Published in the Wells Street Journal, Issue 11: The Liminal Edition (April 2019)
My wife tells me that she can never see herself in my work so I say I will make her a mirror. She doesn’t laugh at my lame attempt at comedy, maybe because we actually do need a mirror. We both take our showers in the morning and I wake up before her most days so by the time she gets to the vanity to do her makeup, our bathroom mirror is one impenetrable blur of grey.
She is reduced to standing in the hallway where there is a small, rhomboidal mirror by the door. She hangs her makeup bag from one of the coat hooks on the wall and goes through her routine with her free hand planted firmly against the locked door. My wife is terrified of someone breaking into our flat while she is home alone. She keeps the window across from the mirror in the hall perpetually shuttered so that stalkers won’t be able to see which flat she lives in. Her anxiety is higher in the morning because of her compulsion to do her makeup in the nude with her thighs and back lobster-red and steaming. Ripe and ready for a serial killer, she always says. I have offered to move the mirror from the hallway to our windowless bedroom but she told me not to bother. She said she doesn’t mind, but I know she does.
My wife is the kind of person who refuses to go into stores less than 30 minutes before they close. She is constitutionally incapable of inconveniencing anyone; the only exception being herself. Whenever I remind of her of this fact, she sighs and pats the top of my head, a gesture that I find patronizing in the extreme. I grimace. She smirks. And then I say I dropped something and jog back to the store to buy whatever it is she needs. Other people call this kind of behaviour passive aggressive.
On those mornings that I sleep in, I awake to see her through the doorway, standing at the end of the hall. In her left hand, she holds an eyeliner pencil; the right holds the door closed. Morning light leaks through the cracks in the closed shutters of the hallway window, casting soft golden bars across my wife’s salmon-coloured body. The light shimmers and throbs, bursting with the potential to mature into the pale ubiquity of day. I like to sculpt in the mornings when the feverish impatience of morning light falls on the marble, iron, and wood in my studio, provoking the raw materials to change into something else.
My wife leans in to the mirror to get a closer look at her eyelid, then lifts her chin, pulling her mouth into a frown. She drags a fingernail a fraction of a centimetre along the corner of her top lip, where the gloss has spilled over. Then she wraps her left arm around her head and finishes drawing on her eyeliner. She became ambidextrous when we moved into this flat, now preferring her left to her right even on those days when I am home, when she doesn’t have to hold the door closed.
She inspects her work, herself in the mirror. She smiles. She grimaces. Then she tilts her chin up, eyes wide and curious, lips slightly parted. Everyone who knows my wife thinks of this expression when they picture her face. If it were possible, I would want my mirror to capture this moment, to preserve for her not only the image, but also the freedom and self-awareness that she experiences on those mornings when she hasn’t yet felt the familiar weight of my gaze.
She turns and sees my open eyes. She walks back into the bedroom and opens the closet doors. She clicks her tongue a few times, then speaks to me over her shoulder. She tells me that her clothes are hideous and that she looks fat and ugly. I tell her that’s not true. She says which? I say both and she says yeah, but you’re biased. And then I can’t find anything else to say. This is your classic no-win situation, what my Father called a Kobayashi Maru, and even after a combined total of sixty years of marriage, neither of us have figured out how to get out of one.
I know that my wife doesn’t actually believe that her clothes are hideous or that she’s fat or ugly, at least, not all the time. She says these things because it triggers the same conversation every time and that kind of consistency can be comforting. I do the same thing when I ask her what she thinks of my work. I will ask her opinion of something and she will say “Oh, D, you know I think all your stuff is marvellous.”
The only time my wife has ever told me the truth about my art was when I had a piece commissioned by the Seattle Sculpture Garden. I constructed a loose tepee of telephone poles, interspersed with boulders, at the far corner of the garden, where the grass falls away to a rocky beach. I wanted it to look like an abandoned bonfire, like man’s hubris reduced to refuse, destroyed by the tides. I remember showing my wife the design the night before the unveiling. She was sitting on my lap, taking liberal swigs from my beer. She looked at the plans for a long time.
“What’s it called?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet, thinking about just calling it ‘Untitled’… thoughts?”
“How about… ‘ode to phallus’?”
She looked back at me, and, on her face where I expected to see levity, I saw only that look of calm curiosity. She thought that the title would be appropriate. My wife saw the piece for what it would be: another monument to man’s love for his genitalia. She didn’t seem particularly bothered by the heavy-handedness of my approach, but then again, she had been confronted by the image throughout her life. What was one more sculpture of a penis to a woman who had spent most of her life in cities?
I didn’t tell her that I had intended the piece to express the opposite of virile masculinity. I saw it as an ode to the pull of the moon, that temperamental goddess who can destroy any man she wishes, ripping his structures and statues to shreds with pressure and time. I didn’t tell my wife any of this, but when I spent the evening of the unveiling drinking flute after flute of prosecco and sulking beneath an enormous red Chihuly elsewhere in the garden, she recognized her mistake. She didn’t apologize—my wife never apologizes unless she thinks she’s wrong—but she made the decision to abstain from commenting on my work.
The morning after I tell her that I will make her a mirror, I wake up at sunrise next to my wife. I rise from the bed carefully, trying not to wake her. She moans as my presence leaves the warm enclosure of our sheets. I go to the bathroom, shower, shave, and come back to the bedroom to get dressed. As I button my shirt, I look down at my wife’s troubled brow; she has never been a good sleeper. I lean down and plant a dry kiss on her temple. Her weary arms raise on invisible marionette strings, wrapping themselves around my neck.
“Go make something grand, baby,” she mumbles.
I break out through London’s bitter morning air, heading for Queensway Tube Station. I take Inverness Terrace rather than the more direct route down Queensway because the trees waving above my head make me feel like I could be anywhere else.
I don’t dislike London but I do feel out of place here. My wife acclimated immediately, inserting herself into her rigorous studies and picking up a gaggle of good-natured friends in the process. The crowd of artists and intellectuals that I continue to meet at galleries and theatres bores me. They wax philosophical about the bourgeois sensibilities of the modern precariat, trying to find the most obscure and esoteric way to express themselves. My wife says I don’t like these people because I see too much of myself in them. She’s probably right.
While my wife has built a life for herself here, I have occupied myself with my work, which ironically translates to the production of fewer and fewer pieces. My art is becoming increasingly theoretical. For example, my last piece was a discarded Costa Coffee House cup, crushed beneath the wheel of a garbage collector’s truck on a deserted street off Primrose Hill. No one would see the mangled maroon remains of the cup and no one would care. But it was art, and beautiful, nonetheless.
Despite my reduction in output, I still keep a studio. It is a small office beneath a vegan restaurant off Bond Street. The rent is atrocious but I need somewhere other than our flat to keep my materials and tools.
I reach Queensway and descend to the platform on the crowded lift. A husky, unshaven gentleman peers blearily at the other occupants. His XXXL T-shirt is stained with grease and I can smell the vinegar and bitter on his clothes and breath. Beside me, a young woman taps at her phone in an uninterrupted stream that sounds like small raindrops pattering against a skylight. A boy with a black bowl cut clutches his mother’s hand. He looks up at me with pure curiosity on his face. His green eyes remind me of my wife’s but before I can smile at him, the doors open and we all alight from the lift.
On the tube, the darkened tunnels darting past the curved Plexiglass windows create a funhouse mirror that morphs my fellow passengers into grotesque amalgamations of limbs and features. The large man sits next to me. His cranium has disappeared, replaced by a shrunken, inverted reflection of his whole body, which sprouts from the crest of his Cro-Magnon brow. Two sets of eyes, divided by one set of eyebrows, gaze into the middle distance. The woman, standing between the row of seats, has been reduced to a pair of double sided-legs, leopard-print designer heels on all four feet. The boy with the bowl cut and green eyes giggles as he elongates his features one at a time by exposing them to the curve in the glass. His nose bulges out, then his mouth, then his chin.
I notice that from where I am sitting, my eyes are invisible in the reflective glass. They have been consumed by a second pair of cheeks, resting comfortably atop their clones. I try to sit perfectly still and merge myself with the thing that I see in the glass. Like an embarrassing memory from childhood, what I see is both an image of me and not an image of me. I shudder because, in some other world, I could look like this.
My wife and I share the same fear that maybe we are hideously deformed in some way. She tends to think in terms of mental disabilities whereas I can only picture the physical. I think about how life would look to someone who looks like I do in the reflective window of the Tube. I don’t think it would be too bad if you knew that that was how you looked. The crux of our fear is that the whole world has created a conspiracy, complete with doctored mirrors, in order to keep us in the dark about our deformities. We are terrified that we are the only people who can’t see how hideous we truly are.
I think about my wife waking up and going to stand at the door to do her makeup. I think about how she teases me for taking myself too seriously, for being too self-important. I love how she can tease me for this and then tell me with a straight face that none of her friends like her and that they’re all just pretending.
My wife and I always come to the same conclusion about our fear—that it is unwarranted. We tell each other that we are normal in looks and intelligence. We remind each other of our faults and our virtues because we draw no difference between the importance of these things. We decide that we can trust each other because we can be honest with each other, even when we can’t be honest with ourselves, even when being honest means never telling someone what you really think. Ruth and I are two mirrors, facing one another. When I look past her, past the two of us, I can see my face repeated ad infinitum. And each repetition is both an image of me and not an image of me.
As the train screeches to a halt at Bond Street, I take one last look at myself in the reflective glass. I smile because I look ridiculous, vertically doubled into a misshapen hourglass of a human being. I smile because I can never see myself as well as I do when I am with my wife. And I smile because she makes a better mirror than I ever could.