There’s a part in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where the protagonist looks in the mirror. Right after he had the opportunity to kiss the girl he loved and failed to. And he looks in his mother’s mirror as he tries to understand himself, to understand why he did what he did. And he looks in the mirror again, later on in the book, I think. Maybe after he has sex for the first time, with a sex worker. I can’t remember. And I didn’t annotate very well. I never do, to be honest, I just scribble and fold. But I’m thinking about mirrors a lot lately. They show us back to ourselves. And they’re the only thing that can. And sure we can look at photos of ourselves. We do all the time, I do all the time. But in those, often we’re looking at ourselves through other people’s eyes. We’re anticipating how they’ll feel when they look at that version of ourselves. But not the mirror. The mirror is live. A live reflection. Just you and you.
When I was 17, I became obsessed with solipsism because Alain de Botton mentioned it in his book On Love. It’s defined as “the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist.” But I think I misunderstood it, when I read it at 17. For some reason, I thought it meant that you didn’t exist unless everyone else around you saw you. Validated you. Treated you like you were a real person. Maybe looking in a mirror is somewhere in the middle. You get to look at a version of yourself. You get some external proof that your eyes are in a body. That you have a body to look at. You get to be outside of yourself to look at yourself, even if just for a little bit.
Around twelve, I gave myself a rule. No mirrors at school, I wouldn’t look at the mirror, not at school, no glances at the windows during passing period, head down when washing my hands in the restroom. Because with one glance in the mirror, I was crushed. I looked how I felt. Young. Awkward. And that’s when I started to warp in my own head. I was doing ballet back then and I still wanted to do it forever. And I stopped eating on purpose around then. Because I looked in the mirror — a full wall of a mirror — every day after school at ballet and I wanted my legs to be different, I wanted my stomach to cave in over, under my hips and I wanted my teacher to look at me and tell me I was doing good. That I was good. And when I was eighteen, when I finally started gaining back some of the weight I had lost quickly and dramatically at seventeen, I couldn’t look in the mirror because the mirror would drive me crazy and the photos would drive me crazy and the comments would drive me crazy and on Thanksgiving, at eighteen, I fell apart as I did my makeup in the bathroom and my family told me that I couldn’t go back to school unless I got some help, that I couldn’t go back unless I got some help and they saw me, so I knew I existed. I knew I was real and that people cared about me.
My uncle was always very generous. He would always have a dollar or two for my brother and myself when we were tiny. One day the dollar was a puppy — a shih tzu. And I loved him. I remember the day that I realized that there was a life in there , inside of those big, bulging eyes. I would sneak downstairs before school to sit with him. Just to look at him and caress his head. I tried to see if he knew that there was a life in there too once. I held him up to the mirror on the landing of our stairway. Just to see if he would look at himself. Him looking at him, knowing that he was in there. And he wouldn’t look. But shih tzus are stubborn. Maybe he just refused. Like I refused at school during my adolescence. The awkward part of girlhood.
I look in the mirror now a lot. I lost a lot of weight again. This time I wasn’t trying to. We used to eat together. Me and him (Not the dog). That was our thing. Ordering in. Eating out. I always got nervous on the dates, sitting across from someone like that. I still do now. That’s why I’m a same-side-of-the-booth kind of girl. I get nervous sitting across from someone, looking at them, knowing that they’re looking at me. It scares me that I don’t like to eat as much anymore. Not because I want to lose any weight. But because food doesn’t taste the same. And I spend a lot of time alone now. No one’s looking at me and food doesn’t taste the same anymore. And that scares me. Because how am I supposed to know that I’m real when I can’t have that corporeal feeling of sustenance going through my throat and into my stomach. How am I supposed to feel real when no one is looking at me with love. But how can you ever know that someone is looking at you with love, for real, that they really mean it. That’s what family is for, I think. But I had to move away from my family to do what I love, but how are you supposed to love a thing like that, especially a thing that takes you away from the people who are guaranteed to love you. And even when people love you, they can still hurt you. They can still look upon you with love and hurt you (even though bell hooks would disagree, RIP), because he hurt me. He hurt me bad. And I looked in the mirror. Both times. And I didn’t recognize myself and that scared me. And I took a video, so I would remember what she looked like — that girl who didn’t look like me — and what she felt like (this is when food started to taste different). And I called my friend so she could look at me too, even though it wasn’t really me, it wasn’t really a mirror, it was something in between.
Just the month before it happened again, I had put down my shih tzu. He got really old and started seizing and the seizures got more and more frequent. Until it would’ve been cruel to keep him alive. So I carried his small body, bony, all twelve pounds even though he was always big for his breed, to the clinic. I wasn’t prepared to put him down that day. But I was leaving soon. To be with him, who hurt me and would hurt me once more a month after I put my dog down. Right before they put the shot in him (the dog), they offered me a piece of chocolate to give him. I thought that kind of was funny. A little chocolate before the big sleep. But how do we know dogs would want that — chocolate, masochism. Maybe masochism is the burden of the self-aware. But I’ll never know if he was self-aware, my dog, because he refused to look at himself.
This weekend I was writing as a man walked by with his dog. And the dog stopped in front of a cafe and refused to go on. The owner got so fed up that he just dropped the leash and left the dog there. Pretended to leave without it. And the dog walked toward the cafe looked in, walked onward just a little more, peeked into a shop. It seemed like he knew what he was doing. Knew his owner could still see him. That he wouldn’t really leave him — because he could still see him and he knew he loved him. And I saw at least five shih tzus that day, as I was walking around. I walked around for a long time. Because I didn’t want to go home. Didn’t want to be alone. Not again. I wanted people to see me, to see that I had a body even if my steps felt aimless. And people saw me. And I got distracted, crossed when I shouldn’t have. But she didn’t hit me with her car, because she saw me. And I even tripped on the sidewalk once. And people saw that too.
When I got home that day, I looked in the mirror. To take off my makeup. I wear makeup more than I don’t these days. I don’t cry when I put it on anymore, not like when I was eighteen posing for photos, afraid because I could never really tell what I looked like. I wear makeup now because I know what I look like. I am smaller and my skin is awful, my skin is fighting me, fighting back. I can see bumps and scars and my skin was so clear when I was still with him, even though I was crushed and I didn’t recognize the look in my eyes anymore. My skin was so clear and it started fighting back the second I left, because I couldn’t stay because I was sad and even though it was peaceful and I was eating, I was suffocating and the food stopped tasting the same. So I take off my makeup now, the makeup to cover my stubborn skin and my dermatologist said that my skin is going through a second puberty, that there’s nothing I can do. And I feel like it’s not just my skin, because I feel like my head and heart are thirteen again, like I’m trying to make sense of myself, like I don’t want to look at myself or sit and be alone because everything feels aimless and moving quickly yet somehow already passed. And the medicine cabinet was open as I bent down to get a wipe, to clean up the mess I’d left around the sink, and as I stood up, the edge of the mirror on the medicine cabinet collided with my head and it left a gash there. My first one to the head. And the blood crept down my face. And I was bleeding. I had a body. I could bleed, I saw it in the mirror, so I know it was there. And I wanted my mother, I wanted to tell my mother about the wound and the pain and it didn’t really hurt, not that bad, but I just wanted my mother. I wanted to look into a mirror in my mother’s bathroom like the little boy in Portrait of an Artist and I wanted to run into her arms. But I am so far away from my mother now. Because I have come here, away from her, to do something that I love. And I called her that evening, holding a paper towel to catch the blood flowing from my head. And I told her about my broken heart. And she told me about a few knicks to hers too, how it’d gotten beat up pretty bad when she was younger.
My mother loves me. Somebody loves me. Somebody loves me. I will eat dinner tonight. The taste will come back. And I will look into the mirror. Take off the makeup covering skin, skin remembering its own adolescence. What do I do when it’s just me and me like this. How do I make sense of this time in my life. I am trying to, I am trying really hard. But I don’t understand.