Picture Perfect

       In this photograph, you are reclining belly up on an ocean of sand. Bare toes. Rain haloed over your spray-swept bangs. The neon blue bikini you wore all summer, the nubby fabric discolored from constant wear. The words 'LOVE ME' stickered on the front like a kiss & tell invitation. That day, the lens was focused on the set of your eyes, a hard juxtaposition against the blur of your mouth. I can still feel your anger pulsating quietly like a bruise, tender even through this clouded overlay of glass. You were fourteen then. I was twelve.

         That summer we recoiled paper clips around our fingers into silver rings, played checkers on your bed. The pieces were slick with salt and grease from all the chips we licked but would not eat. Sometimes we hitched on your mother’s fancy heels and teetered tippy-top high as if we’re film girls: our coltish tendons slim, in suspension. Our breathing, breathy, and breathless.

         You would have liked this snapshot. How the wan light cups the slant of your shoulder, how the shadows bisect your torso into symmetrical shapes. The consummate geometry. Your father once brought home a large photo book to adorn the bare coffee table, and we would spend afternoons flipping through the glossy prints. You picked out your favorites: the twin lines of trapezoidal purses; pine trees shifting in jeweled gloom; a Chinese girl with grinning red lips, rainwater streaming down her pale moon breasts. Later you cut the girl out and stuck her onto your bathroom mirror.

         That was the summer you discovered you were too dark-skinned, too sun-peppered to be beautiful. We were idling inside a San Francisco drugstore, surrounded by peanut cheese strips and tropical calendars and gallons of water. I said I did not know what you meant. We were the same shade of Asian yellow.  

         Come here, you said. You took my arm and dragged me to the cosmetics aisle, to the bins of skinny lipsticks with dangerous names like ‘Night District’ or ‘Plum Choked.’ Snatched up a ruby-hued tube and held it to the inside of your wrist, under the fizz of incandescent lighting.

         Look at how garish I am, you continued, and then you held the stick up to your cheeks. How the red makes me appear so muddy. Blotchier, as if river silt is collecting beneath my veins. Understand? You asked, eyes narrow, and I nodded quickly because you were always, always right. Understand?  

         The colors in this picture are faded and overexposed, as if the print was developed in buttermilk. Someone has switched the aperture dial too far right, and so the silhouette cast upon the triangle of your jaw is soft and diluted. But you preferred it this way, how your body floats, a hazy outline against the white-washed sand. Only your scrutiny remains sharp, and here you look straight at me with wide minority eyes, almost guileless.  

            There is a package of double eyelid tape concealed cleverly in the space between your mattress and the bed slats. You told me about this as we burned frozen spaghetti and dumped lemonade powder into sugary water. It costs $4.99, you said, almost proudly. I bought a set just to try.

         Afterwards I watched you outline a crease above your eyelid with the blunt of your thumbnail, peel back the flesh to reveal an oval gaze. You inserted a sliver of sticky plastic onto each fold and smiled at your mirrored reflection. The Chinese girl in the photograph was simpering as well, her lined stare equally white and round and wide, like an angel, or maybe like a ghost.  

          One day when the sun had thinned into a ring of frozen light, you suggested we go to the beach boardwalk. It’ll be fun, you promised. Just a short trip.

         You wore your mother’s heels and your favorite swimsuit and your secret eyelid tape. Your father’s Nikon camera slung around your neck like a statement. Wind’s biting our faces yolk pale when we stepped outside, and I wanted to grab my jacket, but you said the cold doesn’t matter. Outside, the city folks are all walking fast and talking slow. The colorful flags planted along the empty beach flapped dismally as we kicked off our heels and sank toe-first into the whorls of frosty sand.

         The sky overhead sniffled a little, and before long it began to cry in earnest. I’m going back, I said, swiping at the wetness trickling down my arm, but then you pinched the crook of my elbow hard, so hard that the flesh split like an overripe peach.

         Take my picture first, you said. Press the shutter when I say so.

         You carefully sprawled down on the sand and combed handfuls of soaked hair over your breasts like patterns of black water. Your nails dripped like red gloss. Your mouth flashed me a stiff, pigmented smile. Starlings spilled overhead, screaming.

         C'mon, take the picture, you said. Your hard gaze at the camera lens, two glimmering vectors aiming straight, carried an emotion I would later identify as hatred.

         Just take the fucking picture, you said. I pressed the button. Click.


Karoline Chao hails from the West Coast. She has been recognized by the National Poetry Quarterly and the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. This is her first publication.