She lifted up the card from the plastic case and saw “think of a reason to keep smiling” in glossy gold print with a bouquet of multicolored, unidentifiable flowers sketched beneath it. She thought she had only rolled her eyes, but it was clear that she had audibly huffed when the woman behind her stopped to peer at the card and when, as she whipped her head around, the woman pushed her cart along quickly, past the produce, away from her.
She gripped the card trying to sort out why she was so angry. She reasoned at first that she wasn’t genuinely irritated, just scoffing at something cheesy in a way that was small, calm, composed. But she felt the outrage swelling, and she knew it was more than that. She looked down at the dainty shimmering letters, and she wanted to crumple the card in her hands. She took a deep breath in a way that would make her therapist proud and when she opened her eyes, the feeling struck her in a dull, disappointing way—the feeling wasn’t small and composed, and it wasn’t really anger either. It was ostracization, a sense of distance between her and all these people around her, an incredulity at the thought that this simple saying could be deep or meaningful to anyone. Shards of memory began slicing their way through as she realized she’d felt this way once, before she’d lost her son. In a burst of energy, she shoved through the mass of cheerful Sunday shoppers and plopped the card down on the conveyer belt.
She generally made a habit of avoiding eye contact in grocery store checkout lines because she knew it encouraged conversation, and this kind of small talk was one of the worst for her anxiety, but she also knew that at this particular grocery store it was unavoidable. She smiled vaguely at the cashier who practically chirped in response and whose greeting wave was so enthusiastic that all of the little pins on their vest began shaking.
“Oh look at how cute this card is!” The cashier lifted the card off the belt and slid it across the scanner. When that was met with only a silent nod, they pushed: “I’ll bet this is for someone really special?”
She knew it had been inflected as a question, so she managed a soft “Oh. Yes.”
“That is so sweet—” and then the cashier was telling some elaborate story about a Valentine’s Day date, and as she slid her debit card into the chip reader and smiled politely along with the story, her mind went blank trying to remember her last Valentine’s Day, a Valentine’s Day, any Valentine’s Day in the last few years, and she knew she couldn’t remember because no matter which Valentine’s Day her brain landed on, the memory would be the same: she’d been alone.
In the car, she balanced the card carefully on her lap before she pulled out of the parking lot. She had declined a bag when the cashier offered her one because she didn’t want to pay the bag fee—she was embarrassed enough already having spent a few dollars on the card considering every time she looked at it she felt a bit sick and, worse, despite what she’d said to the chipper cashier, she didn’t have a “someone special” to give the card to. She supposed she could send it to her sister, maybe draw something like a smile with some of its teeth knocked out, but in her haste to purchase the card, she’d forgotten to grab the matching envelope. And anyway, even that felt like a pretty pathetic plan.
As she climbed the stairs, her apartment was silent, the same way it was always silent when she got home. There was a slight electrical hum she could pick up on when she really focused, but there was nothing else—no laughter, no greeting, no feet shuffling across the wood floors toward her. When she reached the top, she looked up to see a framed picture of her son. She stayed still for a few minutes, just absorbing the details: this picture was several years old, so his hair was thin and wispy and his teeth were small and round and she could spot where drool was just beginning to collect in the corners of his smile. She knew that anyone else would probably miss these tiny details, not knowing that as a baby he always drooled a bit this way, not noting the way his teeth had almost magically transformed from circular little nubs to fully formed incisors, canines, molars.
Suddenly, all in a rush, she grabbed the photo down off the wall and, still grasping the card firmly in her hand, she began moving into the living room, pulling down each of the framed photos as she went. She continued this way through every room of her home: the kitchen, the bedroom, her son’s old room, collecting every picture she’d framed and hung over the years into her arms until she was scared she would collapse and smash them all. She returned to her bedroom and set them all, a massive pile, down on the floor. Carefully, she placed the card down next to them and then slowly, methodically, she began to arrange the photos around it.
When she was done, she stared hard at the strange collage in front of her. Folding the cover of the card back, she found the blank page inside. After another quick survey of the photos around her, she uncapped a nearby pen and began writing:
I am forever, perpetually smiling. And yet, see my teeth? Forced. Here in these photographs, these faces, these selves. I don’t recognize these photographs. The faces of strangers.
And with that she grabbed the card, jammed it into the drawer of her nightstand, and began returning each of the photographs to their proper spots along the walls.
Liz Howard is a queer single mom living in Philadelphia with her troublesome three-year-old & very loud beagle. She has work in: Split Lip Magazine, FIVE:2:ONE, bedfellows magazine, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @Mother_Faulkner.