Mirror, mirror

[A snippet from a writing project in gestation, which will probably make very little sense if you haven’t read the preceding snippets on the the Zia page.]

640px-Mirror_baby

Our host family in Mexico didn’t have a mirror in their bathroom. I found this to be curiously unsettling during those weeks before construction of our separate quarters was complete. I missed checking in with myself each trip to the bathroom, giving myself the old “thumbs up” or flashing myself a goofy smile. It was as if I wanted reassurance that I was still the same old me, that I hadn’t withered into a husk while lost in a daydream, or shape-shifted back into some long-forgotten, original form. Like any habit, the mirror check-ins served a function, kept a familiar pattern in place. “We are what we repeatedly do,” is a truth that can be verified in difficult circumstances, when one’s choices have been restricted. Try locking yourself in a cage for a few days, or better yet, a few weeks. The drunk becomes sober, the smoker a nonsmoker, because one can’t truly be a thing without doing the thing that makes you that thing. It’s a foolproof method of transformation, so long as you don’t mind living in a cage, and you never get your hands on the key.

Now that I’m back in the land of free—Troy, New York, USA—I can indulge once again in all the little habits that keep the me-machine running. It’s a major upgrade from my jualita (little cage) to the swanky minimum-security prison I’ve come to call “home,” which comes fully equipped with all the amenities, including a spotless, well-lit bathroom mirror. This mirror is more than a mere reflector of cold, hard facts. It’s a canvas upon which I cast my hopes and fears, creating a sense of illusion every bit as convincing as the work of a skilled stage magician. It’s a seductive and compelling illusion, but as with stage magic, at bottom I know it’s not real, I know I’m not really free.

Suddenly I’m reminded of Whipple, of his own reflections on his reflection, the news anchor game he played with his sister, the nightmares of his father’s slightly altered face, the deep-seeded doubts about his own identity. Was any of that real? Was Whipple just the whimsy of someone’s imagination? I can’t know for sure at this point, so why not sit back and enjoy the show before questioning everything to death? To question everything means considering the possibility that I never went to Mexico at all, that maybe I’ve been living with my parents all this time instead, for years even, retreating ever deeper into the recesses of loneliness and regret. Some questions are better left unasked, better left quarantined with the other queasy feelings until they slip from the tip of the tongue and into oblivion.

Morning. I limp down the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the bathroom. An unpleasant bouquet of cigarette smoke and shit lingers from my father’s last visit. There are no sheets of toilet paper left on the dispenser, so I hunt around for the back-up stash. I don’t have to go. I’m just looking out for my Dad, covering up the evidence of his crime. Under the sink, my mother has enough T.P. stored to make it through a nuclear winter. There are no short stories, not even a haiku, written on any of the rolls that I can see, so I grab one at random and place it on the dispenser. I turn around to face the mirror, only to find my own reflection and nothing more. I give myself the old thumbs-up, flash a goof-ball smile, but feel no comfort or reassurance, only a gnawing sadness. The smell my Dad left behind is starting to sicken me, so I crack the window to let in a little fresh autumn air. My Dad grew up in this house, one of five kids in this teeny, tiny mouse-hole of a domicile. Eight people, if you count my grandfather’s spinster sister Hazel, shared this one little bathroom for all those years. I remember the day my grandfather collapsed right beside the toilet. My grandmother called in complete hysterics, and so my Dad threw me in the car and we were there inside two minutes. I’ll never forget the look of sheer terror on my grandmother’s face, or the sick feeling I got in my stomach as I tried to determine why my grandfather was slumped over on the bathroom floor. He survived that heart attack, but died soon after from another one that struck him down out back while he was packing the car for a fishing trip. I was told he was found lying down on the soft green of the lawn, staring up at the clouds with a peaceful smile across his lips. I wonder if he saw any forms in the clouds before he passed on, like a turtle, or the outstretched hand of God.

One particular moment from the funeral is seared into my memory. I was kneeling beside my father before the open casket, alternating glances between the man in the box and the man beside me. “That’s his father, and he’s my father” were the words that I recall floating through my head, but the sensation that gripped my entire being held a meaning far beyond the words. That’s when I discovered the horrible truth that one day it would be my Dad in the box. I’m not sure if it occurred to me then that I too would be in the box someday, but if it did, that thought didn’t seem to matter one bit compared to thought of losing my father. I buried that thought deep down, and for a long, long time I let it lie fallow. But now that I’m home again I see the handwriting on the wall. The chain-smoking, the disregard of dietary recommendations, the frequent illnesses, the yearly medical procedures, the mounting pile of medications my Mom puts out every morning in a little plastic bowl marked “Sam.” I can hear the rumble in the sky, see the dark clouds banding together on the distant horizon. There’s nothing I can do though, nothing except enjoy the company of the man who has been to me everything a son could hope for in a father.

The sound of my parents’ car pulling into the driveway snaps me back to the little bathroom in their little old house. A quick glance back up at the mirror and I notice my beard is starting to come in thicker than I’ve ever seen it before. The thicker the beard growth, the more I look like my Dad. In fact, if had just a little more hair on my face and a little less on my head, I’d be a dead ringer for my father as he looked when he was my age—thirty-six. At that point I was just a kid of 8 or 9, just about the time the two of us knelt beside Grandpa and his box. I’ve drifted off again, and suddenly I’m no longer a man seeing his own mirror image, but rather a boy seeing a strange man, a father-imposter, and now I can completely relate to Whipple’s nightmare.

“Ro-BERT!!!”

My father’s voice startles me back to the here and now.

“Stop admiring yourself in the mirror and help your mother bring in the groceries! I’ve gotta take a dump!”

I fling open the door and there he is. The real deal.

“But Dad, I can’t help it that I’m so pretty to look at. And keep that window cracked, will you. The paint’s peeling off the walls from your last trip in there.”

He feigned a playful punch to my midsection as we squeezed past each other in the doorway. A box of Fig Newtons was poking out of the one grocery bag he left on the kitchen table. My signature childhood snack. Before I could reach the back door my Mom kicked it open carrying at least three grocery bags in each hand.

“Oh, Bobby. I didn’t know if you were up or not. Don’t worry about the groceries. I can get them. I don’t want you to hurt your leg. Where’s your Father? In the bathroom? One lousy grocery bag and he’s done! See what I have to put up with?”

I gimped out back to the driveway to grab the rest of the bags. I set them down for a moment so that I could close the trunk of the car, and in gathering them up again I became fixated on the narrow patch of earth between the asphalt of the driveway and the fence that marked the property boundary. This two-feet-wide strip of earth that stretches the length of the driveway is where my brother and I would dig for worms, collecting them in an old Maxwell House coffee can before heading out on a fishing expedition with Dad and Grandpa. It seemed to me that there was an inexhaustible supply of worms living in that skinny patch of ground. My brother and I never needed to seek another source. When it rained, the edge of the driveway would be lined with squirming worms that had been washed out of their cozy holes. I remember going up and down the driveway as a kid, picking up the worms and tossing them back on to the patch of earth. I felt like a rescuer, a hero even, saving those poor worms and sending them home to their grateful families. Somehow it never occurred to me that these were the same worms who, on the next fishing day, I would be pulling from the embrace of their family members, kicking and screaming. Who I would toss into a coffee can, pierce with a fishhook, and then cast away to their certain, gruesome deaths.

A little while later I was back upstairs doing my morning mindfulness meditation. It’s been super hard to stick with this practice since I’ve returned home, but it’s not because I don’t have the time. I’ve got time to piss away, to burn, to stew in. And it’s not because I can’t find a quiet, peaceful place to sit for twenty minutes at a stretch. I think it’s this: It turns out sitting in silence can be a far more objective means of generating a reflection than a mirror mounted above the bathroom sink. In fact, it’s the perfect gauge for the most accurate and updated information on the state of my soul, and since I’ve been home the needle on that gauge has been bouncing around like an old pick-up truck on a God-forsaken dirt road in Mexico. Like those infernal trucks that rolled in every few days carrying loads of battered and bruised watermelons. Those infernal trucks that would stop just outside my window, bright and early, as I was trying to squeeze in a few more precious minutes of sleep. They’d stop and then start blaring some fucking annoying sales pitch into a megaphone. I’d have preferred to be awoken by a tarantula crawling across my face. At least then I would’ve had the satisfaction of exacting revenge. Yes, since my return home the soul needle has been bouncing around just like all that, straight away each morning before I can enjoy even a breath’s worth of peace and serenity.

Mindfulness is hard because my mind is full of worms writhing on the hot asphalt, half-hoping to flail their way back onto a patch of cool, moist soil, half-hoping for the swift mercy of a swooping bird or the rolling tire of a car full of Fig Newtons.

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