The Mirror in the Window at 125th Street
Shayna lives in the old LifeSaver Building in Port Chester. The building is now made of apartments, condos, a lot of young transplants from the city. Some artists, yoga teachers, families, professionals. Her 10-year-old daughter, Maya, loves the studio loft (even though the bathroom is the only room with a door). She likes to envision their loft as the old factory, making candy. When Maya is 6, they visit the Pez Museum in Orange, Connecticut. Maya asks an employee if they will convert this factory into condos some day. The factory is not very big and the employee says, “I don’t know. What do you think?” Maya thinks they will. The employee says if they do, they will be sure to leave some Pez candies hidden “where you least expect it.”
That night, Shayna hears banging on the wall, and finds Maya crying with a hammer in her hand. “I thought there would be a life saver in the wall…”
Shayna had Maya when she was 18 and is sometimes conflicted as a parent. Even ten years in, she doesn’t know how she should have responded to the Life Saver hole-in-the-wall incident.
As it was, she just held Maya and let her cry. You can’t punish a crying child. That is the philosophy that has guided her in parenting. Maya has enough intrinsic guilt without her mother adding to it.
Shayna works as an executive assistant at a not-for-profit in the city. It is a lot of work and she would make more money if she worked at a law firm or in financial services, but she believes in the not-for-profit and she tries to show her daughter beliefs are more important than money.
Shayna tries to teach her daughter many lessons through example. It is hard to raise a daughter on your own (then again, she has no other experience to compare it to), but she makes an effort to give her strength, independence and self-worth. She does not put makeup on during the weekends. She never mentions her weight in front of her daughter, she never complains about finding a gray hair or how one breast is slightly larger than the other. She shows her confidence and nonchalance regarding outward appearance.
When she meets Maya’s friends, she does not comment on how cute their dresses are or how she loves their shoes. She asks them what books they’re reading, and if they could give one gift to every child in the world, what would it be? This is all necessary in crafting a strong, smart woman who knows that a woman’s worth is not based on her looks or sexuality. It is very important to Shayna that her daughter be raised like this.
Shayna is not married and Maya’s father lives in San Diego, so it’s rare if they see him even once a year. Shayna never bad mouths the father in front of her daughter. We all make choices. There is no right away to make a family. Maya has strong male influences in her life. There is Shayna’s brother, Adam, in Nyack. There are Gavin and Nat in the city. Men are as individual as women are. Don’t devalue them as a whole. “But for us, me and you, Maya, this is what we know. This is our family and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Shayna feels tremendous guilt because she is a hypocrite.
It’s a Saturday night and she puts on makeup on the train. He has never seen her without it, except the times when they shower together, but even then, she makes sure to always turn off the overhead light. Only candles which smell like coconut and pineapple. Because she must always smell nice—like a flower, or a fruit, or a baked product.
She buys only unscented lotion for her daughter.
She met him at work. Mark. He’s her boss. Their relationship is so filled with clichés that she wants to slit her own wrists sometimes. She would never do this, of course.
They went out as friends a good deal, at first. Lunch in the middle of the day, drinks at the end of a long night. He always paid. “I’ll charge it to the company.” But he never did. She would have had to submit the paperwork for him.
When they go out, they talk about everything. Their siblings, the towns they grew up in, Maya’s father, Mark’s ex-wife. They talk about their favorite podcasts and Netflix shows. He shows her poetry he has written for her. “I haven’t written since college. But you inspire me. You’re my muse.” She bakes vegan zucchini bread and shares it with him as he exclaims how it’s the best vegan anything he’s ever had. They walk down the streets at night and make up ridiculous songs together about rats hovering over trash bags and entire shops dedicated to 100 different flavors of popcorn. What has New York City come to? They talk about race and politics, money and power, how they both want to make a difference in the world, why they were drawn to the not-for-profit in the first place. He’s funny. She’s funny. They’re both smart and witty. Why wouldn’t they enjoy each other’s company?
They flirt a lot. He crosses many lines as her boss and she lets him. Not just when they are at a bar after work, but in meetings too. She is taking notes at a conference table during a board meeting, sitting next to him, when she feels his hand on her waist, behind her chair. Then it slips lower. Does anyone see? The numerous flights they take around the country. While Gavin and Nat are staying with Maya. Mark and Shayna, sitting next to each other (he upgrades their seats on his own dime), his hand on her thigh. Working his way higher, pulling up her skirt, feeling her bare skin. She says nothing. Her heart is fluttering. She doesn’t move until he reaches for her hand and puts it on his leg, inching her hand up his own thigh. “I want you all the time,” he whispers to her.
Why does she let him? She never feels intimidated or forced by him. She is in control of herself. She should have stopped it at the first sign. Talked to HR if he did not withdraw his inappropriate advances. This is what she will teach Maya to do. Men in power think they have certain rights. They don’t. People are not possessions.
She is such a hypocrite.
She likes it.
She likes him. Maybe it could work…
They don’t talk about any of it until after the first time they have sex.
They are in Atlanta and drinking at the hotel bar. Don’t drink around a man unless you absolutely trust him, she will tell her daughter. And don’t trust a man unless you absolutely know him.
Does she know him?
She does, doesn’t she?
She isn’t drunk, but she has drunk too much. They’re in public but somehow Mark’s hand makes it all the way up her skirt this time. Her mouth opens and she stops breathing—then breathes hard. She’s melting into him right there. She puts one hand behind her on the barstool. The other is holding her drink but she’s going to drop it if he keeps doing this, so she sets it on the bar.
Can he do this in front of other people? The bartender doesn’t seem to care. If anyone is seeing them, they don’t say anything.
Do people do this all the time and she just hasn’t noticed?
She doesn’t stop him. After all, she wants him too.
“Come with me,” Mark says and leaves cash at the bar. She stumbles off the stool and he holds her hand all the way to his room. They don’t speak or look into each other’s eyes, because if they did, they’d stop walking, start kissing and they’d never make it to the room.
He’s never kissed her.
How has that not happened?
For all his advances, they’ve been subtle. If you can call it that. Distant, in a way, unspoken. Desperate and wanting, but more side-by-side than looking into each other’s eyes.
They make it to the room and thank God, she doesn’t have to be quiet any more.
She is such a cliché. A business trip. Her boss. A bar. A hotel room.
God, what is wrong with me?
They’ve been waiting for this. After weeks (or has it been months?) of juvenile groping, they’re alone.
He kisses her hard and he makes love hard.
Afterward, they talk. Finally. She’s been driving him crazy, Mark says. He loves everything about her—her brown eyes, her hip bones, her ribs, the curve of her waist. He feels so close to her. He can’t get enough of her. It’s not just her body—although he’s been starving for her. “You know that, right?” It’s her strength. Her quest to dissect and figure out the world and that she listens to “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” on the weekends.
Shayna feels connected to him too. She’s been walking around in a constant state of desire the past few months. He has infiltrated her bloodstream which has made its way to every part of her body. But it’s not just her lust for him. She loves that he plays soccer every Tuesday night and watches Orange is the New Black, that he can explain how the tides work, and that he listens to “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” on the weekends too.
Her heart is happy with him. Maybe this can work. Maybe they can talk to HR. Maybe it is not about power or short skirts or the excitement of public private desire. Maybe all of this is real.
They must have sex again. They need to.
The next day (he has the courtesy to wait until the next day), Mark casually mentions he is seeing another woman. “It’s not serious. But, you know, I’m not ready to be exclusive. She knows I’m dating other women too.”
Other women? Plural? “You’re…with more than…a couple?”
“There’s nothing specific. Don’t worry.” But you know, if it comes up, he’s not tied down yet. That’s all. But no one is like her. Nothing is like this. He has a real connection with her. She’s special. He just wants to be upfront. Honest.
She goes back to her hotel room and wonders what it takes to get a man like him. If a connection and hot sex is not enough…Is it her? Is it him? What advice would she give her daughter?
Oh, her daughter…thank God Maya is in the nurturing hands of a stable couple right now. Look at her. Shayna’s mascara is smudged around her eyes. Cliché. This is why I should not wear makeup.
She thinks about slitting her wrists again. But of course she will not do this.
Mark is taking her out in the city tonight. He lives in Chelsea and Shayna always comes to him. He doesn’t even know more than one town in Westchester (he’s had a few meetings in White Plains over the years). Does he know she parks in Rye on the weekends so she doesn’t have to walk home from the station in Port Chester late at night?
She makes a mental list of conversation pieces for dinner. They have nothing to say to each other outside the office now. Isn’t that strange? But she appreciates the effort of a dinner Before. Shayna knows he is calculating with this, putting in the least amount of time necessary so that they can pretend she is more than “the girl he fucks.” But they both know their time together is mostly about The After. And hey, they both love The After:
They have sex in his office, she bent over his desk, skirt hiked up. Mark behind her, pants at his feet. He loves the sounds she makes. They have sex in restaurant bathrooms, he holding her up against a wall, her feet off the ground, wrapped around him. She loves how strong he is, releasing into her. They have sex in cabs, her on top, his hands on her hips. She feels guilty about treating the driver as though he were not there, but Mark leaves a fifty dollar tip and says it’s “all good.” They both love feeling wild, free, exploding into each other with a kind of manic sexual madness.
It’s all rather cliché.
But for a reason, she sighs. It works.
“I’ve always wanted to have sex in a cab. But no girl would do it with me. You’re so exciting.” He kisses her. “I’m always so fucking excited around you!”
This is something she has over the other women he dates. Right?
Shayna lets him go everywhere inside of her. Everywhere. No woman has let him do this before, he says.
So she is special, right? He must value her more?
Or less? She’s too easy? He could pay a prostitute to do these things.
She will warn her daughter about men who comment on other women in front of you, like Mark does to her. If they don’t even have the courtesy to hide their attraction to someone else; if they, in fact, draw your attention to a hot woman at the theatre, or suggest threesomes with another fling, or shower their restaurant server with inappropriate flirtations—If you meet a man like this, then they are doing one of two things:
Either they are insecure and they’re trying to make you feel like shit so that you will think you have no other option than to stay with them. Or, they think so little of you and their relationship that they can’t imagine why it would possibly even bother you.
Shayna is not sure which category Mark falls into. But any girl with self-respect would not stay with a man like this.
Look away, Maya…
She hopes she will remember her mental list of conversation starters for tonight. Maya tried out for a school play. She’ll be a sleeping child in Peter Pan. No, no, no. A new person moved into the condo across the hall. She smells Italian food cooking at three in the morning. What is up with that? No, no. There is nothing she wants to tell him. There is nothing he wants to hear. Unless the conversation is foreplay for sex, Mark is not interested. Unless she is “sexting” him, he doesn’t write back. Even when her great-aunt dies, even when she tells him she has a fever of 102, his texts back are curt: “So sorry,” he writes to both. The least amount of effort to not appear an entire asshole. If she writes back with more details, he will not reply again.
He won’t discuss their relationship. If she tries to bring it up, if she confesses how she is confused by his hot and cold demeanor with her (but really, when it comes down to it, sadly, she’s not), he might kiss her neck and bury himself in her hair. “You worry too much.”
“I’m not worrying. I’m just wondering.” She tries to play it cool. “I get—confused when you seem, I don’t know, distant.”
“I’m right here. How distant can I be?
“You know that’s not what I mean. I feel…”
“Are you really complaining right now? Shayna? Can’t we just…enjoy this?”
“I’m not—I’m not complaining. I’m just…”
Her words are cut off by his lips.
This is not what a relationship should be like. She knows this. A cowardly man who considers discussing feelings a form of complaining. She is not a child refusing to try vegetables. She deserves a relationship. She wants a relationship. She is still young. She should have a future with someone.
Why does she stay with him?
Shayna gets mad at him when they go to an event together and he speaks to another woman for the entire night. He doesn’t even introduce her. Mark has a terrible habit of turning his back on her when they are at events, and holding conversations without her. She knows he would not be this socially inept (rude) with anyone else from work, or a casual friend whom he was not role-playing a French Maid Fantasy with in the kitchen of his one-bedroom in Chelsea. But he does this with her. Now. Since.
He returns to her at 11:30, ready to take her home with him. Shayna is quiet in the cab. He nibbles her ear and unbuttons her blouse. She gently picks up his hand and removes it, then slides to the other end of the cab. She and her daughter share the same eyes, and they are strong tonight. She knows he is not hers alone. He has never said that he is. Flirtations are one thing, but to abandon her like this? For the whole night? She saw him typing this woman’s number into his phone. He has done this all in front of her, in the same room. In front of her.
She is special. She will be valued. There is a limit.
He looks like a hurt child. He is surprised, confused. Mark has no idea what he’s done wrong.
He’s in the second category of men.
She tells the driver to drop her off at Grand Central. She smiles at Mark as she gets out of the cab and says she will see him at work. He tries to pay for the cab and catch up to her, but she will be on the platform before his credit card registers. He will not know how to find her because he does not even know what train line she takes.
She is polite to him at work. She would be foolish to curse at him, yell at him. He is her boss, after all. And Shayna won’t be that kind of rejected woman—although she is rejecting him. At this point anyway. She will forgive him and move on. She is an example for her daughter.
Self-worth. Look back, Maya.
She is polite, but she will not let him touch her. He is desperate for her, apologizing, promising, he can’t be without her. Mark calls her every night for a week until they have phone sex (cliché, but oh, it’s good), and he actually takes the train to Port Chester to see her at the Old Lifesaver Building the next evening when Maya is at a sleep-over.
When she finally lets him back into her that night, it is wonderful. He’s gentle, looking into her eyes. He wants to make her feel pleasure over and over and over. “Let me do this for you...I want to taste you...I want you to be out of control...God, you’re so beautiful when you're out of control!”
He’s wanted her so badly. How has he survived this week without her touch? He’s been withering, famished without her. Obsessing over her, not sleeping. “Don’t do this to me ever again. Please, please. I need you…I need you…”
Shayna has done this to him. She’s changed him. Pride. Although, she hates that it’s only through sexual means (or lack thereof). The oldest profession in the book. And she hates that she also loves it. Guilt.
She knows it won’t last.
Don’t look at his cell phone, she tells herself. Don’t look at the text message that just came through while he’s taking a shower. Don’t see that it’s from another woman saying yes, she’ll be over to his place at three that afternoon wearing the thong he got her. Don’t read into the fact that, when he’s out of the shower and has checked his phone, he says he needs to take off at one, because he’s got some work to catch up on this weekend. Don’t make it your mission to lure him to stay another night and miss his escapade with the other woman by giving him a strip tease, by dressing up in the Catholic School Girl uniform he got you, by pulling out all your adventurous sexual tricks you know he loves so that he will choose you over this other woman.
For today anyway.
Don’t stoop to that. You’re better than that. You are not a sexual object. You are more than that.
Shayna will tell her daughter not to let a man face your back during sex more than 50% of the time, like Mark does. It’s a sign of dominance. Why does he not want to look at you? She understands why it’s fun; she likes it too. Half the time—okay. But over half? 80 percent? Sex makes him an animal. There is no love, only lust. He can’t control himself—but…they both know that he can.
She hates that she loves that he lusts after her. Why does she relish in the power of sex instead of who she is outside of her sex?
He has power over her too.
She is a hypocrite. A cliché. She feels like slitting her wrists, but of course…
She feels guilty all the time. She is betraying her daughter every day.
Shayna applies another layer of lip gloss (Well, it’s not lipstick, at least, she tells herself) at 125th Street. As they go underground, and the outside becomes dark, the window transforms to a mirror and she looks at her hair in the reflection.
She Facetimes a good-night to Maya on her phone. She only has a minute before she will lose reception.
“Mommy, you look so pretty!”
Shayna’s heart is in her throat.
Should she say thank you?
Don’t acknowledge it.
“Okay,” she answers. “Did you read the next chapter of The BFG to Uncle Adam?”
“Yes, yes, yes! I did the accent too. I’m getting better, aren’t I, Uncle Adam?”
“She is. A regular cockney gehl you ‘ave ‘ere.”
“I love you, sweetie. Almost to Grand Central.”
“I love you too! Good-night!”
She has lost reception.
Shayna wonders if her daughter can read her. If she hears her come to their loft late at night, early the next morning, if she hears the shower running. If all her external hypocrisies are seen through by this 10-year-old version of herself.
God, don’t let her be like me, she prays every night.
Don’t let her hate herself.
Keep her from knowing me.
T.L. Meddaugh holds her MFA in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. Her work has been published by Applause Theater & Cinema, Meriweather Publishing, Oxford Press South Africa, YouthPLAYS, and London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. She lives just outside of New York City with her family.