Four hours north of my New Jersey residence, on the cobblestone streets of Salem, Massachusetts, I trailed behind my older brother, Mike and his wife, Caitlin.
A trolley packed with masked tourists skated by us as the ivy glistened on the façade of the old mansions on either side of the street.
The sunny autumn air soothed our bodies while we absorbed the eccentric energy of downtown Salem.
I haven’t seen Mike in person since our grandmother passed away in January. I have only seen him a handful of times per year since he moved to New England. Nonetheless, our bond is tight. Our past is traumatic. Our friendship is transcendent of time.
In the midst of the pandemic, I have felt a magnetic pull toward family that I haven’t experienced in some time. I have actively spent the past two years unpacking my past, and this Selah in society has expedited that process. I’m shedding guilt, shame, and perceived judgments that I’ve cultivated since my teens. Mike has been the only person in my life who recognizes those movements in me. He has danced through them in his own way. We have both unearthed file cabinets of belief systems that we have created out of survival, but now they occupy too much space. It has taken us both time and internal confrontations to begin to thin the shelves of thoughts that hold us back from being our authentic selves.
I look at Mike with the admiration that someone does at their most hailed artist, performer, Marvel superhero—which he wore well in his Bane costume this weekend. Although that character was a villain, he was powerful, and so is Mike.
As I prepared for this visit, Mike implored me to bring a costume, even though the calendar had barely struck October.
“It’s Salem—people dress up every day of October. We’ll wear costumes and go hang out outside somewhere pandemic-safe. It’ll be fun,” he said.
As we followed the current downtown to the Covid-abiding bar, Mike was met with calls of Bane’s most infamous catchphrases by onlookers. He was owning his look. He was commanding the town. He was also wearing a sign, with bloody hand prints, that read, vote.
A humanitarian message carried by the inhumane, Bane made his way down the cobblestone streets as I observed the nuanced responses of the people gathering there. Once we found a place to park ourselves, we sat, we drank, we laughed. We were the only ones in costume. Just Bane, a devil, and a ninja enjoying a cocktail.
On Saturday morning, the plan was to explore the town and visit some of the historical mansions along Chestnut Street. With a slight headache and a firm fear of my solo drive home, I decided to keep my attire pandemic chic—otherwise known as: sweatpants and a sweatshirt.
I’m just with my brother and my sister-in-law, who do I need to impress? I thought.
It suddenly struck me that we hadn’t yet taken a single picture together. It was a thought that I resigned to quickly, even though, before leaving, I had set an intention for myself to get more photos with my brother. Life is short, after all. These trips are rare. It’s something we should do.
I recalled the family photo shoots that Mike and I were forced to do growing up. We went to a studio with matching outfits on. Even when our home was in chaos, our mom structured our annual sibling photos. I would do something silly like drape Mike in Christmas lights as if I were the mischievous younger sister who thought wrapping my brother in Christmas lights would be pique hilarity. Every time, a man with a British accent shouted directions at us like we were backstage at Vogue. Most of the time, the pictures printed would feature shut eyes on my end. Flash was not my friend.
Back in present-time Salem, we explored the area and immersed ourselves in the scenery. My brother turned to me. “Can we take a picture?” he asked.
I hadn’t showered. My hair was in disarray. My sweatshirt bustled in the wind and my pants were embellished with cat hair.
“No, I look crazy. I don’t want to take a picture right now,” I said.
“That’s okay,” he shrugged.
But I saw the look in his eyes—even though it was more subtle than a sneeze on the seismic scale. It was so rare for him to request a photo. He is not the type to care or initiate photos being taken. It was a rare moment in time when we were together with no holiday pressure, and he wanted to commemorate it.
I couldn’t do it. My insecurities presided over the value of this moment. I was self-conscious. I was frustrated.
Why didn’t we take one the other night when I actually “looked good?”
I should’ve made it a point last night to take one.
Should I just take it anyway?
But the moment had passed. The feeling of unease since has not. I’m disappointed that vanity and internalized misogyny about my looks could override the magic of that moment.
From a young age, emphasis has been placed on appearance. We were told to dress well, look our best, and present our surface selves as people who have it together.
Only lately have I realized the toxicity in that. It’s an item to unlearn that is unfortunately lodged in my mind’s hard drive.
I wish I didn’t allow what I thought my looks were at the time to prevent me from capturing a precious memory with Mike.
I didn’t take the photo.
Next time, I will.