The Mirror Game

[fiction]

Walking into rehearsal that day, I felt awkward and out of place. I sat at my little producer’s desk in a quiet corner of the drama room. I tried to scan the space from under the cover of my bangs, while pretending to read texts. The room looked like other classrooms—beige linoleum floors, once-white walls, fluorescent overhead lights—except that the ceiling was much higher and most of the floor space was bare. As I spotted actors I knew from class and others who were only vaguely familiar from the cafeteria, I realised that the person I really wanted to see was absent. Charlotte, our star, was nowhere to be seen, but she often entered at the last minute. She seemed to enjoy making an entrance. I tried to use my peripheral vision to find Mr. Evans, the director. He might be as short as the average grade-nine student, but his animated gesticulations usually stood out in a crowd. Unfortunately, there was too much hair in my way to even spot Mr. Evans’s talkative hands, so I attempted to blow some of the bangs out of my face. Instead, I managed to spit on my phone. Lovely. I wiped the screen on my jeans and looked up in time to see Mr. Evans giving me a funny look. Oh god! Had he seen me spit on my phone then wipe it on my jeans like some grimy toddler smearing a booger on her leg?

Charlotte’s Medusa-effect seemed only to work when I was looking directly at her, so I swallowed the saliva I’d been hoarding while gazing up at Mr. Evans’s little pot belly.

Before I could figure out what to do, Charlotte breezed into the room, tossing her jean jacket on top of a pile of backpacks with a coordination and confidence I could only admire. She grinned at the room and this somehow worked as a signal to the other actors who all gathered in a circle. Mr. Evans joined them, but I hesitated. Did I have to join the circle? I wasn’t one of the creative types. I was just the student producer, the person who kept things organised and did basic math to make a budget. I looked down at my phone again, hoping for an answer. It was, as usual, totally unhelpful. Smartphone, my ass, I thought.

“Alison, phones aren’t allowed in rehearsal. Put it away and join us.” Mr. Evans stepped back to make room for me to squeeze between him and one of the actors.

“Now close your eyes. Listen to your breath.” The room was silent except for the sound of the prehistoric ventilation system rattling away above our heads. “Try to match your breathing to the people next to you. If we can breathe together, we can create art together.”

How could I match two different people’s breathing? I unintentionally held my breath while trying to listen to the breathing of my neighbours. The room gradually got louder as some people shifted uncomfortably and others tried to help those around them by inhaling and exhaling loudly. Mr. Evans either didn’t notice or didn’t mind. “Excellent work! I can feel our energies coming into alignment.” Our energies coming into alignment felt a lot like a class of kids trying to suppress giggles, but who was I to judge? “Now open your eyes and find a partner for our warmups.”

I held back as I watched the actors pair off. Even the freshmen seemed confident enough to make overtures to near-strangers. It looked like everyone else had found a partner and I was about to tell Mr. Evans that I would skip the rest of the warmup when a pair of cool blue eyes froze me to the spot.

“Looks like we’re the odd ones out.” This close, I could see that one of Charlotte’s incisors protruded a little.

I was so nervous that I couldn’t swallow my own saliva. So this is a thing I do now, I thought. My saliva tasted acidic, like warm diet soda. I nodded at Charlotte, unable to think of anything else to do. I couldn’t speak and it would be unutterably rude to just walk away. I was going to have to partner with Charlotte for whatever mad “game” Mr. Evans made us play next.

At a signal from Mr. Evans, all the actors sat on the ground. Charlotte sat cross-legged in a single fluid move. I made my way down in increments, like my arthritic grandmother: first I bent my knees a little, then I put a hand down to balance myself and finally I lowered myself all the way. At least I didn’t grunt or groan like an old person. Of course, that was probably only because I couldn’t make a sound unless I wanted to drool all over myself like some over-excited bulldog.

I craned my neck to look at Mr. Evans, pretending that I needed to see him to properly follow his directions. Charlotte’s Medusa-effect seemed only to work when I was looking directly at her, so I swallowed the saliva I’d been hoarding while gazing up at Mr. Evans’s little pot belly.

“We’re warming up with a classic today. You’re going to act as mirrors. The job of the mirror is to reflect exactly what their partner is doing. The leader’s job is to make sure that the mirror can follow their movements. Use eye contact to help you communicate. This warmup is about building bonds and paying attention to how we move. I’ll tell you when to change so that the mirror becomes the leader.” Why would awkward eye contact make people better actors? Theatre people were baffling.

Mr. Evans switched on some weirdo spa music and people shifted so that they were facing each other. It looked like the other pairs were staying seated on the floor, so I turned my body to face Charlotte and forced myself to look directly into her eyes. The cool blue of her irises were outlined in midnight blue. Her eyes reminded me of colouring books when I was a little kid. I would follow the lines with my colouring crayon, pressing down to create a satisfying dark outline, then I would lightly colour in the centre.

“Want to be the leader first?” Charlotte offered. I shook my head no. “Okay. I’ll go first,” she said.

Charlotte slowly raised her right arm, long fingers splayed in a languid hello. I tried to match her loose-limbed movements, but everything in me felt too tight. To an outsider, she must have looked like a cool ballerina, while I must have looked like a robotic facsimile of a human being.

I panicked, thinking I had somehow disappointed her, but then it came to me: I must be frowning. Why would I be frowning? Did I normally frown? I made an effort to smile.

Charlotte lowered her arm and I followed her as she rested her hand on the floor. It was difficult to concentrate on the outer edges of my body. It felt like every atom of my being was being drawn into the point where our eyes met. Charlotte smiled and my brain reminded me, a beat too late, that I was supposed to do what she did. I smiled back and her smile grew almost imperceptibly. Was it possible I had made Charlotte happy, even in some small way? I could now feel my heart as well as the hot point between us.

Charlotte reached her left hand forward, fingertips at the very edge of our imaginary boundary. I moved my own hand without thinking. In the periphery of my vision, I could see the contrast between my pale skin and her lightly tanned skin. Then she twitched her index finger forward and every atom in my body rushed to that point of contact. Emptied of my atoms, I forgot to breathe. The next moment, she slid her hand up, as if it rested against the mirror between us. My entire palm was now pressed against hers. My fingers were shorter than hers and I wondered vaguely what it would feel like if she wrapped her hand around mine.

“Everyone up! Mirrors are the leaders now!” Mr. Evans’s peppy instructions jarred me out of my reverie.

When Charlotte stood up, I followed her, still attuned to her every action. I almost mirrored her raised eyebrows until I realised she was reminding me that it was my turn to lead. Though I wanted to touch her again, I couldn’t bring myself to be that forward. Instead, I modestly nodded my head yes. She followed, frowning.

I panicked, thinking I had somehow disappointed her, but then it came to me: I must be frowning. Why would I be frowning? Did I normally frown? I made an effort to smile.

Her lips turned up, but no protruding incisor. I told myself to smile big and there it was. I took a deep breath and so did she. So this is what it was like to breathe with someone. Maybe Mr. Evans had been on to something.

Mr. Evans clapped his hands together. I didn’t break eye contact with Charlotte until he instructed the actors to take their places for Act I. At that point, I reluctantly made my way to my table. Only when I was seated did I realise I had somehow managed to swallow like a normal person during the mirror exercise. Miracle!

The rehearsal seemed to drag, probably because I had to ration my glimpses at Charlotte. I didn’t want to act like a stalker, so I made myself look at six other people before looking back at her. She was in character, which meant she seemed more regal and untouchable than ever. But I had touched her. My stomach clenched at the thought.

When Mr. Evans finally instructed the group to give themselves a round of applause, I thrilled at the sight of her walking towards me.

She stopped in front of my table. “You make me look much better than my mirror at home. Can you come to my house every morning to make me feel hot?” She laughed. Her laugh was a bit hiccup-y. I loved it. I wanted to hear more of it. “Sorry. That’s a terrible line.”

I smiled and considered flirting back. (She had to be flirting, right?) And then, with the worst possible timing, Mr. Evans interrupted. “Alison, can we speak?”

“Of course,” I said. I turned back to Charlotte, desperate to say something, anything, to let her know I was interested. “I’ll be sure to reflect on your offer.” It was a terrible pun and I regretted it the second I said it, but then she laughed again. I sketched an awkward wave as I turned away from her and readied myself for producer work.

Mr. Evans rambled on about props and costumes, but I kept thinking about Charlotte. I wondered if she was gay. Then I wondered if she knew I was gay. It’s not like I was in the closet or anything, but I also wasn’t a member of our Gay-Straight Alliance. The movies make it seem like coming out is a single, cathartic (or traumatic) moment, but it’s actually a constant process. It’s exhausting and it makes dating in high school even more confusing than it already is.

Maybe I had imagined the heated moment between us when we were playing the mirror game. Maybe I was just seeing my desire reflected back at me. Maybe it had all been performance. But wasn’t all flirting a kind of performance? If that was true, then maybe I was a bad actor. Maybe I didn’t know the right cues, the subtle signs I was supposed to use to communicate my attraction and gayness to my audience.

I left rehearsal feeling out of place with myself.

 

Dani Jansen is a writer, teacher and tea aficionado living in Montreal, Canada. Her work has appeared in The A3 Review, Kazka Press, and Fiction Southeast. “The Mirror Game” is a chapter from her first YA novel.