In the beveled mirror over Don’s dining table, mine is an ex-wife’s face. Broomstick hair crackles around hollow, harried eyes that look like a beaten dog’s. I could lick or bite without warning.
My reflection regards the divorce papers Don’s lawyers drafted to rob me of the house we bought with Don’s coin and my sweat. “You’re lucky I’m giving you anything after your nervous breakdown,” says Don.
Did he always stare at me like that? Were his hands always so tense, ready to fend me off in case I fly screaming in his face?
When you’re released from the asylum, you expect to pick up the life you left. But it isn’t like that. The life you left is gone. No one remembers who you are, least of all you.
I scratch my signature. I’m tired of being Don’s mad wife.
When it’s done, I climb the carpeted staircase to the nursery. Ashley snores in her crib. Joshua clutches a dinosaur pillow as he drowses – but no, he’s only pretending to sleep.
“When are you coming home, mama?” he asks.
I raise my finger to shush him, but Ashley wakes up, fanning her fingers for a hug.
In the mirror propped on the toy box, my mommy face reads a bedtime story. Brown crayon circles sketch curls around a cookie dough face. My mouth is for kisses, my arms for hugs, my fingers for fixing dinner, my eyes for watch me do this, mommy! Every part of me is for something, but not for myself.
In the morning, I wake up on my parent’s pull-out couch to mother’s pancakes and interrogation. I try to maintain my appetite through “Does he think you should go back to the asylum?” and “How can you leave those sweet kids?”
I watch my reflection in the medicine cabinet as I brush my teeth after breakfast. Mother’s prairie motif decorates the bathroom from log cabin shower curtain to flower-stenciled toilet. With my mouth open around the toothbrush, I look sad as a clown with a painted smile, all surface deception. Lifeless locks sweep my shoulders. My reddened eyes are lined too young with guilt and sin: a child’s promise squandered.
Daddy knocks on the door. “Excuse me,” he says, grabbing his razor off the counter.
He wears his clerical collar for the morning service. “What’s today’s sermon about?” I ask, peering up through teary eyes.
“Faith and restoration. Jesus healing the epileptic boy.”
Daddy squeezes my shoulder. My reflection in his glasses wears lamb’s eyes and soft brown hair like a new-grown fleece. I am bleating and innocent, lost without a shepherd’s loving crook.
I feel better until I remember that face will never be an adult. It will always need guidance.
Gloria proposes that the four of us college pals still hanging around this old town meet up at her place for drinks. “Viva la divorce!” she proclaims, the bitterness of her own three grating her voice like cigarette smoke.
Sue and Marietta arrive with margarita mix. We toast the assholes we slept with and the nice guys we left.
“Excluding my Cory, of course,” demurs Marietta, flashing the enormous diamond earrings her husband bought for their fifth anniversary.
Sue utters the requisite admiration. Gloria leans over to whisper, “I give them another year.”
Gloria’s martini glass distorts my figure around its gaping lip. It sees me as frumpy and fat, bloated by marriage like a corpse left out in the sun. I catch the glimmer of contempt in Gloria’s eyes as I flinch.
We reminisce about college until our raucous laughter turns melancholy. I’m supposed to be happy, but I can’t help recalling Josh: his sober little face when they left me at the asylum. Tears streak my mascara.
“Touch up under your eyes,” advises Marietta.
Her compact shows me preening with a haughty expression. “Everyone knows insanity is a disease of the spoiled,” says my reflection. “Get off your indolent ass and get on with the grind of housewife and mother like everyone else.”
I toss the compact away. It skitters across the floor.
Sue reaches for my hand. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
I catch a glimpse of my face reflected in the window over Sue’s chair. It’s the college girl who sat next to Sue in the back row of every lecture, brown hair ratted and sprayed. Her blue-shadowed lashes are caught mid-flutter, frozen fifteen years ago. Through motionless lips, she says, “Don’t you want to be me again? What’s wrong being stuck in the past?”
I back toward the door. My chair crashes to the ground. “Nothing’s wrong. I have to go.”
Gloria says: “So soon? It’s barely eleven.”
And Marietta: “Are you feeling all right?”
“It’s nothing. I’m fine. I have to go.”
Farewell kisses press against what I think would be my cheeks if I knew the shape of my skin. I babble. “Thanks for doing this, Gloria. I feel better, really, I do.” The lifeless hair-sprayed broomstick woolly crayon circles of my hair bob against my back. My mouth twitches: shouting, kissing, whining, sneering.
I bolt. My heels clatter on the sidewalk. The air smells of spruce and recent rain. Passing headlights smear orange in the puddles, but I can’t make out my face.
My flight slows in a run-down commercial district. Neon signs blare the names of bars and tobacconists. I find a pay phone and call a cab.
While waiting, I push into a curio shop. The clerk glances up warily from his newspaper. Display cases crowd narrow aisles, crammed with stuffed birds and camel bone boxes, humidors and cinnabar beads. A whole wall of mirrors shines down, refracting unity into a chaos of dissonant viewpoints.
I pass them, searching. That face too petulant, that one too silly. A shadow of fear lurking behind that smile. Anger simmering beneath that façade of contentment. Huge mirrors, tiny mirrors, plain mirrors, ornate mirrors, frameless mirrors, oval mirrors, arched mirrors, sunburst mirrors, crystal shards, polished brass, mountain lakes, giant eyes. As many mirrors as there are ways to see the world. One of them must contain the face I remember being mine.
Rachel Swirsky is a fiction MFA student at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and a graduate of Clarion West 2005. To date, she has published fiction, poetry, and articles in a variety of nationally distributed publications including Odyssey Magazine, Interzone, the Konundrum Engine Literary Review, and Subterranean Online. Rachel is the submissions editor of PodCastle, the first audio fantasy magazine.