These feet, thighs, torso, breasts, shoulders, arms, fingers, neck, head. This is my body. This is your body. This skin, two layers over a deposit of fatty tissue. Muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons. Cells. Replication. This is who you are, what you are. This is you, inside of you.
Your face, the small pores, sweat glands, your nose and eyes. This is what you call yourself. The arch of the eyebrows, the beautiful sweep of long lashes, the slightly pointed ears with attached earlobes. The hair, soft as blackened silk. The awkward smile. This is what you think you see. This is who you pretend to be.
Inside this body there is a heart. Right and left atrium and ventricles with one-way valves. Exit only. Systoles that pump blood out of the heart. Diastoles to let the muscle relax, inflate with more blood. Electric shocks, the sinoatrial node, cause the flexing and relaxing. The pacemaker. 72 beats per minute. This is you, keeping you alive.
This is your body. This is my body. Lungs, kidneys, veins and arteries, spleen, liver. This is you, but not what you see.
The brain. This is you. Who you think you are. Intelligence, thought, logic, creativity. These are your opinions. This is your knowledge applied to life, filtered through experience. This is a mass of billions of nerve cells, neurons, which transmit electrochemical signals. A gray blob of cells, folds and crests, the gyri and sulci, ugly little brain. This is who you think you are. This is who you think.
Beneath the hair, under the skull, behind those beautiful brown eyes, that mask of a face, this is who you are. The cerebrum, the largest part of the brain. The mushroom, divided in two down the middle.
The frontal lobes, hidden behind your eyebrows and forehead, are your personality and emotions. It is your motor skills, your speech, your cognitive functions. This is where you think. This is where you love. These are your thoughts and memories. This is you, being you.
This is the sum of the parts of your life, in little folds, with small pathways between cells. The electrical charge travels between cells and when it strikes another neuron a memory is released or programmed. This is you, recording everything you see, touch, hear, smell, think. This is you as you have been made to be. Every time you think of your mother’s smile, a neuron will connect to this. You’ll remember this.
These pathways are you. When an electrochemical charge travels to another cell, it takes a pathway, an axon, to get there. Along the way, it might touch the nerve endings of other cells, triggering different connections. This is you, thinking of your father and remembering his touch and smell and associating it with home because a synapse doesn’t know when to quit. Because the path is so worn and so familiar that it is followed out of instinct.
This is you having thoughts because of automatic reflex. Like your leg kicking up when a doctor hammers your shin, this is you without control of your brain. A knee jerk reflex. Making connections that you don’t want to make. Your mother’s smile.
This is you associating pain with love, fear with sex, violence with memories of your mother. This is you being beaten by the woman who loves you the most and knowing that she is doing it because she loves you so much. The sting of a hairbrush, the bite of a kiss. So much love causes so much pain.
This is you being taught a lesson. This is me carving new pathways, stomping down the grass and weeds and making sure I can remember it well. New connections between old memories, the axons stretching out to the nerve endings of a neuron. This is the path that the synapses will take when I learn anything new that has to do with pain, love, and right and wrong. This is a lesson that I will remember.
You’re no different. This is your brain. These are your paths. This is the memory that you might someday bury, but which will be triggered by every single event for the rest of your life.
This is the hub of you. This is your center and it is falling apart. Wrapped in quilts and a plaid nightgown, holding yourself together in bed.
These are your bloodshot eyes after you cry yourself to sleep. Those wrinkles under your eyes, those are from sleeping with a wet face. Salt on your face. When salt interacts with cells, it causes them to implode by sucking the moisture out through the cell wall. This is you, eating away at yourself. I’m no different.
The brain is your mind, part of the body, but separate. Body and mind and holy ghost. But where is your spirit? Where is your soul?
You are surrounded by a thin layer of electrical energy caused by the chemical reactions inside your bodies. Energy being displaced and radiated. The electromagnetic energy field. Doctors use E.E.G.s to read this around your brain, to see if you are functioning correctly. To see if you are you, being you.
This is your aura. The slower your electrical pulses, the more resistance in you, the larger your aura. The resistance causes the electrical feedback to flow off your body. This is you and your bioelectrical soul.
Your emotions are chemicals. Glands release small doses of hormones which cause different pathways to form in your head, or they reroute traffic, or they block a street. That pathway to sadness has been rerouted to the pleasure dome thanks to the fluoxetine your doctor gave you.
This is you, not being you. This is you, changing you from the inside out. The traffic jam in your cognitive function has been noted and examined. Thanks to the new chemical you take with your morning tea, we’ll soon be building a four-lane highway with exits every millionth of an inch, to facilitate the busy morning commute.
Behind your eyes, you are changing. I’m no different.
Every experience is changing these pathways. Every thought causes new links. New associations. We are changing and thinking and breathing and living and every single bit of it is us being us. We are no different. We have the same problems, the same pathways, the same memories. We just have different ways of getting there. I take the freeway past my memories of love and violence. You take the leisurely drive through strawberry ice cream with your grandmother and past bullies pulling down your jeans on the playground. We’re no different, you and I. We just drive at a different pace.
Who am I to think these thoughts? Who am I to take your brain and reprogram it? Who am I to sit on the couch and watch TV and feel the consumeristic call to patriotic duty? Drink this, don’t watch that, buy me, rent me, lease your future. These are pathways being beaten down so that after a few more months we can rezone the area. We’ll make it into the fastest god-damned highway in the whole fucking country.
The world will make you more like everyone else by showing you the way. Buy God. Buy Country. Buy used, pre-owned thoughts. Buy us.
We’re really not that different if you think about it. And you will think about it. The pathway has been paved and now it connects to different memories. You’ve changed.
Every time you think of your mother’s smile, you’ll think of this. Every time you think of your mother’s smile, you’ll think of this. Every time you think of your mother’s smile, you’ll think of this.
We’re not that different and we’re becoming more and more alike every second.
These arms, these hands, these fingers, toes, lungs, heart. This isn’t you. This is the memory in the cell, building by retracing the familiar paths. This is the programming of your father’s sperm and your mother’s eggs. This is just you, made by them.
The easiest way to make a person remember is to associate her thoughts with a common concept. That way, whenever you think about your grandmother and how lonely she must be in that empty house, you’ll think of greeting cards. Whenever you think about freedom and mountains, you think of trucks. Whenever you think about feet, shoes, success, you’ll remember that fucking commercial. Whenever you think of your mother’s smile, you’ll think of this.
These are the pathways that you are building while you sit on your ass. This is you working overtime at being who they want you to be.
Think of a man. Think of the perfect man. What do you see? He has a suit and tie and a smile for his family. He’s a hero, tall and holding a basketball in one hand and a briefcase in the other. He’s a myth. A dream. A dream is nothing but the programming you’ve suffered. A hero holds a sword and goes on an epic quest. A hero has wings. A hero can fly. This is you, thinking what they said to think.
Think of a woman. A virgin, a mother, a crone. Think of the oracles and witches. What do you see? Betrayal, weakness, temptation. I don’t have to wait for a prince or tell the future. I don’t have to be what they say.
What about those fingers with their individual prints, proof that you are you and no one else? No two alike, even your twin sister, who died at age thirteen because she wasn’t skinny enough, she had a different pattern on her fingertips.
They were alike, same eyes and hair and uncomfortable smile, but those pathways were just different enough to make her slice through two layers of skin, a layer of fat, through tendons, veins and arteries. To put a razor to her throat and rip open a new smile. Just a wrong twist in the road of you and she decided that life wasn’t any better than death if she couldn’t have bigger breasts, smaller thighs, and a butt that made men drool.
She didn’t even like boys very much, but she knew her pathways were wrong. She knew that when Daddy’s ugly little sperm crawled their way up Mommy’s uterus, that the wrong one got into the egg. A weasel. When the cell split into two parts, it wasn’t you who got the tight curls on your index finger or the strange ‘y’ down the middle of your thumbprint.
You had the pathway to life.
You think this is you, that you are you, but from now on whenever you think of your mother’s smile, you’ll think of this.
Your long pubic hair, that isn’t from some mysterious God who loves you or hates you. This is a familiar course and your body goes with the path of least resistance. The folds of your labia, the size of your nipples, the way your left breast is slightly larger than the right, this isn’t torture, it’s economics. It’s just easier this way.
My fingers grow calluses from playing the guitar. My father played the guitar, but his fingertips never stayed tough for long. After a few days of not playing, his skin would flake off and be replaced with a new soft layer. Mine stay hard for weeks without playing. The cells have learned a new, easier way and passed that along. This is you too.
These ideas and memories that everyone has, you’ll remember your mother’s smile, are nothing new. Archetypes, paradigms, familiar slogans. A slogan is associated with as many things as possible so that when you think of water, hair, shampoo, women, showers, flowers, freedom, and nudity you’ll think of a brand name. When you see a man walking down the street in a three-piece suit, you’ll think of the cologne he should be wearing. When you meet a stranger in a bar and he smiles at you and tells you that you look like an angel, you’ll think of a brand of beer, a style of shoe, a soap.
If only you had wore your naughty panties that don’t fit but make you feel sexy because a supermodel wore them on the cover of a magazine, if only you had brushed your teeth with the right toothpaste, if only you had taken the medicine your doctor gave you, if only these things then you might feel confident enough to tell the man to fuck off. You might be enough of yourself to resist being him.
He’s confident. He has pathways that dominate yours. You might as well be his for the night and thrown away the next day. It’s in your genes, your jeans.
This is you and me and we aren’t so different. When we think of our mother’s smile we think of warm oatmeal cookies, and kisses, and the way Mommy liked young men. Maybe not yet. But we both will soon.
Whenever you think of your mother’s smile, you’ll think of this. Whenever you see that bright toothy grin in the mirror, the long pink gums, the thin upper lip and fat lower lip, that smile that belongs on your mother’s face and not yours, you’ll think of this.
You’ll think of me and when I was fourteen and my mother told me that a boy wouldn’t like me if I didn’t wear a bra. You’ll think about feminine deodorant spray and the changes in your body. You’ll think of musk and scented toilet paper. Tampons and pads. Brown stains.
You’ll think of your grandma and how she leaves a smell behind every time she goes pee. You’ll think how you were afraid she was rotting and that someday you might be rotten down there too.
And those fingers that you adore on your best friend, those long thin fingers with dark pink fingernail polish, those aren’t yours. They could be, you know that they could be, if only you read a few more fashion magazines, if only you watched a few more TV shows, if only you walked like the models do.
If only Daddy’s dumb sperm would have been smart enough to sit on the sidelines and play with the uterus. If only the egg had a choice.
These things, they are you and me and we both remember the smile when we think about them. We both remember that Daddy was a hard worker and liked to have one beer each night right before dinner and one mixed drink, soda and whiskey, after dinner while he watched the news or a sports game. We both remember the smell of turkey or pot roast or burnt meatloaf mixing with his drink as we sat on his lap and the feel of his stubble on our foreheads. His rough face, his gentle kisses on our eyelids, the way he would squeeze us a little too hard when his team scored a touchdown, a goal, a homerun. How the squeeze hurt a little but made us feel warm and how we wanted him to squeeze us like that all the time.
The way fathers laugh and smell, that’s a program in your brain, a pathway. A memory that connects to all the love and warmth and good things in your head. When you look for a boyfriend, a lover, a husband, you’ll look for a man that makes those same pathways come alive. It’s not that you or I want to fuck our fathers, but there isn’t any man that will ever compare to what he was.
Every time you think of your mother’s smile, you’ll think of this and how you graduated in the very middle of your class. 99 out of 198 students, a C+ average. You’ll remember this because your brain is making tiny little roads and connecting those neurons to each other with precision. You’ll remember how Daddy sat in the front row, next to an empty seat. You’ll remember how much he smiled and clapped and screamed out “good job,” when you got your diploma.
The ‘diploma’ was an empty piece of cardboard folded over on itself and colored blue with magic marker and it smelled like the inside of a science room. You took your seat and smiled at the crowd, gave them your mother’s smile, but that smile wasn’t returned. Other people have different teeth, different lips, different wrinkles at the corners of their eyes.
They mailed you your diploma three weeks later. You remember your mother’s smile then, because of its absence as she handed you the mail and told you to stop bothering her while she was paying bills.
You’ll always remember the smile that wasn’t there because right next to the neuron with her smile, is the neuron without her smile. That’s the pathway, and burning your fingertips in the flame of candle won’t change who you are. Even if that candle was bought from a woman who claimed to be a witch.
This is you and me trying to change who we are. Stopping watching TV or buying magazines. Dropping out of college after only a semester because you can’t deal with all the pressure. This us doing what they told us to do. We didn’t even want to go to college and when the job as a secretary came up, we leapt for it.
This is us hearing the song on the radio, that sad song that our parents used to dance to. When mom was drunk and daddy hadn’t been berated for not bringing in enough money, this is the song we heard and remember. We feel loved because of it. We feel loved because repetition works and you’ll think of this every time you think of your mother’s smile.
This is us smiling in the mirror. We have the same smile sometimes, or maybe we don’t. Maybe your lips are different than mine. These are the dreams the world give us though, to be the same as that anorexic bitch who demands a certain brand of water before she’ll strip down and show us the crease at the small of her back. This is the bitch we wanted to be growing up, the one we waxed our inner thighs to be like, the one we starved ourselves to feel like, the one who caused us so much pain because the marketers were trying to sell bikini underwear.
We can’t feel sexy without wearing those fucking panties. We can’t feel alive without drinking that diet soft drink. We can’t eat meat without puking because we’ve been doing it so long. It’s learned behavior and the teachers are all insane. Repetition works. Replication works. And the blisters on my fingers kept me from playing the guitar for two months, but they healed and now those pathways on my fingers aren’t the same as they used to be.
Maybe this is me being the true me, or maybe I just found another pathway that gets me to the same place. A small clear creek used to run through this fold, from the crest of these sulci, but now there is a road and it leads to my memory of my mother’s smile and from there a synapse triggers this memory.
This memory of my prom date and how he kept groping my breast when we would dance. He held my hand to his chest, pulled me in close, one hand straying down the small of my back towards my freshly waxed ass crack, his other hand would press against my left breast. I remember how I was glad he was feeling the larger of the two tits. This is my mother’s smile and where it leads me.
And from there I start wondering where our souls are. Where is my immortal soul? Where is that part of me that is just me? Did I inherit it from my mother and father? My father’s soul must be slightly round, a soft glow, bluish and light green. Mother’s must be long and straight, dark red and black, like blood and cancer. It must spin madly, from one drink to the next, from one lay to the next.
Like the time I found her in bed at two pm watching a pornographic movie. The time we came home from school with a cold, a sore throat that we complained about until the school nurse told us to go home if we felt so shitty. The way our heart skipped a beat when we heard that bad word.
Like it was something new. Like we didn’t hear it all the time from the wine stained lips of our mother when she would walk into the living room after dinner and turn off the TV and start yelling about dishes and bills and our lazy no-good son of a bitch father.
The way Mom kept saying fuck me, fuck me, fuck me. A whisper into a growl into a yell and into a moan. Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me.
And every time you think of this, you’ll think of the way your mother smiled as she tore back the covers of the bed. You’ll think of the man on the TV stretching out the asshole of a young blonde man. The way the ass stays open for a moment before the muscles begin to contract again. Every time you think of your mother’s smile, you’ll think of the blonde’s clenched jaws. You’ll think of the gay lovers. You’ll think of this because repetition works and we are only the things that we see over and over again.
The fastest way to get somebody to buy your product is to associate that product with a happy memory or a life-changing experience. Love, safety, death, rape. They are all just marketing ploys anymore. Violence reminds us that the good guy always wins. Sex reminds us that only the beautiful are ever truly happy. The rich are always right. There is no in between because real life isn’t what they are selling.
They are selling fantasies and memories. The barn burnt down because we were playing with matches, the car crash was caused by drinking and driving, the pain you feel in your stomach every time you get a sore throat isn’t because you have the flu. The word fuck is your favorite word because repetition works.
The time your mother found your diary and read the entire thing taught you an important lesson. A lesson that you retraced daily. Every time you write anything down, even your name or your address you’ll remember that you shouldn’t write anything that you don’t want anyone to read. The purpose of writing is to convey thoughts, to program others to think how you think. To love what you love. To feel your feelings.
After your mother laughed at you, a tumbler of cloudy vodka in one hand and your diary in the other, you never forgot your new lesson. When she said that you were a sick and twisted little girl and smiled that gummy smile while she laughed and took sips of her smelly drink. While she said that touching yourself was natural. While she said that a dick is what you really need. While she was drunk and smiling you kept thinking that you’d never write anything down again. Never. Because she brought it up more than once.
She would lift the candles off the kitchen counter, the long thin pink ones, and smile at you and wink. She would offer them to you while she was drunk and you would promise yourself never to write again.
You can’t even write down your name without blushing, without getting a stomach ache and a sore throat. It’s learned behavior because repetition works and those pathways are too deep, too well trodden for the electrical pulse to go any other way. And every time you think of your mother’s smile you’ll think about diaries and masturbation and gay videos and your father and hurting.
This is your body, or so you tell yourself. This is my body, but it’s really just the results of two people coming together, cumming together, the mixing of pathways. DNA never chooses the road less traveled. This is my brain, but it’s nothing more than what they want me to think, feel, remember, learn. These folds aren’t mine. They belong to corporate America, to mothers and fathers, to advertisements and repetition.
This soul? I can’t even believe in it anymore without knowing that I am nothing more than what I’ve been made to be. And you are no different. Not the president, the supermodel, the criminal, or the dead sister. We’re all just repetition and every time you think of this, you’ll think of your mother’s smile. Every time you think of your mother’s smile, you’ll think of this.
“Your Mother’s Smile” originally online at carvezine.com and later appeared in the Volume 6 of The Best of Carve Magazine.
Bryan Howie lives in the American Inland Northwest, where he has been searching for a muse in the trees and rivers. He also loves photography and motorcycle riding, but has a hard time doing both simultaneously.
You can find him online at bryanhowie.com