Who?

Ilan Stavans

Translated from Spanish by Harry Morales

He woke up early. He had had a bad night. The white bed sheets were hot and wrinkled and he had an Apache Indian indentation across his left cheek. The bad news, that’s what it was. He had written that story with total dedication and thought it was the best work his pen had produced to date. Why did Dom Wald reject it? The words vibrated with passion on the paper; it was a finished piece, perfect. Upon completing the story and putting it in the mailbox, he had said to himself: “It’s inevitable that it will be published in the August issue. It deserves to be, without a doubt!” And yesterday, when he opened the mail, the rejection. His depression was killing him.

He went to the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. Had he aged overnight? He splashed cold water on his face and looked at his reflection again to follow the route of the trickling drops. He forced a smile, then changed the gesture into a canine stretch of his lower jaw. The mirror, always faithful, reflected him. He took a shaving brush, soap bar, and comb out of a case underneath the wash basin. He was sure he would shave today; he should do it carefully though, because otherwise, in ten minutes he would have sprouting blood and little pieces of toilet paper on strategic areas of his chin to stop the bleeding. He opened the faucet and proceeded to apply a brushstroke of lather.

Where was he intending to place the story now that its appearance was at a standstill with Dom Wald? “Shit!” he said, after he cut himself and a red line created odd maps on his skin underneath his left ear. He splashed water on his face and dried it with a yellow towel. A few seconds later his eyes returned to the mirror, determined to finish shaving. But no one was on the other side, no one, just the empty glass; something fogged by the steam that was rising from the washbasin was only reflecting the wall in front of it; he was being ignored, he was anywhere but the bathroom. What horror!

He closed his eyes. Without a doubt, the bad news again. Perhaps it would have been better not to wake up today, to continue sleeping amid so many nightmares that had visited, consumed, and disturbed him in the simplicity of his bed. He was brave and left his pupils uncovered again. But nothing happened; the mirror was resistant to show his reflection. “I’m still dreaming,” he told himself. “The truth is that it’s difficult to feel comfortable in this body and that’s why I remain stretched out on the mattress, lazy. I resist the day; I don’t want to begin the routine again.” Nervous, displaced, he came out of the bathroom and walked through the early-rising house. He went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to smell the oranges he had sliced the night before. He lit the stove and heated the coffee. He went back into the room and opened the windows and made the bed. Enough! He returned to the bathroom, but not before touching his face and feeling the blood, which even in a small amount didn’t cease sprouting. He felt the residue of lather which was covering his left cheek and, underneath, the pasty and minimum sized chin that should disappear under the governing comb. “To the mirror,” he told himself.

Frightened, upon crossing the threshold and before reaching the washbasin, he opened and closed his eyes again while simultaneously breathing deeply. But the reflection he saw provided him with a deep and incalculable sadness. There was no one on the other side, no man improving his appearance. Then, he decided that that mishap wasn’t going to affect him very much and blindly proceeded to finish his morning routine. The razor had smoothly polished his skin so many mornings that he didn’t need the help of a mirror. His movements and pace were slower, it’s true, although not much; they were clearing away the dried lather and beautifying the epidermis areas the blood had designed. He finished shaving awhile later.

Immediately afterward, he got under the showerhead and allowed the stream of water and the penetrating aroma of the shampoo to make him forget the strange phenomenon that had just victimized him. He even hummed a melody that he had learned as a child and that months earlier he had unsuccessfully tried to remember. He lathered himself. He washed his ears and stroked his legs and underarms. He was sure that it had all been a dream, including Dom Wald’s rejection of his story.

He stepped out of the shower and wrapped himself in a towel, resisting the urge to look, even by mistake, at the wide spectrum of the mirror. If the other one, the one who would hide behind the glass, ignored him, then he would do the same. He extended his towel to the farthest reaches of his extremities and if he could, he would have inserted it under his nails and into his eardrums and nasal passages; the objective was to be there, in the bathroom in front of the mirror, but without looking at it. A challenge: who could hold out longer? The hygienic process lasted a total of four or five minutes, although for him, the clock hands had struck more times. He finally arrived at the conclusion that it was stupid to be battling against himself in that stupid damp mirror, so he decided to face the truth.

This is what he now saw: his facial image, mutilated, injured a thousand times by that criminal comb; the purple decomposition of his skin; the red and inflamed eyelids; the wet hair, which instead of adorning him made its owner look monstrous. His reaction, up to a certain point, was normal. With a single punch he broke the glass that was denigrating him and, crying in pain, returned to bed and tried to sleep. Or wake up, perhaps. (You witnessed all of it, hidden behind that window through which fools look).

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