novelette: a boudoir party

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novelette: a boudoir party

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Dedication

To the professional women photographers out there busting your ass.

Epigraph

“If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.” — Terry Pratchett

Chapter One

The clients are friends of friends—acquaintances really—I barely hung with a few times, but seemed nice in that suburban-soccer-mom-kind-of-way. They give me $150 each—the friend rate—while they get to hang out all day drinking, getting their hair and makeup done (sold separately), trying on lingerie and jewelry, gossiping, and dancing around in their underwear—and sometimes even naked—while I take their photos. It’s supposed to be a fun girl party, artistic and liberating. Occasionally, a friend of mine supplies jewelry and a model pal helps out as the stylist. There are usually about seven to ten women. I’ve shot a half dozen of these parties, most strictly private and confidential sitting in my port gathering dust; photos never to be seen nor shown to anyone but the clients and their partners and props to point to during the occasional girly get together. They rarely buy prints or products except the digital files and the fun crazy videos I put together with music, which always gets laughs and compliments.

The job is an all-day on-your-feet marathon that normally starts early and lasts twelve to fourteen hours into the night. Exhausting work for this ambivert, especially so if the clients are high maintenance or a group of mean girls that condescend. Fun nonetheless, but by the end of the day, we are all sick of each other and want nothing more than to go home, take a long hot shower removing all the gunk and glitter from our faces and bodies and crawl into bed.

I regularly end up with anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 photos and about an hour’s worth of video that takes me about two to four weeks of fourteen-hour days of continuous on-my-ass editing to cull and complete. So much fun. Or not. By the end, I’m tired of seeing their faces, tits, and asses float across my screen.

I arrive early—like nine in the morning early—with tons of gear in hand and start to prep. I set up a backdrop with lighting in one part of the house and scout various other sunnier areas for proper fitting backgrounds—long narrow entries or hallways and stairs—while consulting my LightTrac app—an app that charts the position of the sun during the day. I finish and wait for the first of the women to get their hair and makeup done as the others arrive, but apparently, hair and makeup hasn’t arrived yet.

I stand in the combined kitchen great room glancing around at the vaulted ceilings, the stone fireplace, and expensive furniture. A few kids’ toys thrown hither and yonder. Six women (nine total, but not all of them have arrived yet) sit around the large kitchen island. We’re waiting on Gail, the makeup artist to arrive. She’s late and I’m stuck chatting with them. Awkward. Small talk will ensue; alas, something worse happens: the cliquish white girl gang begin picking me apart almost immediately.

“Where does your husband work?”

“I…”

“Do you have kids?”

“I…”

“Are you divorced?”

“I…”

“Do you like have a real job?”

“I…”

“I haven’t had a real job in so long I forget what it feels like.”

“Let her speak,” Jan—a tall brunette with a Beyoncé booty that any sane person would kill for—says to the group as they continue going around the kitchen island dropping questions.

“Raising kids is a real job,” Jody, the petite blonde, replies rather caustically.

“Well, I suppose, but I do miss happy hours and adult conversations and being able to pee alone.” This from Jan.

“Do you live inside the beltline? I only live inside the beltline. Nowhere else, especially not Cary. Yuk,” the yoga instructor, Stephanie, says pompously stretching her body into a pretzel-like pose that makes my muscles quiver.

“I live in Apex. Apex is not Cary, thank god,” Jan says frowning at Stephanie.    

“Do you know Shelly that lives in Oakwood? She takes pictures of her kids. Lots and lots of pictures. So many pictures. I don’t know if she does it professionally. She’s really not that good. Not as good as you, of course.” Jody is looking over Jamie’s table full of Stella & Dot Jewelry.  

My eyebrows go high and I nod warily trying to keep up with them all. I open my mouth to reply and am immediately cut off, again. I sit down on the nearest stool and put my hand in my chin listening. I won’t get a chance to talk anytime soon and I’m okay with that.

“Do you shop at Trader Joe’s? I love that place. My kids love their mac & cheese,” Jamie says to anyone.

“My kids love that stuff,” Jody replies picking up a long silver and gold necklace, placing it over her head, and situating it between her cleavage. “This is nice. I really like this. Makes my boobs look bigger.” She presses her girls up to gain a bigger gap while the necklace swings back and forth like a pendulum.

“I don’t give my kids that crap,” Stephanie replies still morphing into something twisty and painful.

My eyes go wide as I wait for them to throw down. Nope, they continue.

“Well, it’s not unhealthy. You should try it. I use the raw milk I get from out of state,” Jody replies. With another long gold necklace and pendant, she tightens her bra straps to make her breasts stand up straighter for the necklace that dips between and I’m starting to wonder if they’re real. Of course they’re real or she wouldn’t need to push them up between her ears.  

“How do you like it?” Jamie asks.

“I love it.” Jody puts the necklace down and turns to the table with her hands on her hips and a stern look. “Margaret Beckett lectured me for giving my kids that milk the other day. Said it was as bad as not immunizing them. The nerve.”

“What did you say?” Melanie asks.

“I took the high road and politely changed the subject.”

“You don’t immunize your kids,” Jan says to Jody.

“That’s right and it’s none of their business. It’s a free country.”

“I don’t either. It’s poison,” says Jamie.

“How does that work by the way? Do you tell your kids’ friends’ parents that your kid is a walking biohazard?” Mica, the unusually quiet model slash stylist, has snuck into the middle of their conversation and lobbed a logic bomb. This silences them. Paging through Jamie’s Stella & Dot catalog, she finally realizes that they’ve gone silent and looks up innocently making eye contact with Jody. “I mean…sorry, but you’re giving your kid unpasteurized milk and not vaccinating them. Do you not believe in science?” She air quotes the believe.

“Of course I believe in science,” she replies mimicking Mica’s air quotes. “Just not…that science.” She swiftly changes the subject to Jamie’s jewelry while the others talk amongst themselves, and Stephanie goes back to twisting herself into a knot. I look away cause even looking at her is painful. I make eye contact with Jan who has apparently noticed my cringing. She nods toward Stephanie and rolls her eyes. I stifle a chuckle.

Chapter Two

They become engrossed in such scandalous gossip for the next ten minutes that Melanie tells with such flair about some chick’s husband boning the nanny and impregnating her and now they want to keep the nanny and the baby; and just when I thought I was in the clear, the questions pop back around to me and it’s like an echo chamber of before with each question hitting me like a bullet.

I stand there addled and open-mouthed waiting on them to finish. My head bounced like a pinball from each of them as they dropped their questions and emoted through this vertiginous conversation, again. I stopped trying to respond after the first four times the first time around; I wasn’t gonna dare try the second. When they do finally quiet, it’s a long ten seconds of fish mouth stutters before I say anything and they look at each other and back at me with a shameless pretense that makes me second guess my attending. But, here I be. I needed the money; what little it paid compared to all the ass kissing and work I’d have to do. Time to forge ahead and grunt through it; pull up my big girl panties and shoot away.

“This is my real job. So, I thank you very much for your business.” Pander to the rich people or they won’t pay you what little they pay you and recommend you to their rich friends. “I’m single. No kids.”

“Awww, well there’s still time and hope for you,” says Jody the petite blonde haired, blue eyed owner of said mini-mansion pushing out her lower lip in an exaggerated pout, like I’m supposed to be so very sad and distraught about not being a wife and mother.

I try not to cringe and appear offended, but I’m sure the expression sits on my face like a big ugly mask. My lips curl in distaste, like I just sucked the innards of the nastiest green bug.

This begins a long talk on the hardships of their attempts at trying to get pregnant unaware that I’m totally uninterested in getting knocked up or their presumed insipid conversation in thinking that’s all every person ever wants: the heteronormative happily ever after with screaming brats hanging off their tits. Respectfully, no, no way.

“It has taken us $150,000 and seven years…”

“Four attempts and we have yet to succeed…”

“It took us eleven tries…”

“Third time’s a charm for us, but still…”

The oldest among them, Cally, has been mostly quiet till now: “I lost one last year and it was devastating. We’re still trying.” I feel the aloneness in her tone and body language; something that the other women are unaware. They continue, cutting her off almost immediately and I try and reach out with my Jedi eye compassion. I’m not sure she receives it. She remains silent and slips back into the background.

“The first one was easy. It was the other three that were hard. We had to ask mommy and daddy for money…”  

And on they go. All of them, in their late thirties and early forties, are or had been unproductive in the fertility department and had difficulties in getting pregnant; thus, their assumption that every other female would be the same, especially me in my archaic age of forty-five. After each one of them give their laboriously woe-is-me tale of the heartbreaking history of difficult fertility treatments—which I do seriously sympathize—and the joy a few of them finally achieved with the successful creation of their mini-me’s, they gander at me for my story and how I’ve survived my lonely unfulfilled life thus far without children and a husband, or partner as they all keep correcting themselves.

I straighten and look around at each of them, unsmiling, and begin my fairy tale. “I’m happily single, divorced,” I visibly shudder. “Worse six months of my life being married. No children, thank dog. Can you imagine?” I scoff. “I can hardly take care of myself. I do have two very snotty cats that pester me rarely and sleep as much as I do. My family is alarmingly fertile and procreate so much that I don’t feel the need to genetically infect this spiraling mess of goo with my spawn.” I could hear the crickets an hour outside the city and if there were flies, they would’ve disappeared into the gaping holes around that cluttered island with the many, many bottles of unopened wine and liquor; so, I continue: “Besides, I’m incredibly selfish, I don’t like kids, nor do I like babies. All that stinky poo and the lack of sleep is a definite fuck no and I’m not overly fond of sharing my house with a man. They’re messy. I’m messy enough. Imagine the chaos, and they piss standing up. I mean, really? Why do they do that? Is it some kind of fragile masculinity thing where they’re afraid to sit down and pee like a woman? They aim that hose anywhere and piss everywhere. I read the most ridiculously biased study ever that men are better at physics than women because they pee standing up; projectile motion and Newtonian physics, see? I beg to differ when the huge amounts of evidence left behind in bathrooms across the world say otherwise. It’s disgusting. Imagine the absurdity of the gender gap being reduced to that? I imagine we’ve yet to plateau on that score though,” I snort. Creeping crevices in their foreheads have joined the even more pronounced holes in their faces. “And if I want or need sex, I’ll go out and get some that is if I don’t take care of it myself. What intelligent, independent woman doesn’t have a good vibrator, right? So, no, I’m perfectly content with my fabulously empty and messy flat filled with books and art and everything me and sleeping and doing whatever I want. Me, me, me.” My wide toothy smile and dimples hurt my face. “So, who’s gonna open the wine?” I say rubbing my hands together with a greedy kind of zeal.

They glance around at each other, eyebrows high, with those faces of a ‘ok-this-chick-is-seriously-fucked-up’ look. Their awkward stutters and chuckles sprinkle the silence till the most genuine and humorous of them speaks up: “God, that sounds heavenly.” It’s Jan; the amusing one that lives in Apex. I inwardly chuckle at the irony of me wanting to yell a paradoxical ‘Sure, Jan’ at her in a congratulatory appreciation and applause as I note the incredulous looks the other women give her.

I go ahead and easily uncork the closest red and pour a generous unbreathing portion into a bone-delicate glass—probably more expensive than my camera—because I know I’m gonna need it.

“I wouldn’t trade my kids and husband for all the peace in the world,” Jody says, outrage appropriating her otherwise peppy face, which doesn’t change it much: pouty lips and wide eyes, I imagine her face cream budget is more than my monthly grocery bill. I don’t fault her this. If only. Sephora is a siren for us women. I’ve gone just to gaze. “That’s so selfish,” she says.  

I shake off my Sephora daydream and lift my glass of red wine in salut. “Why yes, yes it is.” Smiling big, I toast them then drink. The wine is smooth and mild and goes down way too easily. I drink it in one chug smacking my lips in an indelicate manner when finished. “Wow that’s good.” Since it’s still morning, I push the bottle and the glass away and start towards the front door. “Where is that makeup artist?” I ask then see her through the enormous glass door on the front porch. No, that’s not right; a rich person’s mini-mansion porch is called a veranda, right?

“My apologies for being late. I had to schedule the governor for next week and…” she went on; I only heard blah blah blah.

Gail has an ego as big as her client list and she makes everyone aware of it every time she’s around. How I got her for this gig and the last few is beyond me. Lately though, she’s been telling me that she’s charging my clients far below what she’s worth. My reply was a curt “What a shock, so am I.”

This is the thing: I am under-charging my clients and I know why, but I really didn’t wanna face it just yet. All my insecurities are creeping up on me and I can’t have that since I’m at the beginning of this shoot with all these women. If they smell my vulnerabilities, they’re liable to pounce on my ass like a discounted Prada bag. Is that what’s in vogue lately? I hadn’t a clue. I never was a bag or shoe woman. Give me a credit card with no limit and send me to a book or art store and I’m solid, but bags and shoes? No, not really.  

Chapter Three

“Why don’t you go into business with her?” Jody asks Jamie.  

Jamie laughs: “Because she’s a flake.”

The pain is quick and brutal. I grind teeth and stifle the impulse to lash out. I try not to allow the discomfort show so I look down at my camera to hide the hurt and chuckle dryly; a cracked sad fake chuckle that exposes my indignation and hurt. They’re not listening though. No one ever listens to the help. Unless you scream.

Jamie finishes arranging Jody’s jewelry and steps back admiring her work. I look at them and give a big fuck you grin. “Ready?” I say a bit loudly in the large ceilinged master bedroom where the acoustics reverberate making them both jump. “Now, remember: suck in that gut and stick out that butt.” I put on a head-tilting bless-your-heart glance over her body mildly grimacing at the stiff pose she takes. I’m attempting to not allow my inner mean girl to surface and squash them like a bug; but, I hear her roaring to life within and that bitch has a camera and can and will do some serious damage. I take a breath: calm down, girl, I tell myself. I don’t wanna cause any lasting harm. As a feminist, I want women to succeed, even the somewhat overbearing ones. If I keep telling myself that, one day, I might convince myself of it.

I couldn’t help to think of the time when I was dead broke and needed a sell so badly. I had no food and my car was broken down. Jody called to ask me to come to her house to discuss her buying Christmas cards from her latest family shoot. I walked two miles in the dark; she talked for another two hours then said she’d get back to me, both of us knowing she never would. I left empty-handed and so disappointed, I cried the entire way home, eleven at night in the freakin’ dark.

I take it back: I don’t want every woman to succeed.

I stand Jody on a large rectangular treasure chest in the master bedroom in front of a big-ass window where the backlight highlights her perky ass and skinny bod and long white blonde hair rather nicely. She’s wearing peacock blue lace cheekies and a matching bra; probably to emphasize those big blue eyes that take up half her face and I’m reminded of something Russian. And cold.  

I roll in my laptop stand to where we both can see the screen and tether my camera waiting for it to connect. I position the softbox across the room because I don’t want it to overwhelm her. Some non-model clients don’t like the strobes, or the fan I set at their feet. The constant flashes cause excessive blinking and the fan, dry eyes. I have to ease them into the shoot and have a bottle of eye drops in my fanny pack where I carry my extra compact flash cards, batteries, and business cards.  

“Okay. Make an ugly funny face,” I tell her.

She plasters on a big fake smile and I stop myself once again from noticeably grimacing.

“No, no. Make the ugliest funniest face possible so it will loosen you up.”

Her face scrunches up around those big blue eyes and pert little nose: “No. I don’t want ugly photos,” she whines.  

The work I have to do to flatten the urge to roll my eyes could get me an Oscar. This same scene has played out so many times over the short course of my professional photography life that I’ve practically got the canned responses down pat.  “It’s to make you feel less self-conscious. More comfortable.”

She scoffs.

“Everyone takes ugly pictures because everyone is ugly at least once in their life.” I take a not-so-subtle glance at Jamie then back at Jody. “Be fearless. Be daring. Show that you’re not perfect; show your flaws. Women are socialized to believe our flaws are bad. They’re not. They’re what makes us us. So be you. Or as Kurt Cobain says: come as you are.” Of course, if they truly knew that my interpretation of that song is the cynical frenemies interpretation, they would probably not be as charming as they are.

They look at each other, back at me, and laugh.

“I’m serious,” and I can so relate to Kurt at this very moment that I taste the bitterness of my own sellout as I swallow my dreams and hopes to ever make it successfully in this industry.  

Chapter Four

“I had twenty-five models in my small apartment the other day and they didn’t pay me shit and neither did their client.”

“Nothing?” Cally asks shocked.

“No, but they did give me some mimosas and weed.” I sport a sneaky smile. “If only I could live on that alone.”

“What?” This from several of them who are now far more interested in my conversation with Cally as we take a break between shoots.

“Yeah, two of them walk into my apartment around elevenish; the organizers prepping for the others to arrive and I notice it immediately: they reek of pot. They’re standing there talking to me like it’s just another conversation. I’m there, hands on hips, looking down at them like ‘girls.’ I lean towards them. They lean back giving me an odd ‘what you doing’ look. I sniff real loud and say ‘I want some’. You should’ve seen the relief on their faces. They thought I was gonna bust their ass. Me.” I laugh. “I mean me. Do I look like some prim prude to you?” I didn’t wait for an answer. “I was drinking Bud ponies, Boone’s Farm and smoking weed before they were born and here they are thinking I’m gonna snitch on them because of…pot?” I roll my eyes.

“Did it mess you up?” Melanie asks. “Could you even work after that?”

I pfffftttt all over her brushing her off with a sweeping flourish of my hand. “Hell no. I smiled so hard the entire shoot my cheeks hurt the next day and y’all know me: I’m not a smiler.” They really didn’t know me at all.  

“I’ve never smoked pot,” Nina says, probably the most innocent amongst them and everyone laughs. “What?”

“That’s not a shocker, doll,” Cally says.

“I wish we had some,” Jan adds.

“No,” Steph says firmly. She’s graduated from the pretzel to some crazy arms and head between her legs move where it looks like her vagina is going to swallow her.

“What in the world, Steph?” Jan asks, a look halfway between pain and amusement crosses her face.

“I have to stay limber. My body is my temple.”

A “Pfffftttt,” from Jan and Cally mimicking me and everyone, including me, laughs.   

“Tonya wouldn’t let y’all smoke pot around her,” Steph adds.

“When is she coming?” Cally asks.

“Soon. When she gets here, I suppose.”

“You mean when she waddles in? She looks like she’s having quads,” Jan says.

I grunt chewing on my lip worried. Yes, I’m worried about shooting a pregnant woman and her distended naked belly. Other people find it beautiful while I wince painfully on the inside. I’m waiting for that Alien scene and blood to splash all over my nightmares. I shudder and keep my unpopular opinions to myself. When I said something like this to another group of friends, they got pissed and cut me off, alienated me (pun intended) for my ‘horrible’ feelings and my ‘anti-mother attitude’. So, nowadays, I shut my mouth and pretend to care. “Can’t wait to photograph her,” I say with the fakest most contrived smile I can muster.

Speaking of walks through the door: “O-M-G I am here,” and Tonya waddles into the room to the closest comfy chair and motions for Melanie to scoot, who scrambles out of the way with a smile and kind words.

Everyone says their hellos. She focuses on me.

“I love that shirt.”

No one else has complimented my ‘I shoot people’ black belly shirt with the white outline of a camera on it till now. I’m not even sure they noticed it, me being the help and all. I’m wearing it with my hip-hugging black leggings and grey converses because there is no way I’m sacrificing comfort for beauty. My aging body had betrayed me the past couple of years. It had not been kind to me since I began experiencing perimenopause and gained an extra twenty pounds; but at this point, I’m at the zero fucks stage of my life. I try to be, at least.

Chapter Five

Jamie corners me between shoots outside the bathroom where there’s no one around. “Did Mica tell you?”

“Yeah. Last week.”

“She’s young.”

“No shit and the baby daddy’s a douche.”

“Really? He’s so pretty.” I look at her, my eyebrows disappearing into my hairline. She finally yields. “Okay, how so?”

“He got pissed at her for posing nude for me, which I’m pretty sure he took his anger and jealousy out on her, which, in turn, she’s now passive aggressively taking out on me.”

“She’s never had a problem posing nude before.”

“No, she hasn’t. She’s the one who’s always suggested it, not me. I don’t bring up nude shoots at all with any of my girls. They have to be the ones to broach that topic. He’s bullying her.”

Jamie frowns. “Maybe we can talk to her?” Which is a hint for me to talk to her.

“I already tried. Last week, I got an email asking for the price of one of her artistic nude galleries. This person kept at me asking me if they could see the full gallery including the original RAW files. I said no because it would cost me upload and storage fees. I told them I’d send them a PDF contact sheet of all the photos and if they chose to purchase them, then I’d upload them all. We went back and forth. I was gonna release the entire shoot for $1,600, RAW files and all. I thought that was more than generous. They argued with me. Mind you, this is all over email, but I recognized the vernacular all the same. When I sent the contact sheet files, they said that I wasn’t showing them the entire shoot. I said yeah, I was. Then they said they weren’t interested. I was so pissed. I really needed that money. It was all like one big cruel joke to them. God, I hate people sometimes.”

Jamie makes a face: “Yeah, so? What’s your point?”

“I’m pretty sure that was her baby daddy dicking with me. I think he thinks that I got her spread eagle or something and am gonna sell them to Playboy when he should know better cause he was right there with us when we did the shoot the entire time. Anyway, she was commenting all over social media ‘never again’ and shit like that. I wasn’t gonna ask her to come today. Oh, and she deleted her Model Mayhem account. I tried to talk to her about it and she pretty much struck me down, then ignored me.” I roll my eyes. “I don’t understand how women allow men—or anyone really— that much power over them.”

“Maybe that’s why you’re single?”

We turn towards Jody who is creeping around the corner and has overheard us talking.

Jamie laughs.

“What?” I ask rather hotly, which is rhetorical and meant to stop her from talking.   

She shrugs and doesn’t get the hint. “I’m just sayin’,” and walks off munching on her baby carrots.

I let out a long breath and Jamie walks away shaking her head laughing.

Chapter Six

“I’m not religious.”

“You have God written on your body,” Jamie says unbelievingly. “In permanent ink.”  

God as in the universe.”

Jamie and I look at each other: “Oh, okay,” we say frowning, shaking our head no as in ‘no we don’t understand.’

All three of us sit around the jewelry table waiting for Nina to get her hair and makeup done.

“It was a dare. I love my tats. No regrets,” Mica says not bothering to look at us. She rarely makes eye contact with me unless I’m behind the camera. There has to be something psychological about that, but I don’t care enough to think on it.

“You mean ‘no regerts’?” I ask snickering. They both look at me blankly. “You know, the person that wants the tattoo ‘no regrets’, but then it comes out ‘no regerts’. What? Y’all’ve never seen that meme?” Still nothing. “Losers.”

“Are you gonna have it?” Jamie asks Mica after several long seconds of silence. It being the pea-sized fetus interloper inside her put there by the douchebag baby daddy.

“Yes,” she says without hesitation.

“You sure?” Jamie asks her and I hear the caution in her tone.

She sighs. “No, but I’m trying to be.”

“Okay,” Jamie replies shrugging and that’s the problem with us both: we’re live and let live free spirits; when someone says they’re gonna do something, we don’t stand around arguing with them unless it affects us or someone we love personally.

I decide to broach the my-titties-are-showing subject again. “Listen, Mica. I’m concerned about you… pretty much implying that I took and posted nude photos of you without your permission or approval. I am asking you right here and now: do you want those photos to be public or private? And I want you to be sure and have absolutely no doubts because this is your privacy and it’s important to me.”

She gives an awkward-like titter: “You’re fine. You have my model releases so…”

I shake my head. “No, the model releases don’t matter if you’ve changed your mind. I mean, regardless of the model releases, I’ll take the photos down. Your privacy is what’s important to me. Do you understand?”

“You’re fine,” she repeats losing that thin-lipped fake smile almost annoyed and gets up and walks away.

I look at Jamie: “See,” I mouth.

Jamie gives me a what-are-you-gonna-do shrug.

Chapter Seven

I watch Gail airbrush foundation across Jan’s face.

“Your skin color is tan with neutral undertones,” Gail says to her.

“Not so much tan as melanin… ethnicity. My grandmother was Persian.”

This fact seems to surprise some of her friends: “What?” and an “I didn’t know that,” from Jody and Tonya and Stephanie.

“She died when I was twelve. I don’t talk about it.” She swallows. “It’s painful.”

“But your name is Jan? Isn’t that like the most American name ever?” Stephanie asks.

“You mean like Becky?” I say chuckling low. “Or Stephanie…or…” I mumble, but no one’s listening.

“It’s short for Janan, my grandmother’s name.”

“I have to live in the sun and you get it naturally. Not fair,” Stephanie says waiting for her makeup and hair turn sipping on some puke green soupy concoction.

My eyebrows go high, again. I glance at Jan. She’s expressionless. I attempt to note the difference. I don’t and I wonder if I shouldn’t have looked for it to begin with. Her eyes meet mine.

“Don’t bother looking for the Iranian in me. I’m more white.”

“And this bothers you?” I ask this because it sounds like it does.

“No, but it definitely does bother some members of my Iranian family. They say I’m not fit to carry my grandmother’s name.”

She appears to dismiss that easily enough. I can tell it hurts her though.

“I have a black friend who’s biracial and she looks more white than black. She said her darker black friends and family give her hell because of it,” Cally says picking through Jamie’s jewelry. “Apparently, the blacker you are, the more racism you receive. Lighter skin equals more privilege.”

I was skeptical when she started that little story off with the ‘I have a black friend’ saying. Usually when that happens, white people racist all over whatever they say after. Since I’ve heard the same from sociologists, anthropologists and my own friends, I’ll take her for her word that she actually has black friends not that that’s an indicator of whether or not a person is racist. Still, she didn’t seem the type to make up black friends, but who knows. Far more urbane than her friends, she also listens more acutely to everything that’s said, like she’s learning and taking notes. It borders on creepy. I’m not one to talk or judge since I take notes on everyone.

“Two of my Iranian family tell me I’m too American,” Jan says as Gail sprays hairspray over her now finished short styled hair. “Like my ethnic background is supposed to be a personality type.” She rolls her eyes. “They’re great uncles. Men. Of course, their kids—my cousins—love the west and everything America, especially Beyoncé.”

“Who doesn’t love Beyoncé?” I ask sincerely switching out my full compact flash card with a blank one and reformatting. I had already gone through one four gig card. Fortunately, I have ten and will need all of them today. “People who under appreciate hard work and excellence, that’s who.”

“You forgot one,” Jan says to me.

“Oh, and racists.”

“I got called racist once,” Stephanie says.

Just once, I think.

“What did you do?” Jan asks.

She grumbles incoherently somewhat red-faced obviously not wanting to share.

I glance at Jan. She’s frowning. “What was that?” She asks.

“I said I didn’t like Beyoncé.”

Jan and I shake our heads tsk-tsking.

“I don’t really like all her music,” Jody pipes in and it’s like a white-woman epidemic.

“You have to be an idiot to not like her. She’s fucking brilliant,” I say. Jody frowns at me. “I warn you now if you say that you don’t like Beyoncé, you’re gonna be called a racist. And that you have shit musical tastes.”

“I’m not racist. Are you racist?” Jody asks.

“I’m white; we all racist,” I say genuinely.

I hear simultaneous objections in the form of whiny whines and I look towards Jan.

“Nope. You got yourself in this, you get yourself out,” she says to me.

“You knock a black sister’s brilliance and the first thing other black sisters are gonna think is that one, you’re jealous and two, you’re racist and let’s face it, sure sounds like it. And yes, we’re white in a white supremacist country where systemic racism still thrives.”

“I don’t call a black person racist if they don’t like Taylor Swift,” Jody says. “And we have a black president. How can the U.S. be a white supremacist country if we have a black president?”

Jan groans; I shake my head; Gail clears her throat and keeps working on Jan; Melanie and Nina start scrolling through their phones acting like they’re ignoring the conversation; Tonya just rolls her eyes, and Cally’s close attention is still on the verge of being sinister. I like her.

“Reverse racism doesn’t exist. It’s a thing made up by racists who claim victimhood and if anything these past Obama years have shown is that this country is still filled with plenty of those. Power and privilege are structured around white supremacy,” Jan adds.

“Of course there’s reverse racism. How ridiculous…” and she’s interrupted by the doorbell of which she attends to.  

“Oh-thank-you-lord-Jesus I did not want that conversation to continue,” Tonya says waddling over to the kitchen to pick through the fridge. She chooses orange juice.

“Okay, you’re done. Next,” Gail says and it’s like she wants to get out of there. Quickly.

Chapter Eight

Jan sails through her first shoot. Her poses are easy and choreographed and I give her little direction.

“You’re doing great,” I say as she launches an asymmetrical shoulder pose with hands on hips. “Excellent.”

Mica walks through the room: “Exxxxxxcellent,” she mimics with a smile. I stick out my tongue at her.

I turn the laptop towards Jan to show her a few of her photos. “This one right here is your pose. Great work,” I say to her and she beams. Sometimes I really do love this job, I think to myself with a hefty smile and all those warm butterflies.

“I did what you told us: I practiced my poses in the mirror. Even got the hubby involved. He can’t wait to see these.”

“You never really told me what you want done to your photos?”

“You just do your thing and I’ll be happy with whatever.”

I look at her. “Are you sure?”

“Yup. Why not?”

“Very few women tell me that they’re happy with their own body as is and not want me to make some major adjustments.”

“I don’t want any major adjustments either,” as Cally walks in front of the white backdrop. “I do love the porcelain skin look.”

“Yeah, I like that too,” Jan says reluctantly.

“Noted,” I say. Every woman I’ve ever photographed does and I reach up to unconsciously touch my 45-year-old acne prone face.

Must be past noon. Time for alcohol. I get the feeling these two started early. They goof off in front of the backdrop with choruses of “Take our picture! Take our picture!”

It’s been a long time since I’ve had this kind of friendship with women; this kind of clique and even when I did have it during high school, it really didn’t last that long. There was always the backstabbing and infighting and competitiveness; no one girl was immune. As girls, we grow into it that kind of behavior; socialized to conform to the status quo; I hated it. I didn’t want to be like them. I found myself unwillingly displaying the same attitude. It was like a right of passage: if you aren’t like this, you don’t get to join the club. I didn’t wanna act like that so I didn’t get to join their clubs.

I watch them and join in their laughter. They’re fun, but who isn’t after a bottle of wine? Alcoholics, I contend, talking to myself; a common habit when clients are conversing amongst themselves, like these ones are doing presently.

The first one pops up beside me as I’m scrolling through the tethered photos. “Bloody hell, that’s fantastic. Is that what you’re using now?”

She startles me, but not enough to make me jump. I look at her. Her clothes are old and… poofy. I would say at least 19th century. The corset alone looks like it’s choking off her will to live.

“My apologies. My language has become base since I became acquainted with the others.”

“Who are you?”

“What?” asks Jan.

“How much wine did you have, girl?” Cally asks.

“I wasn’t talking to y’all. I was talking to…”

“Oh dear, they can’t see us. You’ll appear to be talking to yourself,” the overly dressed woman with the lovely British accent says.

I look back at her. “Us?”

“Careful or you’re friends will think you’re a loon.” This one pops through the backdrop between Cally and Jan who are looking at me frowning.

“Are you okay?” Cally asks.

“Yes. When I’m shooting, I talk to myself. It’s a crazy thing us creatives do.”. I pause and look back at the other apparition. She’s American and dressed in pants. I recognize her. “Dorothea Lang.”

This thrills her. “She knows me,” and she claps in a reserved kinda glee. She hiccups.

“Are you drunk?” I ask.

“Simply partaking like all these other lovely women,” she says with a bemused expression, gazing over Jan and Cally who have taken off their tops and pressed their breasts together.

“Here’s a photo,” Jan says snort laughing so hard she farts. I snap a photo as they collapse against each other in laughter. “Oh my god, you farted,” Cally says between laughs.

“Welcome to middle age,” I mumble matter-of-factly.

After the laughter dies down: “Who’s Dorothea Lang?” Cally asks wiping tears, careful not to smear her professionally applied mascara.

“An American photojournalist. She was good,” I say looking at Ms. Lang with a nod and a smile.

“I am good, she says. Then I’m known?” Ms. Lang asks eagerly.

“Yes, of course you are good. Very good,” I add enthusiastically.

“I know I am,” says Cally.

“You know you’re what?” I ask.

She rolls her eyes. “I’m hot today.” She looks at Jan. “You are hot today too.”

Jan presses a finger to Cally’s arm: “Ssssssss. You’re hot.”

“My lord, these gals are two sheets gone.” This one appears on the other side of me. She looks at me up and down focusing on my gear. “What fantastic camera and this contraption displays the photographs? How wonderful!”

“I’m sorry, who are you?” I ask.

She stands straight and puts out her hand: “Bernice Abbott. Nice to meet you.” She looks at my shirt and chuckles. “What a great shirt. I shoot people too. Well, I did before…” and she makes an awkward sound while sticking out her tongue and I think it’s to indicate she’s dead.

I look at her outstretched hand then back at Cally and Jan who are offering another overly provocative pose of Cally tweaking Jan’s nips with her fingers. I take the photo. “I would shake your hand, but…”

She nods smiling and retracts it. “Enough said. Cheers.”

“Are these women prostitutes?” The British woman asks.

I laugh. “No, I don’t think so. I’m sorry, who are you?”

She takes offense.

“The girl is American, Julia, not British,” says Bernice who looks around. “This house is very pleasing for light. Good choice.”

“Well, I really didn’t have a choice where to shoot, but this house…” I look around “…is one of the better locations I’ve had.” I tell Bernice. I look back at the British woman. “Ma’am, my apologies for not knowing who you are.” I smile to soften my apparent insult. I turn back towards Cally and Jan as they do a shirtless back-to-back arms raised pose impersonating a James Bond poster. I snap another photo.

“You do talk to yourself,” Jan says.

“Yes, I have entire conversations with famous professional women photographers. They…” I glance at Miss Julia, whose name I still haven’t gotten. I assume she’s a photographer too “…give me encouragement and direction. They are my sheroes.”

“Young lady, what is a ‘shero’?” Miss Julia asks.

“Hero, Julia? Shero? Do you not get it?” Bernice asks impatiently. She looks back at me. “You’re a feminist, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” I say.

“‘Of course’ what?” Cally asks.

“That I’m a feminist,” I tell her.

“Well, of course you are. You’d have to be a fool not to be one,” Cally says walking off towards the kitchen pulling a shirt over her breasts.

At that moment, Ms. Dorothea Lang pauses in the doorway watching Cally. “This is…interesting.”

Bernice who has followed Cally to the doorway smiling broadly says “Yes, yes, lovely interesting.”

I chuckle.

“You have to forgive her. She’s a lesbian. Do you know what that is, dear?” Miss Julia asks.

She asked this more instructive and theatrical than condescending. I smile at her: “Yes, ma’am, I’m pansexual.”

“This is the 21st century, Julia, not the 19th. Pardon her,” and yet another. “I’m Diane. Diane Arbus. And Julia is Julia Margaret Cameron.”

“Delighted to make your acquaintance,” she says curtsying.

I stare at her. Am I supposed to curtsy back?

“I didn’t invent lesbianism, Julia. It’s been around as long as…people,” Bernice says walking around the sunroom staring at the ceiling.   

Jan walks off towards the kitchen: “Alcohol break,” she yells pulling on a tank.

“How many more of you should I expect?” I ask Julia.

“Oh, there is just the five of us. What is a ‘pansexual’, dear?” She asks me.

“Five of you? I only see…” and through the sunroom and living room window, I see another woman walking around staring at the photographs on the wall. I’ve seen her before but cannot place her.

“That’s Margaret Bourke-White,” Diane says.

“Oh my,” I say letting out a long woosh of air.

Ms. Bourke-White walks into the room. I stand there holding my tethered camera staring at them with an open mouth and a stunted expression. Several seconds go by. I should say something: “I’m honored y’all are visiting me, but…but why me?”

“You seem to have lost your mojo and path, luv.,” says Miss Dorothea. “We’re here to help you get it back.”

“Yes, girlpower,” says Bernice.

I wince. The ghosts of professional women photographers past are visiting because I’ve…lost my mojo. Great, I think sarcastically. “Okay. How?”

“Well, luv, first of all, these people are not your friends. They’re your clients,” Miss Dorothea says.

Another wince. I knew this, but still, to hear it is disheartening.

“I took pictures of the San Franciscan elite for years. They only want what they can get out of you and nothing more. You are here to prop up their egos. Do you understand?”

“Hell, Dotty, why don’t you just break her damn camera,” Bernice says. “Cruel.”

“When it comes to your art, dear, there should be nothing in the way. Are you married? Do you have children?” asks Miss Julia.

“No. Just two cats.”

“Wonderful,” she says rubbing her hands together in delight.

I stare at her.

“I’m assuming you have enormous financial help in order to afford such amazing equipment,” Diane asks.

My laughter is biting and sarcastic. “No. I’m not sure what y’all know about present day, but women are still paid a lot less than men and if you don’t have ample family benefits, you’re pretty much on your own. I had to bust my ass to get this equipment including going into a lot of debt.”

“Oh dear,” says Julia.

“All of us are from privileged backgrounds,” Ms. Lang says. “We could not have succeeded without that help.”

“Yes, well, I had a single parent, mom—widowed—on social security. White trash—if you’re familiar with that term,” I add.

“Yes, I’m familiar with that term,” Dorothea says, a gloomy expression on her face.

“Mine wasn’t as privileged as you-uns,” Bernice says to her professional posse.

“You’re from Ohio,” I say to Bernice.

“Did the you-uns give it away?” She asks.

I nod.

“I lived there a year. Southern Ohio.”

“Where you from?” She asks.

“Originally? West Virginia.”

“Hmmm. Rough country.”

I nod. “Yup, a bit.”

As much as I’d like to continue this conversation… “I have to get back to work. I have at least another eight hours of work to do here.” I start towards the kitchen.

“Can we…watch?” asks Bernice.

I stop looking back at all of them and smile. “Of course you can. I would be honored with any help or direction you’d like to extend me.” I say this genuinely and without shame.

I walk into the kitchen and there stands the lot of them—my clients—looking between me and the sunroom. I stop, shrug with hands out: “What?”

Chapter Nine

I explain away the conversations with myself as a thing quirky creatives do.

“We’ve never seen you do this before,” Jamie and Mica both assert. I doubt they’ve ever paid that much attention. They dismiss me with a shrug and a ‘whatever.’ They all walk off doing their own thing and I’m left with a few minutes of alone time.

Dorothea shows up next to me as I stare long and hard—my face pressed flat to the counter—at the large platter of pastries: cake donuts, jelly and fruit filled-tarts, and creme-filled éclairs, plain bagels and cinnamon raisin bagels and every kind of gluten-filled beautiful nightmare I can imagine. In my dreams, I dance and eat my way through a town filled with this kind of lovely content.

“Splurge, luv. A curvy figure is a gorgeous one,” she says, her face next to mine.

“Indeed,” says Bernice.

Sighing, I put my chin in hand and mumble: “I cannot. I’m gluten sensitive.”

Their faces twist in confusion glancing at each other then back at me. “What does that mean?” Bernice asks.

“It means that if I eat any type of flour with wheat in it—hot luscious rolls with melted butter and bread and cakes and donuts, pasta and pizza—oh, I miss pizza—and anything else filled with flour—my body and specifically my digestion area feels like a bloated fist filled with thorns oozing with melted runny poo after a car’s been dropped on it,” and that’s the closest description I could possibly ever get to that feeling.

“How ghastly!” This from Julia who arrived shortly after the rest of her gang.

“That’s just sad,” Bernice says.

I straighten and look directly at them utterly serious. “I miss bread more than I miss sex. And chocolate cake with fudge icing.”

“How long has it been since you’ve had sex?” Bernice asks.

“A while,” I mutter looking back at the pastries longingly.

“I wouldn’t blame you. With sex, you can take care of that yourself, but with bread…” Diane sighs depressingly then rushes right through me. Literally.

I take a sudden unexpected breath as I feel her molecules oscillate through mine. I close my eyes and allow it to envelop me entirely. It’s an overwhelmingly warm flutter, like a hug and I’m sure that’s what she’s given me: a ghostly hug. The feeling starts deep inside me and spreads and I smile. “Thank you,” I tell her.

This feeling lasts all of five minutes.  

“Are you sure you’re ok?” Asks Jan who stands staring at me from across the room concerned.

Back to reality, my shoulders slump. I remove my mask. “No, I’m tired. My oldest cat is sick and dying; my rent, electricity and internet bills are all late; I have nine more hours of work here then approximately two to four weeks of fourteen-hour days at less than minimum wage work, and I’m pretty sure I’m perimenopausal.”

She looks at me open-mouthed and wide-eyed. “Ummm…”

“Oh, you weren’t really asking, were you?” I put back on my mask: “I’m fantastic,” I say and walk off towards the fridge to get some boring gluten-free food and await the next shoot.

Chapter Ten

The problem with being a portrait photographer is that you have to be charming 24/7…and nice. I’m not nice. I try to be, but I don’t really wanna. No one wants to buy from the grumpy photog. Be happy or else, be poor.

You’re only grumpy cause you’re broke.

I have no help. I need help.

I roll my eyes. I’m having conversations with myself, again. “What next?” I grumble.

Stephanie pops up next to me. “I’m ready,” she says all bubbly and I’ve never wanted to hit someone more.

I smile, a bright big phony one: “Let’s go.”

Stephanie the nutritionist and yoga instructor doesn’t know how to pose. Stern and solid, her facial expressions and constant whinings rob me of creative inspiration. Every attempt to pose her leads to more frustration from us both. She’s so fit, her muscle contours make for harsh shadows and her moves caricatured as effect. It takes everything within to not laugh. I remind myself that these women in front of my camera are vulnerable and I should tread lightly.

“Remember, I want to look soft and inviting,” she says.

I do laugh then. Of course she does.

“You have a gorgeous body. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” She gives me an overt eye roll.

I spend the next hour working with her. I worry I only got maybe a dozen photos at most when we’re finished. We go through the tethered shots and she moans and whines about each one with varying excuses that are outright ludicrous anywhere from ‘I look fat’ to ‘my stomach muscles are so huge and ugly.’

“Here’s a great one,” I say and I’m actually being honest beyond happy that I’ve found some that I love and can work with.

“No, I don’t like it. I don’t like any of these. I look so hard and…masculine,” she says visibly pouting. I almost wanna take a photo of that.

“You’re gorgeous. Your body’s gorgeous. You have an athlete’s body, like Serena. You’ve seen Serena Williams, right? The greatest tennis player in the history of the world? I mean who doesn’t wanna look like her, right?” I ask enthusiastically. “You’re only more…slender…and…paler,” I add. “Not much paler though,” and I wonder how much time she spends in tanning beds and if that’s where she gets her crow’s feet from.

I’m still thinking of this when I note her silence. I look at her. Her outraged facial expression indicates that my praise does not please her. I realize at this point I can’t help her. What she’s suffering goes far beyond what my photos or pretty words can do for her.

I keep going through the photos. “Nice. Here’s another one,” and I five it in Lightroom.

She audibly sighs and I hear her grumble something as she walks off.

“I’m next,” I hear Tonya say. She’s going through outfits with Jamie and Mica. Afterward, she walks over to me with a red maternity shirt that goes great with her skin tone, brown hair, and eyes. “I’m ready.”  

For the next fifteen minutes, she details exactly what photos she wants down to where I should stand when I take them. “Absolutely no double chins,” she says.

“Well, no…no, of course not,” I stutter trying not to be insulted, but then think I should start a double chin portfolio just so women can get over double chins, myself included.

For the next hour and a half, I feel like the most powerless, most ineffectual photographer ever, which leaves me asking why I wanted to do this job in the first place. Afterward, I’m more exhausted than ever. Jamie sits down next to me.

“Why did I want to do this again?” I ask her. It’s rhetorical. She thinks it’s a genuine question.

“Because it’s your job?” She asks. Her condescension washes over me. Why is she my friend again? Aren’t friends supposed to help you?  

Have I descended into clinical depression again?

“Where is your portfolio, luv?” Dorothea Lang asks popping up in front of me. I jump.

“On my website,” I say.

Jamie watches me frowning.

“What is a website?” Dorothea asks.

“I’ll show you,” to Dorothea.

Still staring at me with that ‘she’s fucked up’ expression on her face, Jamie shakes her head. As I’m walking away from her to get my laptop, I hear her tell the others behind me: “I think our photographer has lost it.”

“Wonderful,” I say sarcastically.

Chapter Eleven

I show Dorothea and the other lovely apparitions my website and how to navigate the internet. It’s like they’ve discovered orgasms for the first time.

“This is…this is so very lovely,” Julia says enthusiastically; her smile so wide, I can’t help but notice her teeth. I grimace. She notices.

“There are lots of things that’ve improved over the years; oral and dental hygiene are a few,” Bernice says to us, her lips twitching.

“This…inter-net is lovely,” Dorothea says.

“Yeah, well, that feeling gets old fast, especially for women.”

“How do you mean, dear?” Julia asks.

“Misogyny, racism, bigotry, toxic masculinity,” I say.

“Toxic masculinity is such an accurate label. Someone should’ve won the Pulitzer for that coinage,” Bernice says leaning back propping up her feet.

“Tell us of others that have improved for women, please?”  Julia asks eagerly.

“I dunno how old you are…” I say looking around at them.

“Old?” Margaret Bourke-White asks and I feel like I’m being chastised.

Oof. “Apologies.” Some things never change. I move on quickly. “To tell you all that’s changed…I probably can tell you all the things that still haven’t. Like we still don’t have equal pay and it’s even worse for women of color.”

“Women of color?” Julia asks.

Oh, lord. I realize that I’m in a houseful of white women talking to white women ghosts. The only woman of color thinks of herself as ‘ more white.’ “And some things never change,” I mumble rubbing my forehead in agitation.

I spend the next ten minutes fumbling through intersectional feminism and wishing I was a better communicator and not indoctrinated by the hundreds of years of white supremacy and my white feminist ancestors. Visibly outraged at various points, my hands gesticulating all over the place, my voice goes high and low with fury and exhaustion. At the end, there is an awkward silence. “Sorry. I’m not very good at teaching this kind of stuff. I get angry about it all and am perpetually flustered.”

“Tell us some good things that’ve happened?” Bernice asks sincerely.  

“We have women on the supreme court and women leaders in other countries.”

“Still no woman president in this country though?” Diane Arbus asks in a stern voice.

I shake my head. “Nope. The next election should be ours though. We have a brilliant candidate who was a former first lady and is a feminist,” and I try and relay the hope I have, which is a lot.    

“What was it you said about some things never changing? I thought we’d have a woman president long before now.” Bernice says angrily. She gets up and heads toward the kitchen. “I need alcohol.”

I look from her to Julia: “Can y’all really drink? I mean…you’re ghosts.”

“Absolutely, dear,” and they all get up and head towards the kitchen.

Chapter Twelve

“‘Well-behaved women seldom make history,’” Cally says and pops open the champagne. There’s cheers and woohoos as Cally fills their glasses.

We’re in the backyard. All the women are in their bras and undies except Tonya who sits on the veranda watching with a small smile on her face.

Once the glasses are filled, they, standing in a circle, raise them towards the sky: “To us.”

I’m busy snapping away from a distance.

“Let’s do a pyramid,” Jody says giggling.

I glance at Jamie who sits next to Tonya on the patio furniture. Her face expressionless, she looks at her watch.

Mica left a couple of hours ago. I have one last shoot with each one of the women then I’m done. Fini.

I’m so tired. My feet, arms and lower back ache from standing, squatting and lifting; my deodorant has worn off; I have blisters on my feet; my right arm is tired from having to carry my heavy camera all day; and, that same camera, swinging from a camera strap, bounced off my hip and thigh so many times, I’m sure I’m covered in bruises there. I feel the heavy ick of a fourteen-hour workday coating my hair and my body and up my nostrils. I so badly would like a long hot shower and to brush my teeth. This is nothing compared to the day I had to shoot a wedding in the soggy pit of summer on a golf course in the south in 110-degree heat for twelve hours. I kept shoving bottles of water into my second and third shooters’ hands so they wouldn’t pass out from dehydration.

The best exercise for photogs? Squats and burpees. Lots of them.

The ghosts of women photographers past have quizzed me along the way as well as make suggestions on how to improve of which I accept and hungrily ask for more. It was Diane that recommended that I take a break earlier before this group shot.

“I just took a break,” I replied frankly.

“I mean from photography. You’re not happy. You’re exhausted.”

“I’m not happy cause I’m broke and no matter how hard I work, I cannot get ahead. I feel like I’m working ten times harder and getting nowhere.”

I have another camera set up on a tripod taking video as the women climb on top of each other to form a wobbly ridiculous looking pyramid. I switch to a wide angle lens. I notice they’ve all removed their bras and their tits swing back and forth beneath them like udders.

I wince. “I’m not sure this will be a good photo.” They ignore me.

“Hurry and take the photo. Ouch, Nina, your knees are bony,” says Cally.

I take the photo; more than one as they collapse into a pile laughing on the ground. It’s several minutes before they collect themselves and sober—what little they can give the amount of alcohol in them and, at this point, it’s a lot.

I’ve gone through eight compact flash cards; three shoots each; I have two left; plenty for their last shoot including the group photos.

I scroll through the group shots. The technical aspects of the photographs are pretty much perfect; it’s their facial expressions, rolls of fat, their udders and all their imperfections out in the open that they’ll not like. They’ll hate it.

They appear behind me out of breath from all the laughter.

“Oh my god, these are awful…and so great,” Jan says wiping tears.  

To say I am a little surprised is an understatement.

“What a bunch of lushes,” Julia chuckles standing in front of me behind the laptop, hands on hips with her girly gang of ghosts.

“What fun!” Bernice laughs outright. “You’re selling an experience here, not the photos. What a wonderful idea!”

They all nod and I feel a small sense of triumph in my exhaustion.

“I know what will make this even better,” Bernice says and what happens next is not what I expected.

Chapter Thirteen

Dusk settles over the flush neighborhood. Day turns to night. The party devolves into…I’m not even sure. The women run around naked in the backyard with me trailing after them with a camera; there is the half-naked woman hanging like a monkey from what looks like a very expensive heavy crystal chandelier in the dining room; there is me learning about what a taco is and how the owner of said taco doesn’t need it to be shown because she works for uptight evangelical Christian conservatives, which digresses into a conversation about sexual harassment and the horrors women suffer at the hands of men; the shirtless big breasted shy Melanie jumping into the glass shower (as big as my bedroom), closing the door and pressing her breasts up against yelling ‘take this one, take this one;’ and all this segues into the authentic looking bar in the basement—referred to as the ‘man cave’—with a spiral staircase that disappears into the ceiling, disco lights and loud music. There’s lots more booze and dancing; all kinds of bar poses that make even me blush; what looks like a stripper’s pole and the many poses with that…and still more booze.

This last part of the day is when the blackmail photos are taken, or what could be construed as such if anyone ever got a gander at them. I should probably charge more for that alone. These are like the crazy wedding reception photos where everyone gets shitfaced and falls into everyone else.

The girly gang of ghosts has enjoyed themselves just as much if not more than my clients. To say that I haven’t enjoyed myself would be a lie. I do. Like all women, when we fly, we fly high. There’s lots of awkwardness too, like Jody trying to slide down the spiral staircase and ending up bouncing down it like a ball. I laughed so hard I almost peed. I’m pretty sure Cally did cause she grabbed her crotch and flew towards the bathroom. When she came back, she had different knickers on. Jamie had long ago stripped and joined in; her extravagant poses vainer than all the others combined.

These women, like the majority of women, no matter how vain they are, need constant feedback. It’s an all-day empowerment, self-help, and personal growth seminar and group and I’m the keynote speaker and educator. That I’m elevated to such status is the height of irony since I suffer from the same crippling neuroses they suffer: the paralyzing social disease of beauty standards. I get into this with the group of pros, but not before they give my group of clients an unexpected send-off.

“I do believe, ladies, it’s time to send them on their little trips. Don’t you think?” Says Diane who seems almost a little too eager as she rubs her hands together with what can be only described as an impish euphoria spreads across her face.

“Trips?” I ask.

“Ask them to sit down together on this god awful green sofa, please, dear,” Julia instructs me, turning up her nose at the oddly out of style puke green velour sofa that sits in one corner of the room against the wall.

“I know red and green are supposed to be complementary, but this is ghastly,” Margaret says frowning. The red she’s referring to is the burgundy wall behind it.

“Oh, I dunno, it looks kind of fun to me,” Diane says.

I nod agreeing.

“Well then. Tastes differ. That’s what makes everyone so very lovely and distinct,” Julia says changing her perspective once she learns ours.

I instruct the women to sit on the sofa as Julia says. It’s a quick minute before each of my clients fall silent with a vacant wide-eyed unblinking stare on their face, like they’re stuck in some kind of catatonic stupor.

“What’s…what’s going on?” I ask concerned walking over to them running my hand in front of their faces. Not even a flutter.

Bernice has found the off switch to the blaring music. “Nice. Silence,” she says walking over and plopping down in the nearest cushiony chair. “I’m an introvert at heart. These little get-togethers are exhausting to me.”

We all nod along agreeing with her.

“About the trips?” I ask.

“Oh, don’t worry, dear, we’re not hurting them. We’re sending them to exactly what and where they need to be as a kind of thank you to you from us,” Julia says.

“This is for the good of all women,” Diane says.

My bottom finger is pushing in my lower lip and I’m chewing on it frowning at this. “Thank you?” I look back at them. “You’re going to bring them back, yes?” I ask.

“Of course,” says Dorothea. “About those beauty standards…” she says and we spend the next half hour going over the history of beauty standards.

“It’s always been this way. I doubt it will ever change,” Bernice says. “Different aesthetics for different generations. Someone should do a historical narrative of it. Document it by photos too.”

We mumble nodding along.

“I’m sure they have,” I add. It seems like something too important not to document thoroughly in one book. “Remind of all of the male gaze and how much we’ve been manipulated.”

“A nice coffee table book,” Diane adds.

“The male gaze? Another Pulitzer winning expression,” Bernice says enthusiastically.

“Yes, if the Pulitzer wasn’t filled with all men,” I grumble totally guessing about their demographic. “Regardless, if the committee did have women, the men would probably overrule them or gaslight them.”  

“I believe it’s time to bring the women home,” Dorothea says.

I glance at the clock. “Thirty minutes? Is that enough?”

They all laugh.

“Oh no, luv, time moves much faster in that dimension,” she says.

My eyes widen: “In that dimension?” I lean forward. “Okay, you guys have gotta tell me where you sent them? Please? I promise I won’t tell. Who would believe me anyways?”

“We sent them where and when each of them needs to be,” Margaret says. “Some of them need to learn a tremendous amount still. Like us. It’s one of the reasons we’re here with you today.”

“Yes, you said that. I still don’t understand.”

“Yes, we know. You will,” Diane says sympathetically.

“I will?” I ask. I feel my smile growing. “Okay. I trust you. I love to learn and I have to tell you guys that I’ve had the best time with y’all today and I’ve learned so much. You are wonderful.”

“You can tell that you’re from the north and the south,” Bernice adds chuckling lightly.

I laugh. “My ‘y’all’s’ and ‘you guys’? Sorry.”

“Stop. It’s endearing. You are endearing. You need to take better care of yourself and have some boundaries, luv. You are good and are greatly undervaluing yourself,” Dorothea says as she sits beside me wrapping her hand in mine gently. It’s an old feeling; like air holding and caressing my hand. “And sometimes friends are not really friends.”

I sigh accepting that. “Yes, I understand. If social media has taught me anything, it’s that. I mean, I’ve met some great people online, but a friend is something more and special.”

They bring the clients out of their stupor and it takes them a moment to rouse. They look confused and tired and alarmingly sober.

“It’s time to go,” Jamie says. They all get up slowly and start to disperse gathering their things. I do the same.

In a daze, they mumble their thanks to me almost as an afterthought with ‘the most fun I’ve had in forever’ and ‘so refreshing’ from a couple of them; the others are silent and pensive.

“Do we need to stay and help you clean, Jody?” Jamie asks who glances at me and I’m thinking no way in hell am I gonna stay and help clean this outrageously gentrified monstrosity.

Jody scoffs. “Hell no. My cleaning service comes tomorrow,” and I wonder what she needed to learn and if she did.

I pack up up my car. We all say our goodbyes. I give one last glance to the girly gang of ghosts and wave as I drive away. Jody waves back.

An hour later after a long hot shower, brushing my teeth and the other nighttime rituals, I sit in bed. The tv’s on mute and old reruns of Supernatural—the one with the ghostly water—play in the background. My two fluffy girls lay on either side of me purring as I aimlessly pet them. I nod off and blink into a red sunset across a turquoise blue ocean and a warm pleasant breeze. The sun sinks headlong into the edges of the earth and I’m flustered. I sit up alert in my chair—a nice wooden lounge that’s expensive, comfortable and doesn’t stick to my bare skin; and my skin is bare, very bare and curvy except the tiny lime green bikini I wear, gorgeously I might add. I feel bliss envelop me. My depression lifts and floats away with the breeze. My body relaxes. My legs and feet bare and shaved, which is unusual since I hadn’t shaved them in weeks. Same goes for my bikini area; nice and pristine and nary a hair to spare, thank goodness. Last time I had the time to gaze down there, I looked like a Sasquatch. The sand beneath my bare feet is soft and cool. The drink in my left hand, icy and white with one of those little red umbrellas and a long straw in a tall zombie glass. I hear the soft sounds of an electric guitar in the background. A young handsome Hawaiian appears on my right with a tray he sits down on a large canopied bamboo table.

“Here’s our dinner,” he says pulling silver lids off plates laden with steamed veggies, quinoa, and grilled tuna. He’s charming and cute and flirting with me and I inadvertently laugh, like an unexpected sneeze.  

“Our car and driver will be here at eight. I’ve prepared our gear; recharged batteries and formatted compact flash cards. Everything’s set.” He smiles and sits down across from me preparing to eat.

I look back out over the ocean then back towards him. “Thank you. What is it we’re photographing again? And who are you?”

He laughs like I’m being silly. “The islands and her history, of course. I’m your assistant. Are you high?”

I sigh smiling contently. “Yes, thank you.” I close my eyes. “Thank you so much.” I open my eyes and look up the beach. “I mean, no, I’m not. Am I?” My girly gang of ghosts—in their various generational swimsuits, all different—are walking, looking back waving and laughing.  

“What?” He asks looking behind him up the beach then back at me. “Do you want something else?”

“Yes. Lots of and lots of bread. Hot warm rolls with butter, real butter, and for dessert, a big piece of chocolate cake with fudge icing…”

© 2018 Pamela Gay Mullins

PayPal Me | Cash Me | Venmo

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Story Updates | meanderings

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