Looking Glass by Joseph Brodsky
You think the old man is kidding at first. Who needs a tour? You’re here to buy a mirror, and even if the shop seems to be going on longer than you’d think possible, there is ample material on hand to create that sort of illusion. You’ve been walking with him for what seems like a very long ten minutes already-- but between the way the light shines off of every available surface and his shuffling, arthritic walk, it’s quite hard to gauge distance or time well.
“And here we have the Benjamin Franklin mirrors,” he’d said a few minutes ago. “Every one of them flips the room upside down. Ordinarily there’s a lot of distortion from the curve, but we have a selection from Milan that are almost completely flat.” He said this with a proud, not-quite-restrained sort of grin, the smile of a professional man who is still in love with his tools. He should be proud; it’s quite a shop. How he didn’t name it Upon Reflection, you’ll never know. There are mirrors from everywhere, in every shape; in the back you thought you caught a glimpse of something giant, bronze, and burnished. The bit of yourself you saw in it (or might have seen, you turned that corner with the old man surprisingly quickly, given that troubling wobble of his right knee) looked both strange and regal. There are some ancient things here.
And some newer ones: “Here are the true mirrors,” the man says, nodding at the lantern-like contraptions hanging from every available spot on the ceiling and wall. “These are tilted together at just the right angle, so that you’re seeing a reflection of a reflection, and technically so on and so forth forever, but what you get is actually your right hand moving when you move your right hand. Go on, try it.”
You do, and you notice the subtle strangeness of the gesture. This is how other people see you, you realize. You look at your eyes, but you look away quickly. You’re not sure you look so good these days.
The old man keeps walking (shuffle step, clomp, over and over, how does a man who deal in antiquities not know about canes?) and the old man keeps talking. He’s got fun house mirrors here, set up carefully between screaming faces the size of tractor wheels.
“I kept them for the ambiance,” the man says. “I try to keep the mirrors next to the faces from the same funhouses. I figured they might get lonely if I didn’t.”
You really just wanted one of those fog-free shower mirrors to shave with, but you quickly realized this guy was too good to pass up. This is why.
You don’t like the faces, though. Eccentricities aside, the old man might be right: these faces don’t look like they have too much room to explore negative emotions. They seem to be contorted to their limit right now.
From the corner of your eyes you catch something dark glinting. Obsidian? You turn your head, but the old man is already walking, and you don’t like the idea of being alone with these faces. Their eyes don’t follow you, but you imagine you can hear whispers from them. It’s only your imagination, though. No mouth open that wide would ever be whispering.
“Here we go,” says the old man. He hands you a tiny, ornate shaving mirror. It looks Victorian, but so does everything in this wing (to call a part of a small shop a wing seems pretentious, not to mention ludicrous, but you’ve been walking so long and seen so many artifacts the word seems appropriate). There are tiny roses smelted into the metal surrounding the mirror, replete with thorns. You brush the tip of your thumb across one of them, and are actually surprised when you feel they’re as dull as they look. You’d wanted something simple and cheap, but you need to have this. This is the sort of thing that could turn a house into a home.
The old man names a price, and you say yes without even thinking about it. You can just cover any old mirror in soap scum and it won’t fog. That would have been a frivolous purchase. This feels like more than that.
You hang it up. You call your wife; while she’s away at the conference making enough money for the both of you, you’ve been playing house, and though you won’t admit, you miss her. Then you go to bed.
The next morning, you nick yourself. Just a tiny cut; at least that’s how it looks in the mirror. It’s only later when you see the eyes of your interviewer at the firm (another consulting position, no one actually does anything anymore) keep darting to your collar do you feel the slight wetness of blood.
It’s already healed by the time you’re back in the car, driving back dejected. No one hires people who are covered in blood, it seems to be a universal prerequisite, despite it not actually impeding your ability to do work.
You can’t even see it in the mirror by the time you go to sleep.
The next day, your wife calls you. She’s met someone at the conference. She hasn’t slept with him; all she does is ask you, tearfully, to tell her why she shouldn’t.
You can feel the reasons percolating, then boiling up in the back of your mind: I love you. I need you. You take care of me, and one day soon I’ll be able to take care of you, too. But you can’t bring yourself to say them. You only offer her silence. Maybe if she’d asked without telling you she’d met someone else.
You don’t sleep well, so poorly that when you rub your eyes you can feel the divots of the bags forming under them, but the man in the mirror looks…fine. Triumphant, even. He smiles when you smile, but it looks larger in the mirror. This is one well-rested motherfucker. You shave again, and you feel a bit better, and you think that maybe if you look that much better than you feel, maybe the rest of your life isn’t actually going to shit as much as you think.
Laura doesn’t come home after the conference. You, in a fit of confidence, decide that two can play this game, and you get your hair trimmed. A military cut, fine lines cutting across the back of your neck, hints of sideburns sharp enough to cut yourself on. If you were sleeping better, you’d look great.
The reflection’s haircut simply isn’t. You’re so tired you accept it withoutthinking. The you in the mirror looks happy. Like his wife came home. Like he didn’t need a haircut to prove to himself he could fight for something. The back of his neck, the trim of his sideburns is unruly, the hairs curling slightly the way they do when they get too long, reveling in their own freedom.
In the morning, you run from mirror to mirror, checking your reflection. The little shaving mirror is the only one that’s defective. If that’s the right word. You consider calling the old man, but what would you say? You could tell him the truth of what’s happening, and he’d either call you crazy and laugh at you, or worse, he’d tell you some dark secret about what was happening. You’ve been unemployed long enough that you’ve read entirely too many cheap fantasy novels, which explains why you A) know enough to be scared of that possibility, and B) don’t doubt your sanity quite possibly as much as you should.
You take to drink, and with no one to stop you, as they say, the drink takes you. And then one night, after looking at that smug bastard in the mirror, who looks like he’s doing one of those stupid cleanses Laura was always on about (but hey, at least the both of you are on liquid diets these days), you take one shot too many and decide to take on a bachelor party. You handle yourself surprisingly well, losing only one tooth and giving more than you get- likely the bachelor party people were just good guys just out for a night of fun, and you did say all that stuff about the bachelor in question’s bride to be. You feel bad about it, worse than the actual physical pain, but then you see the you in the mirror still has a full set, and they look like they’ve been whitened, and you suddenly want to go out and do it all again and hurt someone, really hurt them.
So you do.
Months pass, and you start to not recognize yourself anymore. You’re quick to anger, quick to move to violence. “Easily provocable” is how your court appointed social worker will put it when you have to go to counseling after one memorable night involving the loss of your driver’s license and one count of malicious sobbing onto a police officer’s freshly starched collar. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are useless; you can feel the mirror’s glare every time you close your eyes there, as everyone recounts what sad sacks they are now and what great heights they’ve fallen from. None of them have your problem: they have one past, one present, and one future to deal with, and you literally come face to face with what could have been every morning.
Your morning shaving ritual has become something of a joke, one of a few ways you ever crack a smile these days. You start to take a small, twisted delight in using less soap, duller blades, feeling the scrape and the etch of the razor burning across your neck. It gives you marks, but that’s alright. The you in the mirror is untouched, and as long as his perfect life keeps going unmolested, then everything is just fine.
One morning, you wake up to find every other reflective surface in the house broken. For a moment your mind comes up with the most implausible explanations, explanations worthy of those stupid fantasy novels you used to read, about the man in the mirror escaping and shattering them, but then you look down at your knuckles and realize that you probably need medical attention. There are still bits of glass in your skin. You start rubbing your knuckles, hoping to work the shards in a little deeper. Maybe the skin will close up over them, and all the other mirrors will find their way through the dark passage of your body to your heart.
When you’re finally evicted, the mirror is all you think to take with you. After all, if you have anything to look forward to, it’s seeing what else the man there has to look forward to. The flush of his skin, the happiness of the crow’s feet now decorating his eyes from all those smiles; that perfect, white smile.
The thorns are still dull. It’s been so long since you’ve really looked at them you can’t remember if the roses had bloomed that much when you first bought the mirror.
You don’t remember where you stay most nights; you’re far too drunk for that. You don’t know what you must look like anymore; your hair feels knotted and lank, pulling back from your temples sooner rather than later. There are tender spots all over your face from the fights you don’t even remember anymore. One night you come to huddled over it, pressing it so hard into your chest it leaves a bruise to match the ones on your back directly above it. You’re not sure whether you were trying to smother it or save it.
That slick prick in the mirror looks good, though. One day his eyes flick off to the left, and he laughs, and picks up a smaller version of you, although he has Laura’s nose. He kisses him, and they wave, jostling for space in the silver. They look so happy. You feel a sob choking up in you, but you swallow it down and slowly put the mirror back in your bundle of crap.
One day you think you see the old man, but it isn’t, and after all you’re seeing an alternate family in your shaving mirror, so you don’t think about it too much.
You still shave. You may not have a strop, or a brush, or even a real razor (just one of the wax-paper replacement safety blades), but you do go ahead every morning. It’s become your ritual; you no longer feel any rage at the other you, and his family who he silently mouths words of love to. When he points at you, you nod; you’re his cautionary tale, after all. You don’t want his kids to go down the wrong path or anything.
Time vanishes for a while; a while is the only way to measure time you can handle these days. You listen to someone singing, and realize it’s you. You didn’t know you could sing; perhaps all those hours passing a razor over your Adams apple has taught your voice something about relaxation on the sly. You look down at the railing you’re standing on; you didn’t know you had such good balance, either. You’ve been busy, apparently.
You look down over the water, across the bay you’ve looked out at since you moved here with Laura, and you watch all the ghosts of cars run along the tracks of the shimmering highway in the water. Some of them run into the moon when the wind is right. You wonder if they’re all happier than the ones passing and honking behind you, and a swell of homesickness threatens to overtake you. After a moment, as the wind picks up and the moon swallows the road, you let it. You’re shaking.
The moon looks large tonight. You can feel the mirror tucked into the back of your pants, burning cold against your back in the breeze. You remember something about finding yourself between two reflections, if the angle is right. You decide to find out.
And the moon grows larger and larger, and the weight of the mirror is a familiar pressure at your back, like the hand of someone you love, and in between the whisper of the wind and the whispers from the silver, you can make out the message. It’s time to come home.
It’s time to come home.
© Joseph Brodsky, 2015
Joseph is a Russian Jew from Brooklyn and New Jersey who can’t play piano or chess to save his life. If obscenity charges were still a thing, he’d be serving a life sentence somewhere, but they aren't, so he isn't. He is a licensed shrink, amateur grappler, and constant prose/screenwriter, who is always looking to collaborate and create with people. He has beautiful eyes.
Looking Glass was read by Jere Williams on 2nd December 2015 for Magic & Moonlight