I study my frame in the mirror. I admire its slender lines, gilded edges and the ornate corners that curl and spiral in a decadent flourish.
The frame is new. Tim said it was too expensive and there’s no guaranteed bonus this year with the way things are. Barbara pointed out it was a lot cheaper than the necklace Karen’s husband gave her for her fortieth. They hang me in the hallway, Tim hammering carelessly and Barbara ensuring I’m level.
“What a difference it makes,” Barbara says. I bask under her welcome attention and recline, artfully. The mirror keeps watch, his gaze lingering on my skin.
When the hall is empty, I have time to look at myself properly. I stretch out on crisp white linen and cherish the curves of my body. I enjoy the way my hair falls in dark waves that crest onto the pillows, the way a perfectly painted shaft of sunlight makes it shine.
I see myself clearly for the first time and think I am beautiful.
It’s boring, living opposite a mirror. He’s hardly one for scintillating conversation and I hate the way he watches me sleep.
There’s a small window in my bedroom with nothing outside but unfinished sky. The room is messy with oils, discarded brushes, an empty stool and a half-painted canvas placed just out of reach. There’s nothing to do but lie back and watch the people who pass through Barbara and Tim’s house.
In my painter’s studio there were no mirrors and guests never became distracted. They took the time to study my features, complimenting every exquisite brushstroke and the boldness of his technique.
I try to catch the attention of people that visit Barbara and Tim. I correct the curve of my back and the point of my toes. I let the sheets slip lower over the slope of my breasts, exposing just enough skin to titillate but not enough to be indecent. I arch my back and pose in a languid fashion as if I’m just waking up. I stretch my smile as wide as I can without cracking the paint, but still nobody notices.
I lie back, defeated, and watch them, watching themselves.
Barbara goes away for the weekend and Tim comes home late with a strange woman. He puts his hand against the mirror as she falls to her knees.
I’m unable to move, trapped flat on my back as Tim grunts and curses, his guttural sounds twisting through the darkness. He reminds me of my painter. The way he would trail his fingers down his soft, white belly and the sounds he drew from his body when he lay at my feet on a bed soiled with paint. Whenever I closed my eyes, he would paint them open again cursing my flaws and stubborn nature.
Headlights from the traffic outside loom large in the mirror, his silver surface winking and grinning. He displays every detail of Tim’s face, the red of his cheeks, the stickiness of his thinning hair and the way his lips part, puff and catch between his teeth.
After, the mirror is smeared with sweat and dirty fingerprints that sully the sweetness of my smile.
The next day Tim cleans the mirror and refuses to meet my eyes.
Barbara finds out about the affair when Tim returns home drunk. They scream and cry and howl until Tim packs his bags and the rage fades into a dying whimper.
My artist sketched other women too. For a while, it was just the two of us. He slid his brush through my oils and made me blush with a deft dab of his fingers. Over time I learned how quickly he could become distracted by the newness of paint, the seductive pull of fresh ideas and the vibrancy of young colours.
When he put me up for sale, I was displayed next to another painting that looked like one of his. A woman reclining next to an abandoned easel, an empty stool and a half-finished portrait. He never could commit to a single frame. Someone took the painting away before I could ask if he ever bothered to give her a name.
Barbara visits the mirror every day. She watches herself with hollow eyes, cursing her reflection. I wish the mirror would paint a more flattering portrait. The reflection he shows her is cold and hard, stripping all softness away and emphasising the pinch of her mouth with cruel precision.
If I could gather the canvas and brushes my painter left behind, I would show Barbara how a dedicated painter can find beauty in places a mirror’s eyes can’t reach.
Tim never struck me as the sort of man who would take time to make something exquisite.
The house becomes dusty and unkempt. Even my frame loses its shine, my heavy oils lacking their former lustre.
Barbara avoids me altogether, passing through the hallway and out of the door without a second glance. I think she envies me. She implied it once, soon after Tim left. She touched her fingers to my face and said, “You’re so beautiful.” Later, I heard her crying.
As the days blend into months, the mirror takes pleasure in stripping away my layers. He shows me every imperfection, every crack and the dullness of paint that yellows with age.
It infuriates me so much I move millimetre by millimetre until one day I manage to sit up. The paint flakes and cracks, sending small lines webbing out over the surface of the mirror.
“I hope you don’t break from the shock of it all,” I say. The sound of my voice is unexpected, but welcome. “I’d hate to have seven years bad luck.”
I stretch my aching limbs and move carefully towards the easel and canvas, settling on the vacant stool.
I pick up the brushes, turn my back on the mirror and paint myself to completion.