on the backs of selfies

A fiction based entirely on lots and lots of non-fiction experiences, moments, and conversations. It is the story I think about when I see someone take a selfie in a space where it doesn’t seem like the most appropriate of actions. We all engage with the world and ourselves differently. We’re all on a journey to figure it all out, or at least, to learn how to lean into the Universe.


She tries to take a picture with her boyfriend, but he winces, eyes squinched. He has said before that he doesn’t want to be content, that he doesn’t like his own face, that he doesn’t post as a couple because it makes it easier to erase a person later on. (He didn’t say any of those things, but somebody did, sometime, and she thinks about it when she sets her scrapbook down on her lap and it turns back into a camera, into a cellphone, into a brick of plastic that will outlast everything, even, surely, this relationship.)

She just wanted the picture for her mom.

Her mom comments on any picture she sends. If she takes a blurry picture of a cat, her mom says “No one captures the personality of a thing like you do.”

If she takes a dramatic picture of the sky, her mom says, “I wish I could see how you see.”

If she takes a picture with a person, her mom says, “They seem like a nice person. Are you two nice to each other?” but she never says exactly that one. She says things like “You look happy.”, and her head lifts up and there is a pause, and when their eyes meet, mom sees everything. The doubts, the certainties, the loves, the fears.

Mom tidies the things quickly like the dishes before loading, like homework emptied straight onto the dinner table. She watches where her mom piles and how her mom sorts, and understands how to prioritize all these feelings.

Am I nice to me? Am I nice to them? Are they nice to me? She starts to know these answers.

Her brother takes the phone in the silence and looks at her pictures. He sees a selfie, uses his hands to cover everything but her eyes.

“Hard day, huh?” he says. The picture is sunlit and she is glowing. The picture is bright and pink and glittery, and she is smiling. Everyone else commented on her hair and her dress, but she can’t see that when she looks at the picture. Someone sent her a direct message to call her vain, and she thought to herself that maybe vain was a synonym for alive. She can see that one.

She was barely alive, but yes, she was recording it.

“Hard day,” she agrees, remembering the pain bottle-stopped inside her.

That night, she goes to a vigil. Her friend tells her she is not an activist and doesn’t need to go. Her brother tells her that life has been hard enough and she doesn’t need to go.

She is afraid to go.

She did not lose anyone recently, but she has lost, and had to do so much of it on her own. She does not know anyone here, but they called out for good neighbors and she needs to be one. She needs everyone to remember that good neighbors are real things.

She gets into an Uber and he doesn’t talk to her. She prefers that, usually, but the ride is long and she feels invisible. She takes a picture of herself in the car. She looks at that selfie and tries to see her mom, in the cheekbones maybe, in the eyes. She organizes her feelings, and takes another selfie.

This time, she does like her brother does, and covers up her face in the photo. The eyes are peace, even though they are brightly lit with grief and fear. This is what she is supposed to do.

In the review mirror, the Uber driver rolls his eyes at her.

She arrives to mourn with others.

It is a cold night and every time she remembers why there has to be a vigil at all, her heart cramps up., and her eyes water, and she doesn’t think she can do this after all. She doesn’t think she’s ready to be a helper. She doesn’t think anyone sees her anyway, that she could leave and no one would even notice. She is erasing herself so she picks up her phone and it becomes a camera, and it becomes a call of light, and the flash snaps, and the selfie is captured.

She looks at the picture, critically.

Who is that girl taking up space? Is she worth it? Does that matter here? Where do smiles come from when hearts are empty?

She reminds herself that she came to hold space, and that is something she can do even when she cannot see herself. She came so her privileges might protect this crowd. She came so people could have room to grieve.

She thinks that an erased person can maybe come back as anything. In her mind, she becomes bubble wrap. Hate-proof, bullet-proof bubble wrap.

She spreads her arms wide. From this angle, the whole crowd is in her hug and she is strong enough to wrap them precious. She takes another selfie, smiling.

Arms outreached, eagle wings spread. She looks at the picture and she sees bubble wrap, popped in places, taped up in places, but still so determined. She looks at the eyes in the picture and she sees herself, finally.

It makes sense.

Vigils are where to you go to see the lost ones.

She puts down her phone and stands in silence for two more hours.

This will cost her. Her body is a wilted thing, and tomorrow the doctors will remind her of that, the medical bills will remind her of that, but she will also remember that good neighbors exist.

Later she will think about how being a good neighbor means more than showing up. How it means making the world a better place by changing your neighborhood for the better.

She tells her friend that she is an activist, because she believes in people, and she stands up for them. Her friend says that maybe he is an activist, too. They agree to show up together next time. They take a picture together and it settles into her scrapbook like a foretelling, like maybe she is fading in, not fading out.

She posts a picture of a candle and some words from her heart, but no one reads them. They gloss over quickly, little hearts made of Likes floating over her phone faster than anyone could read.

So she starts over.

She posts her selfie from the vigil. It settles into her scrapbook like a band-aid for her heart. Her community sees a face and stops scrolling just long enough to talk.

She tells them, while they’re paused– you could be a good neighbor, too. We could build a better world.

Almost no one hears her, because honestly, almost no one sees her at all– her life is a parade of people handing her a thumbs up as they walk away in the middle of her sentences. Her hair looks nice today. It’s growing out. Her sentences are awfully long. She should consider a trim.

But today, this picture may have swayed one or two. She knows she looks scared in that photo, but she went anyway. Maybe someone else will do the same now.

In the news, the one thing we seem to all agree on is that selfies are for the vain. That the new generation only acts in kindness to record it. That we communicate in pictures because we don’t remember how to read. That we document in photos because we don’t know how to accept the transient nature of all things.

The news blares, and she turns it off to relight the candles in her living room. The vigil has not stopped for her. It will not stop for her. She grieves for everything now.

She thinks about her neighborhood, and what she can do to make it safer. She thinks about her invisibility and missing pieces, and thinks about how to be the good kind of see-through, powerful like bubble wrap.

She wants to wrap her arms around everyone, squeeze them so closely that it feels like always. Hug them so safely that it feels like maybe this is the one thing in life that will not pass.

She goes out to buy more candles, and takes a selfie with one balanced on her head, and the people in the shop around her sigh and groan. One mumbles something about how this generation can only think about themselves.

When she posts the picture, she adds a flame, and smiles when she sees it. In the photo, she looks like a burning candle. A call to the grieving or a burst of celebration.

She imagines herself both. She imagines herself melting like wax. Yes, she is just another thing that will surely pass, but to pass in the service of light is a beautiful dream.

Light is a type of almost-invisible thing, too. Just like bubble wrap. Just like lost people.

Just like her.

12 thoughts on “on the backs of selfies

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