Mirror Stories: I Saw Redemption


Jan_KelliI slip through the back door, tinkling the silver bell. Random heads turn. I meet eyes–here, there, over yonder. And then they drop. Back into their warm bowls of soup. Back to their sandwiches and their crisp lettuce with house vinaigrette.

These are not the eyes I am looking for. Not the ones I am waiting to see. She must not be here yet, I muse, slinking off toward the bathroom.

When I get there, my eyes glare back, long and hard in the mirror. I give myself a pep talk. Age has happened. I know it and I feel it. There are sags and wrinkles and I swim in a sea of self-consciousness. Because twenty years has gone by like a lunch break on a busy Friday just before Christmas.

And here we are on such a Friday, finding time to squeeze in a few moments of friendship. But how will we relate after twenty years of silence? I inhale deep and then whisper, “vulnerability” while breathing out.

This word is my lifeline. It reminds me of what I believe about relationships. I believe in the power of being me. I believe in not faking it. I believe in letting the cracks surface–not only for the light they can let in, but also for the light they can let out.

With my hand on the knob, I coach myself in these things. Then I open the door and brave the anonymous stares again as I head toward the counter to place my order. A chill runs down my spine, but I convince myself it’s only from the dampness of my sweater. A haircut just before this lunch rendezvous might not have been the best way to stay relaxed. I study the chalkboard menu.

It’s only a few minutes before I feel her squeeze my elbow. I whirl around with more adrenaline than I mean to and smack, I’m face to face with those chocolate eyes. That smile so warm it could melt butter. Or the ice of perfectionism. And we embrace.

There’s a generosity in our conversation after the staleness of twenty years wears off. We talk of our children and our spouses. Our parents and our siblings. She tells me how she’s always lived here and I laugh at how many zip codes I’ve known. We cover universities and churches and high school memories. I spend more than my fair share of time sucking my teeth for that one piece of salad I just know is hanging on and making a fool out of me.

Then, with the right combination of words–the right intimate question–I feel it. I start to crack.

Old pain emerges and vulnerability surfaces. I’m reminded of the word I whispered behind the locked bathroom door just a few minutes prior. Vulnerability, darn it, I think as I dab my eyes with a smeared napkin. How can it be both the thing I most want and the thing I most dread at the same time? I’ll never know. But it is.

There are tears. And I forget about the salad in my teeth.

But life is never without surprise and right there, with crumbs on the table and strangers in a booth less than a foot away, my friend reaches out to me. First her eyes well up. Then tender, personal stories that I’ve never heard before tumble from her lips. She begins to reciprocate. She doesn’t shame me or turn up the volume on her professionalism. She doesn’t hand me some moral platitude or try to talk me into her conclusions. She does the least likely, but most endearing thing of all–she cracks, too.

And as mesmerized as I am by the depth spilling from her chocolate browns, self-consciousness still nips at my heels.

Resolutely, I say to myself: 

Let the watching world judge us for silly, emotional fruitcakes, if they will. Let them snicker behind their bread bowls and roll their eyes as they jiggle the ice in their empty glasses. We will honor this moment for all its sacredness. We will be women who love and who aren’t afraid to show it. We will hand each other a napkin or a toothpick, knowing that when we do, we’re actually handing each other a mirror.

Because that’s what my friend did on that yuletide Friday at lunch. She handed me a different way to see myself. Instead of seeing ugly in the cracks and scarcity climbing the walls, she handed me her lens.

What I saw as I looked through it was a strong, courageous woman who has not only been to hell and back, but who will do everything in her might to make peace with the time she spent there. For once, I saluted my own story. I saw my life as a whole. Not the bloodied pieces scattered here and there; not the hair-brained attempts at getting it right–FINALLY–that have characterized the way I’ve judged myself. No, instead, that day I saw dignity. I saw integration.

I saw redemption.

Like all good things, our shared lunch had to come to an end. We said goodbye and headed back to our respective lives.

But I walked away a different woman than I had walked in. Was I different? I don’t know. I wore the same clothes, sucked my teeth in the same quirky way, and buckled in behind the same steering wheel. I drove the same roads before pulling into the same driveway I pulled out of. This is all true.

Perhaps what was different was not in these things. Perhaps it waited for me in the mirror.


Image credit: EmsiProduction