When I am nervous, I find myself, subconsciously, biting my nails. Not so much biting, rather, nibbling, delicately on the edges. Smooth as they are. Trying somehow, through the act of nibbling-on-nail to placate the soft twitch in my belly. Tasteless, for the texture, rather than to savour the nail itself. You could always tell, by looking at my hands, the nature of my emotional state … Healthy nails equate to general well being. Anything less implies anxiety.
Yet, I don’t consider myself an anxious person – certainly not in the sense that others I know must be.
I look deeply into the reflection that I create in the mirror. Turn my face this way and that. Searching for what, I am not sure. I seem solid. I seem well constructed. My eyes are clear and speak with conviction. My ears are symmetrical, my nose occupies its rightful spot in the general centre of my features. My mouth … lips pursed … seems to function as it should.
The mirror couldn’t possibly lie? I look down at my hands … perhaps the mirror does lie … perhaps my eyes lie too. Long lashes that curl perfectly upward, almost shaped cubicles that reflect the heart of my soul. My eyes too purse, I realize. Happisad eyes, you once said. Happisad eyes.
Studiously, I peer into the mirror, looking for line that separates the happy from the sad. How could you see it, know with one glance, while I stand, naked, trying to see what you saw there in a flash on that day? Somewhere in my eyes there is an equator … somewhere.
My nose touches the glass as I try and step into the image. The heat of my breath creates a fine, moist mist against the reflection.
The glass is solid. I am outside and only the image occupies the inside space. Anxiety: how to connect the inside with the outside, to merge the two without fracturing the spirit. Alice’s wonderland.
Often I find myself staring at old people, trying simply to trace the wrinkled maps of their faces, to understand the experience that is inked there in the rivers and valleys and crests of their lines of time, to know their pain as it is etched into their skin. How much the skin reveals in its softness, its hardness, and in the plane of its being. There is something so secretly sacred, intimate, about a person’s wrinkles, those lines that stretch from their eyes outward, panning the surface of their face, reaching out toward their ears in a quest to conquer youth and leave in its place the mark of time. A language of its own, those wrinkles, a script that no one has yet learned to master. Foreign to the point of isolation. I smile to think of the stories it could tell, skin, if listened to, if given a chance to speak, in its own alien tongue.
My eyes peer vacantly back from inside the mirror.
The hollowness of the returned gaze awakens a flurry of stranded images and experiences that define the passage of my life: afternoons at the beach, picnics, a stray hand brushed against my forehead to smooth down a rogue strand of hair, cricket in the park, sand, feeding deer on mountains, languid winter’s days, hiding on the stairs at night to peer over the railing and watch television, unseen, over my parents’ shoulders, random kisses. My life: immaculately preserved and petrified in memories.
One day, my wrinkles too will tell this narrative – the thought brings back the transitory nature of life’s ephemera, its constant swing, its shifting sands.
I stop to listen to the brief patter of my heart against my chest; my hand resting on the mirror, as though trying to contain and restrict the transience. Again, I notice my nails.
The anxiety, I know, is life itself … this disease that we are all born with. A friend made that analogy once. “Everyone has it,” she said, “ and it plagues us until, eventually, we die.” (Only then, I thought to myself, then, it is too late to realize that the disease is indeed a gift.) The tranquil and attentive look in her eye told me, at that moment, of her magic and of her intense passion for living. Internal. She paused after her telling, her head tilted just so, as though listening to the life around her. A secret joy to watch her listen.
The image in the mirror begins to float as my eyes brim with tears.
She died six months ago, succumbed to that disease of life. Cancer consumed, literally ate away at her body. Such a beautiful spirit, such a purity within herself and her wild dreams. I see her still, everywhere I go: in the trees, in the shadows, in the air itself. She consumes me. Forcing my attention to my own gift of living.
I remind myself that she is gone and that I am not, that she lives on, every day, through me and the people who knew her, our thoughts and deeds are her legacy. The notion imbues my with a sudden will to achieve, to strive, to overcome the anxiety: to live. Ironic that in death, she gives me this power.
I smile to think of how much more I know now than I did then …
My hand leaves the mirror, flutters around my hair.
You too inclined your head when you listened, leaning forward in that subtle way. How the waves crashed in the background, bursting with their own language against dirt-yellow sand. The shift in your movement, from simply listening to actually absorbing information, phenomenal. Your eyes cleared, the mist evaporating and it was as though in that instant you actually occupied the room, with me.
Do you remember when I leaned in to meet you, as you tilted to hear the essence of my words? How startled you were at my mimicry … as though immediately uncomfortable with your action and the manner in which I anticipated it in response. Confronted by the intimacy with which I knew you then.
The couple sitting at the table next to us: they were not married, we had decided, rather conducting themselves inconspicuously through an illicit love affair. He was, perhaps, the brother of her husband. They had been in love for many years, in denial about their passion for one another. His eyes undressed her there, at the table, over the white linen, between the starched napkins. We watched them, narrating their intricacies. She wore a ring, but the way she fingered it said that it was not his. He, elegantly dressed in Italian navy suit, shirt and matching tie, kept glancing over his shoulder, as though expecting to be discovered. She was tall, towering over him. Once she had been a catwalk model; now, she had children – those of his brother. He was their uncle, and her lover.
When they left – in separate cars, a key and accompanying note passed between them, with a smile – we were momentarily silent. Then we laughed to have constructed the fantasy so flawlessly: the pure un/adulterated fiction of life. Everyone must have a story. Everyone must have a tale to narrate, to communicate, even if it is not theirs and fabricated rather from the image of others. Everyone wants to share some wrinkles.
Hhhm … the essence of our own private narrative … creating minor narratives, an excursus to our story, the addendum, a footnote, asides. You never knew that I fell in love with you because you could listen to the imagination of strangers at a able across the way, in the bustling café. This was your honesty, inadvertently our connection.
You would see a man by a public telephone, his eyes surveying the crowd, while his mouth, creased, played with the receiver with utter dedication. Coming up behind me, you would touch my waist with precision and whisper with delicate conviction: “He is calling his lover … see the way hi slips have crimpled … his lover is a man … his hand stuffed into his pocket … they are breaking up. His lover has a new love.” The man on the phone turned away and the story dissolved into words set loose in air. One hundred and one Romantic Escapes … all of them up your sleeve, I thought to myself, all of them within immediate reach. No tickets your required.
I return to my image and its reflection, identifying wrinkles and looking for the passage of their individual narratives. My mind cleared with the memory of you and that afternoon: the sun, warm and caressing, the bustling restaurant, starched waiters and tall, cool glasses of wine. Condensation. Tiny bubbles of water slipping off the smooth surfaces and pooling in perfect circles on white tablecloths, like the narrative, similarly slipping smooth off surfaces and forming perfect circles between us. Connections.
The palm of my hand presses itself firmly against the mirror, leaving my fingerprints momentarily embossed on the glass. I find myself whispering your name into the emptiness of the room. The soft syllables drip from my mouth, falling into the vacant stare. “You” resound with an echo that comes form within the empty hollow of space.
Eyes the window to the soul: I peer into mine now, trying to fathom their depths, wanting to know if they too listen. They seem only to be simple almond brown orbs, floating in a clear, white sea. Silent creases, interned at the outer edges of my eyes, mark the tone of my laughter. They are subtle, serene, mellow. Their presence exposes the limits of joy in my life. (Why, if we have ‘laugh-lines’ don’t we have ‘cry-lines’ too?) With the passing of time, I have noticed that they accumulate subtly, growing in volume, sinking further into my skin. Inversely, they mark how much time I have left. (Her face was clear of wrinkles. She was too young to have her skin compose her narrative. She died without that writing.)
We were standing in the centre of a busy street when I found myself wanting to know about your listening. I turned to you:
“How do you do it?
How do you conjure up the narratives?
Where do they come from with such ease?”
(In my mind’s eye I was asking:
“How is it that your eyes listen so attentively, yet you never hear?)
The traffic was furious. Cars in both directions, buildings towering above, meeting surreptitiously over our heads. You and I: tiny specks in the midst of the city chaos.
You turned into me, and with such simplicity, there, drowned in the noise and the rupture of the street, said:
“Close your eyes.”
Your request bewildered me, as the traffic increased the speed of its flow, inciting my skirt to whistle and dance in response. I felt the heat of the cars against the soft sking on the back of my thighs.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. Close your eyes … Trust me.” Your eyes smiled a fragile Mediterranean blue. I allowed myself to be led and there, in the island between north and southbound traffic, I shut my eyes and surrendered to the abyss.
You waited a moment, allowing my to feel the darkness.
“What do you see?”
“What do you mean, what do I see?” I was frustrated by your calmness, by the heat of the cars, by the billowing of my skirt.
“Breath.” You said. “Breath and then tell me what you see.”
Minutes passed. The honking of horns filled the atmosphere, impatient cabs.
And then, only the sound of your voice … whatdoyousee
The world disappeared.
* * *
There, behind the blanket of my eyes, I saw her. Lanky. Serious. The glow of health and harmony etched in the redness of her cheeks. Camera slung over her shoulders. Pale pink tshirt, stretched and well worn, hung loosely over equally worn jeans. Her hair short and bristly, wet from washing. I saw her breathing and it was as though I could reach out and touch her … Her mouth moved – “Life is a disease that we are all born with” – and she smiled, sipping her tea. The sun cast a shadow across her form and she disappeared.
“What do you see?” Your voice tinkled gently against the image I was playing.
I was afraid to say her name.
Afraid that if I did the emotion of her death would unburden itself there in the midst of the traffic flow. Just the thought of it brought a lump to settle in my throat. I found myself swallowing deeply. I concentrated on the image, clinging desperately to it, not wanting it to disappear. Wishing only for the opportunity to say goodbye.
“I see … I see …” I stuttered and mumbled, “I see…” grappling with the words and the emotions and the sensation of the vision.
And then, suddenly, that was enough.
I saw. The image itself was insignificant, its content secondary to the fact of the seeing. Immediately I understood and felt myself quiver with that transitory revelation.
You watched my smile with that epiphany. From the darkness of that place, I felt you smile too. And there we stood, outside of time. So far removed from the reality of that place, of the traffic, the street, and the towering buildings meeting overhead.
There was silence. You touched my elbow and guided me through the traffic, the little green man flashing.
And that was the last time I saw you. It was as though once you had shared that part of yourself, allowed my to truly see, you had to leave, vanish. In your wake, you left a trail of memories, which have buried themselves inside me.
The face in the mirror smiles and a solitary tear meanders its way through the faint map of wrinkles only just beginning to appear. It slides down toward the edge of the face and teeters there, preparing itself for the fall. Then, it is gone. The happisad eyes blink almonds, the white sea shows signs of reddening and the creases waiver as another tear begins its private navigation.
I notice that my hand has made its way to my mouth and a forefinger rests there, balancing on lip, while being patiently nibbled at.