j. l. navarro

The Oval Mirror

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          It was old and Emma Cruz liked old things.  The mirror was full length with an oval shape, and the price was reasonable.  The surface was covered with a hazy coat of dust.  It looked almost new. The cherry wood frame was free of scratches.  She couldn't believe they were getting rid of it at such a low cost.   


She asked the saleslady at the antique shop if she knew where it had come from.


"To be perfectly honest, I really don't," she said.  "The manager might have gotten it from an estate sale, or from one of our suppliers."  Then she stood back and looked at it.  "The funny thing is, I don't remember seeing it until now."  She looked at Emma and laughed.  "I may have bought it myself if I had."  The woman scowled at the dusty surface.  "Must have just come in. It's not even clean yet.  Would you like us to dust it off for you?"


"That won't be necessary."


After checking it for cracks, she paid the woman and had one of the clerks help her carry it to her car where they secured it in the trunk.  It would look well in the guest room, she thought, with Bruno, her stuffed howler monkey.


At home, she carried it upstairs and wiped the surface clean after spritzing it with Windex.  While she was wiping a damp cloth over the frame, she found a silver label with black trim pasted to the back.  In cobalt letters, this was written in fancy calligraphy: Stoddard's Funeral Home.  She'd never heard of it.  Peeling it off, she put it in her pocket, then stood back and looked at herself.  She had a compelling, abrupt impulse to take her clothes off.  On the bureau, Bruno the monkey stood in a perpetual frozen pose staring into space.  She had bought the hairy beast at a swap meet when she was a sophomore in college.  The couple that sold it to her said the creature was native to Costa Rica. 


Bringing her tank top over her head, she let it fall on the floor next to Jennie, her dog, who was sitting at her feet.  It was a small mixed breed, part Chihuahua and part Boston bull.  She had a glossy black coat with a white egg shaped patch on her chest.  The dog began to pant eagerly, her flat, gargoyle face breaking into a wide, clown-like grin.


After peeling off her jeans and taking off her bra and panties, Emma stood in front of the mirror admiring the dipping, jutting curves of her tanned flesh, shapely and full without being plump.  Her dark hair hung loose past her slender shoulders, and her brown eyes looked larger than they were behind black-rimmed glasses.  An old boyfriend once told her that she should wear contacts.  He said the glasses made her look like "a square."  She wanted to tell him that "square" was a colloquialism that was seldom used, and then only by dinosaurs; that it made him sound like an out-of-date dweeb.  But she didn't. 


Just above the cleavage of her rounded buttocks, there was a short, grotesque appendage less than three inches long that she could move at will—and she did—as she looked at her slim backside in the mirror.  It was a tail; there was no other word for it.  She had tried finding explanations in medical books and only came away with a scant descriptive phrase: vestigial organ—two words that were better suited to a Darwinian classroom than a description of an unnatural, gangling limb on a twenty-first century human being.  In spite of the possession of this abnormality, it did not daunt her belief in a Supreme Being.  She believed in God as much as her parents did, though she did not go to church as much as she supposed she should, usually on Christmas day and Easter Sunday, and then mostly for the nostalgic ritual.  Her spiritual inclinations leaned more to the Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, than to her Catholic origins.


This thing she had been born with, something her father possessed as well, did not define her.  Her father was not in the least put off by this irregularity and he would sometimes moon her and her mother when he had a few too many beers, barking like a dog between peals of riotous laughter, all the while swinging his thick tail as he swayed his butt from side to side.  It looked remarkably like a flesh colored hot dog.


"Philippe, put it away," her mother would say, finding no humor in his vulgar antics.  "Put it away or I will cut it off!"


The hidden knowledge of his additional limb was not known much outside the immediate family. By comparison, her father's tail was at least twice as long as hers.  Nevertheless, the curiosity had imposed sharp restrictions in her life she could have done without.  High school had been an adolescent nightmare because it was the place they secretly whispered, "monkey girl" behind her back.  Boys would take her out, not to feel her breasts, but to grope her tail. It had become a derisive game with them, to see who could further confirm the rumor and satisfy their own impertinent curiosity. Consequently, she did little dating, helping to preserve her virginity. Her social life suffered dramatically, substantially enhancing her scholastic accomplishments.  She graduated from high school at sixteen and received her B.A. in psychology at twenty.  By the time she was legally able to buy wine coolers, she was counseling and consoling at a battered women's shelter in Redondo Beach, even though she had never felt the passion of a man between her legs, much less been married or struck by anything more lethal than her mother's rebuking slaps.


She had considered having the tail removed surgically but abstained from this because she was sure that it had something to do with her uncertain destiny in some peculiar, unrealized way; that there was a mysterious reason for it and therefore could not just be discarded like the placenta that had enveloped her in the womb.  Then of course there was a high probability that her children might be born with this anomaly as well, further adding complications to any relationship with a man, whether she was married to him or not.  She never really thought of it as something to be ashamed of.  But then, she did not go about showing her vagina indiscriminately to people she knew simply to get their opinion.  Why then, show them her tail?  Ultimately, she was more concerned with what people might think of her, and not what she thought about it herself.  While she admired her body in the mirror, not much had changed since she left college.  She still possessed her virginity, hardly dated, and had aged eight years. 


That night, after a light salad and a comedy rental, she went to bed, relieved that the following day was Sunday.  She would rest and read a book on the psychology of the abusive male in middle class society.   Cruel men knew no boundaries, rich or poor.  If they were gripped with the irresistible compulsion to beat women, mentally or physically, they would do it as if to fulfill some sinister karmic purpose.  Her father never beat her mother, although, from time to time, he did his fair share of yelling at them both in order to vent his frustrations. 


Under the covers, slipping into a light slumber, she heard unusual sounds coming from the guest room.  She sat up attentively and listened, thinking that perhaps she had been dreaming. As the noise continued, she became alarmed that a burglar might be in the house.  It sounded like the bed springs, as if someone were rocking the mattress. She always kept the door closed and the window shut and locked in that room.  In the three years she had been living in the house, she had never heard any notable sounds coming from there.


Her bedroom door was ajar.  Cautiously, she peeked outside and saw Jennie shivering in front of the guest room door.  The dog looked at her with sad wet eyes, whimpering.  Emma placed her ear to the door and heard the bedsprings going in a recurring, regular motion, the dog trembling at her feet.  She didn't believe in guns but wished she had one at that moment.  Quietly, she crept down to the kitchen and came back with a stainless steel steak knife.  The bedsprings were still going as if someone were having sex on the mattress. 


"If there's anybody in there, you better leave," she said.  "I've already called the police." 


No one answered, but the agitated bedsprings could still be heard churning their metallic whining.  Gathering her courage, she flung the door open and found the room empty.  The night was coming in through the window, laying a silver-blue patch of light on the still bed.  She plainly saw the covers crumpled over the mattress and the window open, the night breeze fluttering the flimsy, transparent curtains.  Switching on the lights, she saw Bruno looking at her from the bureau in his eternal crouching position, appearing as if he were about to leap.  She looked at the closet door—shut—just as she remembered it. 


"If anyone's here, you better come out.  The police are on their way.  I'm warning you."


The sound of rolling, hissing surf and the dank smell of ocean brine filled the room.  She gripped the knife and walked toward the closet door.  Her mouth had become dry as sandpaper.  She saw her reflection in the mirror as she gripped the doorknob and swiftly yanked it open.  There were some ramshackle boxes and a few neglected clothes on hangers, nothing out of place. Puzzled, she appraised the room again.  At the window, she looked out at the quiet night, seeing the ocean tossing waves on the beach a short distance away, foam lapping leisurely at the wet sand as it regressed.  There was a light fog in the air and no signs of living creatures.   She closed the window and locked it, sure that it had been locked before.  After this, she went to every window in the house, downstairs and up, to make sure they were locked.  She checked the backdoor and the front.  Both were secured.


Hours later, she lay in bed, listening, unable to sleep, wondering who could have been in her house.  She debated calling the police.  But nothing had been taken.  Maybe they were a couple of teenagers looking for a place to fuck.  But even this did not make any sense.  How did they get in?




This story is included in The Blood Cake Vendor and Other Stories.