by Naomi Ulsted
This week we're lucky to have a piece by a fantastic writer, Naomi Ulsted. Glamour Shots is a delightfully funny and poignant look back at a time when hair was tall and glamor could be had for about sixty dollars and a trip to the mall. Enjoy!
I had spent my morning fantasizing about the UPS guy. He had thick dark hair and a natural smile, and he usually arrived at the office around ten in the morning. While booking reservations at La Quinta hotels across Texas for the children’s theatre show I worked with, I made sure I was in the front office in case he was just running late. After lunch, I gave up and was in the back room reorganizing our costume box, when I heard the door open. I draped my sparkling green witch costume over an office chair and darted to the front, ignoring my office manager’s disapproving look. She didn’t care for me bolting in or out of rooms. She pursed her lips as I slugged back Gatorade, suffering from after effects of an evening dancing down on Sixth Street. It was only a salesman selling Glamour Shots from the mall. So maybe I bought them because I was consoling myself about the UPS guy. Or maybe because the office manager sniffed with disdain as I reviewed the package; a sitting that included makeup and dress for up to three people and one eight by ten print, all for a flat rate of sixty dollars. I handed over my credit card.
It’s not like I was dying for a photoshoot; I hadn’t wanted to be a model since I was twelve, but my little sisters were coming to visit. They were eleven and thirteen years old, and I’d convinced our mom to let them fly from Oregon to Texas to spend two weeks with me. I imagined us dressed to kill, looking sophisticated and elegant. As I tucked my credit card back away and returned to my shimmering costumes, I felt very grown up.
I picked my sisters up from the airport in my pick-up truck, where the three of us crammed into the cab and their suitcases slid across the bed of the truck. We stayed up late drinking root beer and feeling our way back to the comfortable rapport we’d had before I moved away. Tanya, the eleven-year-old, sat on the only piece of actual furniture I owned, a large papasan chair. She curled her tiny self into the nest of it, eating microwave popcorn from the bag. Leah and I sprawled on the floor, our root beer bottles sitting on a square block that had been part of a book display at Barnes and Noble where I’d worked before the theatre job. It served as my dining room table. The soles of Leah’s feet were thick and calloused. She rarely wore shoes, preferring to toughen her feet on the unforgiving terrain of southern Oregon, priding herself on her ability to walk on the ground thistles that grew rampant across thirsty dirt soil.
“So how are things with Rick and Mom?” I asked.
“He’s a fucking asshole,” Tanya said immediately.
“They fight all the time,” Leah said.
“You don’t even hear it,” Tanya said to her. “You just hide in your barn all the time.”
Leah kept a large number of animals, including goats, rabbits and sheep. She secretly housed and fed a black widow spider in a jar in a dark barn corner.
“He eats mayonnaise from the container,” Tanya said, as if that ended any and all discussion of our stepdad’s character. Which, in some ways, it did.
“Screw him,” Leah said. “He said I was mean to my animals and told me I’d never be a veterinarian.”
Tanya curled up even smaller. “He told me I probably wouldn’t graduate from high school. He said statistics prove it.” She gestured to my barren studio apartment. “I can’t wait to live on my own.”
I had two bachelors degrees and I was spending my days researching La Quinta and waiting for the UPS guy. On performance nights, I wore my glittering witch costume and danced on stage, twirling my broom expertly. But performance nights were only a few times a month, and the rest of the time it was just mediocre me. Austin wasn’t cheap and once I’d paid for rent, I usually only had enough left for food and liquor. I had a refrigerator with cheese, dill pickles and Shiner Bock beer. A recent photo of myself showed thin legs and too prominent shoulder bones. I looked weak and brittle. “It’s not all that,” I said to my sisters.
On the day of our Glamour Shots, we made our way through the mall. My sisters’ lack of excitement about my big idea was underwhelming. Grudgingly, Leah had put on shoes for the trip. Tanya asked if we could go to arcade instead. I tried to make up for it with my own false enthusiasm. “It’s going to be fun,” I bubbled as we navigated through crowds of girls wearing crop tops who laughed loudly at jokes made by boys who sauntered as if they knew their place at the top of the hierarchy of mall goers. Which they did. As we passed by a group of girls emerging from J.J. Jeans with packages dangling from their arms, one of them narrowed her eyes at Leah’s overalls and sneakers. She nudged her friend and giggled. Leah reddened, shoving her hands further into her pockets.
“Oh look,” Tanya said, glancing toward the girls. “There’s a sale on Barbies.”
I had imagined Glamour Shots would be located in a posh studio, but this place had as much elegance as the Standard Optical shop next to it. The receptionist wore thick pancake makeup and long false lashes. She raked her eyes over us, as if overwhelmed by the exhausting task before her. “Okay,” she said in a tired voice. “We’ll get you dressed.”
We had been encouraged to bring our own clothes, but since all we had were overalls, jeans and sweatshirts, we’d decided to choose from their wardrobe. We squeezed into the dressing room and rifled through our options. Too many sequins. Too much gold lame. The receptionist-turned-stylist held up a leather dress with six inches of fringe hanging from the bodice and I shook my head.
Tanya pulled out a red denim dress cut scandalously low, raising her eyebrows at me. Leah stared blankly at the racks of clothes as if she were being asked to spin straw into gold. Feeling the whole adventure was going sideways, I began yanking dresses out and holding them up to her.
“Try this velvet one,” I pleaded. What if they never wanted to visit me again? What if they went home feeling worse than when they got here? What if nothing ever changed and there was another office to waste away in, another month of rent to be paid, another argument in the next room? What if the statistics were right?
Finally, we settled on three black dresses. They were cut lower than I’d like for any of us, but this was Glamour Shots and we didn’t have much choice. My dress sagged around my thin frame, so the stylist tightened it by fastening it in the back with a binder clip. Tanya stuffed wads of toilet paper into her bra to help fill out her dress. Leah refused to put her shoes on and the stylist finally relented, since they wouldn’t be in the photograph. She hiked up her dragging skirt as she padded toward the hair station.
There was hair spray, thick foundation too dark for our skin, more hair spray, contouring, shading, more hair spray, a thick coating of mascara, bright red lipstick, and then we were done.
My face felt like it was a pound heavier. Leah coughed her way toward me through a final cloud of hair spray. Tanya looked like a child prostitute.
I thought I might have seen our photographer doing Jello shots down on Sixth Street. His wavy hair fell over one eye and I wondered if that impaired his photography skills. He hoisted a blank screen behind us and situated us close together. A strand of Tanya’s hair got in my mouth and I tasted chemicals.
The photographer squeezed us together and as he moved Leah into place, she reached behind me to steady herself on the stool, brushing against Tanya’s face, which left a smear of makeup on her arm. Tanya tried to inch her way behind me to hide her cleavage, but the photographer kept pulling her back out. The lights were hotter than stage lights and I wondered if all this makeup was going to slide down my neck.
The camera began to click as we tried to maintain the awkward stances he’d shoved us into. “Okay, now smile,” he said. We tried. “Close mouthed smile this time, Ladies. Give me some sexy!” Leah’s grip on the stool slipped and she stumbled out of view. The photographer glanced at his watch. “Come on, ladies, show us your glamour!”
We tried for glamour. We smiled with closed mouths. We smiled with wide open grins. He turned on the fan so our hair wafted behind us in gentle waves. Tanya sneezed.
“Okay,” he said finally. “Let me take a look.” I felt a small wave of nausea in the heat of the lights. I wondered what I’d do tonight to keep my sisters from getting bored. “Hmm,” the photographer said as he studied the photos in his camera. “Your eye,” he said to me. “You’re kind of blinking.”
He brought the camera over to me so I could see the small photos. My right eye wasn’t open as wide as the left. I wasn’t actually blinking, but it was definitely noticeable.
“Let’s try a few more.”
Leah sighed as we arranged ourselves again, trying to be glamourous and seductive and elegant once more. He snapped a few more pictures and then checked them in the camera.
“Same problem,” he said. The three of us peered into the camera at my stubbornly drooping right eye.
“That’s one unglamorous eye,” Leah said.
“Can you try opening it wider?” the photographer asked.
So for the next round of clicks, I concentrated on opening my right eye wide.
After he checked the camera, his brow furrowed and he glanced at his watch again. “Well I think that’s what we’re going to get,” he said. “You can view the final shots at the kiosk out front.”
“I can’t wait to get this shit off my face,” Tanya said as she removed the toilet paper from her bra. Leah unclipped my binder for me and I hung the dress up. I felt a pinching and a sudden urge to cry, but I shoved it back down. My stupid eye. Ruined the whole thing.
We gathered around the photo kiosk monitor to view the final photos.
“I look like a porn star,” Leah said. Her cleavage was pushing up and as she had been leaning awkwardly, one boob especially was getting a lot of exposure.
“You could have a new career ahead of you,” Tanya said. We flipped to another photo where Tanya leered into the camera seductively. She was drama and sex. She was striking.
She was a child beauty pageant nightmare. She burst out laughing.
And then, photo after photo of us dealing with my eye. It drooped and sagged. The photos where I tried to open it were worse. My eyebrow raised, but my eyelid sagged even farther. My left eye tried to compensate by opening wide as if I was shocked. My expressed was pained and stressed. My teeth were bared in a strained smile.
“You look like you’re peeing your pants.”
“You look like you just walked in on Mom and Rick having sex.”
“You look like you just stuck a fork in light socket.”
“You look like you have a massive wedgie.”
As we flipped through the photographs we began to laugh and we couldn’t stop. Tanya laughed so hard tears cut through her pancake makeup. The stylist-turned receptionist gave a withering glare, but we laughed so hard customers at Standard Optical stopped trying on glasses and squinted our way. Leah gripped the monitor to steady herself, bent over in hysterics.
“Oh look,” I said as I flipped through the photos. “It’s the double child hookers and their very surprised pimp.”
“I need double copies of each one,” Leah said. “This was totally worth the toil of putting on all this makeup.”
“We are such trouble together,” Tanya.
The three of us huddled around the monitor, cackling so that our laughter rang up and past the annoyed receptionist, and through the mall, casting its spell, causing workers and shoppers to stop and look around curiously.
I took out my credit card and bought $150 worth of prints.
Back in our normal clothes, with our voluminous hair still sprayed into place, we headed into the mall. We passed Jordache and Guess and Versache. Every now and then, we’d take a print out of the package and burst into laughter all over again, crashing into each other. Mall girls moved out of our way. A man trying to give out face cream samples called to us, but I silenced him with a glare from my evil right eye. We bought candy apples and strode down the middle of the aisle in our coven, and as we crunched through the red shells with our sharp teeth, my empty refrigerator, our stepdad, and every prison holding us back disappeared like wisps of smoke in moonlight.
"Naomi Ulsted writes memoir and young adult fiction. Her work has been published in The New Guard, Mud Season Review and The Forge, among other journals. She lives in Utah with her husband and two boys."