Through Her Looking Glass Darkly - By Umberto Tosi

Orson Welles' "Lady from Shanghai" Mirror Maze Scene
My cursor blinks accusingly from the end of a pathetic little string of words, lost in the white-out of a freshly opened page – a tiny Inuit and his dog team sledding over the ice pack of my frozen inspiration. Time to take a walk, maybe down to the lake. Let the creative unconscious (that capricious weasel) to its job. Maybe I should get that pound of coffee we need, or change that burned-out track light in the hallway. But how can I take a break when I haven't even started? … Mmmm. What's in the refrigerator, and why am I staring into it? How did I get here? Indeed, that is the question.

Back at my desk amid its comfortable clutter, I swivel in my high-backed chair to see Oliver, my inamorata's fat orange cat, sprawled on a window sill facing our pair of leafy verdant mulberry trees. A deliriously bright summer afternoon – breezy and pungent from yesterday's thunderstorms – beckons me. Oliver stares through the screen – mouth watering, tail twitching at myriad, fussing birds feasting on the trees' early purple fruit. We all have dreams that have nothing to do with writing. 

Oliver Ferris likes to watch
Maybe I'll never write another book, which is what I said last year about this time, just before I wrote Ophelia Rising.

I apply fingers to the keys again, but they slide off and lie still as dead mice. My mind is a toothpick ferris wheel of awkward phrases and bad ideas. I sort computer folders, feigning productivity. Scrolling through a pack of old notes and story scraps, I see a file named “Valerie's Mirror,” which rings no bells – last accessed “Sat, June 2 2009 03:20:50.” I open it. There's my byline, but the rest remains unfamiliar. I read a little:

Valerie caught a good look at herself in Aunt Dinah's bathroom mirror. It was a fine mirror – large and true. Its beveled, oval glass was encircled in earthy walnut, with carved grapevines topped by a fat cupid laughing from a flowered cartouche. She bent against Dinah's serpentine marble sink and scanned her reflected visage like a general going over a battle map.

Mirror mirror on the wall, who's not the fairest of them all?” She made her case for the prosecution. “Splotchy cheeks, stringy hair, too much forehead, zits on parade! Loser! Sexy as a poached egg!” She dragged fingernails down her cheeks, trailing white furrows, like pulling off a Halloween mask. “Why would anyone want you?” She hissed close enough to fog the glass. No amount of makeup, cleverly applied as Dinah had taught her, would cover her self-loathing this morning.

The mirror sighed in that silent way that mirrors do. She looks as fair as they come to me, he thought, fine features and a high carriage, more than the mere blossom of youth, and with a certain je ne sais quoi. He thought a lot, this mirror, which comes of having too much time to one's self. He had always told the truth, but had never figured how to get it across well. This is why he had given up talking to these people long ago. They saw what they wanted to see – or at best what they were ready for. Mirrors, majestic or humble, had to be content with that. Mirror-Mirror thus found bouncing light from bath towels, shower curtains or even the occasional spider a lot more satisfying than reflecting people with all their conceits and neuroses.

Urrrrrrrg!” Valerie slapped her hands on the counter so hard it stung, and somehow felt good.

Are you okay in there, honey?” Dinah's throaty voice floated through the locked door.

I'll be out in a minute, Auntie. ... Thanks,” Valerie chirped through gritted teeth trying to sound cheery. She always called Dinah auntie, though their connection was oblique.

Don't take too long. You don't want to miss your flight.”

Not bad, I thought. It always surprises me to discover some archival piece of my own writing and actually like it. But who is Valerie, and what is her story? What will become of her? Who is Dinah? And what does the mirror have to say? I wasn't able to glean any answers that satisfied me in the few thousand words that followed. I remembered now – in fragmented images – not quite being able to make the story work, and then filing it away, like many other such drafts. Should I bring this up from the wine cellar now and open the bottle? Has it aged enough to be worth another try? And why pursue this fragment? I have so many other things I want to do. Always the same dilemmas.

My dear, narrative surrealist artist and cat-owner Eleanor Spiess-Ferris says she often sketches something on paper or canvas then asks where it wants to go. “I inquire of it,” she says. Her prolific output of fantastic work over the past forty years indicates that she knows whereof she speaks.
Eleanor Spiess-Ferris listens to her canvas, "River"

The technique works for fictional characters as well. I will have a talk with Valerie, Dinah and maybe the mirror. Face it. I can't write and be in my right mind at the same time. I need to become at least a little delusional with these imaginary people if I'm going to have any chance of making them real. Anyway, who ever said writing was a rational process?

Having three grown daughters, I can empathize with Valerie's coming-of-age angst, although she seems as distinct from them as they are from each other. I don't know, at this point, if Valerie escapes her self-loathing, or maybe I should say, her self-obsession, changes her circumstances, becomes the somebody she wants to be, get the boy she wants, or even gets out of that San Francisco Victorian bathroom before the story is over.

And what happens with the mirror is anyone's guess. I think Dinah found it while antique hunting at a flea market and had it restored. Something tells me it once belonged to Snow White's stepmother or Dorian Gray. Count Dracula may have once owned it, but told Igor to throw it away, because he couldn't stand not seeing himself in it any longer. Time for me to step through this looking glass, like Alice, see what Valerie sees and more, I hope.

And sure enough, it turns out that here on the other side of the glass, Valerie has a Facebook page! (Excuse me for going all Paul Auster on you. Let's just call it a writing experiment.)

I click onto Valerie's FB page and find out things I hadn't known about her. For example, checking the “about” info page, I read that she was born in Manhattan, Kansas, was adopted and has an identical twin somewhere. Also, she had a breakdown recently.

 Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas
Check it out. Maybe you will discover something as well, and offer more tidbits - as fanciful as you like - about Valerie, her twin, Dinah, Mr. Mirror or somebody in the shadows. Hazard a guess. Maybe you've heard some rumors. Maybe you have an opinion or a remembrance or something completely different to share. Don't be shy.

Sure. Go ahead and post, if you please. I will too. It's not real – in the conventional sense, anyway. It's an improv exercise in digital-what-the-hell. Valerie may not listen to us about everything. She is a teenager after all. But it might be entertaining.

In any event, it takes one's mind off of writer's block!

So, the story starts to be about self-imagery and mirroring. That much, I've learned. Looking over her FB Timeline, I see that Valerie has posted an intriguing collage about the magical use of mirrors by great artists, starting with Diego Velázquez's spellbinding trick perspectives in LasMeninas and the earlier, Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. I learn that Pablo Picasso painted 58 versions of Las Meninas in 1957, and that Salvadore Dali never finished his what's considered his greatest work: Dali From The Back Painting Gala From The Back Eternalized by Six Virtual Corneas Provisionally Reflected in Six Real Mirrors (1972).

And I'm thinking now of the climactic scene in Orson Welles' "The Lady From Shanghai" when Rita Hayworth and Welles' characters shoot it out with Everett Sloane's villain in the Magic Maze of Mirrors at the long-defunc
t Whitney's Playland at the Beach on Great Highway in the San Francisco I remember as a teenager.

Like these and other artists, Valerie seems obsessed with mirrors, being a budding artist herself, something else I discovered on her page. She doesn't seem to have a lot of friends for someone her age, but I see the list is growing. Maybe more will show up soon. Maybe I'll even wind up her story one day as well. In any case, this will have been worth the ride.


Susan Price said…
I enjoyed reading this so much, Umberto. Thank you.

Now stop skiving and get on with that story, so we can read the rest of it!

The mirror fascinates me. I think it needs to be grilled until it gives up its story.

I think, maybe, the writing process is rational - just not as we usually understand 'rational.'

Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Susan! I'll get right on it. :)
Kathleen Jones said…
Lovely Umberto! Now can you finish it please?
Mari Biella said…
I found myself nodding and smiling at this, Umberto, as I recently rediscovered one of my old manuscripts. I'd put it away some time ago, convinced that it was hopelessly flawed; now, re-reading it, I think it actually has potential. I think it really has aged enough to be worth another try.

I love the idea of the magic mirror refusing to speak - brilliant! I hope you manage to make something of it.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks to all, especially for your encouragement. I guess I'll have to finish that story now. LOL.
Lydia Bennet said…
what a fascinating post Umberto, you tease, now tell us the rest of it! the relationship between people and mirrors is deeply embedded even in ancient myth (narcissus) and it's interesting that both he and snow white's evil nemesis were obsessed with their own beauty when for most people the mirror is where they look for and find faults. A rich area for story building. Good luck with it!

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