Roxane Gay

Once, I Was Pretty

There have been years and years of my life I can’t remember a thing about. A family member will say, “Remember the time [insert significant family moment],” and I stare blankly, having no recollection of these moments whatsoever. We have a shared history and yet we do not. In many ways, that’s the best way to describe my relationship with my family. There is the great life we share and the more difficult parts of my life we do not, that they know nothing about. It’s hard to explain this absence of memory because there are also things I remember like they were yesterday.

I have a good memory. I can remember conversations with friends almost word for word. I remember how platinum blonde the hair of my fourth grade teacher was or how I got in trouble for reading in class in the third grade because I was bored. I remember my aunt and uncle’s wedding in Port au Prince and how my knee swelled like an orange when I was bitten by a mosquito. I remember good things. I remember bad things. When I have to, though, I can strip my memory bare, and I have done this at times, for reasons that are complicated. Erasure was necessary. My mother has tried to fill in some of the blanks from my childhood even if she doesn’t realize it. She remembers everything or that’s how it seems or that’s how it was until I went away to boarding school at thirteen, and then there was no one there to hold on to my memories for me.

I have photo albums I have taken from my parents’ house, albums swollen with fading pictures of my brothers and I when we were very young. This was before the Digital Age and still, it seems like almost every moment of my life was photographed, and then each picture was developed, meticulously saved. Each album has a big number on it with a circle around that number. In many of the albums there are brief notes with names, ages, places. It’s as if my mother knew these memories needed to be preserved for a reason. The fierceness of her love for and devotion to us is overwhelming and this fierceness only grows stronger, the older we get. When I was a child, my mother kept these albums in a neat, sequential row and when one album filled, she went and bought another album and filled that too.

She still takes pictures of everything and has more than fourteen thousand pictures on her Flickr stream, pictures of her life and our lives and the people and places in our lives. At my doctoral defense, there she was, staring at me so proudly, every few minutes picking up her camera to snap a new picture, to capture every possible moment of my moment.

People often notice I am always taking pictures of everything. I say I do it so I won’t forget, so I cannot forget all the amazing things I see and experience. I don’t explain that there is so much I have willed myself to forget and if, God forbid, I were to do that again, to try and strip myself of my memories, I would want something to hold on to. But it’s more than that. The ways in which I am my mother’s daughter are infinite.

The first album is my baby album. I’m the oldest child. On the first page of this album are my parent’s names, my date of birth, my height and weight, hair and eye color. There are blank lines for “exciting memories in baby’s life.” Apparently I read the alphabet at two and a half years old and could tell time at three. My mother wrote, “reads almost everything at five years old.” Those are my her exact words, written in her neat penmanship though family lore has me reading the newspaper with my dad about a year and a half before that. There are two black imprints of my baby feet with the words, “Girl Gay” written above them. I was born at 7:48 in the morning, which is why, I am certain, I am not a morning person.

For the first five years of my life, my mother recorded my height and weight. I had a big head. There was a record of my birth in the Omaha World Herald, printed on October 28, 1974, thirteen days after my birthday, and the clipped section of the newspaper is stored in this album as is my birth certificate and the little card they put on my bassinette in the hospital. My mother was 25 and my father was 27, so young, but, given the time, not as young as many people when they started families. My name is spelled correctly on my birth certificate, with one “n”, and the birth certificate is pink. Political correction did not exist then–girls were pink and boys were blue and that was that.

In the very first picture of my mother and me together, she is holding me and her hair is jet black, cascading down her back in a thick ponytail. Many of my childhood memories are woven with my mother’s hair. She looks impossibly young and beautiful. I am three days old. This actually not the first picture of us together. There is a picture of my mom, hugely pregnant with me, in a sassy blue mini-dress and a pair of chunky heels. Her hair is wild and hanging loose down her back. She is leaning against a car giving a look to the camera, my father, the kind of intimate look that makes me want to turn away to afford them some privacy. She put this picture in the album, though. She wanted me to see this gorgeous picture, to know she and my father have always loved each other.

These oldest pictures have been in the album so long that they are stuck to the pages. To try and remove the pictures would ruin them.

Every picture of me as an infant with my parents reveals them smiling at me like I am the center of the world. I was. I am. It is all so complicated, but this is part of my truth I know with real clarity—everything good and strong about me starts with my parents, absolutely everything. Almost every picture of me as an infant shows me smiling a smile so infectious that when I look at these pictures, I cannot help but smile too. There are happy babies and then there are happy babies. I was a happy baby. This is indisputable.

Babies are cute but they’re pretty useless, my best friend says. They can’t do much for themselves. You have to love them through that uselessness. In pictures where I am alone, I am being propped up by the arm of a chair, or pillows. I cannot manage to sit up on my own yet. In one picture, on a hideous, thickly brocaded red couch, I am alone and visibly screaming my head off. There is more than one picture of me screaming my head off. Pictures of screaming babies are hilarious when you know they are pictures of happy babies who are simply having a random fit of baby rage. I look at these baby pictures and think, “I look like my niece,” but really it is my niece who looks like me at her young age. Family is powerful, no matter what. We’re always tied together with our eyes and our lips and our bloody hearts. There is a picture of my older cousin holding me. I am still an infant. We are sitting on a plastic covered couch in New York City. This was the weekend of my christening. I was baptized in the city and all the pictures surrounding this lone picture of me and my cousin involve me in a long, white satin christening gown. In the picture my cousin is older, maybe five or six. I am squirming, my limbs at awkward angles, more of that senseless baby rage. I was a smart baby. We are not close.

In the past few years, I’ve gone through these albums a lot. At first, I looked for pictures to show a child of my own this is where you come from, so when I have that child, she might know her family knows how to love, however imperfectly, so a child of my own knows her mother has always been loved and so she may know that she, in turn, will always be loved. It is important to show a child love in many ways and this is the one good thing I have to offer, no matter how this child comes into my life. I also study the pictures, the people in them, I recall the names and places, the moments that matter, so many of which elude me. I try to piece together the memories I have so carefully erased. I try to make sense of how I went from these perfect, photographed moments to who I am today.

I know, precisely, and yet I do not know. I know, but I think what I really want is to understand the why of the distance between then and now. The why is complicated and slippery. I want to be able to hold the why in my hands, to dissect it or tear it apart or burn it and read the ashes even though I am afraid of what I will do with what I see there. I don’t know if such understanding is possible but when I am alone, I sit and slowly search through these albums obsessively. I want to see what is there and what is missing and what happened, even if the why still eludes me.

There is a picture of me. I am five, staring at a plastic typewriter while I lie on a couch, on my stomach, ankles crossed, probably daydreaming. I always daydreamed. I have big eyes and a scrawny neck. Even then, I was a writer. I am still happy. There is a picture of me. I am seven, I am happy, wearing overalls. I wore overalls a lot as a kid. I liked them for lots of reasons but mostly I liked them because they had many pockets where I could hide things and overalls were complicated and had lots of buttons and things requiring fastening. They made me feel safe, cozy. In probably one out of every three or four pictures, I am wearing overalls. That’s strange but I was strange. In this particular picture, I am with my middle brother and he is karate kicking me as I try to avoid his little foot. He was and is very energetic. We are three years apart. We are having fun. We are still very close. We were cute kids. It kills me to see that kind of naked joy in myself. I would like to be that free again.

There are countless pictures of me wearing skirts and dresses, pictures where I am a girly girl with long, done up hair, jewelry, the whole girl thing. I long thought I was a tomboy because I was the only girl. Sometimes we try to convince ourselves of things that are not true because, well, I don’t know why but we do it. We try to reframe the past to better explain the present. When I look at these pictures, it is quite clear that while I enjoyed roughhousing and playing in dirt with my brothers and such, I wasn’t a tomboy, not really. These pictures are what I like to call “collector items.” They are evidence that once, I was pretty, that beneath what you see now, there is still a pretty girl who loves pretty girl things.

I’m trying to find her, but I buried her well and good, tried to erase every memory of her because that girl ran into all kinds of trouble. In these pictures, I get older, I smile less. I am still pretty. When I am twelve, I stop wearing skirts or most jewelry or doing anything with my hair, instead wearing it back in a tight bun or ponytail. I am still pretty. A few years after that, I cut most of my hair off and start wearing oversized men’s clothing. I am less pretty. In these pictures, when I am nine, ten, eleven, older, I have the same big eyes, the same scrawny neck, same loving parents and brothers, but I am different. In these pictures I stare at the camera. I look hollow. I am hollow. The contrast startles me. I wonder why no one noticed.


ROXANE GAY’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, Cream City Review, Annalemma, McSweeney’s (online), and others. She is the co-editor of PANK, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, and can be found at Her first collection, Ayiti, will be released in 2011. Roxane Gay’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, Keyhole, Diagram, Annalemma, Gargoyle, and others.