Photographing the dead

When I was thirteen, I had a friend who used to like to take morbid pictures. She would insist we dress up like corpses, lipstick smeared red across our mouths, our shirts pulled down low, exposing bras filled with more padding than flesh. We took turns perfecting a stare that looked through the camera, through each other. When my mother found the pictures, she cried. She asked me why we did it — why did we want to dress up like the dead. I told her I didn’t know.

I don’t know how true that is. There was something thrilling about it: We were performing possibilities — the gruesome ways we could be hurt, made glamorous through cheap make up and the flash on a disposable camera. We staged them, shot them, bought and paid for them. They were ours.

It was around this time that I was obsessed with Law and Order: SVU. I wanted to be a detective. I wanted to walk around with a holster strapped to my hips, with a gun. I wanted to chase down criminals, dislocate shoulders, throw chairs around in the interrogation room. I wanted to be tough, to throw my weight around. (To be fair, a large part of this fascination with the show had to do with one Detective Stabler. I spent hours, to the bewilderment of my other friends, imagining myself as the plucky rookie assigned to tag along after him. There may have been daydreams of an interoffice affair.)

The neighborhood I grew up in is a relatively safe one, or at least, it seemed so to me. It even seemed safe after I was followed home from school not once, but twice, by men in vans, whose faces I never saw. It seemed safe even though, in eighth grade, another friend of mine told me that she’d once broken both arms jumping out her bathroom window so that she could call the police, because her father was beating her mom and she didn’t know how to stop him. It seemed safe even though there was a teacher fired for inappropriate conduct with a student each year I was in high school. By senior year, it had become a joke: Who’s it gonna be this year? Even after all this, my neighborhood seemed safer than other places I’d seen on TV, whether on Law and Order, or on the news.

It perhaps wasn’t as safe as I thought. There’s a restaurant on Bell Blvd that was perpetually closed; rumor has it the owner is accused of murder. A girl in the grade below me was killed, along with her mother and sister, by her father. Then he killed himself. I learned this after I graduated high school. I was never close to the girl, but it hit hard, learning the way she died. Like all the plots of the TV shows I used to watch, like all the headlines I read on Yahoo, or all the 15-second promos for the 11 o’clock news had reached through from the places where those things happened and, with bony fingers, brushed my spine. I was interning at ABC at the time. I may have spent that morning thinking of pithy ways to tease a murder.

We dressed up like the corpses you see on TV shows, the murdered girls that nobody cares about but Olivia Benson. We dressed up like hookers with hearts of gold. My friend was talented. The blood looked TV-real, and we looked more beautiful with our make up on than we ever looked at school. We perfected our stares. I think we did it to get close to worst case scenario, to see for ourselves what we would look like if. There is so often on television a young dead girl laying still and pale and slightly blue on a cold metal slab while her parents weep and nod. It’s almost like it’s not prime time without at least one. I wonder if we were trying to prepare ourselves, to satisfy some curiosity: To see that version of ourselves if. It’s an if that seems far away, until it’s not. With each photograph, we crossed our fingers. They were talismans, capturing a possibility and dispelling it, a frail charm against a violence always out of our control.

Or maybe it was just a game. We were theatrical kids, artistic. It was a game. It was so much less frightening if it was just a game.

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