Alice: Reflections of a Looking Glass Friendship

behind the glass

“Of course it hurt that we could never love each other in a physical way. We would have been far more happy if we had. But that was like the tides, the change of seasons–something immutable, an immovable destiny we could never alter. No matter how cleverly we might shelter it, our delicate friendship wasn’t going to last forever. We were bound to reach a dead end. That was painfully clear.” ― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

They say you meet friends in the damnedest places when you aren’t looking for them and I thought this was utter nonsense until the day I found a friend in the reflection of a mirror. I know what you’re and no, this isn’t a story about finally finding and befriending myself or coming into contact with the Supreme Intelligence that exists within me, because it wasn’t my reflection. This person, this woman who had no name, that I called Alice, stood beside the mirror version of myself, to the left. Always left of center. I should have taken that as a sign, but you never see the glaringly obvious without the benefit of hindsight, do you?

Before you mistake Alice for an imaginary friend, know that were I in a mirrorless room, I wouldn’t be able to communicate with her because she simply wouldn’t be there.

How she came to be trapped within mirrors is anyone’s guess and I doubt she truly knew herself, though whenever asked, she would always blame her fractured memory, splintered like the shards of glass of a shattered mirror that held incomplete images of her past.

She was fascinating in her way, Alice was. A brain filled with dark matter. Insecure to a fault. A high maintenance friend if ever there was one. Not only was she needy, self-absorbed to the exclusion of all else, devoid of a funny bonedespite the fact she claimed to have an excellent sense of humorbut she was also passive-aggressive and more than slightly obtuse when it came to the rules of the world that existed outside her own head. But as I said, fascinating in her own right.

It’s a shame that fascination wasn’t enough to carry through. I was determined in the beginning to plant our relationship in the soil of time, water it with patience and let it bask in the rays of understanding.

What sprang from the dirt wasn’t the flower of friendship, but the weeds of unwanted advice. It’s what broken people do, you see, they have an undying need to give others advice on how to fix themselves. I am by no stretch of the imagination a Bible scholar, but I am familiar with the passage:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

But I endured it. You ask me why? I couldn’t tell you. That’s what friends are for, I reckon. But then I started to notice that her reflection was dwarfing my own. She began taking up the majority space in the mirror, and I, trying to keep the peace had ignored the signs and allowed it to happen. My own fault, I plainly admit it.

But no more.

As I grow older, reluctantly wiser, and I reevaluate my life choices and take stock of my friends, I see with regard to the Alice matter that I will never get a decent return on my investment. Some people are a bad fit within their own skin as well as with other people.

Not long after, I noticed she wasn’t simply trapped within a mirror. Alice was actually trapped in a glass box of her own construction, caught within a mirror pocket dimension. And to add insult to injury, she was attempting to trap my reflection, and thereby me, inside one as well.

In the end, I did the only thing I could do, for she gave me no other choice. I placed her reflection in the only fitting place I could think of — my rear view mirror. The very last time I ever laid eyes on Alice, she was shrinking in the distance until she was little more than a dot on the horizon.

My sincerest wishes for her are to find her way out of her glass cage and strive to be more than a visual echo in the reflectors of others. But that first step begins with her. She has to want to be a real person, and I’m not sure she knows how.

In any event, adieu, Looking Glass Girl. Here’s not looking at you, kiddo.

The rest of you, go forth and be reflectively writeful (and be mindful of mirror-lurkers).

– Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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Personal Space

Staten Island Ferry arriving at night

“Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the gray scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

The hawk was most definitely out tonight as I stood at the bow of the Staten Island ferry, coat collar popped and gloved hands thrust into pockets. This particular hawk bore a vicious set of teeth and wasn’t afraid to bite, which was fine by me. The colder weather combined with the icy wind that whipped off the bay afforded me some much-appreciated elbowroom, a concept that was foreign to most New Yorkers.

Being all alone out here wasn’t a problem. I had been alone most of my adult life. Alone in a crowded room. Alone in committed relationships. The people closest to me, those tenacious few who loved a challenge, were kept at an equidistant arm’s length.

Alone was my appetite.

Alone was my mantra.

Alone was my destiny.

Not too cold out tonight, is it?” a voice said, almost causing me to leap out of my skin. There, suddenly beside me, was a woman bundled against the chill air, lips curled slightly in sarcasm. Right next to me. Within the boundaries of my personal space.

Not as cold as it could be,” I replied more out of reflex than want. What I wanted was a little privacy, to tend to my own affairs as other people on the ferry tended to theirs. It was part of the unspoken rule when you agreed to live in this city. You avoided eye contact and kept yourself to yourself.

I looked at her, this stealthy woman that took me totally unawares. A full foot shorter than me, pretty, petite, and what was the politically correct term for it? Middle Asian? I wasn’t too sure and felt naked without my local ever-changing PC handbook to check for accuracy.

The immediate thing that came to mind wasn’t how stunningly attractive this woman was. My first thought was actually, Why are you talking to me? As a point of clarification, that was one of the things I admired about myself, whether it was my face or the vibe I gave off, people generally never felt the need to walk up and talk to me. Unless of course they were mentally challenged or capable—again I needed to consult the handbook—or nuts or out to start a fight with a stranger they mistakenly assumed was harmless. She was clearly none of those.

But the thought evaporated as suddenly as it appeared. She blurted out a simple statement of fact and I happened to be within earshot. Conversation over. Turn the page.

But it wasn’t over. “Do you know who you are?” she asked without a discernible trace of an accent.

Pardon?” I was taken aback by the suddenness of the question. “What, like my name?

No, that is what you are called. I want to know if you had to describe yourself to an absolute stranger, what would you say?

Most likely? Nothing,” I admitted. “I’m not too fond of the question.

Really? What if Nazis held guns to your parents’ heads? What would you tell me then?” she smiled politely, waiting.

Damn. The Nazi ploy.

As much as I hated being manipulated in this fashion, I couldn’t allow anyone, not even this woman, the most un-New Yorkian person I had ever encountered, to think I was some heartless brute that would have allowed Nazis to murder my parents in an effort to avoid providing a self-summary.

And just so you know,” she continued. “We, the Nazis and I, aren’t accepting you are a work in progress as a suitable answer, since we’re all works in progress until the moment we give up living.

Fair enough,” I nodded. It was one of those overused expressions that I couldn’t stand, just like thinking outside the box. I watched her with obvious suspicion and had half a mind not to answer, half a mind to walk away. Neither of those halves proved to be victorious.

I hadn’t the foggiest notion what came over me but words started spilling out of my mouth before I even realized I was speaking. “What I am is a pessimistic optimist, who believes love shouldn’t be denied to anyone, even to those born with icy hearts. What I know is that I’m wise enough accept love as it finds me and not reject it because it doesn’t come wrapped in a pretty package. What I hope is that someday every lonely person will reach out to another lonely person and befriend them so that the word lonely fades from our lexicon.

You must be a writer because that was corny and clumsily poetic,” she eyed me for a long moment. “But an artful dodge, so I’ll let you get away with it. This time.

This time? Just who did this woman think she was?

Now it’s your turn,” I said. “Tell me something about yourself. Anything. Start with where you’re from.

For the briefest instant, her expression took on a sadness that could only have belonged to reminiscence. “I was born and raised in India, longer ago than you would believe, but I have traveled all over, to places you probably do not even realize exist.

You’re probably right about that. Geography really isn’t my strong suit and I haven’t really traveled outside of the five boroughs,” I said, instantly embarrassed by my lack of worldliness. “So, what brings you to New York?

She remained quiet for a moment before answering. “I work for an organization, currently in a state of transition, that suffered drastic downsizing due to image problems and public opinion. My employer is in the midst of rebranding and taking on a new staff to suit the company’s new direction. You can say that I am one of many headhunters.

Talk about your artful dodge. You said a mouthful just now and told me absolutely nothing about what your organization does to make a profit.

I can tell you, but only if you really want to know because that information comes at a price.

Which is?” I asked.

Your undying loyalty.

I chuckled. “Of course.

“Of course, you agree to my terms, or of course, as in a mockery?” she cocked an eyebrow my way. “We must be clear about this.

The latter, no offense.

I see,” she ran a hand through her hair to remove it from her face. It was then that I noticed she wasn’t wearing gloves and hadn’t actually appeared to be cold. “You asked me what brings me to New York. Would you believe me if I said it was you?

I held up my hands in surrender. “All right, this is where I officially punch out of this conversation.

She took half a step closer. “Your loneliness, your isolation is like a beacon to me. I am drawn to you. I know your kind. I have seen your future and you will most assuredly die alone. No mate, no children to carry on your legacy.

I hate to break it to you, but I’m happily married with three kids who adore me.

Not true in the slightest. You have lived alone ever since your cat died of leukemia two years ago.

How — how could you know that?

The same way I know the first girl to break your heart was Shirley Hartsdale in the sixth grade when she began dating your best friend behind your back and made you the laughing-stock of the school. To this day you hold a distrust of people because of that incident, even friends and family.

I hadn’t caught the last part of her sentence. My brain was flooded with thoughts of Shirley Hartsdale, someone I hadn’t thought of in years and even now, she left a bad taste in my mouth.

The organization I work for has that sort of information available to them, not solely on you but everyone on the planet.

Oh God, I started to panic. She’s a terrorist. Part of some ferry-riding Sleeper Cell that uses attractive women to pry information out of dumb single Americans. My photo was most likely going to land in some Homeland Security dossier marked Al Qaeda Sympathizers. In that moment I just wanted this woman to be away from me. Far, far away.

I am not a terrorist,” she smiled. “Nor do I belong to a cult. What I am is a member of a peacekeeping task force that seeks to restore balance to the world with the help of people like you, the overlooked, the forgotten, the unloved. More than an organization, the company that employs me is my family and is directly descended from the first family ever to set foot on the earth. It can become your family, as well.

What I can offer you is a love unparalleled,” She touched a finger to my temple and the wind died away. The air barely moved for several moments and I listened as she spoke. My world began spinning savagely. I winced and swallowed hard to prevent nausea from triumphing as her words poured images into my mind, saturated with so much sensory information and emotion that I thought I might burst at the seams.

You will want for nothing. I will bear you many children and you will have a family the size of a small nation. A family who will worship and adore you. All this and more if you will simply pledge yourself to me forever and always.

She moved her finger away and the stillness of the air vanished as the wind rose once more. I staggered a moment, my mind reeling with the imagery that pressed a palpable weight on me. When I regained my balance and sight, I stood there stunned and in comparative silence after being shown a world that only existed as the flimsiest of pipedreams. The reality finally hit that I was dealing with something way beyond me, something that threatened to swallow me whole if I wasn’t careful.

And you will be free to follow your dreams. Become a novelist and millions will read your words. You will be well received all around the world. Spend your days lecturing, even teaching and sculpting young minds, if that’s your wish.

Or,” she continued. “Write and direct films that interest you and your following will be massive. Fellini, Scorcese, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Tarantino, would not be able to hold a candle to you. You could be like Woody Allen and release a film each year, all guaranteed blockbusters with the stars of your choice eager to play a role.

And all this will happen because of you?

Her tone shifted, becoming as sharp as a finely honed blade. “No, because of your pledge to be with me and only me.

Like signing my soul over to you?” I knew the answer but had to ask anyway.

What an archaic notion. All I need from you is your promise, sealed with a kiss. The question is: do you want to live the life you have always dreamed of living or not? After years of struggling and going unnoticed by women and society at large, you have learned to wear your isolation like a protective shell but this isn’t who you truly are, who you were meant to be. If anyone deserves a shot at the brass ring it most certainly is you, is it not?

I had trouble meeting her eyes. “That’s tempting, it really is…but I can’t.

You would turn down everything?

I’m too old to believe I can have everything. And old enough to know I won’t be happy. Maybe at first, on the surface, I will, but as time goes by I’ll know deep down that I didn’t earn any of those things. You wouldn’t be with me because you love me. You’d be with me because you needed something from me. Something I’m not smart enough to figure out at the moment.” I felt foolish because I truly couldn’t see the angle. My soul wasn’t worth that much so there must have been something else.

And suddenly I was aware of the nearness of the woman and no longer thought she was in my personal space but that I was in hers and I worried about what being within her sphere of influence might do to me. I was afraid that her essence, the power she projected would have tainted me, marked and cursed me forever.

It seems I misjudged you. All that talk of accepting love as it finds you and erasing loneliness from the lexicon is all just a mask. Your problem is not being too old, it is being too afraid.

What?” my voice cracked as I felt a sudden pang of fear.

You are a dichotomy of fear. You are afraid of dying home alone, yet you fear leaving your house to meet a woman you can form a relationship with, you fear being friendless yet fear making friends, fear being childless yet fear the responsibility of having children, you fear being loved, fear being hated, you fear life and just about everything else and you are content to let it rot your soul as you waste away out of existence.

The wind rose in unison with the pitch of her voice and I was hit with a blast so icy it made my eyes water. I wiped the tears away and the woman was gone.

I went inside because I felt the sudden and dire need to be around other people, be close to them, feel their warmth. I settled down in a seat between two strangers, neither of them pleased that I had invaded their personal space, but I was past caring at the moment.

Looking down the opposite end of the ferry I spotted the woman talking to a man, most likely another lonely bastard like me. I wanted to go over and warn him but he probably wouldn’t have believed me, and wasn’t it up to him to face his own temptations? Who’s to say that he wouldn’t have been within his rights to accept? And was I a fool for letting the opportunity to end my loneliness pass me by?

Then and there I made a promise to change my life, to put Shirley Hartsdale in perspective as I got on with my life and reconnected with old friends if it wasn’t too late and I pledged to make new friends and as I sought out the love I deserved and stopped waiting for it to come to me. Yes, that was what I was planned to do.

At least that was the lie I told myself.

©2013 – 2019 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

About Personal Space: This is one of them thar inspired by true events stories that happened one winter’s night when I was riding home on the Staten Island ferry.

A woman walked up out of the blue and started talking to me, telling me that she worked in the UN as a member of the Peacekeeping Task Force and her husband was a prosecutor for the War Crimes Tribunal. He was in The Hague, at that time, prosecuting a war criminal. She went on to tell me about their very strange but open marriage.

I blogged about this encounter on numerous occasions, mostly touching on the psychological effects the news media outlets’ constant terrorism scare reporting tactics have on the average person, even if they happen to be apolitical. And how even people who consider themselves to be an egalitarian, can get caught up in subconscious racial profiling.

It’s an encounter that has its hooks deeply embedded in my soul and I guess I’ll keep writing about it until the realization becomes easier to deal with.

Of Air Returned

images

i.

I burned my soul to ash but the pain paled in comparison to the terror that struck my heart like a match, anticipating her arrival and the tirade she would carry in tow. An unwarranted fear, as she was calm when she saw what I had done. Calm and nurturing. Soothing my pain with herbs and aromas, and each early morning during the hour of the wolf, she laid an ear on my back and listened as my soul mended itself.

She never spoke the words of disappointment aloud but it registered in her eyes. Although residing within my body, this wounded thing, this unwanted soul, did not belong to me. She had laid claim to it many years past, and in my despondency, I had taken liberties with her property and attempted to destroy it. Again.

ii.

The first time, I threw my soul into a sinkhole and allowed the ground to swallow it whole. I made her acquaintance when she plucked it from the soil like a tattered tuber. “I saw what you did,” she said. “And since you would so recklessly toss this precious thing away, it is no longer yours, but mine, agreed?” I nodded and she handed my soul back to me for safe keeping.

I honored our pact for a few years, caring for it within my limited capacity, but during a particularly nasty bout of depression, I tied heavy stones to my soul and pushed it off the sea wall. For a second time, she appeared, fishing my soul from the waves and scolded me, “You are charged with protecting this thing that is mine, do you understand?” Again, I nodded. Again, I lied.

iii.

“Why do you want this worthless soul when it has been crushed by the earth? Why do you want it when it has been drowned in the sea? Why do you want it when it has been set aflame like so much tinder?” I searched long and hard yet found no answer in her silence.

iv.

During the day, when she thought me preoccupied, she secreted herself in the shadows and slept. One day I followed her into the darkness and watched her body twitch from dreaming and listened as she muttered,

One more soul, once buried deep.
One more soul, in ocean steeped.
One more soul, by fire burned.
One more soul, of air returned.

v.

Under her care, my soul grew healthier and it frightened me. I was pitilessly plagued and badgered by the phrase, One more soul, of air returned, that repeated in my mind’s ear until it turned dogged and cacophonous. But she was unaware of my inner torment, in fact, she was in an exceptionally good mood today, her voice almost a song, “I know you don’t see it, but you are a gift, you are. You have no idea just how special.”

vi.

Today was the day. I felt it in my marrow. Something was destined to happen, something I most likely would not survive. I should have embraced this eerie premonition, for it was no secret that I did not want to continue in this manner, broken, detached and alone. But the choice of how and when I departed this wretched life was mine to make and mine alone. So, I stalled by distracting her with trivialities. “May I have more broth? Have you seen my shoes? No, not that pair, the other ones? Can we go for a walk?” If she knew my plan, her expression never showed sign. No request was too large or small on this day. She granted them all.

vii.

We strolled along the pathway in the park that led to the duck pond, a place we visited often during my convalescence. Picked, naturally, as not to arouse suspicion as I searched for the proper diversion in order to make my escape. But I was so wrapped in my own thoughts, I failed to notice that she was walking slower than usual today. “Can we rest a moment?” she asked as we neared the benches. “I am a little short of breath.”

Her breathing became a labored and raspy thing before it hitched and became lodged in her throat. When her face went dusky blue and she slid off the park bench, I panicked. The opportunity had presented itself and there I stood like an idiot, frozen. Entangled in the decision of whose life to save, or more accurately, whose death I could live with.

There was no real choice.

viii.

Her breathing was a trembling, liquid sound as I pressed my mouth to hers and exhaled, but instead of me breathing air into her body, I felt her sucking air from my lungs, and not just air…

I tried desperately to pull away but her thin, vise-like hands clamped down on the nape of my neck and held me firm in a kiss that was collapsing me. My hold on life became dim and futile, but before I slipped away into emptiness, I noticed the oddest thing: her belly began to swell.

Every fiber of my actuality was drawn into her, and my soul, the object I had forever been so reckless with, was systematically being stripped of concern, of negativity, of identity. I fell further and further into a darkness that pressed on me from all sides. So tight, so constricted. I was still unable to breathe but the sensation was somehow different now.

At the very moment when it seemed the darkness was about to claim me for eternity, there came a burst of light so bright as to cut my eyes. Thankfully something soon blotted out the light – a face, slowly coming into focus but I knew her before I saw her. From the moment I heard her soft cooing, “You are a gift, you are. You have no idea just how special.”

Mother.

©1988 – 2019 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

About Of Air Returned: Delusion can be a scary thing, but it can also be wonderful at the same time. This piece was written in the early part of 1988, during a period when I swore I could do no wrong—it’s fine, you can laugh, I’ll just cringe quietly in the corner. I was heavily into both science and speculative fiction and had recently rediscovered the works of The Brothers Grimm, so I was determined to create my own collection of fairy tales for the—then—modern age.

Applying fairy tale rules, I could introduce the fantastic or the bizarre into any story with little or no explanation, and have all the characters in the tales accept everything as normal. Wishes as deus ex machina. Love as the ultimate cure-all. All the good stuff without all the fuss. Genius, right?

It would take the better part of six months for me to discover I wasn’t the groundbreaker I imagined myself to be. On the plus side, I followed my then idol, Harlan Ellison’s advice and was able to churn one of these puppies out a day.

Of course, most of them are unreadable. This one teeters on the edge. I kinda like it and it kinda embarrasses the hell out of me, but it was one of the three Rhyan Realm tales–yeah, I created my own sub-genre name for them, what of it?–that actually saw print… after 10-some-odd rejections.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll kiss a few minutes goodbye.