When I told Joe I wanted mirrors that extended from the floor to the ceiling on every wall, including inside closets and behind appliances, he asked a reasonable question: “Why?” I did not tell him, “So I don’t lose myself” because that is not a reasonable response.
After the installation is done, I walk through every room in the house like I’m giving myself a tour. I go outside, close the front door and then open it again. There are an infinite number of me in every direction, the reflections double and triple themselves until my body is moving into spaces that my house cannot hold. I do not touch the mirrors because smudged fingerprints would ruin the effect. Instead, I take off my shoes and drag my feet across the carpeted floor. You know, to really feel the ground.
Twenty-two years old, a woman, racially ambiguous, recently singled, slight belly, mostly upbeat, landlocked and drowning, preference for brightly colored or patterned socks, masturbates frequently, literally haunted, not at all metaphorically haunted, allergic to nuts, skeptical of savory pies, thinking about dropping out of school, trying to pin down homesickness so I can hold it in my hands and maybe put it under a microscope and understand why my heart hurts. I write this list out onto one of the mirrors in the back of my bedroom closet with black and purple dry erase markers. It imprints itself onto my body when I stand in the right place.
It starts with this guy named Narcissus, this really good-looking guy. One day, he spots his reflection in a pool of water and can’t stop looking at it. He falls in love with his own image and stops eating and sleeping. He wastes away. My mom told me that story when I was younger and looking in the mirror too much. It was meant to be a lecture in the dangers of vanity.
“It’s not good for young girls to look at themselves in the mirror,” she said. “You’ll get lost in there.” I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror. It was freckled with dust and water spots. She stood by my side, and I wondered if she was looking for herself in my features. Do all parents notice the stark halfness of their children, or was it more noticeable for my mother? Did her Chinese genes invade my father’s white ones or did his colonize hers? I decided then that it was the latter; I was learning that’s how the world worked. My mom pointed at us. “There is nothing real in there,” she said.
When I’m at school now, I search for bathrooms. If someone is already in there, I sit in a stall. I flush the empty toilet. There is this one bathroom in particular. This bathroom has a full-length mirror, and after I flush the empty toilet and sneak out of the stall, I stand in front of it and do the thing my mother told me not to. I look. Looking is seeing and searching at the same time.
“What are you doing?” It’s Eleanor. We have a literature class together. She sweeps her blonde hair back with her fingers in this careless way that makes my stomach flip. She wears fruity lip-gloss; her eyes are green and she lines their lids with a brown pencil because black would be too dark; she’s sleeping with Mark Robertson; her light freckles look as if they are hovering above her cheeks and the bridge of her nose; she doesn’t wear foundation.
“Looking,” I tell her.
“Looking,” she echoes. Her voice is quiet and soft. She smiles and nods her head. I think I’m holding my breath, and looking at her feels like I’m on fire. I’m on fire. She walks toward me, and I think she’s going to kiss me. I think she’s going to kiss me. She puts our hands together, my palms on her palms. My palms on her palms. And leans in so our foreheads are touching.
Our foreheads are touching.
We meet between classes to hold hands. I trace her palms with my fingers. I rub my thumb against her skin. When I clean out my car later, I will find her golden strands in the upholstery. They will be tangled with my dark hairs and it will make me cry.
“What do you think about?” I ask her.
“What do I think about?” She kisses my eyelids and I can smell the artificial kiwi. “You,” she says. “What do you think about?”
I think about the first summer I spent away from my parents. It was humid and always pouring. The rain couldn’t break the heat, so the two danced with one another until everything was hot and wet, until we had all given in. I spent most of my time sitting on top of my sheets naked. It was my first room where I surrounded myself with mirrors. I bought them at thrift stores and off Craigslist. I drove to the suburbs for estate sales. I once picked up shards of a broken side-view mirror from the sidewalk. The glass cut my hands, but I kept walking until I reached the water. I walked over forty city blocks in insensible shoes. Mosquitos bit around my ankles, right where my socks ended. The whole time I kept the glass clenched in my sweaty palms. Occasionally – more than occasionally, probably every five minutes or so – I looked at my reflection in the shards. I puzzled my reflection together in the broken pieces.
I would come home with my new acquisitions when I knew my roommates were at work or asleep. They were all white girls with white boyfriends. Like some of my mirrors, I had found them on Craigslist. We met at a coffee shop to make sure no one was an axe murderer. They looked at me curiously after a few minutes. “So, like, what are you?” one of them asked. I don’t remember which one. They blurred together. Their blonde bangs were cut the same and they tapped the tabletop in a way that sounded like Morse code. My head spun from the double vision. I tried to blink them away.
Eleanor takes me to visit her family. It’s a three-hour-drive north, and we hold hands through most of it. Not touching her is difficult. The town she grew up in is small and when we stop at the grocery store I can feel their eyes on our hands touching, our mouths touching. Touching. I can’t stop touching— she pulls away from me. “I’m sorry,” she says. “This is new for me.” But I need her to hold me down to the ground with her; I need her to hold me still. We pick up the rest of the supplies without touching. Avocados, tomatoes, chips, seltzer—I like the carbonation. When we look through the pile of oranges, our fingers do not flirtatiously find each other. We do not grab a single orange between our two hands. We do not look up and catch each other’s smiles. We leave quickly with unripened fruit, and when the automatic doors open to the California heat, the word chink is thrown out of a passing car’s window and almost pushes my body back into the cool, conditioned air of the store. “Chink?” Eleanor echoes. She looks at me – for maybe the first time – confused.
Her parents, Cathy and Bennett, are sweet but stiff people in their early sixties. It looks as if her mother is going to reach out to hug me, but something stops her. Eleanor’s father takes my hand between his own. “It’s very nice to meet you,” he says. I am the first woman Eleanor has brought home, and I feel their unease when she walks me to the back of the house where we will be staying. She has a canopy bed, and her comforter looks like a cloud weighed down by mountains of pillows. She pushes me down and I look at my skin against the whiteness of the blankets and the sheets. It’s browner, uglier than I remember. She falls on top of me and a giggle escapes her lips. I kiss her before another one can come out, and when my hand disappears in her hair I feel an unbearable desire for my whole body to hide inside of hers. I pull her on top of me and allow myself to disappear in the sheets. We sink together until a knock at the door reminds us of where we are and that it is time for dinner.
“What do your parents do?” her mother asks. She made a pot roast and mashed potatoes. I can’t tell which ceramic cow holds the salt and which holds the pepper. The food is under seasoned, and my tongue wants something with bite, something my tastebuds can feel. I miss the grit of salt.
“My dad runs his own company,” I say. “My mom is a nurse.” There is a silent chorus of nodding heads.
“So which –” She says and then pauses. She puts one tine of her fork into a single green pea. “Which of your parents is –” She waves her fork with the single pea still intact at me.
“I’m not quite sure what you’re asking,” I say.
“Never mind, never mind. I lost the thought.” She pops the pea in her mouth. “Tell us more about school.”
I do not touch Eleanor on the drive back the next morning. “They liked you,” she says to me. Both of her hands are firmly on the steering wheel. “I can tell.”
“I liked them too,” I say. It’s not a lie. Eleanor’s father reminded me of my uncles, the sweet way their eyes tear up when they laugh after too much wine. I could imagine spending holidays in their large living room and helping her mother in the kitchen. It could be fine. It wouldn’t be too far off.
I could begin to blend if I wanted to.
Eleanor makes us dinner in my small kitchen. She laughs at the chicken towel rack I bought at a vintage store before we met. I don’t have any flour and she scolds me. “Grab some ice cream while you’re out too,” she tells me.
I lose myself when I’m outside the house. I walk through the grocery store and panic. I catch the glances of strangers walking down the opposite end of the cereal aisle and I can’t tell if they see me. I stand in front of the ice cream freezers and find myself reflected back at me. I trace my features slowly with my eyes and then my finger until it’s cold and numb. When a woman reaches in front of me towards the door, she says, “excuse me” and grabs a pint of coffee ice cream. I smile and nod, happy she sees me, but am distressed when her body blocks my line of vision. I lose myself again, just for a second, but it’s as painful as the first time. I am relieved when I come back to myself and I smile again. The woman looks at me strangely. There’s neither a cart nor basket near me. My hands are empty. “Are you okay?” she asks, but I can’t take my eyes off of myself. I watch as I inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth. I feel my feet in my shoes and on the dirty linoleum floor because I can see it in front of me.
“I’m not sure,” I say, but she is already gone, walking down another aisle, grabbing canned green beans and peanut butter.
It’s not until I get back to the house that I realize I have forgotten the flour.
Her hazards are on and the car is still running when we break up. When she asks me Why, I tell her the truth. I say,I can’t taste anything. I say,your blonde hair makes me cry. I say, the worst parts of me ache when I’m with you.
When I get to my bedroom I lie on my bed. Before Joe left, I asked him to install a mirror on the ceiling. “It’s not a freaky sex thing,” I wanted to tell him, but I held my tongue for the second time because I hadn’t yet convinced myself of that. I see my legs and arms spread on a yellow comforter and they’re beautiful. This time there are only two of me. There’s the me on the bed and the me in the mirror.
We start to dance in unison; our arms start above our heads and sway to an inaudible beat. Our fingers tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. One, two, three, one, two, three. As our hands move down the sides of our bodies, our hips sway, our toes point and flex. The whole time, we’re staring into each other’s eyes, intentionally staying together. When I move my head to the left, she also moves her head to the left, and now our bodies are no longer in sync, but splitting away from each other. When I roll onto my side, she does too, and now we are like a fractured kaleidoscope. She looks surprised, but we both keep moving until we’re sweating and our yellow comforters have fallen to our floors. Neither of us reach down to pick them up. We are no longer looking at each other, but we know that the other one is there and she is not going anywhere.
I go to the bathroom under the pretense of a shower. I strip. I start with my socks, today’s are maroon with white rabbits on them. I take the left one off first and then the right. My hands unzip my skirt; push it down past my hips, my thighs, my calves. My feet kick it off. I pull my t-shirt over my head and throw it into the sink. It is a white t-shirt and I almost lose it inside the ceramic bowl. My underwear does not match my bra. I take those off too until I’m naked, we’re all naked. As my naked body extends itself into space, I do not inspect, but allow my body to grow and multiply until I’m filling up the entire room. The tile underneath my feet is cold; my nipples harden under the chill of the air. Everything is quiet. I break my own rules and touch the closest mirror to me. I touch the curve of my waist and squeeze. I hear a moan, but I’m not sure if is coming out of my mouth or one of the infinite mouths, and how would I be able to tell the difference anyway? The moan echoes; it bounces around our bodies. I continue touching. I move closer to the mirror and put the tip of my tongue to the glass, and it feels like bubblegum. Soft, pink, sweet. Someone squeals, another giggles. The moan continues to bounce and as it moves through the room it gets deeper and more honest. Someone asks if it feels good and someone else says, “Yes, yes, it does feel good.” Another says not to stop, but I don’t think we ever planned on stopping because there’s something about the softness of our tongues and the coldness of the glass and the way we feel inside our bodies for maybe the first and only time.