On bad days, Mother hides her teeth like a secret. Keeps her lips shut tightly. After saying something, she will quickly close her mouth again, as though to swallow back the words. Among strangers, she will do this to hide her accent, to avoid the embarrassment of mispronouncing a word. Among us, she does this to indicate her mood. I have learned to measure her happiness by the amount of times she lets her mouth open. There have been days where I heard her speak twice, sometimes once. But today, she has spoken the whole car ride about the new book she has read. The words stream from her like the song of a rare bird, her mouth closing only briefly between sentences before she speaks again.
With Babushka, it is in the details, the corners. Since she is always smiling, one must learn to catch the subtle hints of feeling at the edges of her lips. The slight crease downwards indicates nostalgia, missing something but not wanting to show it. A crease upwards toward the cheeks shows she is happy, the look my mother gets when she is happy, only broader. The rarest one, the ends of the lips pulled to the sides, means she is displeased. These slight differences come like symbols, hopeful hints or omens. When the corners of her lips tremble, I know she has forgotten something. Maybe she cannot tell where her husband has gone, or simply isn’t sure what year it is. “Don’t be scared to ask anything, grandma,” I will have to say. And then her mouth will open.
(The Boy the Bottle Spins to)
He moves closer to me, and both of us swallow our breath, the feeling of twenty staring eyes heavy on my back. I look down at his lips, expecting to see a slight curl to signify disgust, maybe trembling corners to be read as uncertainty. Instead, to my surprise, his lips hang silently open in expectation. They are not a smile, a grimace, a frown. They are something I do not recognize. They are a cliff I dive into, and as I move between them, as I try to identify some familiar feeling in the teeth or tongue or soft lip, I am even more lost than I was to begin with.
Author's Purpose: I wrote this piece while considering the role people's mouths have played in my life. I had the odd thought one day that lips are incredibly important to humans, often used as symbols of love, but also the pathway for so many of our interactions and perceptions of people. With this thought in mind, I considered experiences of mine that had to do with mouths and lips, ranging from the nostalgic to the romantic. The essay was a chance to explore both the symbolic significance of lips and their meaning in my own life. (This selection is excerpted from a larger piece.)
Photo via Getty Images courtesy of Michael Heim / EyeEm