Never Fair Maid But Made

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“‘Twas never fair maid but made faces at herself in the looking glass.”

–my mother


Never Fair Maid But Made

My childhood habit of staring into my own reflection
was always most obvious at dinnertime.
My mother scolded me, half-laughing half-annoyed:
“ ‘Twas never fair maid but made faces at herself in the looking glass!”
Each time she made me shift my chair around the table’s circumference
to a spot where I could no longer see myself reflected in the glass-fronted hutch
where she stored her wedding china.
Myself, I never saw vanity in my obsession with reflections.
Not even as I looked to see myself everywhere:
long, side-long glances into strip mall windows to catch myself walking past
pensive stares into passenger-side mirrors
nightly battles over dinners when I forgot to appear listening
and was seen instead only watching,
mesmerized by the face in the hutch.
I watched how her jaw moved in the glass as I chewed
how as I lifted my fork
she opened her mouth.

Today, during nights when I do not sleep
I sometimes find myself stroking my face in the dark,
caressing my flattened palm down across my features
the way you might stroke a nervous dog’s back.
I am not sure which one of us
—the petter or the petted—
my touch is intended to calm.

Other nights I talk into my bathroom mirror
though I am also again not certain
who is the speaker
nor who the audience.
James, I say (though I see now it is not I speaking
nor is James here to listen)
James, I say again
You cannot be nice to Alice. You cannot. I forbid it.
In the mirror, I see the woman speaking
see her severe topknot / her navy suit / her sensible shoes
even as I see myself (my short-clipped hair, my t-shirt).
I see myself even
as I know I am off to the side
perched on the bathtub’s rim
merely listening.

I am only women when I speak to myself in the mirror.
There are men in my head too
but they never orate. Mostly I just hear them growling.
I keep them leashed
lest they break free and bite.

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