Through the Looking Glass

It is an autumn evening I walk into my flat. It is still early, but I am tired. It is unusual for me to return home before seven in the evening. The day in the office was not unproductive – I got what needed to be done, done, albeit mechanically; however, I was restless. I don’t believe that any one at work noticed – the minute the lipstick slid on as I gazed into the mirror in the tiny foyer by my front door, just before I left home this morning, had conditioned by face to smile. In fact, a number of people commented on how happy and even how calm I looked – my laughter even while It was tinged with incredulity was not fake – honestly, more surprised at my successful deception. I dwelled on how the comment altered my mood; how reflections in another’s eyes controls and even forms one. On entering my apartment, the restlessness that I had quietened, resurfaced with additional vigour. I took a deep breath as I allowed the memories of the previous evening to engulf me. All day, I had wanted to quiet all the voices around me and allow myself the luxury of my private thoughts.

It is rare for me to leave my little flat in the state that I did and go to work. Some of my friends may even suggest that I incline towards obsessive tidying up. That morning, I had no time to tidy up after the previous night. The night had been long, blending well into the morning and I barely made it to work on time. It was a special night – I had met someone. No, it wasn’t a date, and neither was he a stranger. It was more, serendipitous. I knew him for months, if one can call casual conversations, knowing someone. We happened to both attend a lecture at the National Gallery about the new exhibition on the Impressionists. We did not sit by each other in the lecture theatre – but we knew the other was there. He is after all rather unmissable.  After the lecture, we met again in front of the famous Manet painting – ‘Bar at the Folies- Bergère’.

The exhibition was organised in three rooms and the said painting was in the first room. I had finished viewing the exhibition. In this exhibition, I found that I was intrigued in the way that the impressionist artists painted women. They were not on display, but they were being watched. This was especially provocative in the Manet and I simply had to return to the painting. The incorrect perspective in the reflection in the mirror haunted me. What was Manet trying to say? The straight gaze of the bartender, her taut almost tense body language as she projected herself within this space of entertainment was reflected in a far more relaxed posture where we see her from behind, bending forwards as she talks to a moustachioed gentleman, who in effect was never seen in the picture plane except in this reflection. Was the mirror reflecting her desire? Was it reflecting a past? The painting haunted me even more because it showed me, myself – the unreadable expression that conceals myriad thoughts that are never given the room to materialise. I usually respond with the sense of being watched with carefully calibrated gestures, expressions, and behaviours – sometimes deliberately provocative – to mask myself from inquisitive gazes. While I walked home tonight from work, I had an uncanny sense that the painting was in some way responsible for the events that unfolded last night and that will unfold tonight.

After some small talk about the painting, quite abruptly, he asked me out for a drink. The conversation was unceasing. The bar closed and bravely, unnaturally for me, I asked if he would like to continue the conversation over a night-cap. My apartment was not far away. The walk back was electric. The conversation incessant. For an uncustomary behaviour it felt strangely natural. Once we were in my flat, I went to the kitchen to pour us some drinks, he stopped by the wash room. I heard him whistle – which hindered my hearing anything else through the thin walls of the apartment.

We sat down in the living room which, is not an undivided hall but instead, is an orthogonal three leaf clover centred around an oversized, square walnut coffee table that sits on a plush cream rug. Each offset is sized and furnished differently to accommodate alternative forms of social or private behaviour. The smallest one has a brown leather window seat with concealed lighting in the low false ceiling; in the second offset lies a cream arm chair fronted by a foot stool and lit by a golden coloured glass lamp from Chor Bazar in Bombay; and the largest one has three faux egg chairs fabriqued with a modern Indian Persian blue garden of paradise print with a PH artichoke lamp centring this ensemble.

Initially we sat on the egg chairs across from each other, talking. Every half hour or so, one of us would mention that it was getting late – maybe as a way of giving the other person an opening – to either act or end the evening. Neither did we end the evening nor, did we pause the conversation long enough for an uncomfortable moment to rear its head – allowing intimacy to rush in to fill the void. Nevertheless, quite suddenly, we did kiss – I can’t say how it began but I can remember how wonderful it felt. Now, in the present standing in my empty living room, I graze my parted lips as I pick up the cushions from the floor as they fell or were thrown off the leather seat as I moved to sit on his lap. The glasses stood as we left them on the side tables – not quite empty of their contents. I looked around. The living room was alive with traces of the previous evening. Watermark rings made by the glasses reflected back at me; dishevelled cushions marked human bodies; Cigarette ashes blown by the open window flecked on the brown sofa. I had dropped some whiskey on the wooden floor and it lay there dry and sticky to my touch, some had seeped into the edge of the carpet, staining its perfection. One could retrace our little dance of seduction as we moved close to each other, further apart and close again in these signs. I slowly start wiping away these marks, paradoxically reliving the evening through the very gestures intentioned to erase the remnants of the night. I had moved into this apartment a few months ago, and though every inch of it was furnished by me, it was only after this evening that it came alive. Its violation, in effect, by another person had enlivened it. It stopped being a generic showroom furnished space for the public gaze and now, showed invisible but indelible traces of my secrets. It had become mine and it would be the space that would further make me who I am to become. Rohington Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’ narrates the moment of undeniable inclusion of a paying guest in the household when the landlord goes into the shared toilet, and it smells different.

I pick up the glasses and take them to the kitchen. In the sink, there are two cups – stained with coffee. I leave the glasses in the sink with the coffee cups. I will wash them tomorrow – I am not quite ready to drain everything away just yet.

Slowly I walk towards my bedroom. I look at it as if for the first time through a pair of eyes that are not mine. It is small and cluttered, rendered in black, gold, glass and mirror. Every surface is polished and tonight, ridden with smudges that glean secrets of the previous evening . I smile – guiltily. As I look into the mirror, the unmade bed is reflected back at me. I bite my lower lip as I see the metal tubing headboard. I can’t but think about how well-proportioned it was to my needs. Silently praising the thoughtful designer, I look again and this time, I see the same headboard with two silk ties dangling from them… I not only saw the reflection of the past but now I see a reflection of my desires that were bottled inside me. I close my eyes and allow these unmet desires to take shape. After a few moments, decisively, I rip out the sheets from the bed and, begin to remake it with a fresh sheet. I start at one corner and move across the room anticlockwise. At the fourth corner, after fluffing the pillows and smoothening out the bedsheet, I look up and diagonally across from me, I see the wardrobe, faced with a full-length mirror, slightly ajar that reflects the shower cabinet in the bathroom through the open door in front of the wardrobe. I see the back of a sculpted male body with a word tattooed on a buttock. I squint but I cannot read it. I then see myself, I remember the kiss and bask in it. I close my eyes and when I open my eyes, I see myself kneeling, his back arched as he thrusts towards me, the rain shower enveloping us in a shroud of water, ever drop glistening and further multiplying the refelctions – each one an unreaslised desire, each one distorting memories and melding them with unfulfilled fantasies …

I walk into the bathroom, put on the shower and as the hot water runs around me I see myriad reflections on the glass cubicle of the shower, the window pane, the mirror on the bath counter and the wardrobe mirror outside the bathroom. The mirrors and the heat from the water blur memories, the view, and the imagination; it blurs the past, present and the future… I think about the bartender and her mirror…

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