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The Mirror :

Rick R. Reed

The chair was heavy. It had been Manny’s father’s, a big overstuffed thing with walnut arms and legs, covered in crushed red velvet.

And it weighed a ton!

Right now, Manny was grappling with getting through the front doors of the Strathmore, the Chicago high-rise he was moving into—alone—this very morning. It wasn’t easy unlocking the doors while trying to ensure the chair didn’t drop to the concrete and crack its frame. It wasn’t easy to do this remarkable balancing act while being watched by the doorman, who sat just inside the lobby, chewing gum and looking bored.

He managed to get inside and, breathless, set the chair down on the marble tile, wiping the sweat out of his eyes with the back of his arm. “Whew!” he gasped, looking over at the doorman, a muscular guy with black hair and eyes so dark, Manny couldn’t locate the pupils. “That’s one heavy piece of furniture!” Manny smiled and glanced in the direction of the freight elevator, which was down a hall and past the main elevators, hoping the doorman might offer some assistance.

The doorman stared at him. No, make that: stared through him.

Manny decided he wouldn’t be getting any help today, at least not from this guy, and allowed himself a few seconds to let his breathing return to normal, his heart rate to drop, and the sweat pouring down his back to slow to a trickle. Maybe he isn’t allowed to help. Maybe he can’t leave his post.

Manny looked up, blinking through his sweat as he heard the jingle of keys. A man like Manny always dreamed of being was entering the lobby: tall with the kind of frame purple prose writers referred to as Adonis-like, with straight blonde hair that stuck up fetchingly in all directions, and blue eyes those same writers would call “arctic.” He was preceded by a little Boston Terrier on a red leather leash. The guy was wearing a pair of tight, ripped jeans, and a black tank top that showed off to good advantage his cut biceps and triceps and a Celtic tattoo. He carried a single bag from the Whole Foods store down the street.

The doorman jumped to his feet. “Adam! Here…let me help you with that.” He took the Whole Foods bag from the guy’s hands and bent down to scratch the little dog behind her ears. “How you doin’, Lily?” He turned back to “Adam.” “Want me to carry this up for you?”

Manny watched as the two breezed by him in a cloud of Dolce & Gabbana, heading to the regular bank of elevators. In spite of Manny’s generous size, the large sweat stains underneath his T-shirt, and the frizzed mess the humidity had made of his salt-and-pepper hair, neither seemed to notice him standing in the lobby, preparing to lift a chair that weighed nearly as much as he did. Use your back, Manny. Not your legs.

Manny carried the last of the boxes down the red-carpeted hallway of the Strathmore’s 23rd floor. The apartment was small, but it was all his: it had oak parquet floors, crown moldings, and, best of all, a stunning view of Lake Michigan. Manny thought he could be happy here. Even if it was just him and his cat, Helen, who was staying with Manny’s mother in Berwyn, until he got settled in.

He kicked open the door and set the box down beside its frame. If he had his druthers, Manny would have just slid to the floor in a sour-smelling puddle of sweat and worry about everything tomorrow.

But Manny thought: I’m not that kind of guy. The dishes need to be put away, the pots and pans organized, towels hung in the bathroom, and at least the bed made up before I can call it a day.

He allowed himself to catch his breath and make a stop in the bathroom where he splashed cold water on his face and took stock of how bad he looked in the medicine cabinet mirror. He barked out a short laugh when he saw his reflection. No wonder no one wanted to help me out… His friend Joey, back in Berwyn, had assured him was “tres gay.”  I look like a bum that wandered in off the street. A well-fed bum, but homeless and filthy just the same.

At thirty-seven, Manny Roberts had never been referred to as handsome, a hunk, a stud, or any of the other terms currently in vogue to describe someone who was good-looking and male. His battle with weight had begun when he was in kindergarten and was now so far gone that even a steady diet of Subway sandwiches held no hope out for him. In fact, he thought he looked like the chain’s irritating spokesman…in the before pictures.

No one had ever said of Manny, “Too bad; he has such a handsome face.” Manny’s face was kind; that was the best thing you could say about it. His eyes were too close together, too small, and were the brown of a muddy river. His nose was great for deep breathing with its wide, flaring nostrils. His chin had gotten lost in folds of fat. A large mole on his left cheek had just begun sprouting hair. Manny sighed. It didn’t help that now his hair, a frizzy mass under the best of conditions, looked like cotton candy spun from brown sugar. The smudge of dirt that ran across his forehead looked like war paint.

Manny knew that even after a shower, a shave, and a comb pulled through his hair, he would still never turn a head.

Enough self pity, man! You’ve got scads of work to do.

Manny trudged out of the bathroom and toward the back of the apartment where he’d already set up his bed. There was a walk-in closet back there, and it was time to start getting it organized. Thinking of the stacks of boxes awaiting him just inside the front door, he opened the closet and peered into the shadows. A couple of clothes rails ran along either side; a few dry cleaner wire hangers dangled forlornly from their lengths.

The shelves need a good dusting. Manny ran a finger along each of the two above the rails and wiped off the dust on his sweat pants. He was just about to turn around when a flash of light caught Manny’s eye, and he noticed something he hadn’t seen when the property manager had shown him the apartment last week.

Near the back, on the floor and almost lost in the shadows, was a small, gilt-framed mirror. The flash was odd, because the mirror was so grimy and caked with dirt that Manny hardly realized it was a mirror, but enough of the silver must have shown through to catch the light coming in Manny’s windows.

That’s the only explanation, right?

Manny stepped into the closet, drawing closer to the mirror, his bushy eyebrows drawn close in concentration. Why didn’t I notice this before? I thought I had checked this place out pretty thoroughly before I signed the papers.

He squatted down and sneezed from the dust on the floor. Sniffling, he lifted the mirror and blew off some of the surface dust. And sneezed again.

The mirror looked to be about two feet high and a foot and a half wide, framed in curving wood that had been painted with gold leaf. It looked old.

“Finders, keepers,” Manny whispered and rubbed at the surface of the glass with his palm. He hoped the silver of the mirror hadn’t been darkened by age as some of the mirrors he had seen in antique stores had. In spite of his displeasure with his own face, he liked a mirror to fulfill its intended purpose: to reflect back to the viewer.

Even though the pragmatic part of him scolded about getting off schedule, he couldn’t resist as he backed out of the closet, the mirror held out in front of him. This might be a real find. He couldn’t ignore the chill he felt as he made his way to the kitchenette, or the vague feeling of foreboding at the thought of washing off the mirror in the sink.

You’re being silly. Too much Harry Potter lately.

Manny allowed his practical side, the one that worked as a loan officer at Bank of America, to carry him over to the sink, where he propped the mirror in the stainless steel double basin and used the sprayer to dissolve the grime with steaming water.

The mirror was perfect. Its shimmering surface, Manny quickly saw, was not marred by a single scratch or any of the darkening he had seen so often on old mirrors. It looked brand new.

Manny used a soft cloth and some Dawn dishwashing liquid to give the mirror a good cleaning, dried it, and followed the scrub with a spray of Windex and a final wipe with a wad of paper towels.

The mirror sparkled in the sunlight pouring in from the windows, making a small replica of the shimmering lake outside.

Manny was delighted. He went back to the area he had sectioned off as his bedroom and thought the mirror would look stunning hanging above his oak headboard.

He sat down on the bed for a moment, trying to think where he had put his toolbox (a Payless shoe box, actually, containing a hammer, screwdriver, wrench, pliers, and a sandwich bag of mismatched nails, bolts, and nuts) and felt very tired.

And suddenly felt an odd pull to the mirror.

He propped it up on the double bed, resting the back of the mirror against the wall. This way, he could lie on his side and look at his reflection.

Why on earth would I want to do that?

It simply seemed like the right thing to do. And there he was: Manny at 37, looking every bit his age, flaws unconcealed.

Oh, if only I could get rid of this “barely there” chin and have a chiseled one with a cleft, then I would be really happy.

The mirror shimmered for just an instant, making Manny uncertain if it was shimmering in reflection of the shifting sunlight outside, or if something stranger was going on. The light was so bright and intense, almost like a flash. Will this thing need batteries?

Manny shook his head when he looked into the mirror and saw that he looked a lot better. At first, he couldn’t figure out why: there was just a vague sense of personal improvement. And then, he noticed it: his chin had changed. It had moved out, become more square, and right in the middle of it was a cleft that would have done Mr. Kirk Douglas proud. Manny closed his eyes and let loose a far-too girlish giggle. This can’t really be happening. When he opened them again, the wished-for chin, in all its chiseled glory, remained.

What else would I want? As long as wishes are being granted… Manny’s gaze rose up to the crown of lackluster fuzz he called hair. He thought of the hunk he had seen in the lobby earlier, with his dog. What was his name? Adam? I’d sure love to have hair like his: thick, perfectly disheveled, and shot through with gold, the kind, Manny knew, didn’t really come naturally, but only from repeated visits to pricey Oak Street salons.

The mirror shimmered.

And Manny’s hair was perfect: a brown and golden thick mane, smooth, shiny and standing up on its own as if it had just been born and was sniffing the air. He shook his head and the new hair moved, just as if was really his. Tentatively, he reached up, expecting to feel the steel wool of his own mop, but the hair was smooth, luxuriant, so thick he had to hunt for his scalp. Manny closed his eyes and sighed, running his fingers through his sexy/messy locks.

Still, Manny’s own eyes gazed back at him: muddy irises, flecked with a jaundiced yellow, and framed by eyebrows that he trimmed with Wahl clippers. Well, not really, but you get the idea. He closed those same eyes and imagined having green eyes, pale, the color of a ripening olive, framed by thick black lashes. He imagined his eyebrows sculpted, but still a little bushy: he didn’t want them to look like a woman’s, or too perfect. He didn’t open his eyes for fear of disappointment, but felt a flash of heat on his face.

When he opened his eyes, they were just as he imagined they would be. Manny gasped; twin fingers of terror and delight tickling his spine. He laughed. He cried. And he imagined high cheekbones, a smaller, aquiline nose, and finally, moving the mirror downward, the kind of body only God or fourteen hours of free weights a week could give a man: cut, defined, the muscles strong but not too showy.

And he got them all. Transformed.

Manny kissed the mirror. He smiled at himself, a playful smile, lips turned up just slightly, as though he was just on the brink of laughing.

The smile was the perfect complement to his perfect features.

And then he moved in to give himself a little kiss.

The mirror slid between the bed and the wall.

Manny gulped as he heard the cracking sound, a quick snap, like a bullet being fired. Straight to my heart.

He struggled over the bed and let his arms dangle from the side, pulling the mirror up from the hardwood floor. He turned on his back and gazed up at its silver surface, marred now by a large crack.

And something different. Even though he knew he was frowning—on the verge of tears, in fact—the mirror threw back the gorgeous man he now thought of as Emanuel, playful grin lighting up his face.

Later, Emanuel showered and got ready to go out and explore the neighborhood, hoping he could find someplace charming and quaint where he could have dinner. Manny would have just nuked the Lean Cuisine in the freezer. Maybe he could find a little French bistro.

The shower was wonderful, both for the steaming, cleansing water, but also for the feel of his new body beneath his fingertips: taut muscle where Jell-O used to make its home. His fingers glided through his hair and, when he washed his face, his chin felt firm, the cheekbones prominent with just a hint of stubble grazing his fingertips.

Emanuel was also pleased to find that the bathroom mirror cast back the same new reflection. He’d been afraid that maybe his new look would only be visible in what he now thought of as the magic mirror. He concentrated on the tightness of his new body, bunching and contracting the different muscle groups in the mirror. He put a dollop of gel in his newly thick hair, making it spike and shine like “Adam’s” in the lobby.

And he continued to wear that small smile. It was no wonder: Emanuel didn’t think he’d ever been happier.

Emanuel stepped into the lobby, where the doorman he had seen earlier was talking to another guy, dressed in the same uniform, but this man was tall, gangly, and blond, almost albino.

This time, the doorman (the dark one, the dark and, Emanuel noticed, very handsome one) spied him, lifting his head and smiling. “Hello there.” His voice was a rich baritone, and it made Emanuel shiver. He wanted to look behind himself, to make sure the doorman was talking to him.

“Hi,” he managed, meeting the doorman’s dark, dark eyes.

“I haven’t seen you around here before. Just move in?”

He almost started to say, “Well, whaddaya think? You watched me struggle with my stuff for half the freakin’ afternoon!” And then he realized that he had watched Manny, not Emanuel.

He wasn’t surprised when he headed out into the warm summer night to hear footsteps hurrying after him. The doorman caught up, a little breathless. He smiled and Emanuel noticed how even and white his teeth were, how smooth his olive complexion was, darkened by uniform black stubble, and again…those eyes. He could fall into those eyes, so brown they were almost black.

“I’m Carlos.”

“Manny, er, Emanuel.” He held out a firm hand. “I just moved in today.”

Carlos shook his head. “I don’t know how I missed you.” He stared into Emanuel’s eyes, and Emanuel felt heat rise to his face. Carlos could have been a model; Emanuel wondered quickly if the mirror he had found upstairs had once belonged to Carlos and he had once been paunchy and balding.

“I don’t know either, Carlos.” Emanuel touched Carlos’ arm, felt the muscles rippling beneath the uniform shirt. “Do you live around here?” He realized how forward that sounded and its implications, so he hastened to add: “Just wondering if you knew of any good places where I could grab a bite. I’m exhausted after all the unpacking. I can’t be bothered to cook.”

“A man like you shouldn’t have to cook.”

Oh Lord, spare me.

“Would you allow me to treat you to dinner, Emanuel? I’m off work now, and there’s a little French bistro, just a couple blocks away...”

After dinner, it was only natural that Carlos would walk him home. He had never answered the question about where he lived, and now Emanuel found out why.

“I hope you don’t think I’m too bold about asking if I can come up, but I actually live ‘up.’ I’m on 27. One of the perks of the job. I also do a little maintenance.”

Emanuel couldn’t resist. “I bet you’re very good with your hands.”

Carlos grinned and held the door open. “You’d get that bet right.”

Emanuel laughed.

In the elevator, Carlos turned and kissed him. Emanuel was shocked, but didn’t pull away from his lips and probing tongue. In fact, he was disappointed when Carlos broke away and the doors slid open. They were on 27.

“Darn. I missed my floor.”

Carlos touched his face, brushing a strand of hair away from his forehead. “I thought maybe you might like to see my place. It isn’t much, just a studio, but I make a very nice Mojito.”

Emanuel didn’t know what a Mojito was, but he suddenly was desperate to find out. “That sounds…very refreshing.”

He followed Carlos down the hall, noticing the way his ass rose and fell. Shame on you! You naughty boy!

Three Mojitos (a blend of rum, lime, cane sugar, and mint) were all it took to relieve Emanuel of his clothes and inhibitions. While not a virgin, Emanuel’s prior sexual history could be summed up quickly: a three-month boyfriend in college—a runner—who could do a lot in less than four minutes; and a few embarrassing one nighters.

That night, Carlos taught Emanuel that everything he had heard whispered about Latin men being superior lovers was true. He couldn’t believe this was happening. He couldn’t believe it was happening four times.

Spent, they lay in each other’s arms as dawn’s grayish light filtered in through Carlos’ mini blinds. Carlos’ muscular chest was slick with sweat, and he was panting, his eyelids heavy with fatigue.

Emanuel curled up in the crook of his arm, resting his head on Carlos’ chest, not caring about the sweat. “If you’re tired, you know, I won’t mind if you fall asleep.” In fact, Emanuel couldn’t imagine anything nicer than the two of them drifting off together.

But Carlos wanted to talk. “I see lots of cute guys come through that lobby,” he began, “but when I saw you, I knew there was something special…”

“Please!” Emanuel laughed. He may not have had many dates in his 37 years, but he knew sweet talk when he heard it.

“No, no, Emanuel, I’m serious. There’s something different about you.” He pulled Emanuel’s chin up so their gazes met. “You probably won’t believe me, but you’re the first guy I’ve dared to ask out from the building.”

He punched Carlos’ chest. Not hard. “Get out of here.”

“I’m serious.” He looked away and didn’t say anything for a long time, so long, in fact, Emanuel began to think he had fallen asleep. He could hear the birds outside begin their chorus and thought how their song reached them even way up here. He settled more comfortably against Carlos and closed his own eyes.

Then he heard Carlos sniffle and realized he was crying. Emanuel stiffened. This had suddenly turned into a lot more intimate encounter than he had originally thought. “What is it? What’s wrong?” He played with the hair on Carlos’ chest, gazing down the flat expanse of his stomach.

Carlos stroked his hair and spoke softly. “I used to have a boyfriend. It was a real serious thing…love of my life. I would have married him if the law allowed it.” He blew out a big, quivering sigh. “We were still together just five months ago. For five years.” He stopped, again for so long, Emanuel wondered if he was drifting off. “They were the happiest five years of my life. We met in Cuba, which was where my family was from. It was love at first sight.” Carlos brushed the back of his hand across Emanuel’s cheek. “Maybe like this?”

Emanuel wanted to say, “Let’s not rush things,” because that’s what the old Manny would have done: sarcasm and jokes for his big defense. Instead, he was quiet as Carlos told him all about Miguel, their relationship, and how quickly and effortlessly it had all come together, like a dream. “We were a real family, you know?

“And then he started getting sick.” Emanuel closed his eyes, not wanting to hear anymore, not wanting to hear how Carlos’ voice broke as he told him about the cancer, the radiation treatments, the efforts of the doctors at Northwest Memorial to save him, the withering body in the hospital bed. Carlos wept openly, clinging to Emanuel, who wondered if this was the first time he had let any of this out.

Emanuel tried to hold back his own tears even as Carlos’ dripped on his cheek. Carlos dissolved into great, wracking sobs, wailing out into the room. Emanuel patted his back, wishing there was something he could do or say to temper the man’s grief.

Emanuel realized he loved him just then. It was too soon—too soon for all of this, but he knew what he felt went beyond sympathy, which would have made him feel kind toward Carlos, but would have also made him want to flee, if he was honest with himself. He sat up next to Carlos, who was flattened against the headboard and pulling a corner of the sheet up to dab at his eyes.

Carlos looked over at him and his mouth dropped open.

“What?” he asked, and a little anger managed to break through his sorrow.

Emanuel shook his head. “I’m so sorry. What do you mean?”

“You look like…” he heaved. “You look like…”

And Emanuel bowed his head. He knew it was too good to be true: the magic hadn’t lasted. Sometime, as night turned to day outside, he had become Manny again.

But that wasn’t it.

He could still feel the thick, spiky hair, still gaze down at a perfect body. “What’s the matter?”

Carlos stared at him with disbelief, dark eyes blazing.

“You think this is funny? You think I make this story up for you to laugh?”

Emanuel didn’t know what he was talking about. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Carlos was quiet. He stared out the window, where the sky was brightening, turning blue. He then turned to Emanuel and spoke slowly, just above a whisper. “You could at least have the decency to wipe that fucking smile off your face. This was my heart,” he hiccupped out a short sob, “my heart we were talking about here.”

Emanuel reached up to feel his face; his lips were still turned up in a playful smile. He remembered how it looked in the mirror: mischievous, just this side of a giggle. He tried to frown and discovered he couldn’t. “Really, Carlos, I don’t think it’s funny. It’s awful, so sad.” He reached up to touch Carlos’ face, but he slapped his hand away.

“Talk is cheap, baby.”

Emanuel tried to pull the smile off his face with his fingers, yanking his lips downward, but his expression was frozen into one of perpetual mirth, no matter how inappropriate. How could he explain this? “Carlos, I...”

“I think you should go home now. Maybe you could put the news on and laugh some more.”

“You don’t understand.”

He pulled the sheet over his head. “Just get out. Fast.”

Emanuel walked the streets, feeling empty and lost. When Carlos threw him out, he had returned to his apartment and sat on his bed, weeping entreaties to the mirror to change everything back, to give him the ability to express pain once more, even at the price of his newfound good looks. But the mirror only tossed back a grinning face, one that—while beautiful—could never take anything seriously.

Now, it was early morning and pretty quiet. Most of the Loyola students were away for the summer, and since it was Saturday, there was no rush hour traffic. The day had bloomed into something glorious: bright blue summer sky, a few strands of cloud up high, the air clear, with no humidity. Lake Michigan sparkled deep blue close up, Caribbean aqua further out.

And every window Emanuel passed showed him the same face: jaw-droppingly handsome, slightly vacuous, and always smiling. “Stop making those faces, young man!” his mother had once admonished him, “or your face will freeze that way.”

Emanuel stopped in front of a Starbucks and looked at his just-about-to-laugh face. He saw the reflection of a young guy coming up behind him: cute, with a skateboard, early twenties with long blond hair. “What are you so happy about?” he asked him, drawing near, and smiling himself, wanting to be in on the joke.

“Nothing,” Emanuel whispered and hurried away.