self-portrait

self-portrait
Photo by Kellie Churchman on Pexels.com

I brought my car to a stop in the lay-by, over which gravel had been spread to indicate the parking area. A line of wood posts divided the gravel from the coarse, uncut grass and exposed stone of the lookout. I gathered my camera and purse and habitually checked my reflection.

Another car was parked a ways down from mine. I worried I would have a long wait, but a few moments later I could see a family coming up the path. I put on an act of going through my purse. It felt strange to be sitting there alone, not coming or going. In my purse were a debit card, a credit card, and my licence. I fumbled my keys out of the ignition and added them, but removed them again—they would need to be in my hand as I got out of the car, so I didn’t lock them inside, though it occurred to me there was no reason to lock the door.

A loud knock on the window startled me and I hurt my neck. I turned slowly and saw the woman who had just been on the path with her family. She was so close to the glass her apologetic face blocked my entire view. I grimaced and rolled the window down.

“Hi there, I was just wondering,” (she really leaned on the “I” here), “you know how men are about asking for directions,” (I supposed I had heard that somewhere before), “do you know how to get to this road? Habbersmoy? It’s got this cute little fudge shop I want to visit before we get on the highway, but the GPS doesn’t know it. Do you think it’s misspelled?”

“Oh, um.” I worried I was visibly wincing. People don’t like to be winced at. “There’s a road, um, it doesn’t seem to show it on your map, but it’s a little curve that joins this road and Habbersoy. McVie it’s called.” I spelled it for her, and she said it back to me. I tried to smile encouragingly at her but must have failed because she asked,

“Are you ok? You’re not lost too, are you?”

I scoffed at the stupidity of the question. I’d just given her directions, after all. She seemed hurt, or maybe embarrassed.

“Well, thanks. Have a good one,” she said. I felt terrible. Things always went like this. I waited until the family had driven away before getting out of my car.

A short walk down a narrow footpath was the overlook. Here, a portion of the Canadian Shield formed a precipice which jutted out with curiosity, craning its neck as a child might over a balcony railing while standing on tip toe to look straight down. More than one hundred meters below lay the frothy waters of Hudson Bay. An assortment of large boulders indicated the brief shallows beyond which deep water spanned the view to the horizon. Only a painted yellow line discouraged visitors from plunging over the edge.

I left my purse on the ground and turned on my camera. The light was good, with a bright, overcast sky that carried no threat of rain. I took a few test shots, adjusting the settings and making mental notes, while I paced the area beyond the yellow line.

As I held the camera away from my face, peering through the viewfinder at a tiny rectangle of gray sky, my mother came to mind. She’d given me my first camera on my fourteenth birthday. Strangely, it wasn’t receiving the long-awaited gift that I remembered so clearly—it was my mother’s face, red and wet with tears. I remembered thinking how much I wanted to take her picture right then, she was so sad and beautiful, but the camera was still in its box.

My mother spent all of my birthdays crying, as far back as I could remember. She didn’t want me to grow up. Over the years, she filled my mind with things to be frightened of and people to watch out for. I didn’t need to be told why, the clues were in the warnings.

Laying on my stomach, I scanned the ground for a rise that would allow the camera to point slightly downward, so the water would fill the bottom third of the scene. A tripod would have been easier, but I worried it could tip. I could feel the cool dampness of the stone seeping though my shirt and jeans. I let my cheek rest on the ground for a moment to feel the cool there, too. I drew deep breaths, feeling my lungs pushing my back up and away from the earth; my shoulders relaxed more with each out breath. My body felt as though it was sinking, becoming a part of the ground. I imagined I was completely flat. If someone were to walk by, they wouldn’t notice me.

The emergence of a ladybug quite close to my face disrupted my relaxation. I turned back to my camera and began setting up the timer. I hadn’t made any use of it until quite recently, after Greg and I broke up.

I met Greg at my first and only gallery showing. It was a small affair in a little shop downtown. He was emphatic when he told me how much he admired my work, and I couldn’t help but be flattered. By the end of the night, he’d asked me out. I brought my camera to our date, and he let me take many photos of him. I loved afterward when I could upload the photos to my computer and really get a sense of his face. He was quite handsome. I fell in love with him at home, alone.

After a few weeks, Greg became distant. The photos I took of him revealed sad and sometimes irritated expressions. On our last date, he asked me to put the camera down. When I asked why, he said,

“We go out, and I don’t even see you. You’re hiding back there.”

“I’m not hiding,” I said, “I don’t want to miss anything.”

He said I was missing the point.

We didn’t speak again. He said I should call him if I felt like being seen. I didn’t. But after a few days of loneliness, I wondered if he was right, maybe I was hiding. I started using the timer on my camera to take photos of myself. Eventually, I became quite comfortable on that side of the lens, and began a collection of self-portraits.

With the camera on the ground in front of me, I re-adjusted the angle, set the autofocus range finder, and readied the interval timer. There would be a photo every half-second for twenty seconds. I knew I would be lucky to get even one good shot. I noted some markings on the rocks to be sure of the alignment once I stood up.

After one final check of all the settings, I began undressing. The air was cool but not cold, and I felt at ease surrounded by the vastness of the water. There would be no competing focal point in the photo; it was a perfectly unadorned backdrop.

I took two deep breaths, and bent down to press the shutter button. There was a flash of hesitation in my stomach, but I pushed through.

The camera began shooting immediately, and I hurried into position. I filled my lungs with air and began running, closely following the markers I’d noted on the rocks. After a short sprint I launched myself into the air beyond the cliff edge, throwing my arms above my head at the highest point in my arc.

The camera caught this highest point as well as a bit of my descent, framing me against the bay and sky as I leapt resolutely to my death.

Years later, my self-portrait collection was exhibited in a prominent gallery. Both Greg and my mother were there, wearing their familiar sad faces.

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