The Unstrange Face in the Mirror

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“I’m afraid of how much it’s going to hurt,” she said, and she thought she was looking into my eyes.  But she was looking into his.  Into Reflection’s.

And I was looking at her through his eyes, but I couldn’t quite connect with her gaze.  It was like how people don’t know where to look—where the lens is—when someone is taking a picture of them with a cell phone.

“I want them,” she said, and she grinned.  Her eyes glistened.  “I already love them, darn kickers.”

She sighed and sat back in her chair and folded her hands over her belly.  “Before, I was scared something would happen and we’d lose them, or have to abort them, or something.  I never said anything.  I didn’t want to jinx it.  But now…I’m afraid of them coming out of me.  It’s been hitting me sometimes, that feeling of ‘what if I can’t do it?’”  She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.  “I just want it to be over.  I want to fast forward to the part where I’m holding one in each arm, and you’re taking a picture of me, and for the first time in my life, I genuinely don’t give a crap what I look like.”

If only I could take your place, I thought.  And I meant it.  And it startled me that I meant it.

“If only I could take your place,” he said to her.  And I felt my gut drop.  I banged against the mirror’s inside surface and I kept my gaze from straying to the darkness that surrounded me.

I would have given anything to keep my wife from feeling any pain when she gave birth to our children.  But I could not have allowed Reflection to take her place.

I should not have allowed him to take mine.

***

That night I dreamt that the mirror cracked, and I was on the wrong side when it did.  I saw both me and my reflection.  I was submerged in darkness, only a few glints of light on my face.  My horrified face.  But my reflection…he was smiling.  It wasn’t a sinister smile.  It was my smile.  No…not my smile.  Not anymore.  We were diverging.  It was his smile.  And he deserved to smile.  He’d earned it.  I hadn’t.

But that didn’t matter.  Shiri was my wife.  It was my family.  And I was theirs.

***

It had only been a month since Reflection started showing up to relieve me—at least for a little while—by diving into the storm while I took his place in the calm eye of that storm.

I call it a storm, but that’s not really fair.  Everything that was happening, it was all good news, welcome turns of events, happy changes.  My wife was pregnant.  As luck had it, a promotion position became available, just as I was starting to feel a rising anxiety about how much it would cost to raise twins.  I went for the promotion, and I got it.  An old friend from high school—my best friend actually—had reached out and wanted to reconnect (which was a big deal because our friendship had a meltdown just before graduation).  My younger sister was getting married six months after my wife gave birth, and the wedding was overseas, and I still hadn’t renewed my passport…and there were a slew of less major things.  A new Thai restaurant had opened up on my route between home and work.  The renovations to our local elementary school were completed.  They were holding an open house at some point, not just for parents of existing students, but future parents of future students.

I started making jokes about wishing I could clone myself.  Shiri told me to relax.

“Steady on,” she’d say.

The promotion turned out to be a miserable decision.  But at least it was consistent in its misery, and I didn’t have to adapt every five minutes.  The thought of being a dad to two babies on the other hand was a rollercoaster ride of elation, interspersed with dread, peppered with doubt, followed by an indescribable sense of restrained excitement swirled with comfort (like, I pictured the holidays being heartwarming again, and family dinners at least once a week, and vacation hijinks, and embarrassing my kids by volunteering to be a drama coach at their school.)

I’d told Shiri I didn’t want to know the babies’ gender.  I don’t know why I decided to take a stand on that.  It didn’t matter to me, and it didn’t really make sense.  How could I prepare if I didn’t know what they might need?  How could I prepare if I didn’t know what I might need?  Did I need to learn how to dodge an upward stream of pee if they were boys?  At first, I told myself that if I knew then I’d slack off and only learn what I needed to know about the specific gender, instead of preparing for every eventuality.  But whatever their gender, I would love them.  If they were born sick, I would love them.  If their mother suffered hours of painful and exhausting labor bringing them into the world…even then I would still love them.

Just don’t let them be evil, I’d tell my reflection as I brushed my teeth in the evening before bed.

So I insisted Shiri not tell me anything, but she had to tell me we were having twins.  My first reaction was the inability to comprehend what she was saying.  Then a burst of joy through my chest, chased way too rapidly with terror.

We had budgeted more than enough for one, and planned on having time to build up reserves before having a second.

I started to worry.

No, that’s a lie.

I started to panic.

***

Fast forward to my Superdad Implementation Plan.  I had a lot to do.  I had to be well while I did it.  I started working out and eating better.  And Shiri kept insisting I try meditation.  But I still couldn’t wrap my head around wasting half an hour doing nothing (at least not until things calmed down some).  But a pal at work who had announced she was quitting to start her own business insisted that I try daily affirmations.  That sounded more my style.

So I started doing this thing where I had a printout of a guy who looked like a superdad, holding his baby in one arm, literally juggling a bunch of stuff in his other hand, and gazing out at the viewer with a smirk on his face that was equal parts “I got this” and “You got this.”  I’d hold that picture up to the full-length mirror in the bedroom (so I could check my posture), and I’d tell myself that I’d be a great dad.  And I’d alternate that with a guy who looked like superhusband, and another guy who looked like supermanager.  And there was superfriend and superneighbor.

I was giving it my honest effort.  But after a few weeks, it got harder and harder to put emotion into those affirmations.  To smile and hold my shoulders straight.  I wasn’t feeling it.  I wasn’t buying it.  I was faking it.

So one day, I looked at the superdad and at my reflection, and I started talking.

“I’m tired, you know.  No, I am drained.”  I inhaled and blew the breath out through my mouth.  “The raise is good, just what we needed, right when we needed it.  Right when we found out about the twins.  Shiri can take a longer leave because of that raise.  And then, when she gets back to work—which she definitely will because she actually adores her job—we’ll have enough to save, to open college accounts.  But right now, even with being healthier and all that, it’s such a drain.  It’s less actual work because I can delegate, but half my job is putting out fires that other people have started, unnecessarily I might add.”

I examined my reflection.  I suddenly understood what writers meant when they talked about a “haggard reflection.”  I yawned, and the lens of tears only magnified the red in my eyes.  “If only you could take over for a little while and I could hang out in there and take a break,” I said.

And suddenly I was so overwhelmed with exhaustion, I just closed my eyes.

***

I felt a bit woozy.  I thought I’d just experienced microsleep.  When I opened my eyes, I was disoriented because I was still looking at myself, but the mirror position was switched.

I frowned, wondering if there was such a thing as microsleepwalking, because it seemed as if I’d moved the mirror to the opposite side of the room.  It was also much, much darker than it had been a moment ago.  It had to be only a moment.  If I’d actually fallen asleep I wouldn’t have still been standing.

I was peering at myself curiously.

I felt a compulsion then to raise my arm, and suddenly, my arm raised.  I gasped.  Then my leg was raised.  Then my arm again.  And my head turned, and suddenly, I was submerged in pitch darkness.  I gasped again and turned my head forward.   I was in the bedroom hallway now, and my perspective was moving, but it was as if I was looking through a camera lens.  Shiri passed me in the hallway, smiling, then winking at me.  I heard myself laugh in surprise, but it wasn’t me who laughed.

Stop!

I thought the word as loud as I could.

The hallway view froze, and then it turned around, and returned to the bedroom, and to the mirror, and there I stood.  Not me actually.  There he stood.  My reflection.  And I realized that where he was standing was in front of the mirror where it would be in its usual position.

What’s going on? I thought.

And my own voice answered.  You know what’s going on.  You wished for this.  Now, why did you call me back?

I shook my head.  I felt something pressing on me, not physically, but…mentally.  Shadows.  Darkness.  I sighed.  I need to go wash the dishes.  Then maybe a quick nap before dinner.

The other voice—my voice, but also another voice—answered again.  As you wish.

I felt that sudden exhaustion again and I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I was still standing, this time, in the spot where I expected to be standing.  I put a hand to my stomach and exhaled in relief.

Instead of taking a nap before dinner, I searched the internet for terms like “hallucinations associated with mirrors” and “hallucinations caused by exhaustion.”

That night before bed, when I was staring at my face in the bathroom mirror while Shiri brushed her teeth beside me, I frowned.  I asked her if she was familiar with a phenomenon I’d read about, where a person’s face looked distorted and different to them if they were sitting in a very dim room and staring into a mirror.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “I have looked into the mirror a few times and had a weird feeling like ‘who am I?’  But my face looked the same.  It felt more like a philosophical…awareness.  Why?  What’s up?”

I shook my head.  “I had a weird thing with the mirror earlier.  A hallucination I think.”

Shiri put her hand on my shoulder.  “You’re not sleeping enough.  Maybe you had a waking dream.  That definitely has happened to me, in college, in dim lecture halls, for sure.”

I smiled and nodded.  And that night, I slept.  And I still woke up tired, but it was a rested tired.

***

The next day I was fine for the most part.  But the day after that, it was the same thing.  Exhausted.  Drained.  And I found myself in front of the bedroom mirror again.

“Stupid job,” I muttered.  “I can’t keep going like this.  I’ll have nothing left for her—for them.”

Rest, that other voice said.  My inner voice, I thought, but different, more…substantial.   Rest in here and I’ll take care of cooking dinner.

Dinner.  It was my turn, and normally I loved cooking dinner.  It was soothing.  But that drowsiness overwhelmed me again.  I closed my eyes and I fell asleep.

When I woke up, or came to, my reflection was facing me in the mirror in a darkened room.  This time I understood what was happening.  The mirror was not in the wrong position.  I was.  Because I was inside the mirror.  I was in the position of the reflection.  And the reflection was in the position of me, out there, in the real world.

I wasn’t looking through his eyes, the way I had when he was in the bedroom hallway the other day.  I was looking through the mirror into the bedroom.  Because he was looking at the mirror, at the reflection of Shiri.

She’d just come in, rubbing lotion on her knuckles.  She gave an audible sigh as she climbed into bed.

Ready?  the voice said.  Reflection’s voice.  I nodded and his head nodded.  I didn’t know how to switch.  I took a breath so I could tell him that, but then I blinked, and we were switched.

I was now looking at the mirror, not through it.  I turned around and saw my wife in bed.  She was shifting into a comfortable position.  I felt rested, still a little drowsy, but I was starting to shake that off.  Just a splash of water, maybe a drink of cold water, and I’d be good to go.

“Coming to bed?” Shiri asked.

I grinned.  “I think I’ll go down and prep lunch and breakfast for tomorrow.”

Shiri frowned and kind of smiled, in amused confusion.  “You already did that, remember?”

My grin faded.  I resisted glancing at the mirror.  I couldn’t remember, of course.  I didn’t do it.  Reflection did it.

I joined Shiri in bed.  If I went to go do something now, I’d probably be up so late I’d have to sleep on our lumpy couch so I didn’t disturb her.   But I wasn’t tired yet.  I lay awake for a bit, but soon fell into a restful sleep.

***

It usually skipped a day, but the next day, despite being so rested, I came home drained again.  It was still my week to cook dinner, but Shiri was already home when I got in, and she volunteered to do it.  She’d had a good day.

I resisted at first, but then relented.  I went upstairs, intending to take a nap, a real nap in the real world, but then I glanced at the mirror, and I wondered about what happened the previous day.  It must have been in my imagination.  I decided, for the heck of it, to do an affirmation before my nap.  Since I was still technically on dinner duty, I held up a picture of a professional chef.  Shiri and I were both pretty good cooks.  But I aimed to become a better cook and focus on healthier foods, since Shiri’s cooking featurede a lot of rich comfort foods.

It was a strange feeling to focus on the picture and also feel another focus, coming from me and yet outside of me.  Reflection was focusing on the picture, absorbing not just the affirmation, but the actuality…the skills of a chef.

I closed my eyes and again that dizzying feeling of exhaustion overcame me, and when I opened my eyes, I was inside the mirror.  And Reflection was out.  This time, I had no intention of sleeping while my doppelganger traipsed around my house.  I wanted to see what happened.   I was prepared for looking through his eyes this time.  So I stayed awake, and I watched.

Reflection interacted with Shiri just as I would, and then helped her cook dinner, finding ingredients in our fridge and putting together a fresher version of the chicken dish she was planning on preparing.  I didn’t even know we had bouillon cubes.  Shiri was impressed and remarked that I must have been practicing when she wasn’t around.  I smiled.

Good one, I thought.  Reflection had done what I’d been aiming to do, convert some of Shiri’s recipes into “healthier versions.”  I already knew that trying to do everything and be everything to my family was…unrealistic.  And not unrealistic in that good “believe in yourself” way, more of that unhealthy “you’re going to drive yourself off a cliff” kind of way.  I had to get real help, like maybe hiring a cleaning service.  Of course, I did.  But seeing Reflection do what I aimed to do meant it was possible, probable even, for me to do it.  It would just take me a bit of time.  Him on the other hand.  All he needed was an affirmation, and a picture.

***

The next day, I sent Reflection along for Shiri’s major follow-up appointment, after holding up the picture of a highly competent looking obstetrician.  And I watched, arms crossed proudly, as Reflection thought to ask questions that I wouldn’t have thought to ask.  The doctor answered and addressed the questions and concerns, and I shook my head at the guy’s expression.

He thinks he’s humoring you, I thought to Reflection.  He probably thinks you did a little too much reading and are paranoid.  Little does he know.

But Reflection didn’t answer.  Maybe he didn’t hear.  So I repeated my words aloud.  But he still didn’t answer.  But then, it probably would have appeared strange to Shiri and the doctor if he did.

Shiri too was giving Reflection a strange look, but it wasn’t a look of concern or embarrassment.

Once again, I was satisfied that I’d sent along someone more qualified than me to help my wife.

“Where did those questions come from?” Shiri asked on their drive home.

And that was when I had my first twinge of concern.  Because I hadn’t thought about where the questions came from.  They hadn’t come from my mind, not the way Reflection’s responses to me had come from my mind.  I both originated them and received them.  I realized the same was true the night before with dinner.  His choices of seasoning, of cooking method and temperature, none of it had come from my mind.  So…Reflection must have his own mind.

***

When Reflection returned, I thanked him again for dinner and anew for the doctor’s office visit.

And I felt a small measure of comfort when I heard him forming thoughts as he recapped the appointment for me.

I laughed.  “I know all that,” I said.  “I can see and hear what you see and hear.”

I know you can, Reflection thought.  I know when you are awake and watching.  But I am curious.  Why don’t you rest as you say you wanted to?

I know when you are awake and watching.  That creeped me out.  And again that twinge of concern, of doubt, pinched my gut just a bit.

***

I didn’t think I was hallucinating.  Shiri commented again on my cooking and that aggressive slew of questions I’d challenged her doctor with during her last visit.  So all of that was real.  I kept in mind that some perception confusion, or even disorder, was always an option.  But if I assumed I could trust my own perceptions, what could be the explanation?  I did more internet searches, reading more about mirrors and perception, and I ended up finding old stories of demons using mirrors as doorways into our mortal world.  And of course, I had to be reading all the demon stuff when it was late at night.

I resisted calling on Reflection for a few days.   But then he began to call me every time I passed the mirror.  He insisted that I rest.  He asked me to do more affirmations (which I’d started doing in the bathroom mirror).  He only appeared in the bedroom mirror.  It wasn’t even a special mirror.  It wasn’t antique or hand-crafted.

I wondered if I should get rid of the mirror.  Or better yet, break it, just in case someone else might be haunted by their reflection if I gave it away.

I was still feeling exhausted, but I addressed it in different ways (adjusting my workflow at my job, doing a different workout, actual napping, and so forth).  That way, I could be there for my wife, and my larger family-to-be.

***

I was taking a nap, not in my own bed, but in the guest room across the hall, when I heard the crash.  I jolted awake not quite sure if it was real or something in my dream.  I heard a man’s voice.  My heart began to hammer.  I jumped out of bed and started to rush down the hallway, and then I stopped.

Where’s Shiri? I wondered.

There was someone in the house.  I was in no shape to handle that.  I rushed back to the bedroom.  My phone was on the nightstand.  I grabbed it.

“Come on, come on.  I hope this works,” I chanted as I unlocked my phone and searched for the image of someone who could handle an intruder.

Soldier was the first thought that came into my head.

I stood in front of the mirror and held my phone up to it, showing my reflection the image.

Please come out, I thought.

I heard Shiri cry out.

Please!

I blinked and I was in the mirror, and Reflection was out.  He nodded to me, brows furrowed in determination, and he dashed out of the room.  He made it down the stairs in a flash making hardly a sound.

He heard someone in the kitchen.  We didn’t keep any baseball bats in the house.  Reflection grabbed one of the dumbbells that we kept by the door.  He crept toward the kitchen and peeked around the corner.  Shiri was standing crouched over the kitchen island, grabbing the right side of her belly.

I felt a surge of panic.

She looked up when she heard Reflection approaching.  She did not look panicked, but she did look worried.

“I felt something weird,” Shiri said.  “This pain just started up.  I don’t know what it is.”

“Where is he?” Reflection said, glancing around.

Shiri frowned.  “What?  Who, the doctor?  I haven’t called yet.”

I noticed the keys in her hands then, and the broken glass on the floor.

“I heard a man.”

Shiri pointed to the smart speaker on the counter.  “I had just started listening to something.  Hey, could you call the doctor’s office?”

“Did you do that?” Reflection asked, looking down at the glass.

Shiri frowned at him again.

Forget the glass! I thought-screamed at him.

What have I done?  I thought to myself.  What is he going to do?

Reflection stepped around the glass and took the keys from Shiri.

“Here, be careful,” he said.  “We can call him on the way.  We can always drive back home if the doc says it’s normal and gives us guidance on what to do next.”

Shiri nodded.

And I had to admit that Reflection was being calm and reasonable, two things I don’t think I could be if I were in his shoes.

But it was supposed to be me in his shoes.  Panicked or not, it was supposed to me helping Shiri.

***

Through Reflection’s perceptions, I followed along with them.  The doctor was able to see Shiri after a couple of hours.  She was still in pain, but it wasn’t as bad.  Reflection got her water, brought up a pillow from the car to make her more comfortable while she waited, held her hand.

Shiri got checked out.  The doctor told her the pain she’d felt was normal and told her how to treat it if it happened again, and how to tell if it was serious enough to call him again.

By the time they left, Shiri complained of feeling hungry, so Reflection took her to go eat.  They went to that new Thai place that Shiri and I had been wanting to try.  Shiri didn’t talk about her pains or the doctor’s visit.  The pains were gone, and she was set on treating herself.

When they finally got back home, it was several hours later.  Shiri was okay, but exhausted.  She peered at Reflection, and commented on how “shiny” his eyes seemed.  Then she praised him for stepping up that day.

And I felt that doubt again about my own abilities, but it was a different kind of doubt now.

I longed for them to come to the bedroom, so I could switch back.  But Reflection went to the kitchen to put on some tea, while Shiri settled into her chair in the living room.

And when Reflection came to sit with her, she smiled and started speaking.

“I’m afraid of how much it’s going to hurt,” she said.

She poured out her heart to me, or she meant to pour out her heart to me, but it was actually him.

I waited.  And it would have made sense for me to have been waiting in anguish and shame.  But nothing I felt would matter if I couldn’t return.

They finally came up.

As Shiri settled down into bed, she yawned and said, “Change is good, but don’t change too much.”

I called Reflection back, back into the mirror.  He approached, but I felt him resisting.  He cared as much about my family as I did.  He wanted to see his “mission” through.

“Thank you,” I said aloud.  And as I said it, Reflection said it.

You are better at doing what’s right for the situation, I thought to him, and you are as real as I am, or you’ve become as real.  But you’re not me.  You’re not Shiri’s husband.  You’re not the father of her children.  And you weren’t meant to take over.  I should not have asked you to. 

To my surprise, Reflection agreed.  He reached toward the mirror, and I blinked and snapped back into the real world.  I had never been in the mirror for so long surrounded by darkness.  I glanced around, thankful for a world filled with clutter and color and shapes.

Shiri called me over.  She drowsily teased me about my posturing in the mirror.

I thought a final thanks to my reflection.

Rest easy now.  Go back to sleep.  I’ll get help from others when I need it. 

 And I will never leave her side again.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.

 I will never their side.

***

That night I had the dream—or nightmare—about the cracked mirror, about being trapped forever within it.  In the morning, when we woke, Shiri went straight to the bathroom.  But I walked over to the mirror.

It was cracked.  I looked at my shattered reflection.

And all I saw was me.

~***~

A month later, Shiri had the babies.  I was there for the whole thing.  But that’s a story for another time.  I was not surprised that there were two of them.  I’d been prepared for that.  What I didn’t know is that they were not identical twins.  They were fraternal.  A girl and a boy.

I wasn’t nervous the first time I held them.  I’d been reading and practicing (with mock dolls and bean bags).

I couldn’t stop looking at them.  I couldn’t believe they were finally here.  “They look beautiful…and expensive.”  I glanced up at Shiri.

She beamed.  Her eyes were half-closed, but unable to resist gazing at her children.  She shifted that gaze to me.  “Oh, honey, don’t worry about that.  Pick your least favorite chores.  We’ll hand them over once they’re old enough.  These two are going to earn their keep.”

I chuckled.  “Even though they had no say about coming into this world?”

“Who said life was fair?”

“You’re the best.”

“I know.”

And for the next while, I didn’t do anything at all, but just sit with my family.

 

 

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel

2 thoughts on “The Unstrange Face in the Mirror

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