“It’s A Joke” by Camille Lemire

It’s A Joke

Nonfiction by Camille Lemire

 

“You know what you’re doing, you … you slutty pirate hooker.”

It’s a joke, I pray, instantly applying a Band-Aid to the words Daniel shoots at me from across the crowded house party. The rest of the packed living room vanishes as he watches me watching him unbuckle his jeans.

It’s been a war between fight or flight. I freeze. My flight is into the confines of my skin, hiding from the fight in Daniel’s eyes, the predatory gaze, those dark irises that penetrate my jeans and blouse and skin. He sees all the secrets I keep hidden in the crooks of my body – every bead of sweat and that splash of maple syrup I spilt on myself earlier and the blood building up between my thighs to bleed out this month. The chrysalis I built around me, a butterfly that has retreated into its past, doesn’t shield me from the boy who sees how dirty I am.

It’s a joke, I pray, as Daniel unbuttons his shirt. As each button escapes it threshold, I almost feel his fingers tearing my own clothes from my body. He’s not naked but I feel like I am. Someone laughs, but it sounds like sobbing, and I realize the whole room is holding their breath, waiting for this terrible moment to end.

But it doesn’t. It began hours earlier when Daniel sauntered into Isabelle’s house party, a friend of someone’s boyfriend, and his eyes locked on mine instantly. His words were slurred, but I heard each one clearly: “Can I just say you have a beautiful smile?”

I tasted his breath, acidic with cheap vodka. His eyes as black as the coffee that pushed me through every nauseating all-nighter during my first year of university. But instead of giving energy, those shadowy irises seemed to pause the pulse of the house party around us.

Daniel smirked then, his mouth shaped like an apple slice – his teeth yellow like the flesh of the fruit itself. “You have a better smile than anyone else in this room.”

***

The gym lights gleamed down on my summer-tanned skin, the smell of sweat masked by the cleaning products the school used all summer. Colorful lines zigzagged across the glossy wooden floors, and my feet ached to dance along all of them – but I was second grade, a big kid. I didn’t dance on the lines, but color within.

“Cammy, are you ready for your picture?” my mother cooed, bringing me out of my thoughts. Her smile was shaped like the apple slices in my lunchbox.

School Picture Day. Comes and goes every September, a day my mother woke me up early, carefully inspecting my closet to pick the right outfit for her little princess. I could still feel her nails raking through my scalp as she braided tendrils worthy of Medusa for the occasion.

I wore an olive-green dress and a silvery butterfly necklace. My heart raced and I pretended it was the butterfly’s wings preparing to fly away. I was ready to fly, too, as I grinned up at her. “Of course I am, Mommy.”

“Don’t do that, Cammy,” she snapped, peering down at me with some mixed expression of pity and disgust. “Smile with your mouth closed. You don’t want your crooked teeth messing up the picture, do you?”

The butterfly stilled. Not a real butterfly, but a stupid piece of cheap metal resting against my collarbone. I couldn’t fly, but only fall – deeper, deeper into the chrysalis I was born in. Not a real chrysalis, but a picture frame prison my mother armed with barbed-wire braces and teenage years full of self-loathing.

I practiced my masterpiece smile with my mom – Mona Lisa smiled with her mouth closed, too. My mother demonstrated the iconic toothless smirk, as if trying to make me into a work of art.

Mona Lisa has a better smile than anyone in the room. So will I.

 

Elementary, middle, and high school. Slinking metal snakes slithered around my teeth, gripping them until they shifted achingly like plates deep in the earth, until a whole new world was created within my mouth. I opened my lips, ready to smile, but I didn’t even know how. I bared my teeth instead – I bared my teeth for five years’ worth of photos.

I flipped through yearbook pages with my university friends once. Tiny portraits filled the pages, each child a masterpiece bursting with life.

They joked about who I must have been back then, making fun of my style and my interests. It’s a joke, I told myself, and I was laughing, too. Laughing at my sealed lips, at the sealed girl who only wanted to be as pretty as a painting.

“You know, you had such a beautiful smile,” one said, pointing at some of my post-braces yearbook photos.

Déjà vu washed over me, like I was back in second grade. I could almost see my mother’s apple slice smile smirking, rotting away in that sweaty elementary gym.

But then my friend laughed and I realized that it was a joke.

Because my friend wasn’t looking at my picture, but watching it – watching the socially awkward teen residing in that portrait. Watching the performance held within that frame, not looking at the art my mother always expected me to become. My friend watched a butterfly soar through the air, breaking free from its chrysalis. She watched me be the butterfly I always dreamed of becoming, unaware that those gorgeous wings she admired burst through my spine in blinding agony. Unaware that I was in agony.

It’s a joke, I told myself.

***

“And then he looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘you know what you’re doing, you slutty pirate hooker,'” I summarize, shifting my tone to match the boy with vodka firing his words. “And you should have—”

Laughter erupts from my group of friends before I finish my sentence. I am suddenly mute, my lips unable to shape even a single syllable, as they hoot and howl to my response to the age-old question of “how was your weekend, Camille?”

“Were you even dressed like a pirate?” one asks.

“I was dressed in something like this,” I answer, almost defensively, referring to my tee-shirt and jeans. “But, anyways … you should have seen this guy-”

Another interruption. “That’s hilarious.”

“It wasn’t really,” I try saying. “This guy—”

Another. “You should go as a ‘slutty pirate hooker’ for Halloween.”

That brings a louder round of laughter. I can imagine they all see me in their heads, gangly and awkward, dressed in a gaudy, revealing Jack Sparrow costume. Ready to see me perform like Johnny Depp would because I am a punchline. Because I am a butterfly, burning in the sun’s rays, and my screaming sounds like laughter. Because there is no art but performance. Because it’s a joke and I’m a joke and it’s all so fucking funny.

“Maybe I should,” I say, trying to give a smile that is better than everyone’s in the room.

It’s a joke, I tell myself because I am a punchline, bruised from the punch of this joke. I laugh along with everyone because even after three years with braces and eleven years of self-loathing, I realize I will never be Mona Lisa, just another paint-stained caterpillar imprisoned in her seventy-seven by fifty-three centimeter chrysalis.



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