Manhood, from the inside out, part 5 — Mirror
Paula Sophia Schonauer, LCSW, continues a serial memoir. If you haven’t read the earlier parts of this series take a look:
We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.
- Anais Nin
A common theme in many horror films involves seeing someone in the mirror one does not recognize, a malevolent presence with its own identity and freedom to act of its own accord, often terrifying the person it is supposed to reflect. The juxtaposition of reality and reflection in these scenes has become a trope that signals a world beyond the reflection. For me, this world was boyhood. When I looked in the mirror, I recognized myself, but I did not feel attached to the image, a sort of depersonalization. I cannot say it was a shock to see the reflection I made, but it was not congruent to how I felt.
I don’t recall confessing to my parents about feeling wrong as a boy. Perhaps I didn’t have the language for it. Often, it came out as a request to grow my hair, to which Mom and Dad stood unified in opposition. Sometimes, I asked for toys more typical for girls than for boys: an Easy Bake Oven, a toy kitchen set, or a Raggedy Andy doll. At one point my Uncle Jim started teasing me, calling me “Paulette” every time I saw him. He was relentless, sadistic, laughing as I cried.
Uncle Jim was Mom’s older brother, a wreck of a man, an alcoholic, a drug abuser. He resembled a Hippie because he had long hair and wore grungy clothing, but, in retrospect, he was nothing like the peacenik antiwar demonstrators flooding the streets in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. He was a mooch, becoming part of the counterculture for easy access to drugs and booze. In and out of jail, he caused my family a great deal of distress. Mom defended him no matter what happened, often giving him money, while Dad hated him, expressing disapproval openly.
One afternoon, while Dad was at work, Mom left me with Uncle Jim while she and Grandma went shopping. Jim stayed in his bedroom watching television while I had the rest of my grandparents’ house to myself. At one point, I saw other children playing outside, riding bicycles back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the house. I climbed the stairs to Jim’s room to ask him if I could go outside to play.
Sunlight outlined the gap between the frame and the door to Jim’s room, an insidious glow by my recollection. I nudged close to the door and listened while Jim laughed at a TV show, perhaps the Newlywed Game. I almost knocked but became fearful, knowing I was about to endure another onslaught of teasing, but as I turned away from the door, one of the floorboards creaked, such a simple, almost insignificant noise, but an explosion to my ears. I froze in place, afraid to breathe.
“Is that you, Paulette?”
Hearing that name and the disdain with which Uncle Jim spoke it, I responded, “That’s not my name!”
I heard Uncle Jim’s feet pad across the floor, and I started to run. However, I didn’t make it very far before he grabbed my arm, yanking me to a stop. He dragged me to the bedroom and made me sit upon his bed. He had a low dresser parallel to the bed with a large mirror attached to the back — a woman’s dresser, I realized, except it was in Jim’s room. I stared at my reflection, noticing a frightened little boy.
Jim rummaged through a closet, tossing out various items: old toys (mostly dolls), dresses for a little girl, a pair of shiny, black Mary Janes. He grabbed some dresses, holding them up to see their sizes. He grunted at one and grinned. It was a jumper with orange and purple stripes, a pleated skirt shaped for twirling, a dancing costume. Jim rolled it up and stuck it over my head. I tried to twist away from him, but he held me tight, pulling my shoes off with a free hand. He then removed my pants and made me stand on the bed. He tried to place the black Mary Janes on my feet, but they were too small.
“Look at yourself,” Uncle Jim said.
Shame burned on my cheeks, tears welling in my eyes, and I stiffened with fear. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the mirror.
Jim grabbed my shoulders, turning me toward the mirror. I closed my eyes.
“Open your eyes! Dammit!”
The boom of his voice, the menace in his words, made me feel weak. Wanting this ordeal to end, I opened my eyes to see a little girl in the mirror. She had short hair like a boy, but that dress… The reflection did not portray the me I had known, but it was the me I had wanted to be. However, I dared not smile. I couldn’t reveal any pleasure because I was afraid Uncle Jim would hurt me worse. Why I knew this, I don’t know.
After a moment, I fell away from my stupor, jumped off the bed, ran out of Jim’s bedroom, downstairs to the hall closet where I hid and cried. Some time later, I heard Jim’s footsteps on the stairs, the creak of floorboards as he walked past the closet, but he didn’t call out for me. Instead, I heard a door open and shut.
When I emerged from the closet, the house was silent but for the sound of street traffic and shouts of children playing outside. They seemed far away, mere echoes of a world that had once been. The dress I had been forced to wear swished against my legs, a new feeling for me, and I shivered delight, danced in the living room, twirling, dizzy from watching the skirt flare outwards in a perfect circle. When I heard the crunch of tires on gravel, a sudden dread invaded my momentary enchantment, I can’t be seen like this!
I bounded up the stairs back to Uncle Jim’s bedroom where I tore the dress from my body, tossing it among the clutter. I retrieved my boy clothes and got dressed, myself but not myself, again.
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Last Updated April 9, 2021, 9:25 PM by Brett Dickerson — Editor