“I often stood in front of the mirror alone, wondering how ugly a person could get.”
― Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye
Cut While Shaving
Over the years, Andrew had learned to completely avoid looking at himself in the mirror. Even when he shaved, he would only wipe a little oval into the steamed-over mirror and place his chin and cheeks right into that area, cutting away the shaving cream without making eye contact with the person in the mirror.
It wasn’t that he was ashamed of the way he looked – he knew he was perfectly ordinary and about what was to be expected for his age – a little on the downside of middle… but he was disappointed. He wasn’t the person that he had hoped he would be and didn’t like being reminded of that. He avoided having pictures taken of himself and when he failed at that he wouldn’t look at them. Avoiding his reflection in the mirror had been going on for so long he didn’t even think about it any more.
The night before was difficult. He kept waking from horrible unremembered nightmares and would toss and turn with dull pain in parts of his body he never thought about. When his alarm went off he dragged himself into the shower and then, for some reason, there was no steam on the mirror.
Still, his habit stayed and he concentrated solely on the task at hand. He brought razor up and into its long-familar position. He immediately cut himself and dropped the razor into the sink.
For the first time in years he looked at himself full-face and saw a completely different person. It was a tremendous shock – he went weak-kneed and wobbly, grabbing the bathroom counter top until he could steady himself. He grabbed a towel and scrubbed off the shaving cream and then rubbed his face, pulled on his cheeks, and closed his eyes for as long as he could stand – but it made no difference. There was a different person staring back at him.
His hair and been thin, straight, and sandy-colored but the mirror had thick jet-black hair, tousled into a mop. This new face wasn’t handsome, but it wasn’t ugly. It was a little younger, a little thinner, but not young and not thin. It didn’t remind Andrew of anyone, or bring up any strong emotions – it was nondescript… but it was different.
He thought about shaving, but didn’t want to get close to this new face with a razor. Beside – the shadow of dark beard wasn’t altogether bad looking. He felt better as he dressed, and couldn’t see that stranger’s face, though his body felt thinner and more muscular. He was surprised that his clothes still seemed to fit perfectly.
He fearfully walked out into the kitchen – worried about the reaction of his wife to this stranger walking around in his house.
“Honey, get a grip, something odd…” he shouted ahead of himself as he walked into the kitchen, where his wife always stood in the mornings, making breakfast. The second shock of the day came when he entered and found it deserted. On the counter was a brown sack lunch and a note.
It said, “Honey, remember to pick up the kids after work, I have a late meeting tonight and can’t get there in time, Love, Katherine.”
Katherine had quit work when their daughter, their oldest child was born. His kids took the bus to and from school and had for years. He couldn’t think of anything else to do so he grabbed the lunch and drove to work. Nobody in the halls said a word to him and Andrew was thankful that his cube at work still looked exactly the same. He sat down and logged in his computer. His boss appeared at the entrance with a cup of coffee and a list of tasks – he never mentioned Andrew’s new appearance.
The workday settled in as always. Andrew began to feel normal again as the routine took over. Every now and then he would start at the strange dim new reflection in his computer monitor, but after a couple of hours, even that ceased to scare him. At about ten o’clock his phone rang.
“Hello?” he answered.
“Oh, Drew, this is Pen, I’m glad you’re at your desk, I’ve been thinking about you all morning.”
He recognized the voice as Penelope Smithers – the secretary to Johnson, the corporate vice president at their location. Every month he had to take a sheaf of papers to her, marked with little stickers where her boss had to sign them. She would call him back and he would pick them up, signed, and then mail them off to various agencies that required the periodic reports. This was his only interaction with Penelope Smithers – but this voice was heavy, breathless, excited, and personal. He could not imagine why she was talking this way. And why had she called him “Drew?” He had been Andrew since he was six years old.
“What can I do for you?” he answered.
“Oh, Drew, don’t be so cold! Wait, is somebody there? Oh, I see. Well, I wanted to tell you that Johnson is off site today and I can take a long lunch. Let’s meet, let’s get together. The usual place. I’ve missed you so much.”
Andrew almost choked on the phone. He didn’t know what to say.
“Drew! Are you there? I know you can’t talk, but give me a yes and we’ll meet.”
“Ummm, Mizz Smithers… I’m afraid I can’t…”
“Oh, is someone still there? Someone else in your cube? I understand. Well… if you can’t you can’t. You must have a lunch meeting scheduled. Call me back if something works out. I’ll be thinking of you.”
The line went dead. Andrew sat there sweating. What the hell was going on? Why did Penelope Smithers think that he would meet her… at the usual place. She thought they were having some sort of an affair. Sitting there, thinking back, he began to remember things about Penelope… about Pen – he was beginning to think of her as Pen, and he was feeling something… he wasn’t sure what, when the image of her came up in his mind.
Andrew was beginning to feel two parallel sets of memories. His old life was beginning to be overlaid with a dream life. Something new, shocking, different. Andrew began to cry. He felt his life slipping away. He was losing his mind. This dream life was getting more real by the minute.
“Get a grip on yourself,” he told himself in the voice of his father – who had told him this a million times. He looked at the corkboard beside his computer monitor and saw a scrap of paper that said, “Katherine – Work,” and a phone number. He picked up the receiver and dialed the number.
“Katherine Monroe, how can I help you?” Andrew breathed a sign of relief. The voice definitely that of his wife.
“Oh, Katherine, I’m having such a tough day. You wouldn’t believe it. I…”
“Drew, sorry,” Katherine interrupted, “I’m in the middle of something, we’ll talk tonight. Don’t forget to pick up the kids after work.”
“Umm, that’s one thing dear, I’m not sure where exactly to get them.”
“Jesus Drew! The same as always, just watch out for the Hartford private cops… they want everyone in the right lanes.”
So that was it. The Hartford School was on his drive home. There was always a huge mess with parent’s waiting to get their children. The private school didn’t have a fleet of yellow buses and all the cars waiting jammed up the streets and made Andrew’s commute home hell. Once there had been some sort of a fight and he had to creep by watching all the red and blue lights. It was on the news. And now, this is where his kids went. He had talked about this years ago with his wife, but they had decided it was too expensive. Actually, he had decided it was too expensive. And now…. He guessed he had no choice.
“Ok Katherine, I’ll get them.”
The line went dead.
Andrew had to ask the private police guard which lane to take and the guard had looked at him like he was crazy, then asked for an ID. Andrew had a moment of panic when he pulled out his wallet, but his Driver’s License matched his new face. Andrew moved into the proper lane and sat there waiting. He looked into the rear view mirror and for the first time that day wasn’t shocked by what he saw. He moved the mirror around, rubbing his chin, looking closely at the face that was getting more and more familiar by the second. With a shock he realized he was forgetting what he used to look like. That image was getting foggier every second – as if it was a bad dream.
While he was in this reverie the children had come pouring out of the school building. He looked around for his children, his daughter and son, but didn’t see them anywhere. He was beginning to think this was a big joke and thinking about driving home to where his kids would be getting off the bus right about now – when the back door opened and a young man and girl slid in.
“Hey, pops, what’s up?” the boy said. The girl was busy typing something into her phone.
Andrew looked back at the two strangers – they were the same age of his own kids, but they looked different, they looked… well, they looked more like his new face. He guessed it made sense – if he had changed his looks overnight, why not his kids.
“Umm, Jack, Samantha?” He tested. Had their names changed too?
“Yeah, Pops, are you OK?” Their names were the same. At that moment he realized they were his children. The memory of his old kids began to waver and fade.
“I’m fine kids. I just had a tough day at work,” he said.
“Hey Pops, my radio station please.”
Andrew reached forward and tuned the radio. He didn’t know how he knew the station, but he did.
“That good?” he asked.
“Perfect, Pops, like always.”
So Andrew started the car, and drove off into the complete unknown.