One must write without thinking about forms,
and just because it pours
freely from one’s soul.
– Anton Chekhov – The Seagull
It was early one autumn morning, after a restless night’s sleep, when Augustine, a twenty-two year old student at Hunter College, looked into the bathroom mirror, and it reflected his naked body without a face. Regardless of how long he studied the glass, he couldn’t see his eyes, nose, mouth, or lips, only an empty space staring back at him. He tried to remember if anything like this had happened to him before, but couldn’t recall having seen a reflection like the one he now saw in the mirror. He remembered being drunk, stoned, dizzy, feeling a little numb, but a body without a face was a new experience for him. It brought up images in Margritte paintings he saw at MOMA a few weeks ago, paintings he’d relegated to the whimsy of a surreal artist.
It couldn’t be that way in real life, he thought.
He looked again, but no face, not even an outline of an ear or a nose or a crop of black hair. Maybe it’s the mirror, Augustine mused. He went into the living room, carefully peeked at his image in a large looking glass, and all he saw was an empty space on top of his shoulders. The whole thing struck him as being very funny – a scene from a sci-fi movie starring Augustine the faceless wonder. But, faces don’t just disappear, he thought. I’ve never seen a faceless person on the streets. It’s a dream. I must be still sleeping.
He pinched himself until it hurt so bad he could see a red mark on his arm.
Augustine picked up a book and began to read, but couldn’t understand how it was possible to read if his eyes were missing, how it was possible to eat something if he had no tongue or teeth; how it was possible to look into a mirror if he had no face? It was a bizarre question that had no answer.
Just forget about it, he said to himself. Your face will return in a few minutes. It didn’t get lost somewhere to never come back. It needs a neck and shoulders and a body on which to rest. If this isn’t a dream; if it’s not some strange TV show or novel I’m reading, how could I have become a circus sideshow freak – a person who can eat and see and smell without having the organs to do so?
He looked again into the mirror.
“It’s gone,” he screamed. “Maybe I’ll find it in another room.”
Augustine searched high and low in every room of his small apartment, in the living room, kitchen and bedroom, in every closet and under the sink. He was becoming desperate. He figured that by now his face should have returned and he could live a normal life. He had to shave this morning and also brush his teeth. He went into the bathroom. But, once again, the mirror reflected a neck without a face.
So he turned away, dressed, went outside, and blended in with crowds of people walking on Broadway. He wondered why they didn’t talk to each other, and if the mirror in these people’s lives also reflected an invisible person. He dropped a coin into a beggars cup; he laughed when a little girl jumped into her mother’s arms; he took a flyer from a woman offering a twenty percent discount if he cut his hair at her barber shop. When he looked into the window of a shoe store, there was no reflection of himself in the glass, no face, and now, no body, nothing but handmade shoes from Italy, cotton socks, and a salesman who smiled at him and motioned for him to enter. Augustine went in and tried on a pair of shoes, looked in the store mirror at an invisible self with a pair of fancy Italian loafers on his feet.
“They look great,” the sales clerk said. “Made just for you.”
“I guess,” Augustine responded. “How much are they?”
“Sixty dollars,” he replied.
Augustine purchased the shoes. He had a party to go to in a few days and the shoes he bought would be a perfect fit when he put on his trousers and jacket.
As he left the store, a rubber ball bounced off a car near him and two kids screamed at him to get it.
“Hey, mister, what are ya waitin’ for? Can ya throw the ball to us?” He picked it up and tossed it to them across the street.
Can it be, he thought, that I’m no longer invisible? He rushed to the building in which he lived, ran up the stairs, opened the door of his apartment, went to the bathroom and cautiously looked into the mirror. He could see his arms and legs and body, but his face wasn’t there.
“Strange,” he said to himself. “Everyone sees me no matter where I go, everyone but me. I’m a freak in my own eyes, but normal to the rest of the world. It’s got to change. How can I spend my days living like this?”
Augustine decided to go to a restaurant to eat a little something to tide him over before going to a journalism class. He sat by himself at the counter of a Greek diner, ordered scrambled eggs, bacon and a cup of coffee. No one stared at him; no one got up and left the restaurant; no one complained to management that a faceless man was eating breakfast. Business was as usual – a steady flow of customers ordered coffee, eggs, donuts, Danish and assorted other breakfast foods. They paid Augustine no mind. He lifted his eyes and looked into the mirror on the other side of the counter, but saw nothing, not a face or a body – an invisible man sipping coffee and eating scrambled eggs. Augustine asked a woman sitting next to him if he had a smudge of something on his face. She just laughed. “You look fine to me. Pretty good looking if I may say so, no dirt, not a thing there.”
“I’ll tell ya something, lady. When I look in the mirror I don’t see anything. I’m an invisible man.”
“And I’m Sancho Panza,” a man said who was sitting on the other side of Augustine. The lady just stared at them. She picked up her purse and moved four seats to the right.
“No, it’s true,” Augustine, replied to the man. “The entire world sees me, but I can’t see myself.”
“Neither can I,” the man said. “But I don’t give a damn.”
“I mean there’s nothing here.” Augustine pointed at his face.
“It’s okay, kid, we’ve all got some kind of problem. Just get use to it. If you do, I promise your face will reappear.”
“How can I get use to being faceless,” Augustine said. “It wasn’t like that yesterday or a few weeks ago when I saw the Margritte exhibition. This is something I’ve never had to deal with, something so weird that I don’t know what to do.”
“Don’t do anything,” the man said. “Whether you’ve got a face or not doesn’t matter. Look. Let me tell you something, kiddo. I’ve yet to meet anyone who sees a clear image of his own mind or soul or body. What people see are other people, but themselves,” the man laughed, “that’s a mystery no human being will ever fathom. So when you tell me you can’t see your face in the mirror. I say, so what! You’re no different than anyone else.”
The man paid his bill, put on his hat, gave Augustine a slap on the back and left the restaurant.
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…” Augustine read in Ralph Ellison’s book “The Invisible Man.”
He had taken this book off a shelf in his apartment and skimmed its pages, a book he had to read as a freshman in a Hunter College literature class.
He’s not alone, Augustine thought with a smile. I can’t see my own reflection when I look in a shoe shop window or when my bathroom mirror refuses to replicate an image of my face or even my body. No matter where I look, I can’t find the me I’m so desperate to know, the fragmented me scattered all over New York City like thousands of jig saw puzzle pieces, the prismatic me strewn across a clear blue sky, the phantom me walking leisurely through Washington Square Park, the me climbing on trees, the me dancing on the grass, the me cuddling an infant, the me hailing a cab, laughing, sobbing, the angry me and the happy me, and the me that will walk fearlessly to my grave.
“I’m not invisible because people refuse to see me,” Augustine thought. He put Ellison’s book down and looked around his apartment. “I’m invisible because I’ve never been able to see a clear image of myself.”
A few days later, Augustine looked in the bathroom mirror and saw his face. It was a relief of sorts, but he couldn’t forget the man in the restaurant who spoke so eloquently about how few people can see a true image of who they really are even if they spend an entire day studying their reflection in a mirror.