I catch her in the bathroom mirror, after a double shift. Her face a glossy pearl through the fog of shower glass. She’s prettier than me, meaner than me. Seems taller than me. She asks, what is the use? After I wash my tired face, she’s gone.

At the movies, in the dark, she itches my skin when I’m on a date. She crouches at my knees, watching me watch, tidies my sleeves so I don’t get any popcorn in them. Cradles my hair where it curves below my ear. Smooths it. With the magnifying glass, she studies for wrinkles in my dress, ready for a tsk tsk tsk—her favorite expression. She’s just waiting for me to laugh so she can clasp her hand over my mouth. I remember what it’s like being a child again, watching TV on the living room floor, mouth open in wonder. I slide into that self. She flies away.

In an interview for a new job, an office job, she’s the interviewer. She tells me the salary will be life changing, that I may even be able to afford a house now, and I could help my parents with those health bills that keep coming in. I could finally be of use. Her hair is slicked back in a long ponytail and she wears fuchsia nail polish smooth as glass. I tell her I have to work through Christmas at the restaurant. I pick up my borrowed laptop bag and say thank you.

Late Christmas Eve, after cleaning up all the tables, I sit at a booth at the window and watch two or three cars drive by. I wish it would snow. The ring chimes as a woman enters. She is tall, pretty, and has a kind face with fresh tears. “Are you–?” she says. I smile and nod. I offer her a seat at my booth and place a hot cup of coffee and a glass of water before her.

She is so tired. I lean in to listen.

14 Comments

  1. David O'Connor

    This is so beautiful on so many levels. The doppelganger. Reminds me of a series by Restless Books called The Face, great novella-esque essays starting where you started with this. I have only one suggestion, cut the penultimate line (She is so tired) as I think it takes away from the power of the last line, so stark and giving. This piece is so simple and beautiful, thank you for sharing. I think the world needs this type of honesty.

  2. Bud Smith

    This is so cool. The self-doubt personified, I loved that aspect of this, well done, Cheryl. I like by the end when she decides that she will help her self-doubt feel better even though in the past it has kept her down. That is lightning bolt fiction right there. I took it as if she got the job and had reason to and advantage now to be cruel but instead she has somehow advanced beyond all pettiness (not that she ever really had much of it to begin with).

    My one edit is just a sentence organization thing. I like when subjects and objects touch each other.
    For instance: I catch her in the bathroom mirror, after a double shift. Her face a glossy pearl through the fog of shower glass. She’s prettier than me, meaner than me. Seems taller than me. She asks, what is the use? After I wash my tired face, she’s gone.

    If we move around the subjects a little so they touch there is more of a flow — in my opinion this is the kind of stuff that helps out a manuscript at large and or course it works in short stories and even poems:

    After a double shift I catch her in the bathroom mirror. Her face a glossy pearl through the fog of shower glass. She’s prettier than me, meaner than me, taller. I wash my tired face. What’s the use? she says. I glance up without defense but she’s gone.

  3. Anna V

    This really made the “self-consciousness personified” hit home for me: She’s just waiting for me to laugh so she can clasp her hand over my mouth. I remember what it’s like being a child again, watching TV on the living room floor, mouth open in wonder. I slide into that self. She flies away.

    I love the slide into child-mind. This is something I’ve felt when I let go of self-awareness/doubt. Perhaps you could consider resting more in this feeling? How does it feel for the narrator after she flies away? Does the narrator feel like she’s never coming back? And how does it feel when she does come back?

    I also wonder if the “glass” from the title and opening paragraph could come back at some point. Maybe catching a reflection in the restaurant window?

  4. Janelle Greco

    I love this, Cheryl. I think it’s a really smart use of personification. The fuchsia nails stuck with me for some reason. I also love the reappearance of glass throughout: magnifying glass, bathroom mirror, television screen, booth window. You are able to do this in a way that’s not obvious; it’s seamlessly embedded in the story. I keep wondering if it’s worth playing around with the ending a bit more. What if she arrives not defeated but ready to assume the role of self-doubt? What if she appears at the booth window but just keeps going? I’m curious what alternative endings we could have here. I agree with Anna that I want to know more about the child-mind that the narrator slides into. What does this feel like for the narrator? Is this the way to combat self-doubt? It might also be interesting to explore where the self-doubt originates from. Like, what is the pre-cursor to the bathroom mirror scene at the beginning. Just some thoughts to consider. Thank you for sharing! Really love this one.

  5. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Cheryl, Gorgeous work. The first paragraph could be a short short story all by itself. Poetic in tone. Forgive me, Bud, but I would dispute the addition Bud suggested– its a perfect narrative comment, but I think it cuts into the poetic elements that are so strong, breaks the rhythm by telling.

    I have one question concerning meaning and diction: In the second paragraph, “she itches my skin” — do you mean she causes an uncomfortable sensation on the skin [that causes a desire to scratch] — since you are using an active verb– might you mean “she scratches my skin”— either way is interesting, but if it is itches, I’d suggest altering the line to:
    my skin itches with her when I’m on a date. I’d love to see what you do. That second paragraph, like the others is beautifully uncanny. Great work.

  6. Samantha Mitchell

    Cheryl,
    This is really lovely. I agree with the above comments, that the self-doubt personified is such a unique way to examine this elusive aspect of ourselves, an aspect that is hard to conquer or, maybe a better word is, accept. The title and repeating motif of glass is working on so many levels, recalling fragility, reflection, transparency, even opacity. This repetition of imagery is one of my favorite things to find in writing and I was delighted to find it here.

    One suggestion I have, if you wanted to play with this concept a little more, or even freewrite about it for another piece: what if you pushed the personification even further? What if other people, not just the narrator, could interact with the narrator’s doppleganger? I think this could be an interesting exercise to try out, even if it evolves into a separate story altogether. You’re on to something fascinating here, and I think there’s a lot of room to make it bigger, more uncanny.

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Taylor Grieshober

    Cheryl! What a dreamy piece! The mood is what really struck me. It’s cinematic and colorful and warm but also lonely and sort of uncanny. I found myself thinking that this other version of the narrator was an actual separate woman and I really liked that, how I was able to assess both versions of her and like and root for both versions. Also, love all of the class commentaries in the little details like the borrowed laptop bag and pulling doubles and the narrator’s parents’ medical bills. This made me feel a lot of feelings–thanks for sharing!

  8. Amy Barnes

    This reminds me of Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror in all the best ways — a feminine Cheryl version that has the same musicality. I’ve been amazed all weekend by the opening/closing lines that are being posted. Love the combination of your opening/closing lines that express a full range of emotions, progression defined by time.

    “I catch her in the bathroom mirror, after a double shift. Her face a glossy pearl through the fog of shower glass. She’s prettier than me, meaner than me. Seems taller than me. She asks, what is the use? After I wash my tired face, she’s gone.”

    and

    “She is so tired. I lean in to listen.”

    By having this “character” present throughout the story/alongside the narrator, it reiterates that internal connection. Even as the narrator struggles with her/herself. Especially love the poignancy here in the childhood reference that balances so well with the follow-up paragraph mentioning the adult interview/work.

    “I remember what it’s like being a child again, watching TV on the living room floor, mouth open in wonder. I slide into that self. She flies away.”

    Love the lyricism that emphasizes the movements/emotions/sensory experience of this narrator. Like a poem interspersed into the prose. The sound repetition helps not only to help us hear and feel what is happening, it also drives the pacing. The tsk tsk tsk but also the seemingly simple use of words like crouches, itches, tidies, cradles, studies — that all echo and define each other, define this character.

  9. K Chiucarello

    Cheryl, what an aching portrait of the mirror self. Again, the descriptors are so subtle yet impactful.

    Here’s some fragments/sentences/passages I’m especially drawn to: “She asks, what is the use?” “ready for a tsk tsk tsk—her favorite expression” “Her hair is slicked back in a long ponytail and she wears fuchsia nail polish smooth as glass. I tell her I have to work through Christmas at the restaurant.”

    I truly in love with the length of this. It says so much in so little and I wouldn’t extend it a bit. I was taken aback by how relatable the waitress job was. There’s such a universality in the ways we try to achieve and achieve yet often land on the waitress trope of signaling loss. And I say trope not in a bad way. It’s a feeling so many of us know and despise and the holiday shift is again this awful dogwhistle for longing for more/stuck in a hopeless situation/ etc etc. I’m curious what a series of this character would look like, with the first of the series being this piece. I’m invested in her and would love to get a glimpse further into her life.

  10. Kevin Sterne

    This is lovely. Poignant scenes, specific details that really color the character. Such a cool subject to explore. The doppleganger, the angel on a shoulder, a spirit, or as bud as people have said: self doubt personified. I love the turn in the fourth paragraph, it’s such a pleasing ending. Everything here is operating in concert, I don’t have much to offer. You could expand the interview scene, take is somewhere far and wild with the parents (being of use is something worth exploring), before coming back. Just an idea. really good stuff here

  11. Neil Clark

    Brilliantly done, Cheryl. The physical manifestation of the inner voice is well executed and really resonates.

    You also portray the sense of exhaustion so well. So well, in fact, that my only comment would be on the use of the word ‘tired’ in both the first and last paragraphs. The tiredness is already shown so well in the double shifts and the fact that she’s working Christmas Eve and the fact that she’s worried about her parents’ health bills (one of the great travesties of your country, btw) that you might not need the word itself. Or maybe you could show it in some additional way, such as lines under the eyes?

    I’m a big fan of your writing, Cheryl. Notch this up as another one I enjoyed very much.

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