It could have been happening for days by the time he noticed. Happening for days before anyone like him, anyone in his situation, would ever have noticed.
By his mid-twenties he wasn’t fooling anyone with a comb-over, a comb-forward. His wife told him so. He bought an old electric razor at a yard sale, began buzzing his head once a day. No need for a mirror. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t shave in his bathroom now: no electrical outlets—a precaution against the suicide attempts common in his neighborhood. He shaves in the kitchen. When he brushes his teeth, he opens the medicine cabinet to get the toothpaste, leaves it open until he’s done. His routine. A creature of habit, he really has to think— stop everything, bare down hard on the question—When was the last time I looked in the mirror? When the hell was it?
Monday, he decides, last Monday. He renewed his eye exam, tried on contact lenses in a little gray room that smelled like the YMCA swimming pool. There was a mirror right there and he watched his finger into each eye. Saw himself. But that was then and something drastic has happened since; something drastic must have happened, though he can’t imagine what. Standing in his bathroom—slightly hungover, pissing in the sink—he’s confronted by the mirror. He casts no reflection. In his mirror, where he should be, there is nothing but the unbroken continuity of the scene behind him. An unblocked view of the hallway wall.
How could this happen? How could this happen to me?
It was probably a process, more like the slow descent of a theater curtain, but it feels like a gunshot.
At first he’s not frightened. He laughs from his throat. First he’s startled and surprised in a way he hasn’t been since he was a child. Playing peekaboo. He touches the glass with his fingertips and feels the cool smoothness of it. When he removes his hand he sees the fingerprints, greasy concentric ovals evidencing his presence. He leans in, unhinges his jaw, blows a guttural noise of hot air, fogs the scene. To watch it happen, it’s causeless. The open O of his mouth conspicuously absent, the mirror clouding itself, it’s surreal. Unreal. It must be the hangover, he thinks, or maybe the mirror’s broken. Scampering out of the room, bare feet slap linoleum as he scurries into the kitchen.
Where did I go? he thinks.
He presses and holds the number two pad on his phone, waits for the girl at the call center to pick up, tells her to take his name off the rotation list today. He slowly lowers himself in front of the microwave door—glossy black translucent plastic—and as he tries to focus in and see himself he says to her “the world’s not going to end if I don’t show up.”
The refrigerator hums and sits, a warped parody image held in the molded plastic of the door. Three oblong bottles of wine on top, a funhouse reflection, nothing else. This is the scene behind him. He can’t see himself, can see through himself. The mirror’s not broken. He speaks to the stillness of the microwave’s inanimation:
“The world’s not going to end if I don’t show up.”
When he was young he’d wanted to be a police officer but instead was arrested for holding at a Tom Petty concert. A bag of reefer and a ten strip of gel tabs. They weren’t his—a high school crush asked him to ‘baby-sit for just a few minutes.’ He was a sap; he was lucky to not do serious time. Somewhere between then and now he lived a life. A half-life that dwindled and became barely something. Became nothing. Less than that. Soon he arrived here: government subsidized housing, a HUD tenement. A quarter-life. An eighth-life.
Squatted down in front of the microwave he closes his eyes tight until the muscles of his lids give out. He remembers being young. This is an old man’s problem. I’m forty and I’m an old man already. Where did I go?
He remembers being young, taking the standardized tests that told him he was a problem solver. A logical thinker. With a rush of pride that hits his head hot, makes his ears tingle, he is determined to get to the bottom of this. He straightens himself, removes his sweat and ketchup stained tee-shirt. Performs the morning activities—tooth brushing, shaving, dressing for the day. Then, when he feels prepared and confident in respectable clothes, he walks chest out into the bathroom and faces the mirror.
Not a damn thing.