When my grandmother shakes me awake, and my grandfather scoots up behind her with the jittery Instamatic up to his eye, I look into the lens like I don’t know what day it is today.
We watch my good-morning face, watch my mouth as it says, “Saturday,” before my eyes widen, the rapid dawning. My cheeks dimple, and my eyeteeth show. We watch as my fists fly up from the blankets and come down again to wrap my pillow in a swinging hug, the kind they did in the streets when the soldiers came home, in the magazine pictures. My feet kick the covers, and through my grandfather’s camera I look like a joyful blur.
In the camera it looks like I have only just remembered.
The camera follows me into the bathroom where, still in my nightgown, I brush my teeth. I give a flip look to my grandfather behind the camera, and block the lens with my hand.
Here I am eating a balanced breakfast.
Here I am in the gravel driveway, in my day dress. I spin, like, How do you like it? And I laugh. I laugh and my grandmother laughs, because this is a nothing dress. This is the dress I wear to get my hair done up. A dress that can get hairspray on it, a dress that can be easily stepped out of and discarded for the real one.
Here in our driveway again. The light has changed and made everything shadowy. Walter’s car is in the driveway; it is a new Fairlady in baby yellow and he is very proud. Walter stands with one leg still in the car, hanging his elbows over the open door. He is wearing his tuxedo. He is waiting for me. The camera closes in on him, but his brow is sharp, and his eyes are deep-set, and so his expression is fuzzy.
Grandpa doesn’t think much of Walter’s car. He goes over to tell him so, and my grandmother is holding the camera. The men are pretending respect at each other. Walter shakes my grandfather’s hand way too late. My grandmother pans over to the front door. Where am I?
I am in the house alone, by myself. It’s anyone’s guess what it looks like inside the place I live. No one has ever seen it, not even the girls who are my friends. And who knows what I am doing? It takes only so long to put on a dress. There is a full-length mirror in my room. I must be fussing with my powder. I must be pushing extra pins into my hair.
My hair is the most beautiful thing about me. It is sleek yet full, and black like no one else’s at school is. Today it falls in perfect spirals at the sides of my face. The part of it that is down in back goes past my shoulderblades. The rest of it is gathered, perfectly bunned at the top of my head. The line between the front part and the back is smooth, invisible, elegant.
The camera stalls on my grandmother’s garden, her voice cataloguing the new plantings. I don’t come out and still I don’t come out. I looked perfect when she last saw me, almost done. A mystery, what is taking me so long.
It is true. I have been done with becoming beautiful for some time now. Now I am practicing how I will look—how the face I have will change—when I have the silver crown placed on my head.
This is what I am doing, by myself, still in the house. I am practicing for when I am the one who is named Queen.
Here I come at last, stepping daintily out the door.
My grandmother is handing the camera to my grandfather. The two of us wobble in the camera as we hug. We are shaken side to side as my grandfather’s clumsy fingers work to turn us right side up. We are distracted, talking, smoothing the line of my dress. My grandmother asks me to show her my shoes. I lift my skirts, turn my toes out, right then left.
My grandfather comes nearer. The shadows darken as he does, and in the bad light you can’t tell my dress is gorgeous, diamond blue, bought new from a store, not sewn. You can see the littleness of my waist in it. You can see the heart in the neckline. You can tell it fits me well. You can tell my hair, my skin against it makes the perfect contrast. People comment on it, that they wonder who in my family I take after, what small, far-back foreign blood my family carries. An easy, convenient lie: Grandfather is so respected here that no one imagines I might be adopted.
My grandfather’s hand waves merrily at my grandmother in front of the lens. My grandmother, unwilling to steal the shot from me, takes my arm, pulling me back into the frame with mock manliness, claiming me as her date. She gives me a smooch on the cheek. Up goes my kissing foot. We are laughing, petting each other’s arms.
Over to Walter, impassive, his chin on his arms on the car door. The camera goes off.
This is when my grandfather hugs me and tells me to be careful, to come home by midnight. I promise him I will. He makes Walter promise the same. Walter says, “Yes sir. I can’t imagine it would be any later than nine.”
I say, “Nine? Walter. It’s prom.” But I do not think about it very hard. I do not read anything into it about this night and how it will unfold.
The camera goes back on. Walter is putting me into his car, shutting the door. We are leaving. Walter says good night to my grandfather. He calls him Mr. Hall. This is not my grandfather’s name but my father’s.
Walter believes he is speaking to my father. A second harmless lie I give to everyone my age. My parents are missionaries who are away in another country.
Walter’s Fairlady backs out of the gravel driveway. My grandmother waves. So does my grandfather, though his hand can’t be seen.
This is the end of the movie, as much as I can reconstruct it.
I never got to watch it. The footage was erased.
---Continue to Part 2---