~This essay was first published in Emrys Journal, where it won the Linda Julian Nonfiction Award (2009).
“[M]irrors, which seemed magical in their properties, … were composed of only two primary materials: a plane of glass pressed up against a plane of silver … When a mirror was broken, the glass could be replaced. When a mirror grew old, it only had to be resilvered. It could go on and on. It could go on forever.” – “Mirrors,” Carol Shields.
Over the sink in the bathroom of my grandparents’ summer house was a smallish round mirror and directly opposite it, over the toilet, was a medicine cabinet with a mirrored door. These two mirrors reflected endless images of myself when I stood between them. I tried to see into infinity with these mirrors, but it got too blurry.
The small round mirror across from the medicine cabinet was wreathed in wooden roses. The face that looked back at me from this mirror was also round and rosy, framed at the top by a precise line of straight-cut bangs. My eyes were wide and dark, unshadowed by disappointment or compassion. My teeth were new and awkward, the two front ones serrated at the bottom like a bread knife, but I was too young to try to smile with my lips closed or laugh behind my hand. I never thought this face would change. I thought my childhood would go on forever.
Instead, I grew out my bangs and grew up.
Over the sink in the bathroom of the hotel room was a large flat mirror that spanned the length of the wall. Directly opposite it was the shower with its skimpy cloth curtain that somehow managed to block the shower’s spray. Everything in the room was cold and white – the tiles, the curtain, the walls, the lights.
The face that looked back at me from this mirror was round and blotchy, framed by a white towel wrapped around my wet hair. The skin below my eyes was puffy and dark, shadowed from tossing and turning on scratchy hotel sheets, and my shower had done little to revive me. My mouth was closed, tight at the corners, wondering that the day would bring.
That afternoon I would start my first day at college, four states away from the place I called home. I tried to spy the future in my reflection, but my eyes were too dark to see anything in them.
Over the four sinks in the bathroom of my dorm were four square mirrors bolted to the wall. Fluorescent lights flickered and buzzed from the ceiling and a steady drip came from the third shower stall. The face in the mirror was always turning away, on its way to something else; the mirror was too scratched to really see anything anyway.
Every morning I showered early and then twisted my hair into a braid that nearly reached my waist. By late October my damp braid froze on my way to my early-morning French class and when I returned to my room I unraveled its crispy kinks to let them dry. When my mom came to pick me up in December I told her that I had made straight A’s but that I felt like nothing existed below my brain stem. My body had become a cup to carry around my brain.
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” – 1 Corinthians 13:11-13
I knew that I would leave X. that night. Our affair had been just that: an affair, not a relationship. But before I met up with him at the bar, I had dinner with a friend at the Odeon. I was dressed up for something else – a Christmas party at work, perhaps – and my heels clicked on the tile floor of the bathroom. I caught a glimpse of someone in the mirror and in a split second my brain thought, She looks like a woman. She was wearing a black sheath dress and had her hair swept up in a smooth twist. In the second half of that split second I realized, Wait – that’s me.
Was I surprised by my own reflection because I was wearing a dress instead of my usual jeans? Or had something happened as a result of the decision I had made to end my affair? I was no longer a girl playing with romance; I looked like a woman.
That night I broke off my affair and the next day I made the long drive to my parents’ house. In the boredom of crossing three states on route 95 I remembered my first thought when I saw my reflection – “She looks like a woman” – not “She is a woman.” Funny how I had used the word “like.” Maybe I still had some growing up to do.
I did. I only thought I had ended my affair that night. It would take me three more months to make it final. What I caught that night in the mirror at the Odeon was only a glimpse of the woman I would become. I wasn’t her yet. I only knew in part.
“Vanity” comes through Middle English, Old French and Latin; through vanitas from vanus, meaning “empty.”
Yoga class. In a room full of mirrors it’s almost impossible not to look at yourself. E. looks at herself all the time. She’s maybe 40, beautiful in a careful yet exotic way, perfectly turned out in tights and a tank top, always a different combination but always some shade of blue. In a conversation her eyes slide off your face to her own, over your shoulder, behind you, reflected by one of the ever-present mirrors. I fight this urge, which is another form of vanity: not to appear vain.
But when doing the poses I look – greedily – at myself. I bought tights and a tank top of my own to better see what my body looks like. This, however, isn’t vanity. It’s stunted curiosity. I don’t know what I look like. I haven’t known for some time.
That spring, when the biopsy results came back bad, I was so angry at my body for betraying me that I wanted to divorce it. But since I couldn’t, I ignored it. It reminded me of my first year of college when I was so consumed with studying that my body felt like a big cup to carry around my brain. March and April felt like a return to that. I dressed up to teach, put on lipstick for Wednesday morning meetings – but none of that had anything to do with me. It was all just keeping up my former image, behind which I hid.
I never looked down when I changed my clothes or took a bath (before baths were forbidden), I never “took stock” of myself in my full-length mirror. I was in denial of my own physical existence. All the compliments X. had given me (thrilled by everything his eyes and hands encountered) evaporated. I became an alien to myself. An alien in my own skin.
After the surgery, after I realized that I was indeed going to live, I started trying to reclaim myself – my physical self – my body. This was slow going. I thought I would relish my first bath: I didn’t. I was repulsed by the sight of the body that had insistently occupied my peripheral vision. I still didn’t want any part of it. Dr. D. prescribed yoga classes as a way of getting mind and body back together. After only two weeks of these classes, it started to work.
Sure, I “inhabit” the poses, I’m conscious of my thoughts and breath, but it’s the mirror that’s really doing it. I see myself – the internal self within my external self – and for the most part I like what I see. But it’s more than liking (long lines, light skin that turns pink wherever I’m spending energy, dark eyes, a kind of grace), it’s recognizing. I am that. We are the same thing, “that” and me. I am – in all senses of the phrase – full of myself.
“Mirror” comes from the Latin mirari, “to wonder.”
I used to play a game with myself called Get to Know Your Profile. I’d stand in front of my bathroom mirror with a hand mirror and tilt my head, talk, chew – all in an effort to see myself as others saw me. I didn’t realize how often – when I’m writing, for instance – I’ll get up and look at myself in a mirror until I was at my first writing residency. My studio had no mirror. Instead, I’d catch a glimpse of myself in my computer screen whenever it went dark to save power. It was as if I was checking in to see if I was still there.
In the documentary film Playing the Part, the filmmaker and narrator Mitch McCabe practices phototherapy. During a difficult time she takes a series of self portraits and as we see them flash on the screen her voiceover tells us that she took these photographs to “get some perspective on things and let me know that I wasn’t alone.” Is that what I was doing, trying to feel less alone? And what is a mirror but a temporary self portrait?
“We use the expression ‘look into a mirror,’ as though it were an open medium, like water.” – Carol Shields, “Mirrors”
The verb “to reflect” comes from the Latin flectere, meaning “to bend.”
In my bedroom there is a closet with two mirrored doors. Each folds out like a sharp elbow, and my reflection slips away and disappears as the doors slide open. Sometimes, if I don’t close them completely, the doors bump out just an inch into the room and I can walk up to them like Dracula and never see my reflection. Only when I am very close can I see my shoulders or maybe an arm, but the bulk of me is invisible within the seam. It’s unnerving.
If the doors are half closed the angle adds five extra inches to my width. My waist thickens and one leg nearly doubles. I’m less worried about looking fat than I am about not looking the way I think I look. It’s like having a mistaken identity. My outsides don’t match up with my expectations.
When I am at work, just before I walk into my classroom, I often stop in a bathroom to check my reflection. The light is institutional, ungenerous. It reveals the shadows under my eyes, the blotch on my cheek, the bright red capillaries threading through the whites of my eyes. Is this what I really look like? I teach my class with this image in mind.
But then, after class, I might stop in the same bathroom. This time the shadows under my eyes might be lit with exhilaration, the blotch on my cheek hidden by a flush, my eyes bright with success. When did my face change?
We are always trying to claim our fleeting image. Like Narcissus on the riverbank we strain to see ourselves but there’s always a ripple of distortion, sometimes in our mirror image, sometimes in our memory of it. Usually we are pulled away from this reflection and hustled back into life. But if we linger by the river and reach into the water to catch ourselves, we break up entirely.
Time and time again we have to learn that our image is fleeting for a reason; currents change; tides shift. It’s hard to hold onto water.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
One of my students introduced me to NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month. I liked the idea of writing 50,000 words in a month (or 1666 words a day) but I write essays, not novels, and wasn’t keen on the idea of officially signing up, tracking my word count, etc. So I did my own SecMemWriMo: Secret Memoir Writing Month – memoir, not essays, because it was far too daunting a prospect to write either a 50,000-word essay or thirty 1666-word ones. On November first I started with my earliest memory and just kept writing. By December I had a mass of memories and started culling through them, looking for patterns and themes, and those two mirrors in my grandparents’ shore house jumped out at me. Then I found other mirrors, and added still more, and “Mirror Glimpses” was on its way.
ABOUT RANDON BILLINGS NOBLE
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review; The Millions; Brain, Child; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity; Fourth Genre and elsewhere. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, she was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts. Currently she is a nonfiction reader for r.kv.r.y quarterly and Reviews Editor at PANK. You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.