Here Inside the Mirror

There comes an age when screwing up is not cute anymore.

You know that, because people are constantly telling you. It’s not cute anymore, Raleigh.

My name is Raleigh, by the way; Raleigh of Boston, Massachusetts. Although to be fair, my mother is from Raleigh the actual city, so it is not a complete disaster of a name.

I think I visited it at least twice; Raleigh- no more than three times. It is awkward, going there; all things considered. My having been named after the city, one would expect us to cherish a close relationship, but that is not the case. We are just two beings with a lot in common and nothing to talk about.

In my life, this problem has been notably frequent, to the point where I currently find myself befriending more and more weirdos.

The thing about them is; they don’t judge you. They won’t tell you to get your shit together, Raleigh. You can sit in front of them and complain for hours, and they won’t say you should just suck it up, that you are just weak. If anything, you are the one who gets to say that about them.

I cannot think back to a particular moment and realize, ‘Oh, that’s when it happened; that’s when things sort of lost meaning.’

I think meaning is just one of those things you lose when you grow up. I am sorry, that was very grim and on top of that gratuitous in its pessimism. It’s too easy, like this, isn’t it?

Vague pain; as opposed to pointing to exactly where it hurts. It’s easy to fill in the gaps with generic reasons for pain, before you know it, you have a generic punk hit waiting for a melody.

The gap is more complex than that, though in a way it is; yes in a way, waiting for a melody. I see all those people dancing, and I cannot figure out what they are all dancing to. This has something to do with Nietzsche, doesn’t it?

And those who were seen dancing were thought mad by those who couldn’t hear the music…

What if I can’t hear it; what does that say about me? What if they can’t hear it either?

My theory is; one of them was mad, and the others copied him without question, now they are all dancing to flat out silence. They dance in well-coordinated movements never rehearsed, they are all isolated and miserable in their thoughts because everyone hears it but them. Rather idiotically, they follow their leader’s dance steps as fast as they can, like mirrors or shadows, soon enough they forget how to move by themselves.

Although, one could argue this metaphor has gone one step too far. It might have become too personal a metaphor- don’t feel pressured to understand it completely, given that the utmost dystopia it conveys is not exempt of loose ends, not to mention it being completely based on the assumption of innate human idiocy. Nonetheless, as over the top as this image might seem; as simplistic and far-fetched, I can’t help but feel dizzy when learning upbeat gym routines and other coordinated group movements.

Usually, I leave my body and observe from afar, questioning myself.

‘Why are you imitating a fish out of water along with twenty other lost souls?’

‘This is the most pathetic shit I’ve ever seen, Raleigh. Distance yourself for a second and look at all these people dance to nothing: you can’t breathe; you are everyone and no one in a crowd.’

‘You are losing your individuality.’

Do you want to know the answer?

Imitation is everything that we are. It’s what makes us self-aware. Self-awareness does not allow us to be; fish don’t know what they are and therefore are complete.

‘Oh, you don’t get it; it’s just the choreography. Relax, for fuck’s sake.’

‘I just hate them all as a whole.’

‘I can’t hear a song; all I hear are one too many single beats. All of my moves are pointless.’

‘I am suffocated. They are wrong about everything.’

‘Is my individuality really that fragile?’

‘Why am I imitating a fish out of water?’

‘It’s difficult for me to breathe, maybe I am a fish.’

‘Maybe they’re just pretending to. they just got too good at it.’

Where a doctor to ask me to narrow it down; tell them where it hurts, I wouldn’t know how to. It’s more like the pain is outside, I circle it like the Earth circles the Sun and the Moon circles the Earth.

Mine is a case of pathological Narcissism. I think about him often; Narcissus. I used to have a painting of him hanging right above my bedframe, looking down the lake, as if I were inside the lake, too. I am his reflection; I am Narcissus, and he is my reflection as well. We are reciprocal beings. This was our inside joke.

But mirrors are only windows; I cannot see myself through them: I want to open the window, but they won’t let me.

Come back later, after you’ve collected at least two life hacks from a level 1000+ player who’s got it all figured out.

Now graduation day is approaching, and I’m going be one of those people who go back home after they finish college. This used to be one of my greatest fears; now it’s just a small compromise, and I wonder if I’ve grown colder. I wonder if I even have a greatest fear now, or if I’m just fine with whatever comes my way. I am so far from myself in a way. I feel like going home and dumping my head on a pillow and sleeping forever. I feel like waking up with a different life. I don’t care for this one, you see. It is all too reminiscent of sleepwalking.

Maybe this is why I can’t see myself on the other side, where the ordinary people live. I am an idea. I am not real; not at all.

None of these existential problems would bother you if you weren’t this self-centred; mirror-me says. I hear you, but I don’t see you; I tell her. But this is just because, she, like me, isn’t real. Everything that I am she is too.

She is made of vapid unfulfilling. Where do we go from here, I ask her. Maybe we stop talking to each other. Maybe we stop looking through this window.

In the story of Narcissus, there was also Echo. Echo who was in love with him; Echo who was a nymph. I thought maybe I would go all the way to the canyon and yell at her for dying over a boy. Echo, nonetheless, is one of those bitches who respond to your inquiries with a question; in her case the exact question you asked her. That’s why she just keeps repeating things like a parrot. You won’t ever be able to get the answers you deserve. Echo, like all things ancient and Greek, is a fan of the Socratic Method.

God, how I wish to be sure of something, anything at all!

I am very scared of things unsure. I just hope that, if one day I realize I was wrong about everything, I realize it slowly, as opposed to falling into myself, canceling myself out as the incoherence between reality and my ideas invalidates me completely. No, I’ll need time to let things sink in. I’ll need time to adapt to my new, more real, reflection, and pretend I’m ok with that. Because you see, I’ll never be able to see myself just as I’ll never be able to translate the dreadful murmurs in my head to an acceptable human code. This is all that I am, in the lake, a light flickering through water and my reflection.

It’s not cute anymore, Raleigh; being vague. Living off leftovers. Worrying your parents away; eating them away.

The trick is; don’t promise more than you can deliver, but don’t tell them the truth, either. The truth being, of course, that I don’t know. I don’t know why I grew up to be like this, too many chicken hormones, probably. At least I didn’t kill myself, I could say, but no one set the bar this low. It happens, though.

***
I wonder whether funeral buffets are so awful on purpose; so as not to distract you from the sadness you’re supposed to be feeling. But I was already feeling sad enough, and I felt like the few tears I had dropped had to have earned me more than a slice of plain, cold bread.

We got there early, given that we live in the dorms, and she was being buried nearby; Penelope.

Since we were the last people to see her before she died her inconvenient death, one week before graduation day; we were expected to brief our classmates on what happened as they arrived. This was not something I particularly looked forward to doing. And it was not my job, really; Michael had found the body and Jasmin had found the note.

The note said:

“I’m sorry, but don’t be sad. I’m happy, I promise, Mom.”

Still, people wanted to know. Michael and Jasmin told the story over and over again, and then the people they told, were now telling others who had just arrived, and I was just listening to the story being told, echoing in the room again and again.

“You found a note?”

“Harold, she found a note.”

“What did it say?”

“Tell them, Jas.”

“I’m not sure if… It said I’m sorry, but don’t be sad. Don’t be sad? What was she thinking?”

“Oh, good grace. You kids must be traumatized. You two, stumbling into… ”

“Raleigh was there, too.”

“Raleigh was there?”

“Oh, Harold, Raleigh was there, too. Poor thing. Where is she now, anyway?”

“I don’t know, but she’s here somewhere.”

“All of you are so, so brave; right, Harold? So brave, so brave. I am so proud of you. Maybe I’ll try and find Raleigh; she must be feeling awful…I’m still her counselor, so I’m also here to listen, right? 24/7 job! I always say, you know, feelings are never off; ever. Don’t I always say this, Harold? You know how I say this a lot?”

I went to the place where there was silence; I went to see the body, hiding out in the corner. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about my feelings, let alone other people talking about them to each other.

You know how it’s not pretty anymore; my screwing up? This also means that I am now old enough to handle things by myself.

Shit, Penelope, shit; you’re ruining my life. You just had to kill yourself, didn’t you? You’re so fucking stupid. Not killing yourself is Common Courtesy 101, you know? It’s not alright, to leave us with all the heavy lifting; this isn’t Chemistry class. God, look at you. You don’t even care, do you?

I opened her eyes; they had been closed before the funeral for the appliance of eyeshadow and mascara. I had never seen Penelope with makeup on. And this was the prettiest she had ever looked; Penelope. But she didn’t need to be pretty. See, there are girls who need to be pretty for boys, and girls who need to be pretty for girls, and girls who need to be pretty for themselves- I am one of those- but Penelope didn’t care about prettiness.

“Prettiness is petty,” she said.

Penelope only ever wore carefully matched black garments, and Penelope sometimes went to bed without showering. I wonder if they had cleaned her properly. When she went too long without a shower, standing near her could be insufferable. But obviously they had cleaned her, for she had that unmistakable cotton smell commonly associated with dolls- and what a doll she was; looking the way she did now. You could spot the petty prettiness in the surface of her iris- there was a fixed stare giving it away. She was a doll pretending to be human, still. But now like clouds, she was made of cotton and lightness; no longer made of matter.

Penelope stared into emptiness, as is expected from most cadavers. But I remember now, I remember her talking about it, a joint between her fingers, lying on Teddy Capilano’s lap. That was the year a bunch of classes were canceled because of the snow; and we missed the whole winter, just from staying inside.

Teddy Capilano was an everlasting transfer student. He had already been through three colleges by the time he got to ours and flunked out of every one of them. Nevertheless, one must never underestimate the power of a donation in one’s college application.

Penelope fell in love with him right away. They were both rebellious against the elitist academia, and they wore matching black outfits to all events. At first, I thought she was just happy in her fucked up way, and I even envied them a little, for having the guts to be fucked up out loud.

Then, of course, it all stumbled into itself, and we should have seen it coming, way before it did.

It happened that day when Penelope and I got in a fight because she wouldn’t take off her coat, despite it being a hot day; sweltering even. The innocent bystander will tell me it was none of my business; why she did not want to take her coat off. The innocent bystander is right, but being wrong wouldn’t keep me from being extremely annoyed at her. I am very easily annoyed, even disturbed- in fact, all it takes is some bad grammar to make me downright depressed. My susceptibility to mental illness significantly affects the thickness level or my skin. Hence, it was hard for me to see Penelope in that coat without feeling a bit claustrophobic myself under the oppressive heat.

“Take that damn thing off, please, I’m begging you. Just thinking about this is already giving me anxiety.”

In spite of my confusion as to why she would be so stubborn as to keep wearing a coat well over a hundred degrees, I would have never put it together myself. Had she not broken down and confessed it to me on the spot, her reluctance would have simply stricken me as eccentric. The whole idea of it seemed absurd to me then, mainly because I had never considered it. See, the only thing worse to me than suffering was alienation from it. And blades; I have always hated blades. I have always hated blood, too.

When reality starts to doubt you, the one thing that proves you are real is feeling; even if that feeling is pain.

I am standing in front of a mirror, always, wondering whether I am myself or just a reflection of the other side. The other side is real; there is a mirror on the other side, too. I think I am both these people, these reflections of people; of each other- and still, I am stuck on each side of the glass unable to fully be.

The pain flickers between us, and we bear it together, because we know pain gives us meaning, and it is that which connects us. We let it float and cut through us in waves, one at a time- pain validates our existences.

When I hear people say we need to stop romanticizing mental illness, I get the feeling those people have no idea of what living with mental illness is like. If I cannot romanticize pain, then I officially have nothing. There is nothing else I can do, you see, but hurt. All the other things I do the wrong way; even the things I used to be good at, like swimming and drawing and talking to people about light-hearted things.

I found dignity in my pain because the pain was the only thing I mastered.

So you try to make the best of it. And God, I was the absolute best at it. I could read all those poems and books and pessimist meditations by prominent thinkers and understand them in a way shallow happy people couldn’t dream of.

I felt superior. I still do. It makes me so very special.

It’s not like that made me any stronger, although I did often quote Hemingway to myself; telling myself the broken were stronger at the broken places, thinking I was special did make me somewhat immune to the allure of death. Incidentally, I didn’t think much of life either, amidst its elaborate plots and people playing characters, pretending to care; being or not being so as to convey a susceptible piece of meaning into one language’s remoteness.

The language of man is designed to outwit you every time, because it changes fast, faster than you and your mouthful of unreal thoughts. Nevertheless, as life and death are equally unattractive to me, I thought I might as well stay where I am.
I would rather suffer like a true romantic than numb it with self-destructive behavior like Penelope. I was going to own my pain. I was profound and poetic. She was just in pain bleeding away her art; bleeding herself away.

Romanticizing mental illness is not about glorifying it; it’s about choosing suffering over numbness when those are your only alternatives. It’s about being unable to even conceive of a world where there are alternatives. If you don’t romanticize the pain, you might as well choose death. People like us were brave because we were special; because we knew that truth was pain, everything else was make-belief. Everything else was made of faulty mirrors or echoes.

Echo and Narcissus had told us a story about more than vanity: it had been about infinite dwelling in yourself, waiting for a theme song that explains you.

Light and sound work alike; they are both easily obstructed. Once they hit a wall, they come back the same way they left, like they never left at all. Like is a dangerous word, however, and one thing which is like another is not quite it, not really. One day the reality of it will disappear; the echoes will come and go until we forget what our voices are like.

I am not quite myself, but I am like myself, still. I am in her body. I’m filling in for her while she goes looking for obstructed childhood memories.

***
Teddy was the one who had introduced her to it; the cutting, he promised her it wouldn’t hurt. It would hurt at first, and then not for a while; not anymore. He had held her hand and kissed it, then bled out a small, straight streak of weakening red. Then, he had done the same to himself, with the same razor blade- thus, they bled the same.

I don’t think Teddy loved Penelope at all: I thought he did at the time, but as things started to get stranger I couldn’t read him anymore. Teddy was a thief, and he knew exactly what you were thinking, always.

Among his hobbies there was intensely and uninterruptedly staring at people until they lost it, throwing disconcerting smiles at you from afar as if he knew all your secrets, inciting fights and arguments, and misplacing stolen goods in his enemies’ things. His way of walking was notably furtive and sly; he looked at everyone but Penelope when they went out, and he was very vague. It’s so easy to fall in love with vague people.

Teddy would cry over Penelope; then tell her she should kill herself. He always told her that, because he was planning on killing himself any day now, and he didn’t want to be without her in death. Teddy always said he’d go to hell, and Penelope should accompany him for the occasion.

He told her,

“If you kill yourself, you will most definitely go to hell. But don’t worry: I’ll be with you the whole time. It won’t be hell as long as we are together.”

I never knew if he was kidding or not. His tone was always made of undiligent mockery. Penelope, however, believed him very much. They even had a pact and all.

He’s just a lunatic; I thought. They won’t go through with it; it’s all part of some bizarre foreplay of theirs. I did talk about this to the counselor, though, which is why she loves me so much. After I had tattled on them, Penelope didn’t speak to me for two months. Teddy just smiled at me in the hallways and acted like nothing was wrong. That was pretty much the only thing that came out of my telling the counselor.

Teddy and Penelope were supposed to die during a solar eclipse, in front of the whole campus. They would jump from the Astronomy building- the tallest building on campus; thereby assuring their death and its effect on the audience. The only reason why it didn’t happen then was because Penelope caught him cheating on her with some undergraduate floozy. And also because I don’t think Teddy was ever really going to do it. He just enjoyed messing with her head- that was his thing; messing with people’s heads.

Before he transferred schools again, Teddy dated two other girls who have since then gone haywire and many a time I have spotted scars on their wrists, needle holes too. One of them dropped out; the other is the campus junkie. I have heard that girls from other schools had similar things happen to them after going out with him, and there was one boy, too.

“Teddy wasn’t gay,” said the boy when we approached him online,
“but he still wanted me to fall in love with him. When I finally poured my heart out to him, he was scary calm- all he said was “I know,” and then he shrugged and looked at me like I was some aberration.”

So, you can see how Teddy was a psychopath- a real life psychopath. I am told those are rare. I wonder if Penelope was the first person he’d ever killed. I knew it was he who killed her because he took everything from her, even pain.

All she had, in the end, was dying.

I stood there for a while, where it was calm, holding that oblivious slice of bread. For a minute the echoes had stopped. She probably didn’t want to hear people’s accounts of her death, either. It’s bad enough to hear it for the first time. They spoke so slowly. They were savoring the story as opposed to the food; they were judging her in death and life, and they probably didn’t know shit about being so utterly miserable you couldn’t move.

***

After the funeral, I called my mom; I told her that she wasn’t getting her money back. I told her I was her daughter and she owed it to me to help me out. Then I asked her why the hell she had named me Raleigh if she knew I would hardly ever go there in my life. My name makes me feel like I owe something to that town; like it’s my grandmother or something, but my grandmother is dead, and she wasn’t from Raleigh, either. So why do I feel like I need to visit?

“You don’t need to visit,” she said.

Then she told me that if I hated it that much, I could always change it.

“This is not a Christmas present I didn’t like, mom. It’s my name.”

“Well, if you don’t want to change it, then it’s not my fault.”

She could not bother with getting it. I like my name; I just wish it meant something. I wish it belonged to me. Penelope’s belonged to her; so much that she dove into the underworld after she lost at love. Perhaps I should embark on a journey of self-discovery all the way to North Carolina; into myself. Oh, well. I don’t have time for that.

Right now I have to catch a plane home and revel in my artistic melancholy, looking out the window, consciously contracting my brow.

You say my life is shit; I’ll tell you it’s a tragi-comic masterpiece. Or maybe it’s just life getting old. I haven’t decided yet. What I’m afraid of now is feeling myself disappear, unable to do anything about it but wait. Yes, it is just life, getting old. Life or something like it.

There are places where suicide is a crime. If for some reason one fails the attempt, one will have to endure, apart from one’s friends laughing about how he can’t even kill himself right, years in prison. All things considered, the only punishment more stupid than this would be the death sentence- which, interestingly enough, most of the countries that criminalize suicide have no trouble with whatsoever.

Anyway, this was my speech. Not having prepared one, I was urged to the… is it still an altar when it’s a funeral, not a wedding? Well, I got up there to say a few words, and I panicked. I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t know any funny stories about Penelope. I mean, obviously, there must be some. But I’m not a get-up-there-and-provide-them-with-cathartic-emotions-like-it’s-the-end-of-a- feel-good-indie-movie kinda girl. So, I just clung to the reliable data I had gotten from Wikipedia.

Countries where suicide is a crime: Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Cyprus, and Singapore. Papua New Guinea and the Bahamas. Just keep listing. “Anyone who attempts to commit suicide is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

“Wow, I’m sure they care. Does this actually keep anyone from doing it?”

No one laughed at my joke.

It wasn’t an easy audience, and so far no one had brought up the fact that Penelope had killed herself. This seemed wrong to me. Someone in this room might very well have contributed to that. Maybe everyone in this room was to blame. All they did was cry, they didn’t feel guilty, they didn’t understand.

Many things her parents had dismissed as laziness and bad temper were in reality far more than that. People like Penelope, they’re not strong enough. They disintegrate, and maybe it’s for the best that they die before they go back home empty-handed. She wouldn’t have to hear that it’s ‘high time she grew up.’

“What are you going to do?”

“You told us you’d give us back the money, Raleigh.”

“You are such a fuck up.”

“I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed.”

“Do you have a job yet?”

“Did you even pass?”

“You are not that young anymore.”

“Why do you still live in a dirty dorm with pizza crumbs all over?”

“Not that young, Raleigh. What is wrong with you?”

***
Everyone was now taking turns looking at the body. People stood there, became uncomfortable, and left once they felt they had paid their respects for an appropriate amount of time. Someone was crying out loud. I hate it when someone cries out loud; it pulls the whole room down with them. Granted, this was a funeral. But still, I didn’t want to be more depressed than I already was. Have some courtesy, for God’s sake- cry at a sensible volume!

Not to mention such displays of grief always make others feel like they should match up to the first individual’s statement of angst and start to weep as well, as loud or louder. All a twisted competition of who is the most miserable.

Obviously, I was the most miserable. I am really good at it; being miserable.

Photo Credit: Sunshine Lady ! Flickr via Compfight cc

Beatriz L. Seelaender

Beatriz L. Seelaender was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1998. In 2016, she published her first novel “De Volta ao Vazio” (a good translation would be “Emptiness, Revisited”), in Brazilian Portuguese. Seelaender’s work in English has been featured in websites such as the Manifest-Station, and she currently studies Literature and Languages in the University of Sao Paulo.

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