by Cheryl Keffer
The voice of my inner critic is my mother’s, so I don’t call her very often. Our lives, our identities are woven so tightly together that to her they are sometimes the same; “Did we go to high school with him?” she asked me once.
I think of her as I begin to type, delete, type again.
Delete. Delete. Delete.
I move my fingers from the keys to my face, stroke the skin of my chin until I find an imperfection--a pimple, a hair--any excuse to leave the chair.
I reach for the tweezers--they are always nearby--and go to the mirror that hangs on my husband’s closet door. The bathroom has better light, but the sink doesn’t let me get close enough to the mirror; the cold countertop presses against my stomach in a way that reminds me the paunch, the baby weight, was there decades before the baby and the baby is now seven, nearly eight. I try to accept that it is just my shape now.
I lean in so my nose nearly touches the glass. My face does not reflect my age yet, I’m told, with its full cheeks and freckles, except maybe for the crease between my eyebrows that deepens every time I squint or worry. I am finally learning to feel my body at 41, to check how tightly my forehead holds fear.
I turn my head and catch the light from the bedroom window, see the hint of silver lurking in the black. If I accidentally pluck off my eyebrows it will be because of these hairs growing grey.
Efforts to prevent signs of aging have always seemed unnecessary, fruitless. Some things are inevitable. I cannot undo damage already caused by the sun, whether they’re spots or lines, just like I cannot buy a serum to reverse time and un-invite a stranger into my hotel room, my body, or my life.
(If I wanted to.)
In group therapy we’re given homework: Look into the mirror. Make direct eye contact. Tell yourself, I love you.
I can’t. Won’t even try. Instead, I wage war against the eyebrows.
Those two black thickets would wind nearly from one ear to the other, individual hairs growing vine-like into my line of sight without intervention.
The self my friends think is lost was a mask concealing the one they’ve only recently met. I hadn’t met her either (until I met him). And now I’m supposed to say goodbye, keep one without the other or maybe keep neither? I’m certainly not supposed to keep him. Or even want to. He already belongs to another.
I inherited nearsightedness from my father along with bushy eyebrows, so I trade the light for sight. My glasses sit, abandoned, on the bed. Reading is about all I can do without them. Read, and pluck. And the word that rhymes with pluck. But if I’m honest I’d rather wear them then; I like being able to see it all.
(I liked when he wore his too.)
My silver tweezers are dull-tipped with little spring. They are barely useable. My neighbor has needle-like tweezers and a magnifying mirror; I looked in it once but had to look away. I still avoid magnifying mirrors. Is it self-loathing? Or do I fear my infinite curiosity? Would I ever stop staring at any imperfection? At the freckles and everything they remind me of?
(Will I ever stop hearing the sound he made at the sight of my freckled shoulder, every light in the hotel room on, nowhere to hide?) My therapist says that the endorphins will wear off in time, but what about the memories? Will they wear off too? (That giggle as he stretched the neckline of my dress into an even deeper v, the sigh as he brought his lips to my skin, the growl as he began to lick …)
What I see in the mirror is forever altered.
It is my mother’s words I hear as I examine my eyebrows, nose inches from the mirror. “Don’t pluck from the top,” she said. “Always shape from the bottom.” Her mother never told her that. Her mother never told her a lot.
My grandmother had the hair on her head dyed reddish blond to hide the silver, but the hair on her face grew that way naturally; her eyebrows were only a few strands—long and untamed. I imagine she plucked the rest off long before I was born.
A couple weeks after I met the man at the hotel, I called my mother to tell her I had decided to write about myself and that I want to tell her everything about my time away from home.
She can’t listen then, needs to go do some yoga stretches. But then something shifts, and she begins talking about her own writing, the stories I couldn’t bring myself to read, other stories she assumed I already knew.
For the next two hours—the entire drive to my hometown where we would meet for lunch the next day—I listened as best I could; one hand guiding the car, one hand methodically squeezing the tweezers to rid my chin of any bristle, all of me wishing I were driving in the opposite direction.
Twenty-four hours later my mother sat wide-eyed as I told her about the week I spent in New York City, how alive and energized I felt focused on the writing, something solely mine. I told her about the songs I sang at the piano bar after class and the way the music made me feel like a different person, bold and bright.
I did not tell her I felt whole for the first time, like a piece that had found its puzzle. I did not tell her about the man who had been a stranger on Saturday and the way we fit together on Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday.
And I did not tell her about wanting to miss my bus on purpose, that I considered not going home.
Fear from the past dictates the future, shapes our behavior whether we realize it or not. But what if the fear isn’t really ours? Isn’t dictation the act of writing down someone else’s words? Every woman hides a galaxy behind her eyes; an infinite universe of past, present, and future—regret and dreams and potential.
I avoid it all when I look in the mirror.