A Mirror Darkly
by J.M. Rowe
The bell jangled. I paused in the doorway, framed in the sunlight, and enjoyed the scents of the antique shop. How marvellous were the smells of old things. They were the smells of serious passions, of long years waiting in darkness, the smell of secrets.
I don’t browse expecting to buy, but I always seem to come away with some impulse purchase: a knick-knack, an old shawl, a hair brush, a doll. I thought that, perhaps, I would be disappointed here, where no hidden thing, long unloved, called out to me from the dusty shelves.
Then I saw the mirror.
It was an old Buckingham frame, dark wood, baroque flutings and petals, so austere and yet shabby chic, perfect for the living room.
But really, it wasn’t the mirror, so much as myself in the mirror, that caught my breath. I looked so, I don’t know, so striking! The sunlight caught my mousey hair and my dress clung to my curves and I thought, Have I lost weight? But really, it was my expression: my eyes sparkled, my lips curled in an unfamiliar sly, knowing smile. I asked myself, Is that really me?
“I adore it.” I told the shopkeeper as he unhooked the mirror from its frame.
He grunted, laid it on the counter and wrapped it in heavy brown paper. While he worked, he muttered in a musical language that made me think of bonfires and autumn woods. Something Slavic, perhaps.
I hurried home with the heavy thing under my arm. I nursed it on the bus and balanced it against my shoulder on the stairwell. In the flat, I measured and fitted the hook, then hung my new treasure and stepped back.
How dark the glass was. The room seemed subdued, as if a lace veil were laid across it. I thought of the antique shop and dust motes dancing in the heavy air. But I loved my reflection. I had lost weight. I smoothed down the fabric of my dress, turned left, turned right. There was something knowing about my smile and I laughed at myself, preening in front of a mirror like a schoolgirl on prom night.
I rested my hands on my hips and nodded to my reflection in satisfaction.
Then I frowned. What was wrong? The room was wrong. Reflected in the glass, it looked so dowdy. The ornaments revealed their true shabbiness. I went around gathering up the porcelain ladies and glass animals, the mother-of-pearl jewellery boxes and rusted metal signs. So froufrou, pretentious, ugly: away with them! And why stop there? Away with the prim photo frames, the vacant smiles of ancient school friends and forgotten college room mates, the oh-so-conventional holidays, the dull family weddings, my graduation, Nathan’s first marathon.
I rested, panting, dragging a bin bag full of vulgar keepsakes. I studied the room. It looked bare. I considered the mirror’s reflection instead. No, it was not bare, but rather, it was minimalist, modern, bold. This room looked better. Much better.
Only … now, somehow, I was what looked wrong. Wrong for this room, with my shapeless dress in bourgeois floral print, those drab earth tones, my lifeless wavy hair sprawling on my shoulders. How could I have been satisfied with that?
I ran to my wardrobe, throwing blouses, sweatshirts and leggings onto the bed. All of them, timid things, half-ashamed of themselves, little better than rags. At the back there were older fashions from younger weekends. The faithful Little Black Dress, which clung tighter than it used to, but bared my shoulders in a way that felt liberating. I put up my hair. I experimented with lipstick: rich ruby, slutty scarlet, then darker tones. I applied smoky mascara.
I approached the mirror. I turned and walked away, then looked over my shoulder and caught my sly smile. The room and I belonged together. The mirror adored me. I poured myself a glass of wine, though it was only 5 o’clock. I danced. In the box behind the sofa was a jazz album I hated, left behind by an old boyfriend, pre-Nathan. The needle caught the vinyl and those maddening, impossible rhythms sprang from the speakers. The mirror captured me spinning, glass in hand.
Nathan came home late from the parents evening with his shirt crumpled and tie askew.
“You’re smoking?” he asked.
“Come here,” I told him, stubbing the cigarette out in a wine glass. “Here, stand behind me. Put your arm round my waist – there. Now, look at us.”
He could see it too. We looked good together, with his height, my head against his shoulder, our eyes finding each other in the glass. Then his lips on my neck, his fingers unzipping the dress, pulling it to the floor: his thrill of surprise that I wasn’t wearing underwear.
Our lovemaking was dramatic, like a ballet, like jazz. My skin, so white and clean; his dark arms enfolding me. I became moonlight seen through shadows. I climbed on top, so I could see myself in the mirror, riding him: powerful and carefree and desired. When he cried my name, I saw my sly smile reflected back and delight washed through me like the night tide under a heavy moon. Even as I arched my back and screamed for release, I watched myself.
Nathan lay sprawled on the rug. I rose from his arms, a little unsteady, and approached the mirror. I placed my hands on either side of it and leaned into my reflection. My naked body was a beautiful stranger.
“I adore you,” I told the woman in the mirror and pressed my lips against hers.
I stepped away. The lipstick smudged the glass. Behind the smear, my reflection stared at me with baffled, frightened eyes.
I turned away from her. I went back to the man on the floor and mounted him again, this time with my back to the woman in the mirror.
The next morning, after Nathan left, I showered for a long time. I ignored the phone ringing, the voicemail asking after their absent employee. I gathered Nathan’s clothes and books and knotted them in bin bags and added them to the collection in the yard outside.
Then I went shopping.
I returned with a proper haircut, dresses that didn’t insult womankind and a perfume suitable someone who wasn’t a librarian or a dairymaid.
I showed myself off to my reflection. I let her take a good look. Then I took the mirror down and wrapped it in brown paper.
I enjoyed the trip into town. In the wide shop windows, my reflection was striking. I saw the turned heads of men and women, admiration and envy: the age-old mixture of desire and resentment that the female body occasions, in every place, in every time. It was glorious.
There was just one chore to finish.
The antiques store smelled as foul as I remembered, with the stink of old things. It was the smell of wastage, of long years alone, of names that had been forgotten and places that no longer exist.
“I wish to return this,” I told the shopkeeper, sliding the mirror onto his desk.
He studied me, then regarded the wrapped bundle, then tweaked down his spectacles to study me again.
“You bought this … yesterday?”
“You no longer like it?”
I smiled at him until he looked away.
I said, “It bores me.”
He muttered his Romany charms and I laughed at him, so he pushed the money across the counter and lifted up the mirror, holding it between us like a shield.
“Hang it at the back,” I told him as I walked away, “in the dark!”
The bell jangled. I paused in the doorway, framed in the sunlight, and took a last look inside. Right at the back of the shop, in the stifling shadows, the mirror hung once again in its place. The shopkeeper scurried away and I studied my reflection, framed in dark wood, staring back at me.
She looked so pathetic. The faint light caught her tear-streaked cheeks and the dust shuddered in the air as she banged her palms on the glass. Her pale lips seemed to mouth a pitiful appeal.
I smiled my familiar sly, knowing smile and walked away.
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