The Use of Reflections in a Storm
My left hand is gone this morning, though I’m sure it was there last night. Now, it’s absent. Something else to deal with. Not gory, just not there, like my daughter’s favorite bracelet or the garam masala I thought I bought or the Christmas ornament Mom gave me after Cullen and I got married.
The rising sun fills my bedroom with light. My left hand is in the dresser mirror. I breathe it back into place. There’s so much to keep track of.
Cullen goes off to wake our son, and I wake our daughter.
“Did you find it, Mommy?” Ava says. She’s seven.
Had she dreamed away my hand? I look deeper into her eyes for some power I didn’t know she had. I see only a reflection of myself.
“It’s here,” I say, raising my hand to show her.
“That’s not my bracelet.”
We can’t find it in the snatch of time before Ava has to be at school – thirty minutes earlier to help make up for what was missed last year. I need to be back at my kitchen table office before the workday begins. Cullen offers to pick up the garam masala on his way home. He’s going in full time now. At least it’s safer than it was. Probably.
“Did you find it?” my mother says on our lunchtime call, something we started doing early in the pandemic and just didn’t stop. She stares up at me from my tablet on the kitchen counter. The coffee mug she holds shows the stylized image of a whale.
I’m making a salad for myself and something for Jeremy, who’s eleven and reluctant to eat anything that’s not sweet or fried. He’s grown sullen and displeased from the last two years of school. His summer tutor made some things better and other things worse. Most days now he goes into a classroom, not like that first year. The sporadic quarantines and inconsistent schedules aren’t helping his mood. At least he doesn’t have to eat a vinaigrette salad with a sprinkling of chicken because nothing in his closet fits like it’s supposed to.
“Did I find what, Mom?” I say. When I was a kid, my mother always seemed able to see through walls. There are too many between us now. She and Dad live an hour away. Mom couldn’t have known about my missing hand this morning.
“That Christmas ornament?” Mom says. “The one I gave you.”
“I’m still looking for it.”
My mother’s lips press together like they always have when she’s disappointed. My chest tightens. Not heart attack tightens. At least I don’t think so. Just the worrying vise of unhelpful thoughts. I look away and through the window over the kitchen sink. Two squirrels chase each other in the backyard for fun or violence. I can’t tell which.
“You should come over this weekend,” Mom says. “Your brother will be here with Liz and the boys.”
“We can’t.” It’s not just because Liz refuses to get vaccinated, though that’s some of it. The parties to make up for 2020 and 2021 are relentless. The weekends are already too busy. Jeremy is being encouraged back into sports to help his outlook despite what that does to everyone’s Saturdays and Sundays. Cullen has to bring home weekend work to keep up with his deadlines. We can’t afford to have him laid off again.
With all my limbs intact, I fall asleep at night. Eventually.
In the morning, my right foot is gone. Hobbling around the house, I find my missing limb in the downstairs bathroom. It’s reflected at me in a puddle of water that escaped past the shower curtain. When my foot is back in place, I realize I can’t remember the last time my toenails were painted. Sitting on the toilet lid, I pull my knees up to my chest and rest my head there.
At lunch, my mother says through the screen, “They can’t expect you to work all these hours and not get a raise.”
It’s all I can do not to start listing the crush of day-to-day miracles I’m already performing. I can’t take on my boss, too.
“When I was a kid,” I say, “you complained they wouldn’t let women be supervisors. Eight people report to me, Mom. And they don’t make me come into the office.” That should be enough. I don’t say that though.
“My generation laid that groundwork for yours. You have to demand better, too. We each have to do our part. For your daughter’s sake.”
I purse my lips and don’t speak. I start putting away the remnants of last night’s groceries, whose destinations seem to have confused my husband. The garam masala isn’t there. A message from Jeremy’s homeroom teacher marked “Private” dips into my screen just long enough to stab a needle of pain into my right temple. I nudge a fruit snack wrapper out of sight so Mom won’t see it in case I have to move the tablet.
“Do you ever lose things, Mom?” I say. Hands? Feet? Your sense of yourself?
Mom’s coffee mug today is the one with pictures of Ava and Jeremy from two Christmases ago.
“No,” she says.
When I was in third grade, Mom told me Dad took a job out of town. She cried every day, and Gran stayed with us until Dad unexpectedly returned just before Christmas. I don’t know what really happened. I can only guess. If she lost parts of herself back then, I never saw which ones.
I open the window over the sink. Living air that doesn’t care what it contains washes over me. A gang of blue jays screams at a hawk perched in a tree.
“Did you find that ornament?” Mom says.
I shake my head. But when I looked this morning I found something else — Ava’s bracelet. While she was at school, I put it in her room, slightly hidden, so she could find it and think that looking had paid off.
From upstairs comes the chipper voice of my son’s teacher trying hard to sound like everything is normal. My work computer beeps with the sixth new email in as many minutes.
Overnight, my neck disappears. This is what the mirror in the master bathroom tells me. If my head goes, I don’t know how I’ll be able to see to locate it again.
“Did you sleep all right?” Cullen says and glances at me from where he sits on the edge of the bed. “You were making noises last night like you were having a bad dream. But you stopped. I didn’t think I should wake you.”
I want to tell him, but whatever this is can’t be fixed with duct tape. Instead, I say, “Can you get the kids ready for school?”
His mouth twists like he’s not sure what to say. “It’s Saturday, but I’ll take Ava to the store with me if you’d like. I forgot that spice yesterday.”
I nod and resist the urge to sob.
I’m looking for my neck in the rest of the house when Mom’s ringtone trills on my tablet. She never calls this early. Still wearing her bathrobe, Mom sits in her garden and sips from a shiny aluminum mug.
Mom says, “I think I know where that ornament is.”
“Can I call you back? I’m…” I struggle to find the most honest lie.
“Your color’s not good,” Mom says. “Lean in. I want to see you up close.”
I watch her, but she isn’t giving away anything. I bend toward the screen like I might find an extra hour of the day there. My image in the corner doesn’t have a neck.
“Look at me,” Mom says.
In my mother’s eyes, I find what’s missing. My neck is mine again. I reach up to touch the skin there, which isn’t as firm as it used to be, but at least it’s back where it belongs.
“For what?” Her head tilts to the side, and her expression softens. “You were talking about that ornament when you made Gran’s gingerbread at Christmas.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Did you check near the brown sugar?”
I flick open a cabinet door, and there it is. The ornament sits beside a half-full flour tin. It had taken me three tries with Gran’s recipe before the gingerbread came out right. I cried after the first batch, but not since then.
I pluck the ornament from the shelf. It’s just a tiny thing. Shiny silver, the ornament is etched with my maiden name, which is also my mother’s name, but not Gran’s. I always thought it was a strange gift for my wedding year, when I was supposed to be leaving behind one life and starting another.
I wipe shelf dust from the ornament. My reflection stares back at me. The ornament is small enough to fit in a pocket as long as I need it.
“Did you put this here, Mom?” I say.
She raises the mug to her mouth and glances at the dark liquid surface. Maybe she finds the reflections she needs there, or maybe she sees them when she looks at me.