I’m standing in front of a mirror giving myself a pep talk, working up my confidence. With almost 25 years of teaching under my belt, I only have to do it occasionally, for important research presentations or teaching a class where a colleague will be sitting in for a peer evaluation.
“You’ll be all right,” I tell myself in the mirror. “You know this stuff. It’s yours. Just make it fun, give them a couple of exercises to do, and keep them engaged.”
I look neat and professional, wearing a black pant suit with a delicate pale blue cashmere sweater and a bright blue silk scarf I bought on a trip to Ireland. My complexion works well with the scarf now, but years ago, before my skin got bleached out by Vitiligo, it would have been a fail. “Never wear bright blue around your dark face skin,” my Mother used to say when I was young, “It throws shades and makes you look like a corpse.” Mom knows; she has been in the dress-making business her entire life and I value her style and fashion advice.
One last look in the mirror. “Breathe, you’ll be fine.” Partly because of my Vitiligo I never use makeup, so I put most of the attention to my hair. I stopped coloring it about eight months ago, so a lot of gray is coming out, but it’s still long so I usually twist it into a high bun. Like an ageing librarian, I think.
Suddenly, something imperceptibly subtle is changing in the mirror. It starts with the hair, that gradually goes to jet-black by itself, falls out of the bun to full length and becomes disheveled like a scarecrow’s. Then my shoulders become wider, the neck – thinner, and the head – smaller. My left eye becomes round and wide like I’m seeing a horror, while the right eye is closing and blinking. A big cut appears on my forehead, as if someone is slicing it with an invisible knife. Then my lips are sewn together with a thick thread. I don’t feel any pain but I’m horrified. “Oh my god, I’m becoming a female Frankenstein monster!” I think. I am afraid to touch my face to check if the change is happening to actual me, not just the image in the mirror.
And then my favorite scarf comes to life and starts to tighten around my neck like a noose. That I feel. I’m trying to unwrap the scarf and take it off but the more I try the tighter it becomes. I can’t breathe. I run to my mother humming in the next room. “Mom, help!” I scream on top of my lungs. “Mommy, please, I can’t breathe!”
Mom’s sitting at her sewing table, patching something up. She rarely throws away anything made of natural fabrics, always finds a way to patch the holes, stitch up and repair the thing. When she sews, she always hums or sings. Oh how I love that voice! I always tell her she should have been a singer.
“Mom, please help me!” I cry out, looking at her, “Please, take this thing off my neck, I can’t breathe!”
Mom doesn’t even raise her head. I cry again, louder, “Mommy, help! Mommy!”
No response. Has she gone deaf??
I bang on her sewing table and knock something off. She raises her head, startled, looks straight through me and asks, “Anyone there?”
I realize she can’t see or hear me. I don’t exist for her, like in those movies about ghosts.
“Mommy,” I cry out again, helpless. “Please help me, this scarf’s killing me!”
Her face, with her eyes still looking through me, starts to change. The wrinkles multiply and deepen, her expression becomes sinister, her eyes go dark and evil, and her lips stretch into one thin line. I see Death. I know it’s Death with all my heart. The realization makes my feet cold and my heart beats faster. I don’t feel the scarf-noose anymore.
“Oh my God!” I scream, “Am I dead?”
Death looks at me and gives me a sinister chuckle. Then shakes her head.
“Oh no!” I cry. “Are you here for M…?”
I wake up. My heart is pounding in my chest that feels like it’s under a ton of bricks. I can’t breathe. I force myself to take a deep breath on a slow count: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Exhale: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Inhale, exhale again. Goosebumps and shivers. Breathe, it’s just a bad dream.
I reach out for my phone on the table next to my bed. My arm feels like it’s made of lead. It’s 2:02 am. Russia is seven hours ahead, so it’s 9 am there now.
I don’t want to freak anyone out, they know it’s deep night here. I drop a Skype chat note to my niece: “Hi, sorry I couldn’t call yesterday, no Internet at home. Is everything all right with you all?” My niece lives with my mother, so she’d know. The message is marked as sent at 2:04 am.
Waiting for the response, I quickly dictate a sequence of words for Siri to take a note lest I forget: “mirror confidence jet-black hair favorite scarf female Frankenstein monster noose Mom sewing not looking face change.”
I start a deep sleep sound sequence on my meditation app and set the phone on the table next to me. Before it goes dark, I notice it’s 2:07 am. Trying to go back to sleep, I visualize myself sitting at my work desk, writing.
I write this story in my head.
I write this story.
don’t have a pale blue cashmere sweater.