Self-Portrait with Gold and Shadows
It is mine, but it does not act like it. It never ceases to shock and disappoint. It moves in ways I don’t intend. It expresses things I wish it would keep hidden. It is not right. It is not as it should be. It has never been obedient, never watched the calendar, never made an effort to improve itself. It ruined my teenage years. It has caused me more anxiety than anything, anyone else. It is still my chief preoccupation. It is my chief failing. Its greatest betrayal is yet to come.
I am here, again, to scrutinize it, in a room built for scrutinizing, for breaking down the self. It is a woman’s room. An old woman’s room. The room is laid out around a vanity. It is full of chintz and gold leaf. In the dim light, the one lamp turned down to half-strength, I scan the room. The vanity is gold. The vanity mirror is gold. The hair brush is gold. The powder boxes are gold. The couch is gold. The Madonna in the corner is gold. Three hand mirrors are in the drawer of the vanity; two of them are gold. There is a gold Capodimonte vase on the vanity. It shows a perfect, pink-cheeked woman dressed in gold, sitting in front of a gold mirror. The vase once held fake flowers; the flowers were gold.
The gold room is the room of a woman brought up in the 50s, a time when women were raised to scrutinize and scour themselves like dinner plates. The woman is dead. She has been dead for 15 years. I am in her room in my memory. It is a room that doesn’t exist anymore. It is a room in a house that was sold six months after she died and two months before we invaded Iraq. I always remember that time in this way, bookended by those two disasters.
The owner of the room was a woman brought up to believe that looks were earned. She was a woman brought up to believe that looks were a punishment. She was a woman who spent much of her life-annihilating herself in mirrors. She was a woman who weighed eighty pounds when she died, who left us with such sayings as “A minute on your lips, a lifetime on your hips.” She is the woman who raised me. She raised me like she was raised. I am gay. I took to the habit of self-scrutiny much better than other boys might.
I sit at the vanity next to the gold vase, and catalog, list, mark the defects. The wide, dark, almond-shaped eyes, heavy-lidded, underlined with sleepless blue. OK. Thin lips, unremarkable, austere. Not bad. Dark brown hair coiled in curls, a splash of remnant blondness, hidden gray. Fine. Prominent brow and cheekbones. Not the best. Prominent veins, prominent moles. Not ideal. Uneven beard, patchy around the chin. Skin that turns sallow in winter, brown in the sun, but always unreliable, always prone to eruptions, to redness, unevenness. Ugh. Crooked, broken nose, ruin of pictures, disrupter of symmetry. The worst. Small bones, coffered eyes, high forehead. Wrong.
It is a severe sort of face. It is a face in the back of a church, in the background of an El Greco painting. It is not made for light. Light ruins it. Light is its enemy. It is too long, too thin, too sharp for light. It is not pleasant to look at when illuminated. It is not the kind of thing you should analyze too closely. It is meant for shadow.
I turn off the light and leave it there in the shadows, in the gold room that doesn’t exist, in the custody of the woman who is dead. I will not carry it out with me. I will do my best to forget it is mine.
Chris Records is a nonprofit consultant and writer from Los Angeles, California. His short story collection “Care: Stories” is forthcoming from Inlandia Press. He is also the author of three unpublished novels. Literary agents and others can contact him via Twitter @clorecords001.