Then We Shall See Clearly

Laura Marie
Fiction


Hope Springs Eternal
Photo Credit: Denny Nkemontoh

All the houses looked different on the street where I grew up: a porch here, a color there, shutters or none. In all that diversity, my parents’ house did not stand out—it was not unusually uniform or unusually distinct. Our house was of the same order as all the other houses on the outside.

Deep down, however, my parents loved beige. The fact that they knew other people did not love that color didn’t dissuade them from wearing beige when they left the house. They would dress in matching khaki and look at each other and exclaim, “we match!” in delight, in relief. No one else wore beige, but they spent the weekends dyeing the pillows beige, painting the walls, filling the new nursery with a beige changing table, beige rug, beige crib.

When I was born, they dressed me in beige too, but they were people who thought ahead, who climbed the knotted rope of their own worry into the future; it was their favorite way to communicate.

“How?” My mother asked my father. “How can we raise her to be like us and also to be happy and accepted around other people?”

They had to think about it for years, over cups of tan tea and while I played with my taupe blocks.

*

As a child, I didn’t really know how to frame loneliness; it was a word I had heard and could define but which didn’t apply to me, in my parents’ house, looking longingly out the window at the house across the street. Kendra’s house.

I first met Kendra when her family moved into that house when I was four. My mother, in her first and only attempt at neighborly kindness, baked a loaf of banana bread to take to them. We only stood on their stoop for a few seconds before another four-year-old opened the door and stared at me in my beige clothes.

“Why you dressed so funny?” Kendra said.

“I’m…” I didn’t know how to answer this question, so I went with my instinct. “I’m Alisha.”

“I’m Kendra,” she said, her first question already forgotten as she turned and yelled into her home. “Momma! Some people are at the door!”

I tried to memorize everything about her: her two curly pigtails, off-kilter and nearly falling out of their pink-and-green scrunchies. Her too-large sweater was a bright teal color and her pants were printed with many colored puzzle pieces. I was instantly in love with those puzzle pants. She yelled, which I couldn’t remember doing since I learned words, and as her mother and my mother talked, I saw her return to playing with her brother and a couple of children her mom was babysitting, cousins of hers, I would later discover. They all wore colors, so many of them, chosen with abandon and forming a patchwork of motion there on the living room floor. Her house was done in many colors, more grown-up and sedate, but still: wine-reds, forest greens, with moving boxes here and there, open and overflowing with colors.

We left soon after my mother expressed her happiness that they were in our neighborhood; she had done her duty and been welcoming and could now return to her proper place. I, however, developed a habit of sitting by our front window and watching Kendra’s yard: she would play with siblings, other children, screeching and running and getting angry and forgiving. I learned what children looked like by watching her.

*

My parents came up with a solution to their worry a few weeks before I began school, something they were convinced would make me happy outside and inside our home. They bought panes and panes of mirror glass, and thick, sticky epoxy in tubes you had to apply using a caulking gun. In the basement, the one grey area of the house, my father turned on a fan and began assembling a suit.

That first one was too big for me but eventually was still something I would grow out of; mirrors had no give to them at all. The suit made of mirrors had one box-section for my torso, smaller boxes for my upper and lower arms, and other small, long boxes for my legs. The joints were not mirrored, so elbows and knees showed, but the most clever part of my suit was a two-way mirror for my head, a cube-shaped helmet that connected with Velcro straps so it wouldn’t slide around.

My mother sewed me a very soft beige jumpsuit to wear under the mirror suit. I thought it was a game, a game that would be even more fun with the other children. I looked at my own reflection in my parents’ bathroom mirror, a luminous, pink-tinged face, all edged up in baby fat, eyes all promise. Then I put my helmet on. I wandered back into the beige house and my parents surveyed my sides. I was all beige and their faces; I faded into their home, almost invisible.

*

At school for my first day, I kept catching the light, twisting to see all the things that passed over me, not sure whether to look up or down. In the classroom, there were twenty students including Kendra, all wearing normal clothes like her. I sat beside a small boy with a scar on his cheek and tousled hair that was both blonde and brown without having even a little of the calm of beige in it. I looked at him a long time, and he grew uncomfortable. When he saw my mirror suit, his eyes welled up with tears and he ran to the teacher, who held him and frowned at me. He did not explain to her why he was crying. I didn’t know how to explain anything at that point; nothing in my life had been unexplained. Nothing had caused scars either.

*

At first, the children didn’t know how to talk to me, because they had spent more time with other children already and knew them well enough to know the cube-headed girl was not like them. I got the courage up to try to talk to Kendra again. “Hi,” I said to her on the playground. “What’s your favorite color?”

Kendra narrowed her eyes. “I like all the colors,” she said.

“Oh,” I said, not thinking of this as an option. “I like beige best. My whole house is beige.”

“Beige is so ugly,” Kendra said. “It’s like clear. It’s not a color.”

This wasn’t going how I wanted it to. Kendra surveyed herself in my cube head, almost like she wanted to see what kind of beige-loving weirdo was behind it. I was nervous, but was disappointed when she stopped and ran over to the other girls to skip rope.

*

I spent years being ears and eyes. I tried to memorize all of the ways my classmates stood, talked, walked. When I didn’t talk about beige, they were softer, kinder to me, even though I was just blithely ignored more often than not. I couldn’t play many rough games without damaging the suit.

One day in second grade, a very beautiful girl named Olivia began attending our school; she had moved to our small town from New York City. At first I thought that she would be very popular and that everyone would like her, but she was so different from them and so uninterested in their suburban talk that she didn’t make any friends at first. Kendra called her “stuck up” and got put in time-out.

However, when Olivia saw me in my now-closer-to-fitting mirror suit, she smiled. “You’re as shiny as my sparkly necklace,” Olivia said.

“Yeah, if you stand right in front of me, you can see your whole self,” I said.

She did so, and surveyed her dress, her shoes, her face, and her hair, in my torso. “I look pretty good today,” she said. “In New York City, this dress is very fashionable.”

“Yeah?” I said. I resisted the temptation to ask if they had mirror suits in New York City. “What else is fashionable there?”

I think she was very lonely and missed her home, but I was thrilled. I had made my first friend.

*

Now that someone had befriended me, it became acceptable for anyone to do it. I amassed a huge variety of friends; I always had people to sit with at lunch, to play with outside, and to talk to between classes as we got older. I talked to friends on the phone at home or, later, wrote emails to them on the computer instead of staring out the window at Kendra. It might have been more friends than I wanted, actually, but it was like having too much air or too much water. These were resources one did not discard merely because of their abundance. I didn’t know how to talk to them all, so I mostly asked them about themselves, and they told me about their lives which, being different from my parents’ existence, were always new and interesting to me.

I grew apart from Olivia over time, but new friends replaced her without any rancor between us. She simply melted into her own friend group, sliding smoothly over my shiny surface and oozed away. Kendra did not ignore me, but she didn’t become my friend either; something about the mirror suit rubbed her the wrong way, and since most everyone else liked it she left me alone.

I asked my parents if I could invite my new friends to my house, even though I knew they’d find the beige house boring. I, even, on occasion found the beige house boring.

“Your mother needs her space,” my father said.

“All those colors that children wear hurt your father’s eyes,” my mother said.

So I wore my mirror suit in their house and was beige, and I wore my mirror suit at school, and was many kinds of people. I was content; school was so colorful, and I learned to love the lessons because they let me spend time around all those other children whose stories were becoming part of my own experience. A part of me still liked Kendra but I no longer had a good reason why I wanted to be her friend instead of any of the many others who came into and out of my childhood.

*

By high school, the corners of the boxy suit were digging into my sides when I walked, and the holes in the boxes were barely big enough for me; like many other teenagers, I felt like I was going to explode out of my skin at any moment, but unlike them, I would send painful glass shards into anyone in the vicinity when it happened. My parents made me a new kind of mirror suit, one that fit to the form of my body, molded glass; people could stand in front of me and when they looked into the mirror it was so perfectly formed that they thought they were looking at an exact replica of themselves. It took my father ages to make, and the entire basement smelled of solder and sanding belts and chemicals. I got it for my sixteenth birthday, and I had to admit, it was a masterpiece. When I stood before my mother’s mirror, I reflected nothing at all into infinity.

My father was about to start work on a new helmet when I stopped him.

“I don’t want a new helmet,” I said.

“But the old one is so small for you,” he said, examining the cube on my head, looking at himself in it, slicking his hair back.

“No,” I said, pulling the helmet off. “I don’t want a new one or the old one. I just want to be able to look people in the eye.”

My father busied himself putting away tools. “All right,” he said. “You were always the social one.”

I briefly wondered how and why my parents thought so little of the rest of the world when they were raised in it as children. My father was not going to tell me though; instead he and I went upstairs and found my mother so we could play a board game.

*

The day I went to school without the helmet, Kendra came up to me at lunch. “Hey,” she said. “Can I sit here?”

People rarely asked me questions; usually they just told me stories. “Yes,” I said. “Of course. How are you?”

“I’m shitty; my brother is driving me up the wall,” Kendra said. “But let’s talk about you. I like the new look. That suit is sexy, even if it’s still weird that you wear it. I’m glad you don’t have that creepy robot helmet on any more.”

“People liked it,” I said. “This is just… more comfortable.”

“Well, I didn’t like it,” she said. “I can actually talk to you now. So get this,” she said, and started telling me about her brother getting in trouble for having drugs and then hiding them in her room. She poured some of the chaos from her life into my head, and while it was like other talks I had before, it was also different. She wanted opinions. She wanted advice. The conversation required a lot of input, and if I said something she thought was stupid, she’d tell me right away. I tried to swim in the words and found that conversation with someone so different from me, real conversation, was choppy, always liable to smack me in the face with a wave.

*

The suit itself was mesmerizing. My older friends sometimes became so entranced in their own reflections that they would tell me things that they had never told anyone, that they hadn’t even told themselves because before me they couldn’t look themselves in the eye, watching for the forgiveness and understanding that they craved. I learned to be the face of forgiveness and understanding, because I loved nothing more than to hear those secrets, to hear approval in their voices in the rare moments when they spoke of me and not merely to me. If I ever did that with Kendra, accidentally, she’d get pissed and say “you’re going all robot on me.”

I chose a college, chose a major in middle grades education, but paid little attention to it, riding the high I got from talking to everyone about their ambitions.

When I finished high school, my friends scattered like children told to hide, fleeing to colleges and jobs and travels, all except Kendra who selected the same university as I did. My parents told me I was an adult now, and I didn’t need the mirror suit any more because it had always been to protect me. For my graduation gift, they gave me beige pants, shirts, dresses. I packed them dutifully, but told them that actually, the mirror suit was quite nice. I liked it. They looked concerned, but they didn’t have the words to voice complaint. I was wearing the suit they’d always made me wear; they couldn’t fight me on that without fighting the younger versions of themselves.

I told them that I’d wear beige under the suits, as had been my custom, but I began to doubt that I would. I had never had to choose between beige and other colors; beige was simply the home color and all the others were for out in the world. I was starting to think I actually didn’t like beige at all, once the question came down to either-or.

*

In college, however, I didn’t have to worry about beige; I chose a university far enough away from my parents that I visited only once or twice a semester. Mostly, I made more friends than ever. At Kendra’s urging, I started adding accents: a cute belt, a pair of sunglasses, some bracelets, bright jumpsuits underneath, to accessorize the suit. People thought it was pretty fashionable. Kendra had far fewer friends than I did, and she didn’t think very highly of the groups I ran with. Her friends tended to be wildly different from her, and when she had arguments with her friends that ended in laughter over their differences, I couldn’t help feeling a bit cheated, like my smooth-sided friendships could use a bit of that friction.

At the end of college, we talked to career counselors about interviews and applying for jobs. I had studied education and was now ready to begin teaching. You have an impressive resume, my counselor said, but I hope you don’t intend to wear that silly mirror suit. The students will never respect you if all they see is themselves in you. I realized she had a point. I surveyed my closet: the mirror suit, jumpsuits, and the cast-off beige clothes. None of these things was going to work. I went shopping with Kendra and bought many colored clothes, all fitting the styles that teachers usually wore, without much concern for what they looked like on me. Kendra kept telling me that she thought this looked good and this looked bad but I couldn’t for the life of me tell the difference; I was out of practice making clothes look good on my own body.

*

I applied to and interviewed with various school districts, and received a good job in a neighboring state. My parents were ecstatic, very proud of me, and because I was living so far from them, I never had to have a conversation with them about the beige clothes. I had heard about all the things people do after they graduate: rent an apartment, buy groceries, make new friends. I knew exactly how the mirror-suit Alisha would do these things, but I had no idea how I would do them now, and whenever I wore the mirror suit to school toward the end of college, people gave me strange looks, like a switch had been flipped and it was odd to them that I hadn’t grown up yet. Kendra had been saying it was weird for so long that I had stopped listening, so when I complained to her that someone had given me a funny look, she merely rolled her eyes and said, “Duh. It’s really weird that you still wear that thing.”

Sometime along the line, I had missed the time when I was supposed to develop a style. I wore my teacher clothes because the mirror suit no longer made eyes slide over me without seeing me.

*

The new town was like a dainty jewelry store: beautiful and inviting but hard to break into. My job, strangely, was the easiest part of my day, because I had studied how to do it. However, the years of mirror-suit training had made me unable to talk to people about myself; I sounded pompous or demeaning or merely inarticulate every time someone showed interest, despite my years of life with Kendra that had forced me to try a bit harder. More importantly, people didn’t seem to have a compelling reason to befriend me, and so making friends was hard; everyone was polite and friendly, but no one was drawn to me magnetically.

*

I went home for Thanksgiving that year, and for the first time in a long time, the beige house bothered me. “Why,” I finally said. “Why do you two love beige?”

My parents looked at each other and looked at me. “Don’t you know? Don’t you understand?” my mother said.

“We are each other’s best friend,” my father said. “And we love you very much. We just wanted to protect you—the world is dangerous and cruel.”

“I know that,” I said. “People haven’t been the nicest to me out there. But beige is boring.”

“Beige?” My mother said, surveying the house. “It’s not boring! It’s… comforting.”

“Comfort is for after you experience something,” I said. “You don’t. And I don’t really, either.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” my father said. “We gave you that mirror suit to protect you, to help you live in the world and come back to the home safe. I don’t think it worked. I think it changed you.”

“I think it did too,” I said. Dinner was getting cold and so we ate quietly, temporarily exhausted by how different we were.

*

I knew that our fight was quiet and tame by comparison with the ones that Kendra had with her family. I tried three, four, five times to pick up the phone and call her and let her know what was going on. A part of me knew she’d stop anything she was doing to help me, to make me feel better, but another part of me thought she would be annoyed that she had to baby me yet again. I never called her. I knew she’d gotten a good job as well, and she sent me email updates on her life, but hers were good, better than her life ever had been in high school or college, so I lied and said that I felt that way too.

One evening I came home from work on a Friday evening and got to thinking about high school, when I’d spent reasonably happy Friday nights in with my parents, playing games in the beige family room, or in college, when I’d have big flashy parties for my friends and we’d dance, even Kendra if she was around. My body became a disco ball in the low lights with everyone shining flashlights on it. I loved both of those times and I was now alone, the emptiness of a mirror in an empty room.

I angrily took both of the mirror suits out of the closet and fetched a hammer. I shattered the pieces of the suits, loudly enough to worry a few of my neighbors. “I’m fine,” I told them. “Just cleaning out my closet.”

I wasn’t angry at my friends or my family; I was angry at the suit. The suit had done it, and what was the worst was that the suit hadn’t done it on purpose; it merely existed. There was no one to blame. I swept up the sparkling bits of the suit and looked at them. They reflected light and color in all directions but no images any more.

I bought epoxy and wooden frames. Instead of canvases, I stretched the material from the beige shirts and pants and dresses out and stapled it onto the wooden frames; I liked how these canvases had seams, pockets, buttons. They drew attention to themselves for once in their existence, and I liked the perversity of that. I spent that whole weekend listening to music on the radio, humming along as the words became familiar, and painting gobs of epoxy-and-mirror-shrapnel onto the canvas, smearing them around to create pictures.

I made one picture of two children, looking at each other through a wall of windows. I made one picture of my parents in their home; I used clear epoxy instead of beige. It was, after all, pretty close to the absence of color. I made one picture of me holding onto mirror-dust balloons in the sky and mirror-colored stakes in the ground and I was in the middle, mirror-warped, pulled in two directions by the mirrors themselves. While they dried, I surveyed them. They looked like children’s paintings, rough and vague and nearly formless, but with texture, raised off the paper, sturdy. For once I wanted to decorate my house, had that impulse, without much caring what other people would think when they saw them.

*

I had to wait a few more weeks before I had the courage to invite people over to my house, and as it turned out, people said yes to dinner party invitations from me even though they didn’t know me very well. We drank wine to relieve some of the missing words in the room, and we played board games my parents had loved and given me for this new home. A couple people complimented me on my clothes even though to me they still felt awkward. What they liked best, however, was the art in my apartment; it was nothing like they’d ever seen before, but it made them think. “What is it made of?” someone asked.

“Mirrors,” I said. “And my old clothes.” They looked at me like someone who was different from them but within a range of acceptable variation; a person who could, with time, be explained. They began discussing other interesting art they had seen before. I tugged on my ill-fitting skirt and sipped my wine, trying to see in the canvases what they were seeing for the first time.

pencilLaura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio. She likes construction equipment, grumpy cats, and the color brown. You can read things she writes about writing at The Flying Writer.

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