The mirror showed a reflection that wasn't my own. It was almost mine. But the brows were pale and fuzzy, the lips cracked and bleeding. I twitched; the reflection twitched too. I slid a finger across a brow and brought off the chalky residue of brow gel on my fingertip. I slid my glossy lips together. The reflection mirrored the action, but grimaced as drops of blood smeared.
"Is this a trick mirror?" I asked the bartender, unable to look away from the bloodshot eyes before me.
"Nah, it's a French 75, like you ordered. What's in a trick mirror?"
"No, like, the mirror there." I lifted my finger and found it trembling. "What's it do?"
The bartender peered over his shoulder. "Do I need to cut you off, babe? It's a mirror. Does what it does."
I forced a giggle. "Weird. Must have been a trick of the light." I finished my drink in a short swallow, rising on heels that were just a little tippy. "I'll have another of the same once I'm back from the bathroom." He looked at me critically, but I must have passed his assessment because he nodded before I wheeled to the dark back of the bar.
In the cramped, stinking bathroom my reflection reassured me, even under ghastly florescent lights. There I was, 22 years old and glowing with keratin and collagen. My chocolate hair ran smooth as a river over a bare shoulder, my lips as full and pouty as the Med Spa tech promised. I evened out my brows. Then I gripped my phone at the optimal angle and smoldered into the mirror, letting my lower lip drop open suggestively for the camera. Getting wild at @thewild.BK, I typed. WYA @hella_bella??
As I strutted back to my seat at the bar, I felt eyes trace me from around the room. What felt even better was the buzz from my purse, as my story caught reactions like flies in honey. __________________________________
Back then I lived in Greenpoint, Bella in Williamsburg. The Wild, just North of McCarren Park, was our halfway point. We gathered there weekly, sometimes nightly, us and our crew of hangers-on. There was a thrill in the air around us as our follower counts crept up and the brand deals trickled in. The real money was so close we could almost taste it.
My reflection in that damned back bar started to scare me. Photos couldn't catch it, and no one else could see it but me. I felt like it saw me, too, through its jaundiced eyes. It shriveled in my periods of starvation and bloated when I binged. It accumulated weeping scars from all my vain little procedures, but none of their positive affects. When I got hair extensions, they didn't appear. I stopped sitting at the bar as much, preferring the tables. Preferring my back to the mirror.
It was in a booth at the quiet end of a Tuesday night that we hatched the plot. Bella and I were 27. I was climbing the pivot into fashion and luxury items. Sometimes I felt like those paper dolls that came in a kid's book: I pinned outfits on my body and pasted the image into a digital collage. Bella hadn't figured it out yet. She was stagnant, nearly sinking, making the same feral content. She was basically a club promoter with a following at that point.
That night, she was drunk. Like most nights. The others had gone home. We were alone, comparing our deepening fears. My metabolism was fading, but I couldn't bear the thought of becoming a midsize Amazon hun. I was getting more money, but the cost of my production was increasing exponentially. I needed a boyfriend, or a girlfriend, better yet a rich spouse, to keep my shift on track. Bella was moaning that soon she'd have to buy another few thousand followers just to keep her count over that coveted 100k. It wasn't that expensive, but the real downside was that would tank her authenticity rankings.
"So what sells?" I asked Bella.
"Sex," she smirked, miming something vulgar. "Wanna start an OnlyFans?"
"No. Try again."
"No, dumbass. Why would you sell money? What really sells is controversy." She stared at me with dopey eyes. I couldn't stop the annoyance that crossed my face. Truth was, Bella had started to disgust me. She was needy and insecure, tagging me in everything, hanging off my coattails. She'd stopped posting anything without a full body filter and it was getting obvious. "We need to do something that gets people talking about us. Like on a snark page, or the Post."
"But I hate those pages," she whined. "They're so mean."
"You can't let it get under your skin." It was a conversation we'd had a thousand times before. She had a point, but was missing the larger one. We posted for our adoring followers, we thrived on their compliments, but the jaded keyboard warriors were our true audience. By then, I had learned that nestled in each insult was a kernel of truth. If my content was getting boring, if a dress wasn't my color, they told me first. And their outrage over my slimness, my glib attitude, my reluctance to transparency, was one of the largest drivers to my follower count. I'd mostly given up on imparting this wisdom to Bella, who couldn't look past the barbs at her weight gain.
"It's simple," I continued. "We film something silly. A bit provocative. Something we'd dirty delete when we're sober. But not before 9AM. Let them screen record it, let them comment on it. Let it fester a little. Maybe let it sit til noon, even. Then start like, poking at each other. Just a little bit. Let them think we're feuding."
"Ohhhmigosh," she drawled. "Like the Housewives."
I rolled my eyes. "Sure. The Housewives. Then you won't need to buy followers. They'll come to you."
"Okaaaay." She pursed her mouth, tossed her hair a little. "But like. It can't be too bad."
"Of course not," I assured her. "But like. Is anything too bad?"
"I need another drink for this, I think."
"Definitely. On me," I smiled. I went up to the bar and got myself a sparkling water with lemon. For Bella, a double whiskey coke. She'd asked for diet but she was already too wasted to know the difference. I stared at the mirror. The reflection leered at me, snarling with a cruel ferocity. I brushed my fingers over my own closed mouth. __________________________________
My phone was on Do Not Disturb as I went about my morning. At noon, I raised the screen with some trepidation. I had about a million notifications. I'd gained a few thousand followers in six hours, a number that was growing even as I checked my platforms. The comments were full of horror and outrage, but pleasingly, I noted, directed more at Bella than myself. Of course I'd have to do damage control, but so far the plan was working.
I saved Bella's messages for last. First there had been frantic DMs: omg what did we do? WHY DID WE POST THOSE? why did i say that stuff??????? Then, she had clearly remembered our bargain from the night before. Ok this is too much. this was a stupid idea. We need to delete NOW. Then the switch to texts. r u awake yet? answer me. delete that shit. My lips curled in a large grin.
I caught a look in the mirror by my bed and froze. Was it - ? No. I took a soothing breath. My reflection was normal, as it should have been. The smile had just looked a little like the one last night. I just wasn't wearing any makeup yet. That was all. That was all. __________________________________
The trick was to always be the one that filmed. That's where the power was, first with selective angles and choice moments, then in the editing apps and cutting together the final reel. I filmed Bella from down low, so it had the feel of body cam footage, or an accident. There were no intro questions, barely any words from me at all. I brightened her face, heightened the contrast between her voice and the background bar noise. Then posted it. Of course, as I reminded Bella later, she told me to post it. Watched me do it. Cheered it on. But by that time, she really wasn't sober enough to consent to anything at all.
The thing that clinched my win was the tearful apology live I did that afternoon. "I know by now everyone has seen the video. I've taken it down - I don't want those awful words on my page - but I just. Well, I could say it was my drunken mistake to post it, but I think I just really needed other people to see what I've been seeing. I would never endorse that kind of language. I hope that's clear from the video. But Bella really needs help, I think." The sad reacts, the hearts, the rabid comments out for blood, all poured in through my screen.
Bella refused to meet me at The Wild, instead forcing me into the long walk to her apartment. She wore a stained sweatsuit, and tears leaked periodically down her swollen cheeks.
"You've destroyed me," she insisted. "I'm dead. The brand deals? Gone. I'm going to have to delete my whole account."
I sipped from the water I'd poured myself. "It'll blow over. Give it time."
"Are you kidding me? I won't be able to pay my rent!"
"Then get a job."
She stared at me, face stony. "After what you posted, no one will hire me."
I smirked. "I deleted it, Bella. Come on."
"Excuse me? Not the live! That's still up, and it's the nail in my coffin. All you had to do was say it was all a joke! And now it looks like I'm a racist?"
I scoffed. "Puh-lease. The writing's been on the wall for ages now. If I didn't do this, you would have done it to yourself eventually."
"Take down the live. Please." I shook my head. She picked up my glass and threw it at the wall. "Then get the fuck out of my apartment."
I raised my hands and slipped away. I went to The Wild and sat at the bar. I looked myself in the mirror.
The years passed. I moved to LA, then a small estate in Maui. I got married to a bikini model, I divorced the bikini model. I secured my niche. I started a lucrative clean beauty brand.
Around the time we turned 40, I received a message from Bella. You're the worst thing that ever happened to me, she raged. U sold me out. I don't know how you live with yrself. I could tell she hadn't kicked the drinking. She was a realtor in Virginia. Two fat kids and a cop husband. I blocked the account.
There was no hiding the work I'd had done anymore. Some of it was good: my skin was poreless and smooth as a preteen's, my arms and legs were taut and toned. But some of it was aging poorly. The facelift left me with permanently weepy eyes and a slightly asymmetrical tilt. The breast implants were cockeyed, and the skin underneath puckered with scar tissue. My cheeks were too hollow, and every day that passed I regretted the premature evacuation of my buccal fat more.
Every time I traveled to New York, usually for work, I always found myself sucked back into The Wild. I tried to stay away. But there was a sickening draw to it. I nursed a sweating vodka rocks each night, staring in the mirror at the horror before me. The turkey's wattle growing under my chin. The breasts that sagged and hung. The gray roots that crept further along with each visit. But if there was something I liked about those trips, it was the fans who spotted me, who sought me out, who paid for my drinks and told me how beautiful I still was. They couldn't see what I saw. Maybe they were why I kept going back, not the mirror.
The Wild closed in my 60's. I had an assistant track down the owner and bought the mirror, paid an exorbitant price to have it shipped to my house. I had it delivered to the attic and left it covered. For years I couldn't face it, not alone, in the privacy of my home. I sat before its covered face for long hours in the evening, telling my housekeeper I was meditating and not to be disturbed. Finally, after a devastating round of chemo for the cancer that wouldn't go away, I heaved myself up the stairs to reckon with it.
As the dusty cover fell away from the long mirror, I fell to my knees. Before me knelt a woman. She nursed scars, she was missing teeth, she had a mean glint to her eye. But my god - what else she had. Cheeks with rosy warmth. Full, pendulous breasts. Smile lines that crinkled pleasantly around her even eyes. The beatifying halo of silver hair. I could still see her in there, my young self. It was in her stunning symmetry, free from the wreck of drifting fillers. Her lips, her nose. She looked like my mother.
For the first time, I cried before her. I cried for all I'd robbed of myself. After what must have been an hour, I covered her in the shroud. I thought of the last message that Bella had sent me: You're the worst thing that ever happened to me.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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