Gaze into the mirror too often and you’ll see the Devil. She had smiled at their reflection when she said that. Forty years later, Max Niemand thought he saw her reflected image, poking over his right shoulder. Long, silky, strawberry-blonde hair, sharp hazel eyes, sensual red lips. Her full breasts with erect nipples pressed against his bare back, her tapered fingers teased the short hairs on the nape of his neck. Her warmth enveloped him, like a down-filled comforter on a winter night.
Niemand blinked and the vision vanished — nothing but an illusion, a mirage haunting the desert of his imagination. Neither the Devil nor the woman dwelled in his mirror. He sniffed for her scent, inhaling the astringent bite of mentholated shaving cream; he rubbed his back where he thought he had sensed the press of her flesh and felt nothing but a dull ache in his aging bones.
Red-rimmed eyes glared at him, as if resenting what they had been duped into seeing. Why conjure her now? Time and distance had separated them beyond recall. What’s dead is dead.
He laid his razor on the damp faux marble countertop, washed the remaining white blobs of soap from his face and felt round the crags and seams of neck and jowl for traces of missed stubble. Then he swished his razor in the half-filled sink before scraping away the unshaven remains of his gray morning beard.
Waste-water swirled down the drain with a sucking sound. Like memories drawn into a vortex, he thought. He blotted up the scum and bits of hair with tissue, tossing the residue into the toilet. If only her image could be disposed of so easily.
A cardboard container labeled “Premium Bananas” rested on a shelf at the back of Niemand’s bedroom closet. Years ago he had buried his sole remaining memento of their relationship in that nondescript carton.
He dislodged the box, grunting as he stirred the dust. Phlegm filled his throat; his nose itched, his eyes watered. Hacking and wheezing, he maneuvered the container off its shelf and through the cluttered veil of camphorated old clothes dangling like somnolent bats from their weighed down perch.
Niemand shouldered his casket of remembrance the short distance along a shadowy corridor leading from bedroom to study where, like a weary pallbearer at a graveside, he set down his burden.
He switched on the desk lamp before suffering a sneezing and coughing fit that consumed several minutes and half-a-dozen tissues. At last, his allergic reaction faded away; relieved, he sank bank in a leather swivel-chair and then reached down to rummage through the contents of the box.
Each dog-eared, faded brown packet contained letters and photographs, keepsakes of family, friends and acquaintances, most gone from his life and many departed from this world. He hadn’t opened the box in years; her apparition in the mirror had compelled him to do so. He retrieved a small envelope containing a single snapshot.
Long ago, when their relationship ended, he had numerous mementos: photographs; letters; a pair of her panties. She didn’t know about the panties, or if she did, she had never let on. Her lingerie had become mixed with his laundry; he had kept one piece of black nylon, lace-trimmed underwear secreted in the back of his dresser drawer. When she left him, he had slept with her panties under his pillow. That lasted for about a month. Then, one morning, he dumped the garment in the trash, thinking no more of it than a wounded man recovered from his injuries thinks of his discarded crutches.
For a while after their break-up, he had read her letters obsessively, until he decided that they revealed nothing, or more precisely, they did not tell him anything he did not already know. He shredded them along with her pictures; he saved one photo, entombing it in the banana box. He now held the picture in his trembling hand, scrutinizing it under the faint yellow glow of his reading lamp.
A handsome young couple stood on the foredeck of a fully rigged sloop docked at a quay. “She gave the captain her camera to take our picture,” he recalled. “That might have been the happiest day of my life.” He laid the snapshot on the desk under the light; rubbing his tired eyes, he tried to remember.
“Come on, Max, it’ll be fun.” That was the woman’s nature; she plotted and instigated — he followed. And when he did her bidding, as in the beginning of their relationship he invariably had done, she sometimes allowed him the illusion of leadership, making him believe her desires and schemes had really been his.
They had met in a lecture hall, toward the end of their senior year at the University. She was a reporter for the school newspaper, majoring in Journalism; he was a Literature Major specializing in creative writing. Old Niemand groped round his memory like someone feeling his way through a dark maze; as best he could recall, she had sat next to him and started a conversation. In that respect, they were polar opposites; she was outgoing, cheerful, enthusiastic; he was taciturn and withdrawn. But at twenty-one, he was still vulnerable; he couldn’t resist an attractive young woman, especially one who had seemed to take such an interest in him. They soon became friends, but in friendship as in all things, Niemand was the sort who received much more than he gave.
A few weeks after they met, she was assigned to write a story about a sloop sailing around the world. She was rambling down the front steps of the Union building, where the newspaper office was located, when she spotted him among the milling students. He was walking toward the library, following an elm shaded path that snaked round the green campus.
She waved and shouted, “Hey Max!” He was too far away and his mind was on other things; he couldn’t hear her. Camera bag swinging from a shoulder strap, long hair streaming behind her, she ran the gantlet of young women and men until she caught him by the arm. Smiling, eyes sparkling, she breathlessly rattled off her assignment, ending with an invitation: “Come on, Max, it’ll be fun.”
He was working on a term paper — researching, writing, and revising. Niemand approached a project like an efficiently run train, making all its scheduled stops on time until it reached the terminal. He politely declined her invitation.
She smiled confidently, enticingly. “The sun’s shining, the sky’s blue, we’re going aboard a full-rigged ship that’s sailed half-way round the world, to meet and interview her captain. Think what stories he’ll tell, about calm seas and storms, exotic lands, natives, tropical islands and all. You want to be a writer? Opportunities like this don’t come every day, Max. Carpe Diem!” She paused a moment; then added: “And I’ll help with your paper, if that’s what’s worrying you.”
He didn’t take her offer of assistance too seriously, although he thought she might be good for organizing notes, typing and so forth. After all, he was an honors scholar, while she barely maintained a respectable “B” average. But as she had indicated, the experience might provide material for a story. So, after a moment’s hesitation, he accepted.
She glanced at her watch. “All right, Max. We’ll take my car, but we need to get going. Can’t keep the captain waiting.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him away from the library, down a flower-lined gravel path toward the student parking lot.
Old Niemand stared at the snapshot. He recalled the eighty-foot sloop moored at the quayside: sunlight glinting on masts and shrouds; the gentle lapping of water against her black hull; creaking hawsers; furled canvas flapping and ratlines singing in the mild breeze.
They had driven a few miles from campus and parked by a bridge spanning the muddy green river that bisected downtown. The place was usually crowded, but that’s not how Niemand remembered it. Why had there been so little traffic, so few people around the landing? “It must have been a weekend,” he thought.
The gangplank was out, as if welcoming them, but he hesitated to board.
She smiled at his characteristic cautiousness. “Come on, Max, the captain expects us.” Then she ran across the narrow plank, hopped down to the deck and made straight for an open hatchway. “Ahoy,” she cried.
She led, he followed. Niemand shook his head and laughed to himself. She reminded him of one of those salty heroines in the old Hollywood sea adventures.
“Don’t ‘ahoy’ me. What do you want?” A rough Australian baritone rumbled up from the ship’s bowels.
She answered, identifying herself. Niemand hunkered next to her, peering down a dark gangway in the direction of the gruff challenge. A tall figure emerged from the shadows and climbed up a stairway to the sunlit deck. They backed away to give him room.
The captain was a leathery man in his forties. He’d been working in the engine room; his bronzed, brawny arms and calloused hands were covered in grease. He mopped his high wrinkled brow with a red handkerchief; his golden-haired chest, glimpsed through an unbuttoned blue work shirt, glistened with sweat. But his craggy face and Aussie growl softened immediately as he succumbed to her singular charm.
Niemand had long since forgotten most of the interview; so much for the inducement of the captain’s tales. But he did recall drifting into a fantasy of sailing around the world with the young woman; the adventure of a lifetime.
After a while, shadows drifted over the deck, the swell picked up, cables creaked and shrouds groaned. The captain paused in the middle of an answer, looked skyward and observed: “Might be in for a spot of weather.”
With the sky graying, she hurried the remainder of the interview, and then took several snapshots. Finally, she asked the captain to take their picture on the foredeck and he complied amiably. As he was about to hand back the camera, she asked, “Captain, could you take us with you? We’d be cabin-boys — or something.”
The captain laughed. “Well, missy, you hardly qualify as a ‘boy’. As for your mate, no offense, but he seems awfully landlubberly to me.”
Niemand was embarrassed, but then he figured it was all in fun. Nevertheless, he detected a slight hint of disappointment in her face as she retrieved her camera and returned it to its case.
The interview over, they crossed the gangplank, and then turned back toward the captain, who smiled and waved farewell.
She waved back, shouting, “Bon Voyage!” Then she gazed at the boat wistfully, and sighed, “Around the world.”
Rain started shortly after they left the quay. It soon strengthened from drizzle to wind-whipped downpour. He remembered grabbing her arm, skipping through puddles from parked car to the awning sheltered entrance of a popular pub.
They shook off their wet clothes like a pair of damp puppies, while scanning a menu posted on the plate-glass window. Beer and pizza tempted them — or was it hamburgers? Perhaps it was just the prospect of a warm, dry refuge.
The place was dark, smoky, bustling and humming with students. Brim-full bowls of complementary peanuts raised a thirst in patrons who munched compulsively while tossing shucks on the floor. He recalled how the littered shells squished beneath his shoes.
A corner booth in the back, away from the noisy bar, gave them some privacy. Shadows moved across the narrow hardwood table, cast by a stubby candle flickering in its red cut glass holder. While speaking to him she had the habit of leaning forward and toying with a silver and turquoise necklace, drawing attention to her cleavage. When he asked whether she had been serious about sailing around the world, she replied, “Of course I was. Don’t you think that would be fun?”
He smiled, said something non-committal, and changed the subject to their studies. They were only one month from graduation.
She interrupted: “Max, you’re so focused, so goal-oriented and you know so much about so many things. Were you a prodigy, a boy genius or something?” Her “or something” was a habitual locution that could be charming or annoying, depending on your point of view. At that moment, he found it charming.
But her comment about his “genius” had caught him off-guard. Could she have been mocking him, or at least teasing? He studied her face, trying to detect a hint of sarcasm. But she just twirled her necklace, gazing back at him with an engaging, affectionate smile; so he accepted what she had said as a sincere compliment. “I just take things seriously and try to do my best, I guess. Maybe I should be more laid-back?”
She gently placed her hand on his. “It wouldn’t hurt to unwind, just a little.” Was she manipulating him, or was that just her way — to be flirtatious, alluring, insinuating? She lifted her hand from his, grabbed a handful of nuts, cracked a shell and popped its contents into her moist, red mouth. Then she laughed. “You’ll have to stop me, Max. I could eat these ‘til I explode.”
Unlike Max, who had a roommate, she lived alone not far from the pub. She invited him to her place where they could dry their clothes, drink and talk while waiting out the storm. He accepted with happy anticipation mixed with unease, because he had never before been with a young woman under such circumstances. And though they lived in the age of the pill, penicillin and “if it feels good, do it”, he had still retained a double standard. Would a “nice girl” have made such a suggestion?
Old Niemand remembered the clatter of raindrops on her garage roof; water rushing from gutters; a dash past flowerbeds through a small, drenched garden and up one narrow, slippery flight of gray painted wooden stairs. She groped her purse for keys; he stood a few steps behind and below her, his eyes fixed on her round, blue jean clad bottom. They crossed the threshold, soaked and laughing. He took her in his arms and kissed her. Or did she kiss him?
The old man shook his head in frustration. At times, she seemed to have receded to a point beyond lucid recollection; perhaps what he had desired had become confused with what had been. But he did recall her flat in some detail: you entered through a kitchenette into an L-shaped room containing a corner day-bed with faux leopard-skin coverlet; travel posters of the Costa del Sol, a Picasso reproduction and the ubiquitous Zig Zag Zouave decorated the beige painted walls; a beaded bamboo curtain veiled a passage leading down two steps to a spare room crammed with swivel-chair, desk and typewriter, and the tiny bathroom off to the right. A large, round mirror hung on the wall opposite her day-bed, over a portable bar holding several exotically labeled liquor bottles and a variety of glassware.
Her flat reminded him of a seductress’s lair in an old Hollywood film, a fitting place for a rendezvous with Dietrich, Garbo, or Hedy Lamarr. Could he have been her Gary Cooper?
“Let’s get out of these wet clothes,” she said. “I’ve got a bath-robe that’ll fit you —sort of.” “Sort of” was another of her characteristic locutions. “I’ll hang our clothes in the bathroom to dry, and then I’ll make Irish coffee. Do you like Irish coffee?”
“Sure, that’s fine,” young Niemand replied. Old Niemand had a persistent image of her associated with that particular moment. Impetuous, seductive, and irresistibly lovely; she personified the allure of an adventure at its inception.
She passed through the rattling veil of beads and returned shortly, carrying a terry-cloth robe. “You can change here; I’ll use the bathroom. Hang your clothes on the chair. I’ll pick them up later.”
He undressed, hanging his wet shirt and pants where she had indicated. Then, he put on her robe, feeling its rough texture next to his bare skin, inhaling the odor of clean cotton spiced with the scent of her floral bath salts. She might have worn it recently after taking a shower or bath, and that gave him an intensely erotic sense of intimacy.
Old Niemand’s memory failed intermittently; it was like watching a movie, nodding off and then waking up in the midst of another scene. He recalled the sound of rain beating against the roof, the distant rumbling of thunder, and that recollection oriented him. They were relaxing on her day-bed, sipping hot, strong, bitter-sweet Irish coffee and chattering. What did they talk about? Sailing around the world on the sloop, or rather what they each imagined such a voyage would be.
They finished their drinks, placing the empty cups side by side on the coffee table. He felt warm from the whiskey; she reclined on her pillow and settled her legs across his lap. Her face flushed; she seemed to glow in the soft yellow lamp light. “Sail away with me, Max,” she murmured invitingly.
Had she really said that? Or was that what he had wanted to hear? He slid his hand up her smooth thigh, underneath her robe. Her hand guided his; her sigh encouraged him. He moved on top of her; she opened to him. He was like a ship breaking the waves, dipping and rising in clouds of spray and white foam. She was the ocean, deep and mysterious, yielding but strong, buoying him on her surface, drawing him down into her depths.
Old Niemand trembled; he wiped a thin film of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. He gasped for air; he had a sensation of drowning. Her memory had overwhelmed him.
That long-ago evening had been the perfect start of an adventure, without foreknowledge of the voyage’s dangers, only a foretaste of its delights. The squalls and shipwreck came later.
They had slept in each others arms. Niemand awoke first, sometime before dawn. The storm had passed. She lay on her side, away from him. For a moment, he listened to her soft, regular breathing. Then he rolled off the bed, and, careful not to disturb her, walked softly toward the mirror. What was it about the mirror that had attracted him? What could it reveal but his familiar reflection?
There was a small lamp on a stand next to the portable bar. He glanced back at her; she seemed to be sound asleep. He flicked on the light switch, and gazed at the dim, ghost-like image of his face and upper torso. Perhaps he wanted to see if the adventure of the previous day and night had changed him somehow.
She came to him unexpectedly, like a phantom. “Gaze into the mirror too often and you’ll see the Devil.”
Her appearance in the mirror had startled him. But he simply smiled, put his arm round her nude waist, and held her close. That was the beginning of a journey that lasted one brief year. Niemand got a teaching assistantship and pursued his Master’s Degree. She went to work for a magazine, as an editorial assistant. Despite their families’ disapproval, they rented a larger apartment and moved in together.
Old Niemand didn’t want to recall the doldrums, the calms and storms of everyday life, the inevitable sorrow of parting at journey’s end. He wanted to recapture the romance, the adventure of a voyage at its commencement. And he most certainly didn’t want to revisit the wreckage, the day that he learned of her affair with her boss, the man she eventually married and lived with for almost forty years.
Her obituary had contained the usual laundry-list of accomplishments, not the least of which was her marriage that had produced four children who in turn had propagated seven grandchildren. Old Niemand had stared at the smiling grandmother for a long time, trying to find in her funerary photograph some remnant of his lost love, his seductive crew-mate.
He had seen the announcement of her death one year ago, and now her reflection had returned to haunt his bathroom mirror. Niemand turned over the snapshot and pondered what she had written there: “Sail away with me, Max?” She had used the interrogative rather than the imperative. That seemed out of character, somehow.
Niemand hadn’t smoked for years, but he had kept a lighter filled with fluid next to an ashtray on his desk. He considered burning the photo as a sort of exorcism. But then he changed his mind and returned the memento of the happiest day of his life to its dusty, deteriorating envelope.
They had gone their separate ways, and perhaps that had been for the best. She might visit him, now and then, as a reflection, a memory only. He might ask her questions; he wanted to know more about her voyage, what tales she had to tell. And he would reply with his own story, if she were interested, that is.
He had never married, had no children. All he had to show for his life were the mundane achievements of a modest career. Would she be disappointed with her “genius”? Would she reproach him and say, “Oh Max, you should have come with me.” He wouldn’t disagree. But he wouldn’t say anything about the Devil in the mirror — unless she raised it. Like regrets for our lost youth, some things, he figured, were best let alone.
Gary Inbinder is an attorney who left the practice of law to write full-time. Drollerie Press published his first novel, Confessions of the Creature, and a second novel, The Flower to the Painter, was recently accepted for publication by Fireship Press. Gary is a member of the Bewildering Stories Editorial Review Board, and his short fiction, articles, and essays appear in Bewildering Stories, Morpheus Tales, The Absent Willow Review, Litsnack, The Copperfield Review, Humanitas, Touchstone Magazine, and other publications.
© 2011, Gary Inbinder