The House of Mirrors

I found this story in my archives, dated 1998. Warning: it has some vulgar language and scenes near the end.

She loved mirrors. Every room in the house had two if not three. They were round, oval, square, rectangular, faded, new, clear, gold leaf stained, and cracked. There were fragments of mirrors, and mirrors left over from other people’s bedrooms and bathrooms. The long mirrors were used to check skirt lengths and shoes, the round ones reflected the landscapes outside the window so she wouldn’t have to turn around in the chair if the view was the other way. The were hand mirrors, magnifying mirrors, and mirrors you could no longer see yourself in, so faint was the backing. It is a particularly sobering experience to look into a mirror and see a triangle of cracked plaster where your mouth should be.

In the bathroom there was one in a wooden frame she had found in an antique story–really a junk shop–in Palma. The design was a floral pattern carved in dark wood; it copied art nouveau and other kitsch. A local painter of hard edge post-pop had for a price gone at it with gypsy colors. It hung next to the towels, draped in dozens of chains – wood, silver, beads, necklaces of all sorts and a couple of hair holding devices left over from the days when she had long hair, all dusted with a light coating of Johnson’s baby powder. Every morn, and some nights, she showered, soaked her feet in the bidet; slowly but surely her bunions and curling toes, not to mention her misshapen nails were beginning to impair her ability to walk. And then she dusted herself with talc beneath her breasts and between her thighs.

The gypsy mirror was best seen in the mirror hanging over the wash basin. This one she had picked up years before from the rubbish bins up by the last curve before arriving home. Three times a week she went to choir practice in Palma, and the rubbish collection was a danger lurking at the last bend. Often her companion–a frail musician in his sixties, and as averse to collecting household items as she was addicted to any object which could even remotely be considered as salvageable–inspected the leavings by the plastic containers to properly dispose of anything that might catch her eye. If she encountered him on the road, returning late from practice, he would claim to have been walking up to meet her, just for the exercise, of course.

As she flossed her teeth, she watched herself at third remove, her reflection in the gypsy mirror sent back and forth until the farthest faces were tiny, all flicking little white spots onto the mirror.

On the red radio on the chest behind the toilet- left behind years ago by an aging guest who probably thought she would come back some day to use it again – when she was at her toilet, the strains of Radio II de Espana pushed the baby talc away from the speaker. If a counter tenor happened to be on the air, she tried to imitate the sound, and could come very close by opening her throat in a certain way. It was a pity that counter tenors all had to be wasp-waisted little men who tended to be gay. She could have become a male impersonator and succeeded in the rarified world of ancient music and original instruments, had she not had such ample breasts that she could never have passed.

After mirrors, brassieres were perhaps her next obsession. A lifetime of carrying a pair of 2 kilo tits out in front was taking its toll on her neck and back. On my next but last trip to New York, she had me track down the factory of a certain bra she was convinced would be the answers to her prayers. The factory was somewhere out in the middle of Queens and I had to get a friend to drive me there. The company, as it turned out, was on the point of closing its doors. The did not have the size necessary, though I did manage to get one only a size smaller, better than anything she had been able to find in Spain.

Margalida of the bar also had enormous tits, but she was enormous all the way around, and all Spanish bras seemed to be made for the battleship, not for the figurehead. She would have to pin two or three folds into the strap across her back. Around the house she had taken to going without a bra. They lay on her chest like a pair of puppies dangling from her shoulders. As she worked in the flower garden, they brushed the plants when she worked the soil loose around their roots, nuzzling the roses with their multiple nipples. For some reason, these nipples were scattered in the aureoles like an impacted meteorite on the mountains of the moon. They were stroked by the rosemary and the irises and the daisy bushes, all of which were thriving under her tender care.

Her companion, on the other hand, had begun to feel as though he were fading away into himself. While she was energizing the earth and herself, he withdrew into a narrow cone, a deep web of reminiscence and sometimes regret. The past was, for the first time in his life, becoming more interesting than the present, at least part of the time.

In the past were escapades, adventures, an active search for love and sex. There were a string of women, some bright, some beautiful, some plain, but all intense for the duration of the relationships. And then there was that other thing now missing: youth. Youth with its boundless energy and hope.

The temptation is to blame the absence of a joyful buzz on the relationship. As you become part of the landscape for another person, it’s not long before you disappear, swallowed up by the other, visible only on certain cues. But to blame it entirely on the other person is a mistake; it’s mainly the absence of the energy necessary to reinvent the day.

Part of the morning routine was feeding the cats. She lifted from its hook over the sink the cutting board and sharpened a stripping knife with a bone handled whetting tool. At this signal, if the cats weren’t already sitting around the empty dish, they would stretch wherever they were and slowly make their way the kitchen. One often slept in the closet on garments that had not been worn for perhaps five years. The closet door was left open just for this reason, to let the cat in, the handles held partly closed with a red garter. Another, the male favorite, might be curled up at her feet on the bed, if I hadn’t kicked him off during the night; and the third, an ugly crippled black cat that dripped saliva from its lolling tongue at all times, most often slept in a cardboard box, if one happened to be in the kitchen, or maybe in the middle of the table, a string of spit attaching her pink tongue to a circular puddle on one of the place mats.

Whenever I felt rancor over the disgusting habits of this cat, I finally came to admit that it was not entirely to blame. There was almost nowhere else to lie or sit. Most tables were completely covered by the detritus of her many faceted interests. Newspapers still not thoroughly clipped for recipes and health hints; magazines about bathrooms, or kitchens; or garden books; German magazines to see the ads and pictures; English suggestions on how to keep your husband interested by buying sexy underwear and asking him to give you a Swedish massage – See how long he holds out when he’s …

With so many projects under way, her world has become a labyrinth in which she can become lost at any moment. Sorting in the unfinished new bathroom – already filling up with mirrors; vacuuming the house for fleas; getting the seeds in before the full moon; making melon soup and Indonesian chicken; learning a cantata by Mendelssohn. The list is endless, and the remains of these days are strewn throughout her world.

Last night I kept seeing the faces of my children in the orphanage. Each time I was about to fall off to sleep, a child’s face appeared to me, sunken into a pillow, eyes open, looking at the wall. She could hear the other children breathing in the room, and remembered the events of the day. Inevitably she would turn her thoughts to her father and mother, somewhere out there in the rest of the world, outside the walls housing two or three hundred children and twenty adults. She would imagine one of them coming to pick her up in a white car (she seemed to remember a white car, though she was only three when the family split up). She pictured herself saying goodbye to her one friend in the place, lifting her suitcase, mostly empty except for a few homemade cotton dresses, and walking out the big double doors forever. She imagined the windows of the institution filled with the faces of the boys and girls she was leaving behind, some of whom had tormented her during the past two years, some of whom were seen to be weeping in a corner somewhere most of the time, lost creatures with no hope of ever leaving until they were old enough to walk out alone to look for a job or some distant relative who would help them get set up in life.

Once he had picked up the two girls for a long weekend in a motel with the woman he was planning to take as a third wife. To think of those three days now made him groan and turn over in the bed. Stupid, when you think of it. Thirty years had passed since then, the wife was long since divorced, taking with her their own child – his fourth, their first.

But that weekend in South Carolina, he was hopeful that he could make a new home and in it a place for these ragamuffins he had seeded in his rash college days with his first wife, first jobs, first sorrows of adulthood.

I notice that when I think of the distant parts of my life I think of myself as “he.” It is as though I cannot believe that the person I am today could have committed those acts of abandonment and foolhardiness which so marked his life from the age of 16 to 40.

Another routine part of the day for her was the final sweep up of the kitchen. In the course of breakfast, bread crumbs inevitably ended up on the counter and the floor. Often a vegetable soup was begun shortly after breakfast, and the tile floor was dappled with the tops of carrots, bits of lettuce shaken off with the water, onion skins caught by the breeze through the open back door, among other detritus of the chef. There might be the triangular flap cut from the milk carton, or some dried apricot leaves that had blown in from the back garden.

All of these bits left behind her flurry of domestic efficiency she, with admirable economy, drew along with a damp mop, simultaneously mopping the floor and making a neat pile of dust pan material around the base of the mop bucket by the fridge.

This process was repeated at lunch, usually a frantically hurried occasion if it was one of the days she had choir practice or a concert that evening. Lunch usually was served when the sun left terrace – in the summer , or just before the sun left the terrace – in the winter. Once again the mop was used as a limp broom, the heap by the bucket grew by a few pea pods, or wayward pinyoli nuts.

But before going to soak her feet in the bidet and read, dressed in her pink granny flannel gown, she lifted the broom and long handled dustpan from its place beneath the collection of aprons and string bags, a nest of wine corks in an egg basket, even a minnow net, left behind in one of the apartments by a German child, and which she used to assist moths or birds trapped by the picture window.

She swept the whole kitchen, moved the blue pail from the circle it left behind, shoved it all onto the dustpan, dumped it into the garbage can under the sink, poured the days mop water down the sink, washed the sink, put fresh water in the bucket, made a final wash with clean water, and stood the mop in the basket used for wringing it out.

After putting the food left over by the cats under a plate in the fridge, she gave a final look and turned out the light. She was ready to sit in the wing back chair in the living room with a book. She selected one of the baseball caps lying by the chair, the Cincinnati Bearcats inexplicably printed across the felt. The Bearcats are a football team, I have been told.

The book rests on a pillow around which a cat is curled in her lap.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, there is another routine that begins in the late afternoon. As the hour of seven thirty is ever more imminent, the latest moment to sanely start the Renault and head for Palma.

There are several riffs in this routine, but the structure is basically the same. One given is that she will at the last moment realize she does not know where she has left the music she is supposed to practice with the choir in Palma. Another inevitable stumbling block will be the search for a specific shawl. This shawl will be the only one she wants, to go with the outfit she has landed upon after a frantic twenty minutes of closets, drawers, cardboard boxes, trunks and Mallorquin chests. Of course this will be the one shawl that has apparently disappeared forever in the dozens of others hanging from the railing at the top of the stairs, from doorknobs, when they have no nails, from a pair of mattress fluffing tools, each like a unicycle rocking chair, if you can imagine it: a working end of wood curved like a sickle, a handle in the middle of the convex part of the curve no more than a single dowel just thick enough to grasp with the fingers. These tools now served as a rack suspended from the rafters out over the stairwell – after all the excessive head space over the bottom of the steps is lost storage area. What could be more economical than to hang Indian scarves, paisley shawls for the winter, a bouquet of colors from every civilization in vogue on the globe during the past twenty-five years. The prize of the collection, however, does not hang there for the moths to devour in their cocoon days. This is a thin, colorless rag reputed to have been made from the chin hair of certain Himalayan goats. This hair was gathered from vegetation in the vicinity of the goats, thus avoiding offending any spirit more advanced than a bramble bush which might on some spiky afternoon repay mankind with a barb in someone else’s arm.

When seven-thirty, the deadline, has become part of the recent past, she will answer a call on the cordless phone, and talk while she changes deftly from red leggings to brown ribbed stockings suitable to keep her from freezing in the stone church where they would stand for the next two hours – after she once arrived in Palma. By seven-forty five, the phone now glued to the other ear as she checks rental dates for a couple of Berliners next October.

If I were a nail biter, these whirlwinds would have made me gnaw them down to the first joint. I recognize the signs that she will soon realize she had still not found the shoes for which she had chosen for what she was wearing. She was thinking of those shoes, red Chinese slippers which clutched every bunion with soft respect, when she selected the violet embroidered velvet jacket and the contrasting bits and pieces – a zippered handbag from somewhere in the East with geometric needlework, a neck scarf of tromp-l’oeil red green and yellow hibiscus petals. Without these shoes she had no choice but to wear the green pair not yet taken from the box. Slipping them on, she accepts the black ski pants, but the jacket had to go, and with it the blouse, over her head this time with the buttons still done up.

Miraculously there is another one of the right shade still buttoned from last Thursday’s panic, and she had it over her head and – now you see them now you don’t – over her mammoth tits. Tucking in the blouse, hugging the alternative beaver brown velvet jacket under her arm. From her teeth hung the slender chain of the Indian purse, a raffia shopping bag was magically gathering objects flying from amongst the newspapers and magazines. These publications had drifted rather like dunes of print over yesterday’s detritus, and still she was explaining to Margarita the string quartet was really six people, with the wives, and they needed two double rooms and two single rooms.

I patrolled along behind her balancing things left teetering in her wake, closing doors behind her as she navigated the labyrinth of belongings on her way to the car. I generally felt that once I had closed a certain door she would not retreat to that room again, and another step was gained toward the starting of the engine. The white 4TL was no doubt shuddering in its tires as the clatter approached the parking lot.

There are five doors in a Renault 4, the way the Spanish count, and the first four are slammed in this order, with minor variations: first, the passenger’s door, which she opened to put her hold all bag on the floor where she can reach it while driving, but where it won’t fly off the seat and spill – not that order seemed to be a precept deciding this. The contents might even have been sorted in a more logical fashion, say little to big, or heavy to light; the second is often the rear door on the passenger’s side. There go, on the seat, the notebooks containing the pieces they would work on tonight, she hoped, a sudden pang of fear striking her heart as she rubbed dust from the rear window of the car.

Cleaning the back window got her to the trunk, which she raised high enough to slip in a bag of flashlight batteries now on the endless journey to the recycling container. Months would pass….

At five to eight the engine roared to life, the vehicle backed in a tight circle that would have mowed down five or six hikers, had they appeared at that moment, and snapping her seat belt into place, a look in her eye as you might see in that of a fighter pilot about to sail off the end of an aircraft carrier, and gravel spat harmlessly at my feet as she headed for the first bend in the road at full acceleration, confident that nobody in his right mind would be walking down the road on a Monday or a Wednesday at about eight-o-three.

The minor variations occur when the appearance at this crucial moment Stephanie’s eruption from the house.

One common near miss is when Leila is climbing the stairs to the living room just as Stephanie has gathered the momentum necessary to tear herself away from the numberless alternatives to the clothes on her back. She often is on the point of barreling down the stairwell as Leila, who always walks looking at her feet. It is as though her legs are so long she is not quite sure where her feet are. When the rush of air coming to greet her gets her attention she is invariably frightened for her safety, sometimes cracking her head on the low door into the back room. S will unzip the purse still hanging from her teeth, and digs out the money. Now the purse has clearly explained its presence in her teeth and snuggles down into the hold all with the other paraphernalia chosen with such apparent randomness. But I had no doubt that any contingency, barring perhaps earthquake, could be dealt with by the humble packets and tubes jostling together on her hip.

When Leila has been paid, and the identical black notebooks scattered over the grand piano have been examined and discarded, she nearly stumbles over the one she is looking for, placed by her in the pathway to the back door, regaining her footing just as Lady June sidles up the walk. She brings yet another fax to her lawyer, and the look of consternation and ill humor on her face is absolutely normal and to be expected. Archie Cramer, deceased, has left his daughter and son enough squabbles to last a lifetime.

Most recently she received the news that her brother had cancer, and her first thought was that this would hold up still longer the proceedings to settle the property they held in common.

Vera is another hazard at the moment of Stephanie’s launch from the pad. At the best of times, Vera moves in the slow circles of a river, perhaps the Ganges, murmuring a current of observation encyclical in its subject matter, though the local manifestation might be about the alacrity with which Jack had left her behind as he sauntered in his own relaxed way through the garden. He stuck his head into the studio, ducked out again, recalculated his direction and leaned in that direction until first one leg and then the other made a step toward the new destination, our back door. Whenever he happened to be in the narrowest part of the path, stones of the house on one side, stones of the retaining wall on the other, the colorful hurricane swooping over the uneven stones, he weathered it like a rock in the sea. A slight wave of affable amusement would pass through his frame, and then he was at rest again. This wave seemed to begin in his fingertips, dangling in total peace from his wrists, travel with a small twist through his shoulders, then his head would rock slowly to absorb the wave, ending with the slightest twitch of his eyebrows.

A final delay often occurred by the fountain where water from the mountain poured into a round bowl carved from stone. Here Palmesanos came to fill plastic bottles with drinking water. Stephanie would appear in a cloud of dust from the dirt drive from our house, and there was a car with its trunk open. On the asphalt were thirty or forty bottles, all of them empty, while a man and his wife leaned with their heads so close to the falling water that they could hear neither to motor nor the horn she tooted. The kids sitting in the back seat saw her stop a few feet away, their eyes big, one of them reaching through the window to touch her father on the back.

Stephanie raced the engine up and down while he lined the bottles up off the road and pulled his car off into the side street where it should have been all the time.

As she rushed to regain the minute lost at the fountain, she saw a caravan of empty tourist buses coming and tried to beat them to the intersection. If she had to stay behind them all the way she would never make it on time.

A couple of hours later she has the road to herself, nine times out of ten, and is back in the house in no time. Soon she has carved the hearts for the cats, sliced an avocado, which we have with endives and red wine. On the radio is jazz from eleven thirty, or flamenco if it’s Saturday. After the foot soak with Time magazine, a thorough flossing, she chooses a Cincinnati Reds cap and goes for the chair, a pillow holding her book.

Soon she can be seen dozing if it has been a hard day. The book rests on a pillow around which a cat is curled in her lap.

Her companion, at sixty, was just as horny as ever. It irked him to some degree that this was so. He had believed that lust would gradually fade away into the past, that one day he would no longer be led by his genitals. Like a divining rod, his member quivered when a potentially wet cunt went by. It had done little good all these years to have worn jockey shorts to gird his loins so to speak. The battle of the bulge was a daily Calvary he had thought he would grow out of.

Far from it, with more experience and application, his radar was even more finely tuned than ever. It was a curious fact that the older you get the more women your age who are free and knowledgeable about their likes and desires. There were plenty of girls around when he was young, too, but while the aims of an adolescent male seem to be almost diametrically opposite those of adolescent females, mature men and women can identify each other and pair off nicely, if they so desire. The fight was over before you met, and now it was time for a little peace.

While she seemed able to fall asleep without a thought for sex, for him it made no sense to pass it up. So they had been sleeping in the same bed for 18 years, and had made love in every room of the house, and in every position in any book she could find, or that he could think up and she rearrange; so what? A touch from her and he was erect at once.

It rankled sometimes that unless he made the advance, she would simply drop off, snore softly until he turned her slightly, and sleep soundly until morning. Not to be obsessive and a pest, he sometimes put his mind to something else and drifted off with a hard-on, waking up hours later with the same or a new one.

On other occasions, he would lie still imagining that she was touching him, or that he was about to penetrate her, and he would sneeze. Picturing it again, he got up to the point and sneezed once more, into the pillow this time. He knew from experience that if he went on picturing making love in any one of its manifestations, he would go on sneezing until she responded with murmurs and a little swoop of her ass, giving an appreciative squeeze.

This could lead to a little action, or it could be the end of it, unless he insisted, or she showed more willingness than reluctance. It seemed finally like a pretty good arrangement. It worked fine.

The cats occupy a certain privileged place in her life. R-r-r-ron, the gelded male, is her favorite, though she puts up with the black runt Mur-r-r-si in spite of her toothless dribble on the cushions. Mudar-r-r-ra, the mother of both gets a privileged diet of raw pig hearts because she refuses any other food.

None of them cared about the mirrors.