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The Man I Was
It was a small concave mirror on a stand. It magnified the reflected image of my
wide open mouth. I carefully studied the new seventeen hundred
dollar cap on my upper left canine, the tooth appeared enormous, like a tooth
you might see in the mouth of a extinct meat-eating animal.
Perhaps I shouldn't have dwelt upon the subject as much as I did, but I am the
introspective type. Overprotective of myself. I slept badly that
night. In the darkness I held my hands in front of me, surprised to see they
were darker than the light in the room. In the light of dawn I was
absolutely certain they were perfectly normal human hands. I assumed they were
mine ... there was a wedding ring on the third finger of the
left hand, which I wore to ward off feminine entanglement. It was a strong hand,
more suited for physical labor than the hand of a purchasing
agent for Aetna Insurance. It was the hand of a man of action. Vaguely
dissatisfied with them, I threw the covers aside and decided I would
give the morning an early start.
But a surprise awaited me when I looked in the bathroom mirror. The man looking
back at me ... was not me. He was dressed as I was, as though
he'd been up a few moments ... undershirt and pants ... he lathered his face in
preparation for shaving just as I did, yet It seemed as though
I was looking through a wall into another bathroom instead of a mirror .. at
another man ... looking at me.
Our movements were identical – orchestrated, and if I looked at him out of the
corner of my eye I could see he was doing the same ... yet we
were not the same man. I have grown used to seeing myself in the mirror and the
slightest deviation from my own appearance is immediately
apparent to me. This man was a stranger. I wondered, as I stared at him
open-mouthed, if I was unknown to him. He, apparently wondered too, for
he stood as open-mouthed as I was.
"Who are you," I asked.
In unison, he asked the same.
I had the uneasy feeling that he might be me – that there was no "me" any more,
that some strange cosmic glitch had occurred. His voice was not
that much different than mine, and it carried an accent similar to mine.
I live alone, and there was no one I could call to share this altogether unique
event. My powers of observation were tuned to an abnormally
high degree. I noticed he turned on the cold water when I turned on the hot ...
was that a part of the illusion or was he the kind of man used
to cold water in the morning?
I finished in the bathroom, keeping one eye on my uninvited guest and left the
room without a backward glance. My mind was in a turmoil as I
continued dressing ... how would I get through the day in the office? Would
Gladys, in the cubicle next to mine, notice the stranger, or was he
limited to my bathroom mirror?
Living in a city of seven million souls affords each of us a wide range of
anonymity. A man may walk the crowded streets, ride the subways and
buses to the end of his days without seeing the same person twice. I felt secure
and somewhat anonymous during my morning commute ... as though
I were on the outside looking in. "But what might happen at the office," I
thought. If someone stopped by my cubical and looked in, would they
feel bound to say, "Where's Quentin this morning – sick again?"
I needn't have worried. Gladys muttered, "Hi, Kane," without batting an eye. To
my knowledge she has never used my first name, or anyone else's
for that matter. She did a hitch in the National Guard some years back and once
told me it was common practice there. Keeps things on a chaste
and soldierly level, she says.
I peered over the chest high partition that separates our two work spaces and
asked her, "Do I look any different today, Gladys?"
She looked up from her ledger with her glasses askew and her upper lip drawn up
above her upper front teeth in order to see more clearly ...
when she does this she is a most unattractive woman. "What'cha do? she asked,
"get a haircut?"
"No. C'mon Gladys ... notice anything different?"
She shook her head. "Tell you the truth, Kane I don't take that much interest in
you anyway." She shrugged. "We're here eight hours a day ...
you know how it is, like music in the elevator. You get so you don't listen."
It wasn't very re-assuring, I thought of trying somebody else in the office, but
Gladys was the closest person to me ... and then the thought
occurred to me. Maybe there was no me. That the man in the mirror really was me
after all and I hadn't noticed it before. Maybe I’ve changed,
maybe I’m not the man who used to be.
The day passed. The men’s room mirror confirmed the change in me and yet no one
at the office had said a word. I wondered if my previous image
had been so unremarkable and unmemorable that it had been forgotten completely.
When five o’clock rolled around, covers were pulled over computers, desk lamps
were turned off and the staff gathered at the coat rack. I asked
Dierdre in accounts receivable if she’d like a drink before heading home. To my
surprise and delight she agreed.
Dierdre is a show stopper. All heads swivel around to watch her whenever she
gets up and walks to the files, or the phone, or the john ...
anywhere walking may take her. It’s like watching one of those poker faced
underwear models in action on the runway. As we left I accompanied
her at a discreet distance, sort of between her and the curb ... and slightly to
the rear. I was careful not to lay a hand on her even in a
protective gesture, and at the last possible moment I rushed ahead and opened
the door to Hurley’s. She gave me the briefest of smiles as she
passed. “I wanna sit in the back, it’s darker there,” she said.
I thought to myself the man in the mirror would probably know how to react to
that. Diedre, however, set me straight. “Don’t get’cha hopes up
Kane,” (had she served time in the military, too?) “The guys in accounting
usually stop in Hurley’s for a quickie. I don’t wanna get involved,
At least she didn’t tell the waiter, “The usual.” She just said, “I think I’ll
have a Manhattan,” and to keep things simple I said, “Make it
She opened her purse and slid a cigarette out of a pack of Camels, she looked at
me questioningly ... “You gonna light me up or what?”
“Yes, of course ... where are my manners?” There were no matches on the table
and I don’t smoke. She reached in her purse again, pulled out a
Zippo and handed it to me.
“You know what to do with this, don’t you?” I lit her cigarette just as the
drinks arrived. She glanced at the ring on the third finger of my
left hand and slowly shook her head. “You never asked me out for a drink before,
Kane. What’s the occasion ... your birthday or something?”
I was a little reluctant to bring up my identity crisis. I was afraid it
wouldn’t stand up under Dierdre’s scrutiny.
“You married?” she asked.
“No, how about you?”
“I got too much goin’ on,” she said. “Me and two guys I know got an act. Country
music. If you got some time over the weekend c’mon down to the
Oasis. We’re there Saturday and Sunday.”
“What do you play?”
“A Gibson. Wearin’ pointy boots, skin tight low riders and a blouse with no
bra.” She took a sip of her Manhattan and continued. “I play
washboard too ... when Ronnie’s singing. Whatever it is, the volume’s always
turned up to ‘10’”
“Who are the guys?” I asked her.
“Ronnie and Dunce. Dunce plays bass and Ronnie’s lead guitar. Sometimes we have
a drummer, but you know how drummers are.”
“Worse. Sometimes he’s so stoned he can’t make his way out on the floor.”
“So. It’s a new start for you, right? I promise I’ll be down to see you. The
Oasis you said.”
“That’s right. It’s on Christopher Street. Don’t get there ‘til after ten ... we
don’t go on ‘til after ten. There’s a stand-up comedian on
She finished her Manhattan and since there are no ash trays in Hurley’s she
dropped her half smoked Camel in it. “We’re practicing tonight ...
” she arched her eyebrows. “ ... tryin’ to expand our repertoire. We only have
enough numbers for one set.”
“You got a goal then. I wish I did. I envy you, Dierdre, I really do.”
“I woke up one morning and looked at myself in the mirror. I said to myself,
girl, I said ... you gotta be somethin’ other than what you are? I
was sick of myself see. You wanna spend the rest of your life checkin’ claims
for Aetna Insurance? Course you don’t! You wanna be somebody.”
“You bein’ smart or what?”
“No. I mean it ... it’s so much like the experience I had this morning.”
She stood up and looked down at me. “Please, I don’t wanna know anything about
your experiences. You’ve got your problems, I’ve got mine.”
“But it’s really quite remarkable, the same ...”
“Look Quentin Kane ... is that really your name? I mean, really ... what were
your parents thinking of?” She shrugged herself into her coat,
fished a subway token out of her purse and slipped it in her side pocket. “I’m
not interested. Really I’m not ... nothing personal. You’re the
most important thing in the world to you, right? It’s the same with me. I got
one thing on my mind and that’s gettin’ downto practice with the
boys in the band. Nothin’ else.” Her voice had been metallic and toneless, now
it softened and she sounded like a child. “I never knew my
father. Maybe my mother didn’t either. She worked six days a week skinnin’
chickens for Frank Perdue and got herself drunk every Saturday
night. I had guys gettin’ off on me before I was ten years old, before I knew it
was wrong to do.” Her voice grew hard again. “I got dead aim
on what I’m gonna do the rest of my life, Quentin. I can’t let nothin’ get in my
Quite a lady, this Dierdre. As she walked off in that special walk of hers I
felt a mixture of envy, shame and an eagerness to see her again. I
became aware of the wedding ring I wore on the third finger of my left hand.
I pulled it off and put it in her Manhattan glass along with her cigarette.
“See you Saturday night, Dierdre ... Oasis ... after 10.” I couldn’t wait to get
home and check myself in the mirror.
©Harry Buschman 2010
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