A Hat and a Mirror
It was one of those evenings when New York seemed to be a movie, dreamlike, presenting itself in a series of scenes as I left my apartment: a hallway with black and white tiles, a street where a taxi’s light suddenly appeared, a pimple on Jackie the doorman’s nose. I was separated from the city as if I sat watching it in a darkened room.
I was waiting for the hero to enter: Michael, back from the war. I was going to meet him at his hotel, and though I was the active one, leaving my house, grabbing a cab, pressing the elevator buttons, I was really only a spectator. Michael was the star. I would wait in the dark to see what he was going to do, knowing in advance that I was unlikely to comprehend the plot.
My gift of understanding, if that’s what it is, does not encompass my fellow human beings. My lover (whom I loved) was as opaque to me as your house is to you, as unpredictable as an earthquake. (I can explain why the birds have left your garden and how weary your water heater is, but don’t ask me why your wife stopped speaking to you.) When I stood at the door of Michael’s room, I heard the voices of mice in the walls. The light bulb overhead hummed its imminent failure. But my own heart was utterly silent.
He opened the door. He was wearing nothing but his underpants, those unattractive jockey shorts that look like a lumpy white sack. “Why aren’t you dressed?" I asked, immediately feeling stupid. I hadn’t seen him for two years. He’d been flying high and long over dangerous landscapes and come back alive. Was this the first thing I should have said to him?
“You’re early, lady,” he answered quickly, a little angrily. Even when defending himself, Michael was never defensive. Thick black hair curled aggressively off his chest, and when he turned to go away into the room I saw the line of fine dark hair down the bottom of his spine that my fingers remembered.
He didn’t make any gesture toward putting on clothes. Instead he lay on the unmade bed, reclining against the pillows, hands behind his head. There were a lot of bugs in that room, cockroaches, mites, silverfish, flies. There are a lot of bugs everywhere, all the time. I learned before I was three years old to ignore them, as a city dweller ignores the sounds of traffic. But sometimes at moments of stress I become more aware of their ever-present murmur, the group confabs of ants, the solitary vibration of a spider. They breakthrough when I’m weak. In the end, of course, in the ultimate moment of weakness, death, they will overrun everything.
I sighed, shook my head slightly, and tried to focus on the hero in his underwear on the hotel bed. He eyed me up and down, a pasha contemplating an addition to his harem.
“You’re looking good,” he said, perhaps a little grudgingly. “Nice hat. Mink?”
“Thanks. It’s faux,” I said. “You know I can’t wear fur.” (I could no more wear a real fur or leather garment than you could place a flayed infant on your head or your mother’s guts around your shoulders, unless you’re of Hannibal Lector’s ilk. Michael had known that, once.)
He frowned a little, crossed his arms.
“You’re still doing that bit?”
“Bit?” I asked, stupider than ever.
“Yeah, that witch thing, earth mother, whatever the fuck it is.”
My hat, wildly expensive, symbolized the long way I’d come in two years, and not just from west Texas to New York. Geographically that trip had been a couple of hours flying time and I’d spent most of it in tears. The airplane, a very seasoned 727, held us in the air with the typical jauntiness of a well-maintained machine. The 727 didn’t empathize with my sorrow; most machines don’t know sadness, only function and dysfunction. So, the airplane carried me without faltering, and even as I cried uncontrollably I knew I was safe. My life was going to begin again, no question about that. I was nearly paralyzed by despair for those hours, but that jet was moving me on, in spite of myself. And now I had the faux fur chapeau, featured last month in W. The hat didn’t need to speak to me. I knew what it meant.
“I am who I am,” I said to Michael.
“Well, if we’re going to get married, you’ll have to stop that talking to the animals and shit.”
This was his way of proposing, I suppose. He was who he was, too. Three years ago, I had accepted all of it, the whole package, the humor, the lovemaking, the rudeness, the sweetness, because I was assuming he loved me, and that overrode everything else.
I stood watching him for a moment, then turned away and walked around the room. The place was not peaceful, even when I screened out the bugs. It stirred uneasily, the carpet weighted with old unquiet footsteps, the walls wary–they’d been hurt before.
Michael got out of the bed and came up behind me, putting his arms around my waist. The mirror on the battered dresser showed us to me: a distortion like a silver wrinkle lay across our faces and there was a crack just at the reflection of Michael’s ear. Here’s the problem, said the mirror, I’m broken. Seven years’ bad luck. Michael kissed my neck and his erection prodded my hip.
“Babe,” he murmured. The room, which had seen almost everything, judged him harshly.
“Look,” I said, “wait.”
He stared at me in the mirror, surprised. "Look,” I said,“this was a mistake. I’m sorry.” I’ve moved on, I was going to say, but the dusty curtains were urging me to go. “Just... sorry,” and I escaped from his grasp. I reached the door, turned the knob, pulled.
Behind me, he spoke but so did the mice, agitated, scurrying, and their noises drowned him out. The door closed between Michael and me, a definitive, clear, and final clack, old hardware rattling irritably, and I began to run down the corridor, agile and free in my spike-heeled plastic pumps.
Madalyne Della lives in the US Southwest. She has also lived in Houston, New York, Boston, Vermont, Oregon, and California. She has worked as an archaeologist, an editor, a wife, and a mother.