Man — Reflected
White steam stuck to the mirror. Run clear water through the shower, add heat, and where it condenses on a silvered surface, you can’t see anything for whiteness.
‘More bloody fog in my life!’ Mark swept the washcloth across the glass, clearing a patch of clarity with two strokes leaving clear vision in a rectangular framed middle. He peered at himself. Finding any kind of focus in a morning, any morning, was not one of his strong points. The stubble that sprouted from his cheeks and chin was thick and wiry. How long since he’d shaved? Three days? Four? His eyes were red-rimmed and looked like a desert at sunset.
‘Prick!’ He wondered if other people talked to themselves in the mirror in the morning. Did others feel this utter dissatisfaction with themselves when they looked through streaky steamed-up glass? Did it even matter? What freakin’ difference did it make?
Banging in his head was the predicament he’d fallen into. He’d always believed he was one of the nice guys. But if he stopped to fairly judge the acts that he was committing, it was quite possible that he was the lowest louse on the face of the earth. He lathered soap between his palms and roughly massaged the suds into his face.
‘You’re still a prick!’ He stuck out his tongue at himself in the mirror and tasted a swift, bitter tang of soap. Even after taking a huge gulp of lukewarm coffee out of his mug that sat on the corner of the bathtub, he could still taste soap bubbles. The mug had left a brown ring on the tub. He drank too much coffee. He looked down into the mug. There were soap bubbles dancing inside.
‘Isn’t that bloody typical. Soap where it shouldn’t be,’ he spat into the sink and picked up his razor, flipping it over to see if the blades were still clogged from his last shave, whenever that had been. He swirled it in the hot water in the basin. Tapped it against the porcelain.
As he traced the line of his jaw down in front of his ear, hearing the whistling shear of whiskers being cut through the bubbles, Mark thought about this fix he’d gotten himself into. If anyone had ever taken the trouble to ask him, he might have boldly stated that love — that best and worst of emotions — was simple. It was easy to love someone with an intensity that roamed far beyond the realms of imagination. Mark always knew that he possessed huge amounts of unrequited love within himself, nestled beside a tremendous true romantic’s heart. When it happened, he was in for something truly marvelous.
He carefully twisted the razor around, trimming as close to his nose as he could without incurring a sharp nick of blade bite into flesh. His other hand stroked the skin behind the blade, testing for smoothness, seeking any stray hairs that had escaped the pogrom on his chin.
Three women. He loved three women. Impossible, really. Love should be unique, exclusive, complete. It should be a circle, not a triangle. But there they were: A, B and C, lined up straight as arrows piercing his dreams and stirring his soul. Each of them with their own sweet quirks, individual strengths and weaknesses, and all three professing their love for him. He looked again at himself in the mirror, wiped away with a bare hand a thin fresh mist that was threatening his window of clarity.
Mark redefined and modified his previous thought. These women loved him for what each thought he was. The actual truth would change all those feelings, that’s for sure. He had painted his reality in so many different shades that he struggled to comprehend what real truth was any more. He couldn’t face hurting any of them, and yet by ducking and diving around every issue, he knew that the size of the inevitable future potential pain was massive.
He tapped the clogs out of his razor against the sink and stared again at his face. How was it possible that they could all love him so much? He was hardly film star material either in looks or build; wrinkly and plain were the words he would probably choose. Choose. There was the word that really had him worried. An omega word for an approaching Armageddon. Time was irrevocably pushing him towards actually choosing just one of them.
‘Work out what you want. The rest will fall into place once you really know what that is,’ one of them had whispered to him. Mark knew that, if he was forced to admit it, what he really wanted was only one woman in his life ... no complications, no hiding, no more lies. He wanted to be untangled. He wanted simplicity.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. He didn’t think he’d deliberately set out on a quest for love, but it had found him, again and again and again. It had crept up on him and ensnared him. Each woman had such wonder within her, such delicate yet powerful energy, such captivation, and they all drove him crazy in the wildest ways.
It wasn’t as if it was all women he met with that he fell in love with either. He had had friends, some had wanted more, and still he could push them aside. This, and these three, they were special. Logic declared that either of the two extremes, choose none, or choose all weren’t right either. He needed someone in his life, he had so much to give, and the last three years had scourged him in his need to fill that space. Every day alone was a day wasted. For all of them.
Every time he had tried to stand back and rationalize why he should choose one over the others, each time he thought he’d made up his mind, the phone would ring or he’d receive an e-mail that would interrupt that choice and remind him how much he loved each of them. A sight of silly little things that were part of everyday life sprung to mind that he needed to tell one of them about its own particular little wonder. He knew the sort of things that each delighted in, and for someone who had had a reputation drummed into him as a forgetful person, he remembered.
They had all helped him through and past his overlong sham of a marriage that had been replete with henpecked words of attrition. The daily erosion of his soul had been replaced by charm and care. The ex-wife that loved herself beyond all else had been replaced by real love. He was a lucky guy, that’s what his few friends had said. They joked and laughed at his ‘impressive’ headcount, one that he himself felt sheer distaste at. He knew it was not right, but somehow he just couldn’t help himself. It wasn’t that he enjoyed being the object of so much affection; it was purely because he just could not bring himself to hurt any of them, not one.
A million ways to choose, only one answer. Every time he thought of one way to decide he thought of another to counteract it. Decisions bore their own razor’s edge, and they cut with startling brutality. Every reason for making a choice bore a sting: making some painful excuse to two women he loved and tell them why it wasn’t going to be them. How could he? The nights he had cried into a lonely pillow were countless; one aching non-presence rolling into another, yet never did the women merge. They were always separate, loved and adored for their own individual qualities.
He sighed. A million sighs, a million lies. Still no answer. He stroked his hands across his face, finding little patches that had missed the razor’s cut, clearing them up until he felt nothing but smoothness. He pulled the plug out and watched as suds and hair found their way down the plughole. He sluiced a rush of cold water around from the tap to dislodge any reluctant fragments that clung to the basin, then splashed a handful across his face to remove the last traces of soap.
Time was ticking, and with every fallen grain through the hourglass that was his life, he knew that sooner rather than later he would have to make a choice. He just could not go on living this way. He was exhausted, wrung out, and felt that he was living his life on a very fine emotional thread. Mark thought about brushing his teeth and decided they could wait. He could see his messed-up bed across the hallway. He needed more rest. More dreaming time. God, he was tired.
* * *
Andy pulled away the yellow ‘Police line - Do not cross’ tape that barred the doorway diagonally and let the coroner step inside. He would be glad to get this shift over with, standing outside some poor sod’s doorway, trying to ignore the local kids, and watching the odd passing train. This was definitely not what he had joined the force for.
He thought about the cup of tea that Sharon always made for him to come home to. He couldn’t wait to get his bloody shoes off; that corn was starting to be one miserable window into hell for him. He looked again at his watch, for what must have been the thousandth time in the last hour.
‘Nice to see you again, Watkins. Long day?’ The coroner always threw him a sentence or two to let him know he was still human despite the uniform.
‘Oh yeah. Still, at least it’s better circumstances than our last meeting,’ Andy replied. He’d never forget that blood bath of a car crash on Phillips Street. He shuddered. Kids, cars and booze.
‘True enough. I’ll try not to be too long.’ Andy had already seen the inside of the house. Nothing remarkable about it, two up, two down terraced house, with a little bathroom thrown in. Not a bad neighbourhood, but nothing marvelous either. Single guy, living alone. That stale air of a divorced man trying to re-make his way. Andy had seen it before.
The guy’s bedroom had thrown them though, hence the coroner, just to make sure there was nothing suspicious about it. Bed covered in photographs, three different women. A note on the floor beside the bed, the body trailing over the side, hiding the bluish lips and a hand still grasping a pen.
I don’t love enough, the note had said.
Three bloody women, for Christ’s sake, and the guy doesn’t love enough! Andy said a silent thanks for the nice little life he had with Sharon. There was that taste of his cuppa again. He really needed to pee. While he was musing on the thought of how the pressure of a full bladder can be so utterly overwhelming, he heard the door open behind him.
‘Nothing untoward. Heart attack. Looking at that note of his though, maybe it was a broken heart.’ The coroner was ready to go, his case in his hand.
‘A broken heart? With three women? Lucky sod I’d say!’
‘Well, I guess by the time you’ve interviewed family and friends, we’ll understand a bit more. All I can say from a medical perspective is that he suffered a coronary.’
‘Hmmm ... I wonder which one he didn’t love enough.’ Andy had to admit he was rather curious; this was like some of the rubbish that they printed in the Sunday newspapers, trashy, but intriguing all the same.
‘At least you can finish your shift now,’ the coroner looked at his watch. ‘You’ll just have time to get back to the station and change before you head home.’
‘Too right! Do you think it will be alright if I just use the lavvy here before I go?’
‘I never saw a thing,’ smiled the coroner. ‘It’s not like you need to worry about disturbing anything. Case closed.’
Andy went inside and climbed the grubby stair carpet towards the bathroom, hearing the scrunch of the coroner’s car tyres driving away from the communal parking lot outside.
‘Don’t love enough?’ Andy mused as he felt that surge of relief as he splashed into the guy’s toilet. ‘But who didn’t you love enough?’ He tried to remember the faces in the photographs. They were all so different: all smiling, long hair, short.
He shook his head, finished his pee and zipped himself up. When he turned to leave, Andy saw something in the mirror that cleared everything up. There had been letters traced in condensation that were now just barely visible.
© Douglas C. Pugh (previously published by Bewildering Stories)
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"With Love" painting © Douglas C. Pugh