Mirror piece, 1965. Art & Language. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under CCO 4.0.
My thirty-fourth year was meant to be a winner. I would drink less, I would eat better, I would write my book proposal, I would walk ten miles every day, I would go to the theater, I would get a job, I would read more books and watch more movies. I would, in short, live up to my potential. All my life I’ve seen out of the corner of my eye the other me, the one who rises early, sleeps well, spends responsibly, works hard, shines with a humble yet unmistakable brilliance, and never lets anybody down, the bitch. Well, no longer.
Thirty-three! Otherwise known as the Jesus year: thirty-three being the very age Jesus Christ got his show on the road. If it was good enough for the Son of God, surely it was good enough for me. Being simply human I didn’t expect a dove from heaven—just a little self-actualization, a shimmer of success, a whiff of recognition. Nothing big. In retrospect, it might have been better to dwell on the how of Jesus reaching his potential (i.e., death) and not so much the when. But I didn’t, and it wouldn’t have made a difference: almost precisely a month after reaching this momentous age, I was throwing up a yellow substance I didn’t like the look of into every available receptacle. Scripture is silent on whether this ever happened to Jesus, but since he participated in humanity in all its fullness, maybe it did.
My domestic situations have always had this problem: I buy things for the other me, who has great taste, but then I don’t know what to do with them, because they’re not my things, they’re hers. Other me—McClay A, let’s call her Alice—likes delicate coffee serving sets that would turn the humdrum act of sipping coffee in the morning into a small, beautiful ritual; real me habitually buys cheap iced coffee before going to sleep, placing it on the nightstand for the morning. What happens to the coffee service? Who knows. I look at it and am as charmed as ever. I’d buy it again, I’m sure.
And yet for a little over half a year this hasn’t been much of a problem. Not because Alice and I have harmonized but because my vomiting spell landed me in the hospital for two weeks, before I was discharged in a state so weak I could not walk to the corner of my block. I couldn’t feed myself and working was impossible. So I bowed to my fate and to my bank account, moved in with my parents, and went to the hospital two more times over the next few months as one of my organs necrotized. (It goes without saying, but these things never happen to Alice.) Unable to do anything, I listened over the phone as my long-suffering mother and boyfriend took care of all the things in my apartment one way or another. “You did kind of die,” he mused to me later, reflecting on his experience of disposing of my possessions. “I mean, it had a certain kind of resemblance.” I don’t know where these things went—some went into storage, I’ve been told, but the rest is just gone. Are the remainder my things, or are they Alice’s? Who knows—not me.
I cannot fill the home of other people with my own delusions. Not even if these other people are my parents. I can wishlist as many cunning little coffee contraptions as I desire, but there is no reason to buy them, no place to put them, and not even a little bit of a belief I would have any reason to use them. But being sick is, above all else, incredibly boring, and so it’s not surprising that I developed fixations. When I was actually in the hospital these fixations ran along practical lines: I would like not to be in pain, I would like to get out of here, I would like to take a shower, and so on. Out of the hospital, however, I had to pick something else. It couldn’t be furniture, cookware, or dishes. It couldn’t be anything that required me to do anything, like watercolors or yoga. So it was clothes.
With clothes, there’s always the trouble of what you want to wear and what you’ll actually wear. An office-appropriate and quite flattering sheath dress hangs in my closet but has little place in my officeless life. I bought it as if to say, It won’t always be this way. It’s still that way, but nevertheless, I research swimsuits late into the night . I haven’t been to the beach in years and the swimsuit I eventually settle on is ridiculously expensive, too expensive to impulse-buy. Once a week or so I go to the website and make sure it’s still there. It represents—what? The possibility of a carefree future, I suppose.
Brightly colored shoes, too, give me trouble. I feel, when I wear them, like a very delusional prey animal, bringing myself to the attention of every lion on the savannah. I do not fear real human predators, mind you, just bad luck. Long ago I remember reading a dubious study about shoe color, the findings of which were that people who wore predominantly black and brown shoes tended to have avoidant personalities, and taking stock of my black and brown shoes with resignation. What can you do? So I order sweaters and dresses that I’ll actually wear while lying around, and feel a little nicer lying around, and it works out rather well, most of the time.
And while the purchase of these clothes is motivated a hundred percent by personal vanity, they are plausibly practical: most of my old clothes are gone, and many no longer fit. You’ll always wear clothes. Still—there’s an issue.
How do you know how you look? You look in a mirror. Well, I have a mirror—one that shows my reflection from the waist up. But a full-length mirror—the kind that lets you really see how your clothes look—a useful thing to have, if your world has narrowed down to clothes—this, I do not have. Nor can I solve this dilemma by copping to my vanity and sneaking shame-faced, as I did as a teen, into my parents’ bathroom. They don’t have one now either. There isn’t one in the house. This is not, I should say, because of some ideological opposition to mirrors; my neuroticism about mirrors is entirely mine. There are plenty of mirrors. But there aren’t any built into this house, into which they recently moved, and they don’t feel the lack terribly much.
In my old life, full-length mirrors were not a problem, because people were always leaving them on the curb. Even when I smashed a mirror—you should believe all the stories about the consequences thereof, by the way—I found another one on the street just days later. But now, if I want a full-length mirror, I have to pay some amount of cold hard American cash for it. That is to say, I have to admit I want a mirror, which means admitting I want to look at my reflection in a mirror, and I have to go to the trouble of selecting a mirror to suit my needs (or wants, I suppose).
Like all vain people, I have a horror of seeming vain. And my vanity is the real thing. When people dab their faces with concealer, put on makeup, get some Botox, or thread their eyebrows, they’re confessing to a certain kind of humility. They could do with a little assistance, they’re saying. They’re making concessions. They do not think they are perfect just the way they are. But I don’t do any of this—I go about barefaced and let my eyebrows stay furry, not out of indifference, but because I like my face. That’s real vanity. It’s a misunderstood vice. So I am too vain, in fact, to admit that what I really want is not to check how I look, but just to look at myself; for my actual purposes, the bathroom mirror works perfectly well, particularly since I am rarely able to leave the house and thus never wear shoes.
A full-length mirror! Sometimes I think: No, I won’t pretend to be better than I am, I’ll take the plunge. I click around and add the cheapest one to my shopping cart. Then I see the future unfold before me: after an expenditure that would live in my records forever, I’d have to wait for it to arrive in the mail. Day by day I’d check its status. I’d worry that it would break. Upon its arrival, I’d probably need help maneuvering the package. To the inevitable comment that I’d purchased something large, I’d have to confess—yes, I have. A mirror. You know, in addition to the one I already have.
Oh, a mirror? says my interlocutor, who is no longer anybody I know but simply myself—not Alice but another self. This one’s a prosecutor; her name’s Simone. People are dying and you’ve bought a mirror? You could have given that money to a street urchin, but you bought a mirror? Standing on a chair to get a better look at yourself is just too hard for little old you, eh? Well, don’t let me interfere with your mirror. By the way, who made that mirror? Were you too cheap to get anything made in halfway decent labor conditions?
Click click click—the mirror comes out of the shopping cart. I purchase a book instead. Or maybe a sweater. Or shoes.
Would Alice buy a full-length mirror? That’s the trouble—I don’t know. She’d have one, obviously, but acquired through some mysterious means, maybe from a beautiful antique wardrobe, already intact. Or maybe she would buy one and set it up in some open area, smiling: “Darling, it’s simply courtesy to others just to give yourself a once-over in the mirror.” If I knew she’d buy one, then it wouldn’t be so fraught. My better self did it, so I will too.
A full-length mirror! What if I purchased one simply to prove that I didn’t have to look in it? It would be casually put in a corner, maybe with a sock hanging over it: Oh, a mirror? Yes, I suppose. I really forget it’s there, you know, I never use it. (My audience, sotto voce: And yet she’s always so well-dressed. And so brave!) With the mirror resolutely ignored, I would refine my vanity into something so much a vice as to be almost a virtue.
One thing’s for sure: if I had one, no matter what I did, it would bring everything to a resolution. I’d stop buying clothes. I would heal to become a better, stronger person than I was before I got sick. I’d never go back into the hospital. I would not require other people to pack up my apartment for me. I would write my book proposal, I would walk ten miles every day, I would go to the theater, I would get a job, I would read more books and watch more movies, I would rise early and sleep well, I would shine with a humble yet unmistakable brilliance, and I would never let anybody down.
A full-length mirror! Suppose one did simply appear—a good mirror, generous. I would look at the woman looking back at me. Who would be me, who would be Alice—it would be an irrelevant problem, because in that moment, as she blinks and I blink, as our mouths curve together in identical smiles, we would be at peace, the real disappointment and the unreal paradigm. Deep, deep we’d go, Alice and I, until we’d emerge in some other world, a perfect and complete being at last.
B.D. McClay is an essayist and critic. She has written for Lapham’s Quarterly, the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications.
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