by Tim Britto
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
When I got back to my five-story apartment building, I saw the one ray of sunshine in my otherwise uninspiring existence. Her name was Lauren. She was carrying some grocery bags up the stairs to her apartment, which was right above mine. Seeing her carrying things upstairs always reminded me of when we met, so this is a good time for a little more background.
Lauren had moved in on a ridiculously hot day in late September the previous year. She was lugging a huge bag up a flight of stairs as I was about to open my first-floor apartment door. I barely noticed the bag at first. All I saw were her legs. They were great legs, but that wasn’t even what got me staring. All I could focus on was the fact that she was moving into a new apartment while wearing a skirt. And heels too, I eventually noticed. She turned back to look at me. Her face and shirt were drenched in sweat and her forehead wrinkled in painful concentration. But she still smiled.
“Sorry, I’ll be out of your way in a minute,” she said between deep breaths, assuming I was waiting to go up the stairs.
I looked at her for a moment, unable to form a coherent thought, let alone speak. I noticed her long, dark hair plastered to her face. Then her full lips, which seemed made to smile. And then the ten to twelve bracelets on her arms. I figured she was probably a little younger than my thirty-one years. Finally, she started moving again, lugging that bag up one step at a time. I finally snapped out of my paralysis.
“Hey, let me give you a hand with that,” I said. I moved up the stairs and took the bag by the handle.
“Oh no, I don’t want to bother you,” she said weakly but quickly removed her hand and stood back to give me room to maneuver.
“Not a problem, it’s all part of the experience here. They didn’t tell me you were moving in, or I’d have had the welcoming committee here with me.”
“Well, there’s still plenty of stuff down in my car. If you don’t mind, that is,” she said shyly. I knew right away that I would have carried a bull elephant juggling baby rhinos up those steps for her.
I got her stuff into her place in less than an hour. By that time, we were both drenched in sweat and breathing heavily. I had stopped trying to suck in my slight gut after the first five minutes. I could only hope she liked guys with goatees and thinning hair.
“Thanks so much, Lou. I’m not sure I would’ve been able to handle some of those boxes on my own.”
“Not a problem. I’m just glad you don’t have a lot of furniture.”
“Oh, yeah, well most of the furniture in my last place belonged to my roommate. I’m thinking of picking up some things from IKEA over the next few days.”
“Sounds like a plan. If you need help putting things together or anything, let me know.”
“Oh, thank you so much. You’re so nice, you know that?”
That was it. That was my chance to ask her out. It could have been a little welcome to the neighborhood dinner or whatever. But I chickened out, as I usually did. “Well, we’re neighbors,” I mumbled instead and then took my leave of her. Since then we always stopped and shared at least a few words when our paths crossed.
But I barely spoke to her that first day my mirror showed me more than just a reflection. She smiled at me and tried to wave with her grocery bags in her hands. I nodded and smiled but I can’t remember if we said anything. Once my door was closed and locked, I felt a little safer. Until I remembered the mirror in my bathroom.
I walked into the bathroom with the lights off, took a deep breath, and then hit the light switch. The reflection was just me, a little crazier-looking around the eyes, but just me. I threw a towel over it all the same.
* * *
It took me a while to get to sleep that night. I kept seeing burned girls and furiously fighting couples coming towards me whenever I closed my eyes. I paced my apartment until my feet hurt. I stared at the TV for so long my eyes burned but I had no idea what I was watching. I finally fell asleep when my exhaustion outweighed my fear.
I woke up the next day close to noon and decided I needed to see a doctor. The neurologist I saw wanted to know why I felt the need to make an urgent appointment. I was vague and mumbled about seeing things. He nodded and asked me about my drug use history. Then he ran his tests. The results would take some time to come back. My eye doctor told me everything was fine with my eyes but I really should change my contacts more often and recommended a new cleaning solution.
It was close to six by the time I was done with my appointments. I realized I was ravenous; I hadn’t eaten in over twenty-four hours.
I went to a small bar close to my place; it serves excellent food. There were only a few people there at that time, and Sportscenter dominated the four TV’s behind the bar. As I tore into my cheeseburger, the bartender spoke.
“You OK, Lou? You seem a little... frazzled.”
I considered telling him the truth. But I frequented the bar fairly often and didn’t want to become known as ‘the crazy guy’. So, I shrugged.
“Just didn’t sleep that great, Larry. This show I saw really got me thinking.”
“Oh yeah? Which show?” he asked as he leaned on the bar between us. He was a thick man, probably nearing fifty. He was always up for a good story.
“Umm... I don’t remember the title. I was flipping around. It may of been on sci-fi.”
“Oh, I usually stick to comedies and sports. What was it about?”
“Well, this taxi driver, probably why I stopped to watch it, can see people’s... true nature, I guess, in his rearview mirror.”
“Sounds kind of neat.”
“You think so? It kind of freaked me out.”
“Why? I know I didn’t watch the show so maybe things went poorly, but the part about being able to see people’s secrets,” Larry turned back and glanced at the mirror behind the liquor bottles and then turned back to me. “Could be fun.”
I stared at him dumbfounded. He smiled uncertainly at my expression and then walked down the bar to help another customer.
He was right. What had happened that threatened or intimidated me? I’d been shown — I assumed, although couldn’t be sure — some customers’ deep secrets and fears. The beautiful girl saw herself as ugly and was afraid others would see the same thing. She overcompensated by dressing provocatively. The couple obviously felt trapped in their relationship and hated each other for it. It was Psych 101 made so easy even I could understand it.
I started getting excited as I realized I would be able to see the side of people they hid from the world. I would know what they feared, how they saw themselves, and how they assumed the world saw them. For a guy who spent most of his time alone, that was very enticing. I couldn’t wait to go back to work and had trouble sleeping again that night. This time it was because of excitement rather than fear.
* * *
I showed up for work at four, barely looked over the car other than to make sure it was the same one I’d used during my last shift, signed it out, and was on the road by 4:15. But then, as I merged with traffic, I had a moment of panic. What if the magic, or whatever it was, vanished? What if it was a one-time thing and I’d blown my chance because I was afraid?
I took several deep breaths and looked frantically for a fare. I found one after only a few blocks and pulled over. He was a college-age kid going to the public library. He had the beginnings of his first goatee, a t-shirt with some band I’d never heard of on it, and hair that covered his eyes.
I wanted to look in the mirror, but I waited. I waited partly because of the fear of being let down if the magic was gone. But also because I’d learned my lesson and knew it was a bad idea to look into the mirror while driving. I held off until we were stopped at a red light. And then I looked.
The magic was still there. I saw the same kid standing amid thousands of people. He was talking to people, dancing, screaming, but no one so much as glanced at him. He was surrounded by people but all alone. It wasn’t a rare feeling in this city, but I felt bad for him.
I needed only a quick honk to be told the light was green; I tore my eyes away from the mirror. We were ten blocks from the library when I felt I should say something.
“This is some city, huh?” I said, feeling lame.
“Wha? Yeah sure,” he said after giving me a glance.
“Yeah it is. I mean where else can you be surrounded by eight million people and yet still feel alone at times, right?”
Now he looked interested. He leaned forward a little and nodded his head. “That’s true.”
“I know when I first lived here I felt like I was gonna go crazy. I just wanted to do something to get people to notice me. I was gonna start hugging people at random until they responded to me or I was arrested.”
He laughed a little. “I bet you’d get arrested first.”
“It’s sad, isn’t it?” he asked quietly. “I mean, I don’t expect everyone to be my BFF, but a hello here and there wouldn’t kill ’em.”
“You’re preaching to the choir, buddy. I guess people are caught up with their own lives, though. It’s hard for them to turn their eyes outward.”
“Yeah, I understand that, but—”
“But you wish they would anyway? I hear you. Don’t give up on them, though, sometimes people can surprise you. And there’s always the hugging option. Okay, we’re at the library.”
He seemed surprised to be at his destination already. He handed over a twenty on a twelve-dollar fare, refused any change, and got out.
“Thanks, man, I... thanks.” And then he closed the door.
I was still smiling when my next fare opened the door.
* * *
For almost a month I enjoyed this strange gift. I even picked up nine extra shifts so I could see more. I didn’t say something helpful or pseudo-intellectual to everyone, or even most of them, but I helped where I could.
There was an older man who appeared perfectly normal — whatever that means — when he got into the cab, but his reflection walked in complete darkness. When I asked him what his plans were for that day, he said something about catching the Mick play. When I informed him that Mickey Mantle had passed away more than twenty years ago, he appeared confused.
I convinced him to call someone he knew using my cellphone. Thankfully, he remembered his son’s phone number. His son showed up, informed me that his father had Alzheimer’s, and took him home with a heartfelt thank-you thrown at me.
On a different day, a woman in her early forties burst into my cab and began shouting in a language I didn’t recognize. She appeared frightened, but I had no idea where she wanted to go. When I looked at my mirror, I saw her standing with her back to a baby’s crib and her hands clenched into fists in warning to anyone who would wish the crib’s occupant harm.
I drove to the closest hospital, but she shook her head. When I pulled up in front of the next closest she smiled widely, dropped a fifty-dollar bill through the open divider, and jumped out of the cab before we came to a complete stop.
Unfortunately, not everyone I saw had a reflection I could help. Some people hide fearsome secrets.
A couple in their mid-forties who didn’t miss many meals, business associates I would guess, appeared as statues in my mirror. She was made of some cold metal; bronze, I think. He appeared to be made of a dark wood. They didn’t talk after giving their destination. I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when they got out of my cab. They were bad tippers, too.
One skinny guy in his mid-twenties sat quietly in my cab while his reflection sprouted seven or eight heads. They all seemed to be talking, although I don’t think it was to each other. He was well dressed and appeared calm. But his eyes never seemed to stop moving and were opened a little wider than most people would find comfortable.
One of the most disturbing images I saw was of an old, wrinkled woman with a scowl plastered to her face who was eating people in her reflection. They all bore a striking resemblance to her so I assumed they were her kids. They would plead and beg, but she chomped down on them, chewed thoroughly for a few moments, and then spat them back out in much quieter lumps that only vaguely resembled human beings.
* * *
But you know, the thing I like most about this city is the variety. I love spending one cab ride discussing the purity of the designated hitter with a guy on his way to some sports bar moments before discussing the purity of my soul with a nun on her way to an evening mass. I love hearing a couple talk about their recent trip to Europe and then have the very next fare eager to discuss how there’s no reason to leave the country for a great vacation.
I’m glad to say that some of those customers simply didn’t need my assistance. There were three teen girls who shared my cab. They spoke in low voices the whole ride, laughing delightedly from time to time. In the reflection, they walked through a sea of pollution and left things pristine in their wake.
On two separate occasions, the same guy got into my cab. It’s rare, but it happens. He was in his mid-thirties and needed a shave and some sleep. He was wearing clean, though ill-fitting clothes both times. In my mirror, he fought a dark blob I knew represented disease. And he was winning.
Copyright © 2018 by Tim Britto