i turned forty and Dave said, happy birthday, have a new house and i said yes, that will more than do and then we both took a deep breath and jumped off the bridge together.

but then he added, i know the house is a big deal, a big financial commitment. but for your birthday…it’s still your birthday. maybe you’d like me to ask Kate to come visit, and take some pictures of you? Bon at forty. sort of a marker?

and my breath caught a little because yes, Kate! and yes, how cool! and yes, the days and years slip by and i am the one behind the camera, always, and it would be nice to have a record of who i was, here and now in these first days in this house but oh, will i look silly? and oh, will i look vain? and oh, oh, will i recognize myself in what comes back? 

i hide in pictures. i like them fine, but it’s because i have a mask. a smile, a gaze cultivated over twenty-odd years. it’s “photogenic,” if i get it right. not ingenue, though the risk of that is fading, with time. the mask stumbles towards “straight shooting yet pretty enough to pass, to be left alone, to not be judged.” it is a tough line to walk in a female body, especially a female body that feels…alien…to its owner, as mine always has. inside, i am David Bowie. i wish i could explain.

instead i try to haul my shoulders back, neck up, chin downish, eyes straight ahead, smile. try not to look pinched. i have learned to mostly get right. it it is almost instinct, now. and i delete the rejects.

but there are so many ways in which i have never seen myself.

we were packing as we talked, Dave and i. i lifted my grandmother’s ancient paper-bound black photo album, white corner tabs holding each photograph to the page. i flipped through. people long dead smiled out at me. my staid, prim grandmother, posed at the seaside with a sandpail in her hand. she must have been fortyish herself.

call Kate, i said.

and she came.

it was like playing, for an afternoon. like dress-up with the Master Pirate of them all. i looked at them and i gasped. then i wondered….what on earth can i do with these? they are…lines. they are roles. they are versions of me i’ve never seen, on film or in mirrors. maybe reflected in others’ eyes. some i recognize. most i don’t.

yet i am grateful that i got the chance to be them, for that few minutes. for the record. before the moment passes forever.
***

when my grandmother died, in the spring of 2000, her dear friend Lottie sent my mother and i a little envelope. i remembered Lottie, a bit: a fun little old lady who laughed a bit like Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company. compared to my grandmother, she was quite lively. still, the envelope shocked me.

inside were four black & white snapshots of two couples, both middlish of age, in the woods.

wearing…leaves.

Adam & Eve-style leaves, though figs are rare around these parts and they were more likely maples or elms or something. i don’t specifically remember the leaves, because i was busy staring agog at the images of my grandmother and her husband and Lottie and her apparent first husband – or so my mother said, as both the men predeceased my arrival around these parts – naked as the day they were born. except for leaves.

there was something profoundly innocent about the photos. something playful. there was a little note from Lottie, though i have no memory of what it said. only that i laughed, and my mother laughed, and we stared at each other bewildered, and laughed some more. there it is. you never know everything about a person. ever.

Lottie has since gone to Jesus. i think – and hope – my mother still has the photos somewhere.

and lest i am leading you down the false primrose path, here…there are NO NAKED PHOTOS of Dave & i wearing leaves, here. there never will be. YOU’RE WELCOME.

but. if you look, understand. these photos here, my contemporaries…they are not for you. these are for fifty years hence. maybe i will be here still, old and crabbed and jabbing bony fingers into the throats of my unfortunate young relatives and acquaintances, rasping lookie here, dearie! see these here lines! these were ME, once upon a time. you see? 

do you see that i was HERE, dearie?

that is what these are for. would that everyone had a Kate to make such a record.
***

first, she sat me by a window and i stared across the street at the house i once lived in with my mother and my grandmother and there were smiles but they were kinda soft and nice and a little self-conscious and so she can show you those, later, herself, along with some sassy ones. those are for now, for avatars and reality, not for fifty years from now.

we went upstairs to the old school desk my father’s younger sister dragged home one day forty-odd years ago, the desk i’ve admired in my grandfather’s basement pretty much ever since. mine now.

this is the photo that tells you what i think i look like.

this is the photo of me trying to balance elegantly on the desk, which is made for butts smaller than mine and is not bolted down. i was tipping.

this one struck me because the only other time i have seen this look on my face in a photo is in one of the two that exist of me holding Finn. i do not know what to make of it. i stare back, looking for clues.

she said, do you want to do something sexy? something boudoir? and i laughed uncomfortably and said Jesus no and i then i gave her my sexay face.

then she said well how about you wear something flowy? and i said i don’t own anything flowy and we looked in the closet but that was a dead bust until she saw Dave’s corduroy coat with the elbow patches and my inner drag king raised his eyebrow and i said, i could maybe do something sexy in a tie. a tie is sexy. flowy and lingerie? not my sexy.

so she put my on my new dining room table in my underwear and a tanktop and a tie and Dave’s coat. in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. in full view of all the new neighbours. and i felt like an art exhibit. it may have been the tie.

then she said, lie down. and i did.

she said, take off the jacket. and i did.

those shots came out looking like no version of myself i’ve ever seen, even in my mind’s eye. and they will make me believe until the day i die that i once – at FORTY, no less, and most especially satisfyingly for all that – looked very much like my own idea of sexy. and pulled it off.

i will not post them, only because…they can’t be unposted. they’re not naked. i’m wearing a tank top. and grannie panties. and a tie.

they are no more Me than the photos of my grandmother with the leaf were Her. still. they’re kinda beautiful.

when i’m gone, Kate can play Lottie and share them with whoever remains. i hope they laugh.

then i put my jeans back on, and my slippers, and she caught me far more naked in the eyes than any picture of my unshaven legs could make me.

maybe this final one of me alone is my favourite. if the top shot is how i want to see myself, this next is more as i actually see. my inner world, made visible. my slippers. my old jeans, the banker’s chair, the curtains i hung myself, this old radiator. all in the living room where my grandmother lived. the bracelet.

the TIE. that makes it dress-up.

the next morning, before she rode off into the sunrise, Kate took pics of the kids, and Dave, and all of us. there are a few stunners, moments to be framed. my favourites, though, are the outtakes: the real. the dinosaur trying to eat his sister. the mom face, saying now Josephine. sit DOWN. Dave’s tired, wry eyes. the sweater i’d been wearing for two days.

these are the rest of my life, the other roles, the pieces that make the secret self of slippers and ties feel rounded and…more.

these are the images, the memories, the ideas of me that will make those people fifty years from now laugh, startled.

i am both, here, at forty. this is my record.