For thirty-seven years I taught creative writing to earnest high school juniors; the best of them were pimply girls with black nail polish and lanky hair, girls who believed that angst was an interesting emotion.
I haven’t read an essay for more than twenty years, and those girls have all become one girl now; in my memory I read her anguished stories and my red pencil scribbles without mercy on each one. When will she learn, I wonder, that alot is not a word, and that it is not necessary to describe her setting with a dozen dreary adjectives? Over the years I developed my own Ten Commandments, which I displayed around the classroom on poster board cutouts resembling tablets of stone.
Mrs. Tippit’s Fourth Commandment: Thou shalt not write your main character looking into a mirror.
Mrs. Tippit’s Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt not be overly clever. The epitome of over-cleverness would have to be this—referring to a story as it is being written, forcing one’s reader to be both outside the story and in it.
Yet here I am, being exceedingly clever, for you are now reading this story, and it is a story of me, looking in a mirror. You may turn away at any moment, but I hope you’ll stay; elderly creative writing teachers of earnest high school girls want nothing more than a reader who will think she should have been a writer, not a teacher. What craftsmanship, what mastery of language!
Here it is, then—my story which breaks two commandments at once.
My slippers make a husha-husha sound as I shuffle to the bathroom. I’d pick up my feet and silence them, but my knees are creaky in the morning. So is my right hip; it’s easier just to baby-step along the hardwood floors until my joints awaken. I haven’t fully opened my eyes yet; it’s only five o’clock and the house is dark. I know well the eighteen steps that will take me from my bedroom to the bathroom sink—there is no need for light just yet, so I squint and shuffle, shuffle and squint.
Well, it’s seventeen steps, I guess—I bump into the closed bathroom door with an oof, and quickly hope I haven’t wakened John. He’s a slugabed, that one, sleeping until 5:30 most mornings.
A flick of the light switch, and I shuffle the two steps toward the sink, squinting a little less now.
There’s an old woman in my mirror. A crabby old woman by the look of her, for she’s scowling back at me.
I lean in closer, feeling like Red Riding Hood’s wolf. The better to see you with, my dear. My flannel nightgown, no doubt, reinforces the granny-ish illusion. This is the sad inventory that the mirror reveals to me:
Wiry hair in various un-lovely shades of white.
More wrinkles than skin. Even my wrinkles have little sub-wrinkles, wandering off like tributaries.
Pale, lashless eyes.
Several new splotches here and there along my hairline. They might best be described as “mocha”, although the color is far preferable in a ceramic mug than on my withered cheeks.
An errant whisker or three or four—certainly not a mustache like my old Aunt Mabel. No, not like that at all.
Thin lips of no describable color.
A crepe-y neck—draped, wattle-like.
Can you see me now, looking in the bathroom mirror? Make sure you note that I’m frowning, not only at the caricature of myself therein, but also at the fact that there are spatters of toothpaste in the corner of the mirror—spatters that I asked John to clean up days ago. I make a small sound of exasperation in my throat and look around for a washcloth.
John is standing at the bathroom door, with an expression on his face that I read, myopically, as annoyance. “What’s got your goat, old man?” I say with uncanny cleverness for this dim hour of the morning. I grab a washcloth from the rack and start to scrub the mirror with pointed sarcasm.
“I was just watching you,” he says. “Looking at how beautiful you are.” He takes one step and touches my face, then inclines his head toward the bedroom door with one rakish eyebrow. “Whaddya say, young lady?” He tips an imaginary hat, and offers me an arm.
My slippers make a husha-husha sound as we shuffle back to the bedroom. I’ll ask you to look away now—story’s over.
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