The Prettiest Girls in the World Are Born in Alabama


We were reminded in classrooms by our teachers’ mouths, in blurted announcements out of the intercom, in letters on the sad marquee outside the school. If you were still a small child, teachers would send letters home and hand out stickers for you to wear on your shirt. TOMORROW IS PICTURE DAY. Almost always the proofs are enough. You made it, this is a new year, you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. You never brought proofs home, though. You didn’t stand in an impatient line with other students in your grade, telling the girl in front of you that her bangs looked just perfect.

When other seniors were smiling stoically for senior portraits, you weren’t. You don’t know exactly what you did any of those years while they propped their teenage bodies on carpet-covered woodblocks or ladders. Your picture is not in any of the high-school yearbooks. There is a senior quote beside your pictureless name in the 1995 yearbook: “There’s more to life than this.” —Bjork.

Your first camera was a purple and yellow Le Clic. Your father taught you how to load the 110 film into the back of the camera. Most of the pictures you took were self-portraits. You made funny faces with your mouth open, like your face was just as new to you as the camera. You pushed your crowded teeth out, the left front tooth capped from a slip in the rain when you were eight. All you wanted was to advance the film, finish a roll, take it to the store, see what you made. You held negatives up to your bedroom lamp.

Your family wasn’t a camcorder family. One of your uncles had one when they were new, enormous, exciting. He must have brought it out when all three of your dad’s sisters (one of them his wife), their spouses, and children visited in Tampa. You only know this because you saw the video for the first time ten years ago. Your uncle’s muffled voice and breathing is somewhat distracting like all voices and breathing were then. Your sister and your cousins run around, play, not at all consumed with being videotaped. Your aunts sit on couches, their legs folded underneath their bodies like exquisite birds, watching TV and keeping eyes on their children simultaneously. Your mother is in the kitchen making food. She covers her face, tells your uncle to stop it. Her smile spills out between her hands.

Your father drinks tea in a papasan chair. At first, you don’t even see yourself, but your uncle does. You are wedged between the wall and behind the chair. On the floor, you are wide-eyed, an animal. You look frightened even though you are old enough to know better. You must be six or seven. After your uncle asks you what you’re doing and you cover your face, so embarrassed of yourself, your father asks you what you’re doing too. He gets out of the chair, wipes your hair from your eyes, and you begin to cry. Watching yourself twenty years later will nearly wreck you. Attention was painful for you then and is now. Your face, your body, your voice embarrass you to no

You take all the pictures when you first meet your boyfriend. His phone camera isn’t that great, so you both elect you as photographer. For nine months, the pictures of the two of you are mostly pictures of him. Him at the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibit on Valentine’s Day, him staring down a chilidog at a baseball game on his birthday, him trying on a monocle on the Warby Parker bus in winter, him posing for pictures in a photo booth with his then three-year-old daughter on Father’s Day. When he gets a new phone, he is most excited about being co-photographer.

It doesn’t take long for you to realize that you will now be in pictures. After any series of pictures, your hands itch to see what he sees. Then, the purge. All the images of you deleted. A photo could pitch you into waves of anxiety and depression. You suggest he take pictures of the sky around the two of you at an art fair, the audience at a reading you read at, anything moving or still that isn’t you.

You look like your parents, your favorite faces. You have your mother’s nose and your father’s eyes. You have wavy brown hair that you’ve always had, from whom you don’t know. You have freckles that disappear when you wear makeup and a left ear that was sewn up by a plastic surgeon because you loved heavy earrings so much in the eighties and nineties. Your teeth are long and crooked and you always hide them in pictures unless you forget.

Your profile picture on Facebook is a photo your sister took on the High Line in 2010. After nearly every shot she took, you asked for the camera. Anxious, you deleted pictures as you both posed all along that park and in the sun. Before leaving, you pulled the collar of your green jacket up. In the picture, mostly the collar is visible, your right hand holding it up. You and your sister laughed really hard at the picture even though it wasn’t that funny.

When your boyfriend’s daughter turns four, she has a party with pizza and cake and gifts and playing. As you weave around slides and rides with your boyfriend, you take pictures of him posing with cartoon-character statues. His eyes look surprised even though he knows you’re taking his picture. He explains that although you don’t like being photographed, the pictures he takes of you are not for you. He tells you that they are for him, that he likes looking at your face and all the places you take your face with his face. He sees his daughter running around with her friends in dresses, dizzy with play. They’re for her too. When all three of you get back to his place, you lean down to tell her happy birthday again before leaving. He takes a picture. She’s smiling and leaning into you, her hair messy from the party and a nap in the car. You’re wearing a blue shirt-dress you bought for her birthday and all of your teeth in your smile.

“Alabama,” you told the other little children when they asked where you were from. Your family had moved from Birmingham to Houston in 1980. They all laughed at you when you said it. You didn’t get the joke. Then they told you that Alabama was gross, that it wasn’t Texas. You went home and told your father. “But the prettiest girls in the world are born in Alabama,” he said. “Didn’t you know that?” You threw a shine and a glow all the way to your room and then to school the next day. You told all of the other kids what your dad said to you, and maybe because you all were young and believed what older people said or maybe because they got sick of the joke or maybe because you told them with such conviction, a sermon almost, they believed.

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Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of four chapbooks. Her prose has appeared in Delirious Hem, The Los Angeles Review, South Loop Review, and Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an associate professor of English at Kennesaw State University. More from this author →