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The most curious photographs amidst the thousands buried within my house are the ones of my entire family. There are five of us. Five allows for a very symmetrical photograph, which is appropriate because I have a very symmetrical family. In the traditional Preiser family photo, my father stands on the left, my mother on the right. Sandwiched between the two are my sister and I; my little brother always stands in front. The three girls are permanently in a row; it’s cute because among us is a blonde, a redhead, and a brunette. In the more recent pictures, where my brother is old enough to stand tall, my father always has his hand on Greg’s left shoulder. We have grown accustomed to this pose. Subconsciously, at the first glimpse of a camera angled our way, my symmetrical family scrambles into our signature stance and signature smiles.
Speaking of curious, I recently stumbled upon yet another average photograph of my average family. The family is standing in front of a huge coach bus, about to wave goodbye to me as I drive away to summer camp in New Hampshire. It’s going to be the third summer of eight I will spend at this camp. I hated the place until my fifth summer. Mom, Dad, Greg, and Jess are in a uniform of black T-shirts; I am wearing a white tee adorned with my camp’s logo. I wonder if they all got dressed that morning with the intent of competing on Family Feud later that afternoon, once I left for camp. The four of them must have looked pretty adorable walking away from the bus stop, without my searing white shirt penetrating their cluster of black ones.
I got the most homesick at camp when I thought about what my family was doing without me. Exclusion is a perpetual fear of mine. During my seventh summer at Camp Robindel, my family went on a two-week trip to Italy’s Amalfi coast. Oh, the pain I silently endured when they recalled the mouth-watering meals they enjoyed together while overlooking the gorgeous Italian landscape! Still, they laugh about that joke my brother told at that restaurant on that secluded river somewhere.
I look like a panda bear in the photo of my family at the bus stop. Purple half circles are painted beneath my squinty eyes and my complexion is that of pre-summer paleness. I had been crying about ten minutes before this camera was pointed towards me and some stranger shouted, “Smile!” I don’t cry, really, I sob. I have the kind of skin that once its been tainted by tears and blotchiness, that sadness stays imprinted on my face for hours. A few weeks ago I came into school after crying myself to sleep the previous night. That morning, about eight hours after my tears had receded to their bountiful wells, a friend asked me if I had just been crying. I guess swollen eyes never lie.
My sister had yelled at me in the car, on our way to the bus stop. She had not wanted to accompany me to the bus stop; that task required that she wake up around seven and sit through thirty minutes of rush hour traffic. I couldn’t believe that my sister, my darling sissy, refused to give me a proper goodbye before I departed for eight weeks. I guilted her into coming. When we inevitably sat in rush hour traffic for forty-five minutes, her cranky insults started pouring out.
“I don’t understand why everyone is being forced to bring you to the bus stop.”
“Only one parent ever said goodbye to me at my camp bus stops”
“I am sooo happy that you are going to disappear for two months. Maybe I can sleep finally.”
My tears came; her obstinate silence followed. My father’s temper swelled with the erratic waves of bumper-to-bumper traffic. My mother flipped through her Filofax searching for someone to call. Greg, the little guy, sat quietly in his car seat, puzzled and upset. The tense quiet was pierced only by my choking sobs and Greg’s occasional burp. It was not the farewell car ride I had been expecting.
Our navy blue sedan pulled into the parking lot of Exit 7’s McDonalds around eight-thirty; the bus was scheduled to leave around nine. My dad shut the ignition, unbuckled his seat belt, and did a one-eighty in his seat so that he was facing me.
“Lexadoodle, we’re here! Look, I see your bunkmate, Alison!”
My sister got out of the car, opened the trunk, and grabbed my carry on bag. She handed it to me with a lukewarm smile and gave me a sideways hug–the kind where only one arm is used and minimal contact is made. We wandered around the parking lot until I found my group of friends, who I greeted with the standard ten-year-old display of squeals and giggles. I avoided my sister. She sulked tiredly near my parents, holding my baby brother while they chatted with other couples.
Someone shouted “Smile!” about three feet away. Like soldiers being called to frontline action, the Preiser’s jumped into their traditional pose. Dad was on the left, Mom on the right, the three kids sandwiched in between. Boy, boy, girl, girl, girl; all perfectly symmetrical in height. I barely had time to wipe my nose and brush my bangs aside before my lips curled themselves into a wide grin. I didn’t smile intentionally; I certainly was not feeling so smiley. It was an impulse, something my mouth had become so accustomed to that I could not direct it otherwise. Standing next to my sister at that moment, bathing in her evilness, I wanted to cringe. Yet in the glaring gaze of that one-eyed instrument, all I could do was grin stupidly.
Show me this picture thirty years from now, and I will probably think of myself as a giggly ten-year-old about to leave her amicable family for a fun-filled summer. Dad, Jess, Mom, and I are beaming like fools. During that hour, at that bus stop, on that sweltering day, we are the picture, so to speak, of happiness. Look at the Preiser’s, in their matching black polo shirts! Look at Lexi, so excited to live in the boondocks of New Hampshire for two months with forty girls she doesn’t really like! How wholesome and symmetrical they all look! Without my memories, this picture is just another one in the pile of joyful family photos.
Gregory, however, has a quizzical expression on his toddler’s face. He isn’t looking at the camera, unlike the rest of my family’s squinting eyes. He is confused. He has no idea where we are or what we are doing; all he knows is that fifteen minutes ago his sister was crying and his dad was cursing loudly at the inert sea of cars before him. What now? Now, they smile and laugh at the cameraman as if they had just ended a fun day at the zoo?
He is too young to have learned the art of faking it. When the fat guy holding the camera yells “Smile!” all he hears is another sound of a language he has yet to comprehend. His innocence and naiveté exclude him from the bubble of hypocrisy we, who smile on command, place ourselves in with the click of a shutter. His puzzled face is a ripple in the posed happiness of our signature family photo, a small glimpse into the reality that we smilers tried so desperately to hide.