I met my boss downtown yesterday. She asks me to do that every once in a while. I like her. We’ve known each other for a long time. Shared the trenches on many occasions. She wanted an opinion on an expensive top. I was just getting out of yoga and wanted to go home. But hell, I met her. The top was pretty. “Get it, it’s beautiful,” I told her.
“It’s expensive,” she answered.
She has money so I said, “It’s really pretty.” It was.
I watched her looking at herself in the mirror. She held her hands clasped at her waist, elbows bent. She twisted right and left. My mother used to look at herself that way. She’d put her feet in fourth position, hold her hands at her waist and study her reflection. She’d raise her eyebrows and give a smile- not an open-mouthed smile, a cocktail smile, a “so lovely to see you smile.” She’d turn this way and that- checking different views, getting the full experience of whatever she was trying on. My younger sister Abbie does the same thing- hands clasped at waist, feet in fourth position. She has silent conversations with her reflection. “Can I see myself at this party?” “How will this go over at such-and-such event?” She changes her face as if that will affect the fit. She steps back and angles her body. She inherited the Judy- that was my mother’s name- the Judy clothes’ gene.
I didn’t. I put the possible top on and stand, hands by my side, and look. There is nothing of the fourth position dancer, the enchanted hostess, or the interesting raconteur about what I do. The person in my mirror is a top holder, a pants rack, a jacket stand. Nothing gets acted out. My mother used to fume at me for not buying anything on a shopping expedition. “There’s nothing here?” she’d say pointing at a massive pile of clothes. I’d answer, “No,” and she’d roll her eyes and huff.
For me, auditioning a new piece of clothing is always about feelings. How does it feel? How do I feel being the person wearing this? Mirrors are untrustworthy partners. The one in the store tells you it’s perfect and later when you put the top on and look again, you’re astonished to see it’s too big, or too green, or too too. Is it the mirror’s fault or my eyes? Perhaps I should hold my hands at my waist and step back and smile. Try making an introduction. Attempt to look askance at the imaginary canapes and drunken butler. Perhaps there isn’t enough interactivity in my trying on a new skirt and I need to add story to the experience.
My clothes were always a point of war between my mother and me. I was a funky jeans girl and she wanted me in ruffles. Abbie did much better with her than I did in the clothes department. Of course she would. They looked in the mirror the same way, tossing a scarf, cinching a belt, adding a necklace. When I was in college I shopped at Goodwill and wore used, over-sized cargo jeans, refusing to be the daughter my mother thought I should be. It was the principle of the thing.
These days there’s a face I miss in the mirror. It’s a young, smooth face. It’s not that I want to be 20 years old again- horrors- but the face I liked quite a lot is gone. And the mirrors still play tricks. I get dressed and look in the mirror at home standing with feet planted, weight balanced, hands by my sides. OK this will do, I say. Then later I notice my hair looks like I stuck a finger in a socket, and my face is different from what I remember, and my outfit has changed- changed without my doing anything to what I’m wearing. I look different from how I thought I looked, and there it is again, the trickiness of mirrors. So I’m never sure if I’m seeing the truth or an angle of the truth.
There’s a woman I know who’s unhappy in her marriage. She asked her husband to leave and he did. She’s bemoaned his leaving ever since. I have a hard time listening to her, but I suspect she’s a kind of mirror. Not in the circumstances, but in the approach. That attachment to not savoring the good and the lovely but investing in the problems. I squirm in her presence, fidget with my fingers and toes, fold Ricola wrappers into tiny fans. I know she’s in pain and I’m intellectually compassionate, but viscerally I want to walk, run, skedaddle away. She’s a kind of mirror for my shadow self.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother. She’s often in my awareness but there are times when she’s louder and more present than others. When she was very sick, my boyfriend flew to NY for my birthday. I had moved in with my mother to take care of her, really just to be with her as she made her final change. The morning I told her he was in town and coming over to the apartment, she was furious with me. She wanted a shower. She wanted to get pretty for him. The hospice lady and I helped her through the shower and curling her hair and putting on her makeup. I remember how lovely she looked. She was 82 but I thought she looked like a young girl standing in the running water. I was wet in my sweats and cranky. It was 11 years ago, but each time I think about that morning, I wish I’d enjoyed every second of that sloppy shower. It was her last, her last shower ever, and I forgot to appreciate it. Whenever I see pictures of that day- it was my birthday and Abbie brought sons and cupcakes- I am shocked by how old my mother looks. She was dying from lung cancer, we all knew it. Still that morning, I remember her as beautiful and it was hard to imagine someone so beautiful dying.
Maybe it isn’t the mirrors. What did my mother see when she looked in the mirror to darken her eyebrows that last time? Did she see what I saw? Did she see a beautiful 20-year old girl or the 82-year old woman with lung cancer? I can’t say. I don’t know. I know I saw her as young. When I remember myself standing next to her in that steamy bathroom, I’m a wet cat. But I didn’t look in the mirror. I was too busy looking at her and hoping she’d see me as me, not someone who wasn’t the daughter she wanted. I’m not saying she didn’t love me or like me, she did, we were just different. Maybe it started with how we looked at ourselves in the mirror. What we expected to see. What we were willing to see. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? Truth or dare? Real or false? In the end it doesn’t matter, everything changes.
I told my boss she should buy the expensive top because it was beautiful and looked beautiful on her, and she did. I’ll be interested to see how it looks the next time I see her wearing it. I know it’s not really the mirror that changes. It’s probably the clothes.
-Randall Van Nostrand
Randall Van Nostrand is an emerging writer with a background in theater. She currently works in communications.