My feet stuck to the floorboards as I walked across the apartment. The summer night was sultry, but not in an exotic way. Instead of the air being thick with spice and jungle sounds, it clung to me like a damp hand pressed against the back of my neck. Any sound was drowned out by the dull roar of the fan spinning in my bedroom, trying to get the stagnant air flowing. It was the kind of heat where even a glass of cold water sweat onto the countertop. Sometimes I hated summer.
The hour was late, close to midnight. Everything was dark and silent in my apartment, and it was even quiet outside. I padded my way into the bathroom to brush my teeth, before I would finally get ready for bed.
As I stood in front of the mirror brushing my teeth, it seemed like the air got even thicker, even more humid. I blinked.
Fog surrounded me now, gray and swirling. For a brief moment I wondered if something in the apartment was on fire. But it didn’t smell of smoke and no alarms were going off. And when I looked in the mirror, my reflection was gone.
I must have fallen asleep at the sink. I didn’t think I had been that tired, but maybe I had been. When you were always exhausted, sometimes you didn’t realize how tired you actually were.
“This is not a dream.”
I jerked my head up to see that my reflection had been replaced by a figure wreathed in mist. Everything else in the bathroom remained the same, from the porcelain sink with the rust stain around the drain, to the reflection of the lights hanging above the mirror.
Well it certainly wasn’t real.
“And why not?”
The words startled me. “You can read my thoughts?”
“You said that out loud.”
I squinted at the reflection. “Well, this isn’t real. And I haven’t taken any drugs so it must be a dream.”
The figure tilted its head. “Where is your belief?”
I scoffed. “Belief in what?”
“Anything. You used to have so much faith. So much belief. You used to believe that even impossible things could happen.”
I shook my head. “Yeah,” I said. “I was a child. Stupid. I believed lots of things because I didn’t know better.”
I realized I was gripping the edge of the bathroom counter with both hands.
The figure didn’t respond, but when I looked back at it, it seemed closer. I couldn’t see it clearly, it’s features obscured by the thick mist. It seemed to me, though, to have an outline similar to a woman wearing a hooded cloak.
“Who are you?” I asked, at last.
“A stranger. You.”
I laughed. So it was going to play up the whole mysterious figure, cryptic answer deal.
Then the figure laid a hand on my face. Gentle, cupping my chin. I flung myself backwards, away from the touch. The feel of fingers against my face, so sudden and tangible, was impossible. I stared wide-eyed at the figure, who had already retreated.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
I felt like a wild animal, a deer, startled, poised for flight. I was awake now. How could I be anything but awake?
The figure stretched out her hand again. “Will you come with me?”
“Come with you where? I don’t want to get sucked into some twisted Alice in Wonderland kind of nonsense,” I said.
“Nothing like that. Come, sit with me. Tell me your story if you want.”
I did not want to say anything. But the reckless, insatiably curious part of me seized the figure’s hand.
The bathroom melted away, like a smudge being wiped from glass. The mirror was now a doorway. Through the doorway was a clear night, trees standing like silent, gentle sentries around a small crackling campfire. Two log benches. The stars winking in a navy sky.
Impossible. I stepped through. The air was chilly, but not unpleasant. Crickets sang in the grass that brushed the bottom of my feet. A wind rippled through the tops of the trees.
“Sit with me,” the figure said. I still could not see her clearly. She was a shadow in the darkness now, as was I. The light of the fire did not illuminate her features well enough to see.
We sat on the logs.
“Tell me your story,” the woman said. “If you want. I will listen.”
What was my story? The story of me, right now? No one wanted to listen to that. I didn’t even want to.
So instead, we stared into the dancing flames of the fire and listened to the wind in the treetops and the crickets in the grass.
“This is the first time in a long time I’ve felt...anything,” I said. “I’m not sure I’ve inhabited my own life for a long time.”
“I won’t ask what happened. The overwhelming words you want to say,” the woman said, her voice quiet, just barely loud enough to hear over the crackle and pop of the fire. “But the night is long. Feel free to tell me and I will listen.”
“You are a stranger. Why would I tell you anything?”
“Because I am a stranger. What do you have to lose from me?”
“What do you have to gain?”
“To know myself better.”
I hadn’t expected such a quick, strange answer. “Yourself? How…?” I couldn’t even form a sensible response.
“Come,” she said, standing and holding out her hand.
Reluctantly, I took it again and let her pull me to my feet. There was a full-length mirror before us again, reflecting back the scene. Trees, fire, starry sky, our silhouettes. She pushed it to the side, and once again there was a doorway. She pulled me through.
We were in a city, standing under a streetlight at a bus stop. We sat on the concrete bench inside the shelter of grimy plexiglass. Traffic hummed on the street in front of us, an intersection overshadowed by empty-eyed apartment buildings. Some windows glowed yellow, many were dark and curtained. Eye-wateringly bright signs displayed ads for brands. The night smelled of car exhaust. The stars were too faint and far away to be seen.
“Why are we here?”
I could see that the woman wore a hoodie and jeans now. So, not a cloaked woman, but the hood still covered her head so I couldn’t see her clearly.
“This feels like something you want to say but don’t,” she said.
I crossed my arms, ducking my head against the glare of the streetlight. “Yeah, it feels like loneliness.” The words kind of slipped out with meaning to.
The blur of traffic, the red taillights of cars going by, the incessant noise, sitting on a concrete bench waiting for a bus to come.
“City noise is loneliness,” the woman said.
“I’m so tired of being alone,” I said. “I don’t want to be anymore.”
The woman pressed a hand against my breastbone. “An ache, right here,” she said.
I thought I might cry, so I just turned my head away. She nodded. “We are similar, you and I. I pretend not to be, for no reason. Everyone is similar.”
“Come,” she said, taking my hand again. The dirty glass of the left side of the bus shelter suddenly reflected back our image clearly. She pushed it aside again, opening a new doorway.
I stumbled into open air. I reeled back from the edge of a narrow balcony. I realized a beat later that there was a railing, but for a second I thought I might just topple over the end. Below was a city street, cars racing past in a blur of light. Buildings, lit up with neon lights, stretched in all directions as far as I could see. I turned in a circle, but there was only me up here. Behind me was only the dark doorway. I couldn’t see past it.
“Hello?” I called out, but there was no reply. “Hey! Where did you go?”
She was gone. I was abandoned here on this rooftop in this unknown city.
The wind up here was strong, and I hunched over a little to protect myself from it. I paced the length of the balcony. Finally I just gripped the railing, bracing myself against it. There was no one but me up here.
A sudden wild impulse seized me.
“I’m afraid!” I screamed into the wind.
Of what? What was I afraid of? It wasn’t of going back through the dark doorway. It wasn’t of being up high above the city. It wasn’t of being alone on this balcony.
“What if my life means nothing?” I screamed. “What if I’m just wasting my youth? What if I never accomplish anything? What if there is only more of emptiness? What if there is no hope? What if all that is ahead is pain and we get to the end and there is only nothing?”
Was it three a.m. back home? These were all the thoughts that swirled around my brain when I couldn’t sleep and there was only the ceiling above to listen.
I turned my back on the city and walked back through the door.
We were standing outside my childhood home, the woman beside me once again. A brilliant sunset brushed the red brick walls with orange light as the sky turned deep purple above us. And there I was again, a younger me, gazing out the window at the trees growing in our front lawn. The windows of the house glowed with warm light and I could see silhouettes moving behind the gauzy curtains. My family moving about inside the house.
I found that I had tears in my eyes. Longing crashed over me in a wave. I drew close to the window, pressing my fingertips against the glass. I missed this. I hadn’t realized it until now. Home. The sound of my parents cleaning up after dinner in the kitchen, my siblings joking with each other in the living room. I missed the feeling of looking out at the sky, with my chin resting on my hand, dreaming of everything that life could be.
I knew it hadn’t been perfect, even though memory painted everything rosy. But despite all the flaws of my youth, the limits pushed, the tears and pains of growing up, home had always been a safe place. It was a far cry from what life felt like now--city life, on my own, an adult. It felt like standing alone in the rain at midnight, reaching for pale lamplight like it was the shreds of the sun.
“You said you were foolish as a child. That you believed so much because you didn’t know better.”
“I didn’t know how much in the world was broken.”
“And how much of you?”
I brushed my fingers against the brick of the house, and turned away. This time I pushed aside the glass of the mirror.
In its place an unfamiliar setting unfolded like a watercolor painting around me. We stood in a field of tall grass swaying in a breeze, on the edge of a cliff facing the sea. The waves crashed on the rocks, a spray of bubbly foam which swirled in sparkling navy water. The air smelled of salt and flowers, of faraway places across seas. Everything was silvered by moonlight.
“What is this?” I asked.
The woman who was me sat on the edge of the cliff, dangling her feet over the edge. She patted the grass next to her.
“Come closer,” she said. “Sit with me.”
I did as she said, settling down next to her and swinging my feet over the edge. The air rushed around my feet, fresh and cold.
The woman lowered the hood of her hoodie. When I looked over at her, she was me, my reflection.
“Hello stranger,” she said. “Will you tell me your story?”