred years old and obsessed with women.”
“Well,” Ellen says. “Their marriage was tumultuous.”
“Tumultuous,” Alex says, testing the word. Her phone chimes and she looks at the screen, frowns, drops it in her sweatshirt pocket.
“What about Frida Kahlo? Do you like her paintings?”
Alex bends the straw in her soda back and forth. “It’s weird to think about all the hours she spent just looking at herself.” Her phone chimes again. She ignores it.
“Do you want to answer that?” Ellen says.
Alex shrugs. “Not really.” The guy behind the register calls a number and Alex glances at their receipt. She slides off the stool and walks to the counter.
At work the next day, Ellen Googles Frida Kahlo and discovers a dozen self-portraits. In one, the artist is seated at a slight angle, two parrots resting on her lap, two standing on her shoulders. She holds a cigarette, gazing at the viewer, her expression direct and resigned. It’s the expression of a mother, Ellen thinks, until she reads that Frida Kahlo was unable to have children.
At lunch, Ellen checks her phone and discovers a missed call from Alex’s school. The voicemail is from the vice principal, who asks if Ellen is available to meet at the school later that afternoon, apologizes for any inconvenience, and assures Ellen that her daughter is fine. She simply wants to discuss a matter that is difficult to address over the phone. Ellen listens to the voicemail a second time, parsing the phrase difficult to address for hidden meaning and staring at her half-eaten salad, which now appears wilted, slick with dressing.
Ellen arrives at the Parent and Visitor Center a few minutes before 3:00. A woman kneels next to a copier, frantically opening and closing drawers as the machine beeps angrily. “Can I help you?” she says, and then leads Ellen down the hall, to an office where the door is closed, the blinds drawn. “Have a seat,” she says, gesturing to the chairs along the wall. Ellen sits. Everything in the office is beige, except for the water cooler. She stands to pour herself a cup, discovers the cup dispenser is empty, and returns to her chair. She reaches for her purse and rifles through it, in search of anything of interest, but of course there is nothing of interest, just lint and loose pennies and a bottle of ancient anti-bacterial hand gel, the outside of which is probably festering with bacteria.
The door opens and a black woman in her thirties appears in the doorway. She has short hair and large eyes. “I’m Corinne Stewart. Thanks for taking the time from work.” She gestures into the office and Ellen steps inside, sits across from a large, imposing desk. Past the desk is a window that looks down on an outdoor track; a handful of students in stiff blue gym uniforms run around it.
“Alex is in class.” Ms. Stewart closes the door and settles into the chair opposite Ellen. “I’ve asked you here to discuss a picture that a teacher saw on a student’s phone.” Ms. Stewart places her hands on her desk, weaving her fingers. “The image is sexual in nature.”
Ellen thinks of the half-naked boy, the navy boxer briefs. “And the picture,” she says. “It was on Kara’s phone?”
Ms. Stewart tilts her head, curious. “It was on a young man’s phone.”
So, Ellen thinks. Kara and the boy traded pictures. She looks out the window. The students have stopped running and are scattered in small, heaving clusters around the track. “Sorry,” she says. “But what do you mean to suggest Alex’s role was in this?”
“Ms. Leavitt.” Ms. Stewart unlinks her hands, presses her fingers flat against the desk. “I mean to suggest that Alex was in the picture.”
The conversation that follows is like one translated from a foreign language, wherein Ellen hears Ms. Stewart speak and then waits for her meaning to present itself. She learns that Alex sent the picture through an app that deletes messages seconds after someone views them. Since there is no record of the picture, and it appeared to be both consensual and taken off school property, the school will not pursue disciplinary action. “There’s no evidence the image was circulated,” Ms. Stewart says. “At least not yet. You should prepare for the possibility.”
Ellen nods. She realizes that Ms. Stewart has neglected to describe the picture—to detail what Alex was doing, what she was wearing or not wearing—and she is grateful. Which probably means she is a terrible mother.
“I know this is difficult to hear.” Ms. Stewart pauses, choosing her words carefully. “It’s not just Alex. Teenagers are the world’s worst decision makers.”
The two of them sit, not speaking. Ms. Stewart asks if Ellen has any questions; Ellen does not. After a period of time, Ms. Stewart stands, escorts Ellen down the beige corridor, and hands her a beige business card imprinted with the school’s mascot, a tiger.
Ellen pushes through the office doors, into the hallway. She stops in front of a trophy case, its dull metallic figures coated in a layer of dust, the glass smudged with fingerprints. A bell chimes and students filter into the hallway, rustling, talking, shoes squeaking on the linoleum.
Ellen feels them swarm around her. She feels remarkably little. Like her feelings have been extracted and stored in a jar somewhere, for later use. Maybe, she thinks, she should call her ex-husband. Maybe she should call a therapist. Maybe she should go to Mexico City, or read a book about the resilience of adolescent girls, or slap her daughter across the face—hard—for dramatic effect.
But these things will come later, when she is capable of them.
Ellen turns. Alex stands several feet away, the look on her face one of unconcealed alarm, the sleeves of her sweatshirt pulled over her hands, as if for protection. “They called you?”
Ellen realizes that her right hand is pressed against the trophy case. She moves it to her side. “We can talk about it at home,” she says.
Her daughter looks at the floor. For a moment, all Ellen sees is a very young person whose interior life is utterly inaccessible.
Then Alex removes her glasses and rubs at her eyes, taking a ragged breath before she returns them to her face. She catches a glimpse of her reflection in the trophy case, brushes her fingers through her hair, frowns, and suddenly it is easy to picture her in front of the bedroom mirror, white cotton bra, rotating her body in search of the optimal angle, never quite finding it.
Sarah Mollie Silberman holds an MFA from George Mason University and lives in Virginia. Her stories have appeared in Booth, CutBank, Juked, Nashville Review, Southern Indiana Review, Yemassee, and elsewhere.
Photo by Maite Pons.