Odd Things About Smiling

I am in my bathroom at home, the one I share with my brother. Before me, spread out like an altar, lies my sink and counter space. The surfaces are white, and I think Formica, the type, which makes it so you can never quite clean off all the little beard hairs, which drives your latent OCD nuts. Beneath the sink and beside the drawers is a small cabinet, one used to keeping things we no longer use. In it, lie scattered, impractical cups from my childhood. They have holes on the side and the bottom and a spout, and they all have faces.

I am in the bath, and I am six years old. I do my best to palpate the shampoo into my improbable hair, and my father brings the cup to the side of the tub. As soon as he fills the yellow cup with slightly-too-hot water, it descends in streams through the bottom holes of the cup. They continue to descend, in rivulets down my face, carrying away the lovingly applied shampoo from my head and hair. The commercials tell you that it is ok to laugh and giggle and open your eyes wide to the miracle of cranial laundering. But they lie. Even when the “safe” shampoo gets in your eyes, it stings. My father brings the green cup to the side of the tub, the one with a hole where his mouth should be. As soon as it fills with water, the clear liquid flows in a constant, giving stream. My eyes sting and tear, but I persist in smiling nonetheless, marveling at its pure gift.

Above the sink and counters and beside my memories is the mirror. Its galvanized surface is pockmarked with age, like an unlucky teenager, but it still reflects well enough, especially when my brother and I remember to wash the enormous thing before Shabbat. To me, in this house, the bathroom mirror is not merely a tool for hygiene and general upkeep; it is a co-conspirator, an ally, a confidante. All throughout my life, it has silently supported all my poor decisions. It has been nine years since my flirtation with hair gel in the seventh grade, but the mirror has never brought up my attempt to wish my unimaginable hair into an attractive force of follicle might. I would be cool when I left the room, and the mirror let me believe most things.

I think that when we were younger, more things had faces. Girls and boys are swaddled in blankets, cocooned by their stuffed animals and dolls. I had a collection of many, many action figures. We could also see faces - partners in conversation, playmates - amidst most things we found surrounding us. Trees were always old men or young dryads; the gnarls of branches or smoothness of bark or roughness of bark could so easily be reorganized by any number of senses. (Are all children synaesthetic and then later forget?) Seeing faces everywhere, it’s no wonder kids are always smiling or crying or both.

Mirrors are a stage, a nexus with the other world. I, like most young men eagerly exploring my power before myself, frantically wailed about to songs I loved, made muscles, critiqued my self. I performed before myself, bereft of childhood’s ubiquitous audience. Often, I would simply stand and smile, my eyes shifting like sand in the hourglass. Sometimes, they would join in, but at other times my face felt like dusk, slowly fading, painfully beautiful. Tentative at best. Sometimes, I have been hit by the strange urge to have a cold sore at all times, to be forced to smile so it hurts a little. I rejoiced before myself in my childhood home, and the mirror tried to give me my face as a gift. I smiled, but I had nowhere to put it.

~jss, 1/30/08

(ps: see this column in its natural habitat at the commentariat, spec's new opinion blog)
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