BY LAUREN SPINABELLI
You start with water. The stream ripples your skin with its current, warps your eyes, leaves you colorless. Water leaves you colorless. Motionless water is better, you discover. A puddle, a lake, a shallow bowl. You obsess over your reflection—the curve of your jaw, the speckles on your cheeks you never knew existed. You sneak glances at yourself in the black pits of someone else’s eyes, the tiny round distortion, the tiny colorless you. These are your first mirrors—the water like a cup of liquid glass, the spheres that sit in your lover’s skull like two black moons.
The water soaks into the clay bowl, evaporates from the shell, rots through the hollowed tree bark. Eyes close for seconds, for hours, sometimes for good. You become hungry for yourself. You crave your reflection. You search for a better ways to see yourself. The trick is, you want to carry yourself around in your pocket. You want to hang yourself from your own neck, so you can stifle any curiosity instantly. What does your mouth look like under your tongue? How does your face twist and pinch and swell when you cry?
You find it in the stones, the earth. You find yourself in the polished reflection of volcanic rock, the molten lava. The liquid fire that hardens and cools silver-black so you can see yourself in it. You polish the rock until your knuckles bleed, until they crack dry and bleed again. You scrub until your nails are fragmented shards, your wrist a pulsing ache at the end of your arm. You shine and shine and scrub and polish until you can see yourself and carry yourself and tie a string around yourself and loop yourself from your own neck. You examine the tiny cracks of yourself—the teeth that grow wild and crooked like grass, the slices of wet pink under the white orbs of your eyes, the little fibers budding from your twin nostrils. Your complexity is fascinating and disgusting all at once.
The polished stones turn to bronze, then silvered glass. With each inventive tweak, you see yourself more clearly. The hue of your irises—once distorted—is accurate in the silvered glass. The colors grow precise. The rust on your lips, the plum crescent moons under your eyes, the spider webs of blue-green that crawl across your eyelids. With color comes your consciousness, your desire to paint yourself with different shades—turn your rust into rose.
So you stand in front of the bathroom mirror, your sister’s Maybelline lipstick in Ravishing Rose #39 clenched in your hand. You are ten years old. You are holding a wand of sticky color, concentrated pink. You are holding an ancestor of pulverized gemstones, of shiny fish scales, of ocher, of beeswax, of cherry juice and deer tallow. Generations of women have stood where you stand, in front of the bathroom mirror armed with something pink and slick. But Maybelline will insist that this is somehow new, because it comes in a silver tube and smells like perfumed paste.
As you wipe the steam from the mirror, your towel slips from under your arms and you let it fall into a pile on the tile floor. The gap between your breasts is caught in the fogless patch of mirror. You grip the silver tube; twist the bottom so the color emerges like a sword from a sheath. You start with your lips, swiping across them quickly, without precision. You overestimated the width of your mouth; make a line of lipstick past your lips and onto your cheek. You ignore the knock at the door, your sister’s hurried fist. You make the line even on the opposite cheek. You swipe a line down your nose, thin and crooked. You know it’s strange and out of place, but you’re surprised at how much you like it. Like the time your mother sugared your strawberries with salt by accident. You slice some pink down the gap between your breasts, from your neck to your bellybutton. You admire the reflection, the steam from the mirror beginning to peel away, revealing you more clearly. More knocking, followed by your name. You paint two x’s on your cheeks, pressing too hard on the tube, dulling the pink sword. The second x is scattered with thick chunks of lipstick. Your bathroom door swings open, the doorknob checking you in the hip. Your sister snatches the sword from your hand; you pull the towel up off the tile and press it against yourself, but it’s too late. Freak, she mutters before slamming the door shut again. You try to wipe away the pink with your fingers, but it sticks and smears. You scrub and scratch at it until your skin is raw, a blotchy red stain trailing down between your nonexistent breasts.
You’re thirteen and your sister is fifteen. You brush your teeth side by side, the bathroom mirror reflecting your differences. Your sister wears her brown hair in a high bun, which flops from side to side with each stroke of her toothbrush. Your hair hangs wet and stringy, brushing your collarbone. The toothpaste foams out of your mouth and dribbles white down your chin. Your sister never seems to have this problem. You’re particularly cognizant of these differences tonight. You spit into the sink, cupping water into your hands from the running faucet, slurping it up and swishing it around in your mouth. You spit again. Your toothpaste echoes origins from crushed up bone, from salt, from chalk, from cinnamon. Your sister swishes spearmint mouthwash, her irises match the green liquid. Yours look like mud.
The boy across the street called me your name by accident, you say.
Your sister’s face crinkles into a frown. She spits.
That’s stupid. We look nothing alike.
I know, you say, our hair isn’t even the same color.
Or our eyes, she adds.
You’re talking to one another through the mirror, your eyes meeting the reflection of her eyes.
Just because we’re both girls…
And our parents gave us names with the same letter…she rolls her eyes.
Doesn’t mean we’re the same person.
You’re both examining one another in the mirror, scouring for differences. In truth, you do look alike. Your noses, the high forehead, the cupid’s bow of your lips. Your sister usually wears makeup, but tonight there are just gray smudges at the corners of her eyes where she forgot to wipe off her day-old eyeliner.
Plus, I’m two years older than you.
She says this as she adjusts the knot at the top of her head, then flicks the faucet back on.
Yeah, and you’re taller.
And you’re girly and I’m a tomboy.
She pumps clear pink face wash into her hands, the gel speckled with tiny beads. She leans over the sink and washes her face. You search the counter for something to do, an excuse to stay in the bathroom in front of the mirror with your big sister. The sink is scattered with artifacts of your collective girlhood: scrunchies twisted with strands of hair, a comb with three teeth missing, a tube of shimmery lipgloss that smells like bubblegum but tastes like rubber, tubes of eyeliner, mascara, lipstick, an open compact of blush. Six bobby pins, two mismatched earrings, a single tampon still in its wrapper. An empty bottle of hairspray, the pink gel face wash that smells like grapefruit, the toothbrushes nestled next to one another in a plastic cup.
Your sister finished washing her face and is patting her skin dry with a towel. You want to say something cool, something that will make her stay and talk to you, maybe teach you how to apply eyeliner or mascara without getting it in your eyes.
Like, look at all your girly shit. Doesn’t he know you wear so much makeup and I don't?
You know this was the wrong thing. You watch your sister’s reaction through the mirror, her knitted eyebrows. You know she’s going to tell you not to swear, maybe even tell your parents that you swore. Or point out that the rubbery bubble gum lipgloss is yours now, something she found in her stocking on Christmas morning but decided to give to you. She sets down the towel and your eyes meet through the bathroom mirror. She shrugs.
Your least favorite word. She pulls open the door and slips out of the bathroom, leaving you alone with your unsmiling reflection.
When you are fourteen, you catch your sister dabbing flesh-colored creams onto her throat.
Don’t come in—
You are already inside. She didn’t lock the door because she can’t. The locks were a privilege she lost when the hand towels started to smell like cigarette smoke and you found a condom wrapper behind the toilet.
What happened? you ask, jabbing a scabby finger towards her neck. A purple-black stain stretches across the skin, a multicolored bruise with a yellowish center.
Jack Fallow happened, you sister smiles. Jack Fallow lives across the street. Some nights you can hear him throwing acorns at your sister’s window until she bolts out of her room and disappears into the night.
Jack Fallow punched you in the throat?
Your sister just snorts and doesn’t answer.
Her reflection is scattered with darkness: dark nails, dark purple smear on her neck, eyes ringed with black. You want to ask her to bestow some darkness onto you, to harden your edges, make you cool. She is angular and you are soft and round—her bones jut out and yours hide under plush fat rolls. In ancient times, your weight would have spoken to your wealth—your sister would have been an underfed peasant.
Your sister slams down the powder compact, spraying the sink with a layer of tan dust.
I’ll just wear a scarf or something, she mutters. Her hickey is still glaring at you through the layers of concealer. The bathroom mirror is streaked tiny flakes of mascara, where she’s leaned too close and swiped the wand across the glass by accident. You remember you used to write her messages in the fog after your shower. You also remember how she would almost never respond. Now, she storms out of the bathroom in search of a scarf. You stay and observe yourself in the mascara—streaked reflection. Mirror, Mirror, on the wall…
You know your sister is prettier than you. This thought bubbles up to the surface of your mind, and realizing this makes you feel lucky in a small sad way. Lucky that you realized now, at fourteen. At fourteen it seems manageable. You have your books and your sports—you don't need to be pretty. You don’t need a Jack Fallow or acorns pinging against your window at night. Even though you tell yourself these things, staring at yourself in the silvered glass, your lip begins to tremble. How does your face twist and pinch and swell when you cry? You watch yourself, and find out.
There’s a dress hanging on the back of the bathroom door, covered in a plastic sheath. Your dress. Your homecoming dress. It’s all violet tulle with a sequined bodice, and even your sister admitted it looks good on you. It feels a little tight under your arms, but it makes you feel thin and elegant when you wear it with your hand-me-down heels. The tightly structured bodice is hand-me-down from the whalebone corsets royalty used to wear. You feel like royalty in this dress. You feel pretty.
You pull it on, slipping it over your feet and up over your knees. You wiggle to get it over your hips, your belly. You crack open the door and call for your sister to help you zip up the back. She pads down the hall in sweatpants, her hair flopping around in its usual high bun. You smile at your reflection as she slides the zipper up your back.
A sound like ripping paper. Like your happiness ripping itself out of your body, a gap growing in purple fabric that was once whole.
Your sister’s eyes meet yours in the mirror. Tears spring from your eyes even though you know it’s stupid, it’s just one dress, it’s just one night.
No no no it’s okay it’ll be fine I’ll fix it—
Your sister’s words come fast and soothing, and you try to remember the last time she was on your side so fiercely, so protectively. She guides you out of the way of the sink, swings the drawers open rapid-fire, searching. A pocket sewing kit—a silver needle, a spool of black thread.
I’ll sew you into it.
You remember now. The first time you got your period, when you were twelve. How you cried so involuntarily, how the blood made you woozy.
As your sister licks the end of the thread and tries to poke it through the eye of the needle, you think about when she found you half-fainted on the tile floor.
No no no it’s okay—
She tells you to suck in, bunches the fabric together with one fist, and begins sewing as best she can.
I have mine, too. I’m bleeding, too. See? We’re synced. We’re stuck with this together.
Your sister inhales sharply, brings her thumb to her lips.
Stabbed myself. It’s okay. Don’t look.
The word blood and the word blessed are historically linked, they stem from the same root. You are blessed to have this sister, this girl who will bleed with you and for you. This girl who won’t always answer your messages in the fog-covered mirror, but will occasionally draw a crooked heart that you know is only for you—can only be for you.
Once your dress is in one piece again, she offers to do your makeup. She cups one hand under your chin, holding you steady as she paints a thin black line onto your eyelids—an echo of kohl and Cleopatra and blackened frankincense. Look up, she instructs as she brushes black over your eyelashes, Suck in your cheeks, as she circles blush over the apples of your cheeks. Pucker out your lips, she swabs on a berry lip stain, then shellacs over it with your bubblegum lip gloss, the one she gave you after Christmas. You watch the concentration on her face, and then glance at the two figures in the bathroom mirror. You watch the quiet ritual, the timeless ritual—of being made up, but remaining entirely yourself.
Lauren Spinabelli is a writer currently interning at Tin House Books in Portland, Oregon. She is a recent graduate of The Pennsylvania State University. Her work has been published in Elite Daily, Mud Season Review, Strangelet Journal, and Bop Dead City.