The Mirror is a short story in a set of short stories I’m writing as a “First Draft Collection.” I’m writing them merely for the satisfying act of finishing something. There are a handful of short stories I’ve started over the years, and I am forcing myself to just complete them: beginning, middle, end. All of these stories need heavy rewrites and editing if I am ever to make them actually good. But the “First Draft Collection” is not about being good. It’s about being DONE.
She’s walking down a long hall. As she looks on either side of her, she can see each of her precious items-traditional paintings, ceramic vases, inherited furniture-displayed exactly as they should be seen. It makes sense to her, this order; it gives her validity, power as she walks down the hall. But that sense of assurance gradually fades as she gets nearer and nearer to a place she knows she must eventually reach. She’s been there many times before, but it still cannot dull the dread she feels each time she reaches the end of the hall.
The closer she gets to the door, the more she feels like a frightened but loyal dog nearing a master who will strike her the moment she is close enough to his waiting fist. She feels her muscles tense in agonized anticipation as she reaches the door. She dreads the sounds that come once she’s at the door-the pure ecstasy of moans, silk sheets ruffling against skin and bed, gentle knocks of the headboard against the wall. Her hand shakes violently as it comes closer to the handle that she knows she must open. And when the door finally opens, she is overcome by two distinct images.
She first sees a woman straddling a man, stretching as far outward and upward as her body can extend, her hands resting behind her on his outstretched legs. She cries out in pure release and drops almost immediately to rest her naked body on his chest. She laughs and convulses with pleasure before she slips off of him and onto the floor, walking towards a small table with a glass of water. Neither of them is aware of the wife, who is ever present at the door, watching her husband with this woman, taking each blow of their seemingly private affair like that poor, unfortunate dog that cannot seem to run from a beating.
Before the table where the woman drinks her water in long gulps, is a large mirror. It is at this moment she sees the full image of the woman. Her features are petite, almost elfin-like. She has strong, dark, round eyes. Her hair wisps down in long, wavy tresses against her back and collect in beautiful waves against her cheeks. To the wife she is perfect in every form. She is lethal.
The husband, unaware, does not see the exchange that takes place. Their eyes meet, wife and mistress, and instead of surprise or contrition or embarrassment at her nakedness before the wife on the part of the mistress, the wife is met with haughty eyes that dare her to speak, to reveal herself to the secret couple. To make matters worse, she smirks just slightly at the wife, asserting that nothing will be done. The mistress holds the power.
Her eyes never falter; they remain fixated on the horrified wife, and with that same haughty smile, she calls out to the husband, asking him if he wants more. The wife, never looking away from the mistress, hears with displeasure as her husband happily consents and beckons her to come back to bed. Eyes still locked with the wife, she dares again: Make yourself known or go away. Either way, your husband is mine.
The wife then knows the second image is coming. A flash of blinding white light washes over her like a torrential rain, engulfing her in both fear and white-hot rage, blurring her vision of the adulterous acts taking place inside the room. She cannot see where to go. She cannot move forward to challenge the secret couple. She cannot run away back down the long hall that brought her to this door. She can only writhe in agony and try to fight against the overwhelming pressure that is holding her still, pushing her down and making her powerless. She waits for the moment when her rage succumbs to her incapacitating fear. She cannot lose face. The mistress wins again.
She did not scream out as she woke in her bed, covered in sweat. Next to her, she looked at her husband peacefully stirring.
“Are you okay?” he asked languidly, eyes still closed in a sleepy stupor.
“Yes, don’t worry. Go back to sleep.”
She slipped out of bed to the table with a small glass of water. She tried to look for her reflection in the mirror before her. All she could see were those haughty eyes.
He is overcome with excitement. Today, his parents will finally meet the girlfriend he hopes to marry. There is no doubt his parents will approve: she comes from a wealthy family, her father has done business with his father on several occasions and both families want to further their business ties. In addition to the initial connection between their parents, the young couple also took to each other very naturally. It was instant attraction, so all worked out to everyone’s favor.
Now the final step was to take place. His girlfriend would meet his father and mother in person to complete the connection. Her parents approved of him quickly, and he didn’t doubt the same would happen today. His mother seemed just as excited for the meeting as he, happy that her son made such a good connection. He had many friends who hadn’t been so lucky in their arrangements. He didn’t have to worry about rebelling against his parent’s wishes or resenting them for forcing marriage on him; he wanted to marry his girlfriend, and his parents were only moments away from approving.
When the bell rang, he shot up from his chair. His parents smiled at him encouragingly. With nervous excitement, he walked down the short corridor from the sitting room to the front door to let her in. To him, she was the image of perfection. She wore a simple white dress with delicate-looking white kitten heels. Her hair fell in long, wavy tresses down her back and framed her face elegantly. Though she wore glasses, her eyes were still captivatingly dark and strong. At the moment, her eyes met his with warm affection tinged with a little apprehension.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“I think so,” she answered.
His mother was at the opposite end of the room when they entered. He could see his mother’s happy reflection in the mirror before her as she was picking up the tea tray. She looked up and saw the couple through the reflection in the mirror. It was then he noticed his mother’s demeanor change. His mother quivered in surprise when she saw his girlfriend and her eyes were full of incredulous fear. Did he also see a small sheen of sweat appear across her brow? She nearly spilled the tea tray on the ground on the way to the couches.
His mother didn’t make a sound; she was like a servant then, quietly waiting on them, not daring to disturb their conversation. His father greeted his girlfriend more warmly and quickly started to engage the couple in conversation. His mother remained motionless, not even daring to look up from the tea tray on the table. His girlfriend noticed the tension but politely tried to maintain conversation. She tried a few times to engage his mother in conversation, asking questions, smiling and waiting for responses, but to no avail.
It was as if his mother had completely left the room. Though she was physically present, he could see that his mother was miles away, reflecting on something quite unrelated to the present. He felt very nervous about his mother’s odd behavior-she was never so introverted-so he kept a close eye on her. When his mother’s eyes finally focused on their guest, a huge sense of fear overtook him. It was as if a heavy fog had been lifted from his mother’s eyes. It was pointedly hostile, no longer fearful and shocked. Like a rabid dog that has caught sight of someone it wants to attack.
“Who’s your mother?” she almost spit out at his girlfriend.
“Pardon?” his girlfriend asked politely, taken by surprise.
“Your mother. What’s her name?” she asked again.
Everything in the room went as still and silent as a herd that has just caught sight of a dangerous predator. His girlfriend looked terrifyingly confused. Why was his mother asking such an absurd question? Didn’t she already know the answer from talking with his father? With a glance at his father’s face, he could tell that his father had kept some information from his mother. Why would he do that?
“My mother’s name is Xie Jing,” his girlfriend politely replied.
His mother relaxed her hostility, but only slightly. Some other logic was quickly formulating behind her guarded eyes. He saw her reach some other conclusion, unknown to him, which perpetuated his mother’s unwarranted disdain for this girl she had just met.
“And does your mother have any sisters?”
“Yes. Just one. Xie Xin,” his girlfriend responded, not hiding her confusion this time.
His mother sat back proudly as if she had solved some great mystery. Not only was his mother still full of anger and hostility towards his girlfriend, but she also looked almost…triumphant. He didn’t understand what was happening as his mother grinned haughtily at his girlfriend as if this young woman was an enemy she had finally defeated. His father could not offer him any look of reassurance; he only seemed to cower shamefully before this hostile and angry mother’s change. His father barely looked at his girlfriend as she rose to leave. His mother, now transformed, only gave the young girl a curt nod and a sniff as she left the room.
“Is she going to be ok?” his girlfriend asked, concerned and confused at the turn of events.
“I’m not sure,” he answered, equally confused.
He walked back into the house, planning on confronting his mother for her unwarranted rudeness. She was already waiting for him at the entryway to the sitting room. It was his mother’s look of gentle concern that kept him from immediately rebuking her.
“I will not lose you to someone like her.”
That was the only remark his mother made before walking away, not even waiting to hear his response. He wasn’t quite sure, but he didn’t think his mother was talking about his girlfriend. He was certain about one thing, however: he would not get the approval he was expecting.
She didn’t know what to make of the meeting with her boyfriend’s parents. Everything had seemed to go so well for them when he came to meet her parents. She couldn’t understand what went wrong with her meeting. She obsessed over it for days. Certainly, her boyfriend’s parents came from a wealthier and more powerful background. Her parents had to earn their status through their work. The connections they made in business were the main avenues that helped them advance into higher social circles. However, even though they made as much money as the people they associated with, they were never fully considered on the same level because they weren’t born into it. They had to continually show their humility in being welcomed by this higher social group
She could hear the keys turning to unlock the front door. Her mother had finally returned. She hadn’t gotten to talk at length with her mother about what happened at her boyfriend’s house, mainly because it seemed as if her mother wanted to avoid that particular conversation altogether. Though her parents were quite open and accepting of her boyfriend when he met them (they had to be as he was considered above them), when he was not around, they seemed almost ashamed to talk about him and address him in the warm manner they did when they met him in person. This time she wouldn’t let her mother skirt the issue. She would make her mother talk by any means necessary.
Her mother came in with some shopping from the market. She helped her mother carry the fruits and vegetables to the kitchen. They handed the bags over to the house maid, and she quickly guided her mother to the sitting room before she could get away.
“I want to talk to you about my meeting with Liu Chen’s parents,” she said blankly.
“I already know what you will say,” her mother replied.
This took the young girl by surprise. She wasn’t expecting her mother to begin talking about the incident without some coercion first. She watched as her mother fidgeted slightly in her chair, trying to formulate the right words to say before speaking openly. It seemed to the young girl that her mother had a great weight on her mind. She was uncertain now whether her mother would give her the reassurance she craved. By the way her mother looked, this problem Liu Chen’s family and hers had stemmed far deeper than inequality of social status between the two families.
“When you were young,” her mother finally began, “your father was just beginning to succeed at his business. This was when we first started business with the Liu family. Our connection to them helped us succeed even more. We were very fortunate and thankful to that family.”
“Yes, I know,” the girl responded encouragingly.
“We had taken responsibility for your aunt, Xie Xin, since we finally had the financial backing. She was in need of care as she had not married. At the time, your grandparents were trying to marry your aunt off to the son of a family we were closely tied to, but your aunt rebelled. She felt that since mine and your father’s status had risen, hers should also because she was family. She wanted to marry above her level which she felt she had a right to. We decided to use our rise in social status to help her. It was a mistake for us to introduce her to Liu Chen’s parents or to any family we were connected to through business for that matter.”
“Why do you say that?” the young girl asked with trepidation.
“Your aunt at that time equaled you in beauty, but unfortunately she lacked your integrity.”
That was all her mother could say before she colored slightly with embarrassment and recommenced her fidgeting. The young girl slowly worked out the implication in her mother’s statement. What could Xie Xin have done to bring such humiliation to the family? It was then she realized how much she favored her aunt in looks, which is the only connection Liu Chen’s parents could make with her and her aunt. Then there was the obvious disdain Liu Chen’s mother had for her and the switch in attitude in the father from overly attentive and affectionate to cowering in embarrassment.
“Is that why Xie Xin had to move away?” the young girl asked with calm understanding.
“Was he the only reason why?” the young girl questioned further.
“Were there others?” the young girl dared to ask again.
“Yes. From the Liu family and a few others.”
The realization the young girl came to was almost instantaneous. It was the same one her boyfriend had come to only days before: she would not get the approval she was expecting. Only with this realization of the Liu family’s disapproval, she now also knew that she would always bear the shame of her aunt’s indiscretions wherever they reached.