The first time I saw her she was 5-and-a-bit, exactly the same age as I was. We’d just moved out of the apartment on Mountain Street and into our new home on Heine Avenue. I didn’t pay much attention to her at first. She was just there. It wasn’t until the trouble years started that I began to take more notice of her.
The trouble years started when I was about thirteen. I was always a volatile child, at least as far as I remember or what I was told. But once I turned thirteen it got much worse. My parents laughed about it in later years, although the laughter always seemed to be tinged with caution. They never knew when I would fly into a rage, or what would set me off.
I don’t remember what made me go to her that first time, but I remember standing in front of her, talking to her about whatever (seemed) injustice I’d just been dealt. She had stories too. Her mother was demanding (so was mine!), she had few friends (me too), her father didn’t understand why she loved to read so much (same with me).
I’d look past her, though her doorway, into her house and think how much more calm and quiet it seemed. She said the same about mine.
Maybe her mother was not as demanding as mine was. Maybe we could change places, just for a while, just to get away from the anger (our own and the anger that was directed at us). Would anyone know? Would anyone care?
The first time we exchanged places it was like stepping into another world, at least for me. I don’t know what it was like for her. I saw her mother, who looked like my mother, in a different way than I’d ever seen my mother. Maybe it was because her mother was a stranger to me and strangers don’t yell at other people’s daughters.
The house felt brighter, more dimensional, happy, carefree, loving, kind.
That first time, we didn’t stay long in each other’s houses. We looked around, we talked to each other’s mother and young brother then returned to our own homes, refreshed, calmer than before the exchange.
Through the following years we did the exchange/switch scores of times, each time staying longer and longer in each other’s world even if we hadn’t just had a fight with our mothers.
Eventually, gradually, we no longer needed to switch. The fights with our mothers slowed down, our brothers quit annoying us so much. We got jobs, went to college, moved out of the house on Heine Avenue, and moved away from our hometown.
We forgot about each other. We forgot about our trips into each other’s lives. We became adults, married and had children.
One day, maybe 30 years after that first exchange, I was back visiting my childhood home. Something made me remember her (perhaps my own teenage daughter’s presence) and I started thinking about the switches.
Then I told my daughter about my time as a teenager, growing up in the house on Heine Avenue. I told her of the fierce arguments I had with my mother. I told her about the girl in the mirror. I explained how we switched places: the girl and I placing our foreheads together, then our fingertips, then pushing through to the other side.
Had we ever switched back that last time, whenever that last time was? Was I living the wrong life? Was she living the life I should have lived?
I decided to visit her again, to see if she could remember if we ever switched back that last time, if she remembered that last time. I walked to where I always met her…
She was not where I last saw her. I asked my mother where she went. What had she done with her? My mother heard me say, “Mom, what happened to the big mirror in your room? Did it break? Did you get rid of it?”
My mom replied that she’d only moved the mirror to the back of her bedroom door. She seemed to sense panic in my voice, but didn’t ask why.
“Thank God,” I thought, as I went to the bedroom, “she is still safe. I can still see her.”
We still looked alike and her house still looked more real than my own childhood home. She didn’t remember if we’d changed back, and asked if it really mattered. Weren’t we both happy right now?
She was right, I was happy. I had a husband and two children I loved very much. My daughter and I were much closer than my mom and I had been, and while my son had inherited my volatility, he was growing out of that (very long) stage.
Despite being a grown woman, each visit to my mother’s house after that trip included a visit to her bedroom mirror to remember the child, the teenager, the adult who looked just like me but was somehow a better version of me, who lived in a better place than I did.
We never considered changing places again, but I always still wondered what life in that other world would have been like and if it was really my life in there.
After my mother died, I assumed her mother died too; but did she die like my mother did, slowly forgetting words, places, people, how to walk, how to swallow? I hoped for both their sakes they were spared that nightmare.
Six months after my mother’s death I visited the mirror again while gathering memorabilia from my childhood home, but could not look directly at it, could not say goodbye to my friend from fifty-something years ago. I noticed she was absent too.
On the way back to Bethesda, hauling a U-Haul loaded with furniture, boxes of photos and childhood memories, I felt a pang of regret in my gut that I’d not taken the mirror with me. We surely could have found room for it in our house and it would have been safe. It would have been comforting to have her with me all the time. (You might be thinking that she’s in every mirror, but there you would be wrong. She is only in that one mirror. I have never seen her in any other.)
More recently I visited my childhood home for the last time. It was empty, the estate sale agents had done their job well. It was void of everything I knew from my childhood and teen years, from my visits as an adult. It was missing the people I loved, the furniture I sat in, the art on the walls. I walked around, taking pictures for a possible blog post. I went into every room, opened each closet, and peeked into drawers and cabinets. I expected to feel sadness, but instead just felt emptiness.
On the way home, this time on an airplane, I realized that when I was in that empty house, in my mother’s empty bedroom, I forgot to see if the mirror was still there on the back of the door or if the estate sale agents had sold it to someone wanting a sturdy mirror. Either way, someday someone else will look in that mirror. Will they see the shadow of a lonely teenage girl, angry at her mother about this or that injustice? She’s still there, I know it. I just wonder if it is me or her.