How long can you mourn the loss of someone who was going to be your world?
Every day at five thirty, Bella sticks the key into the fussy lock, jiggles it to the right, to the left, and with a hard flick of the wrist, unlocks the door with a frisson of... something. It used to be anticipation, often excitement, but lately an undercurrent of dread laces Bella’s stomach.
She lets her briefcase slide down with a thud, pointedly ignoring the piece of misery hanging in a dark corner of the small hallway. The antique gilded curlicues framing the mirror she had once thought so quaint have completely lost their luster.
The first time she noticed it, the day after she moved in, she’d wondered why the owners would put a mirror in such a poorly lit area. Now she knows. And she doesn’t dare to move it.
She flips on the lights. Classic FM. Coffee. This was once Bella’s favorite time of day, curled up in the ugly but comfortable olive-green armchair and scrolling through her messages. Now the sips of coffee (black, always black) and the low sound of a cello concerto do nothing to quell the rising discomfort, the little voice that tells Bella you’re going to look, you know you are.
Still, she fights back while drawing deeply from the mug. I’m not, I’m not. She checks her bank accounts. Deletes spam.
“Okay,” Bella finally sighs, bowing to the inevitability as she shuts off Vivaldi. “I’m gonna look. At least let me finish my coffee.”
I hope it’s someone nice today. Bella tucks her hair neatly behind her right ear as she draws close. Because, yeah, mirrors were for looking at yourself.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. She wasn’t supposed to spend the better part of a decade weighing the merits of yes-move-out against no-stay-home. It should have been get-married-at-22.
But a drunk driver and a patch of black ice not only ended her chassan’s life, it also smashed to smithereens Bella’s idea of what she thought her own life would look like. Just like that, Bella was left dangling precariously after engaged with no married in sight, turning her into some kind of an aberration in society. It was almost like she was to blame for people’s inability to neatly categorize her. Not a widow (no sitting shivah for broken dreams), not an older single with a broken engagement behind her.
How long can you mourn the loss of someone who was going to be your world? Besides that one shadchan who thought a month was long enough (Bella blocked her number forever), general consensus gave her a year. (“Even the longest aveilus is just a year!”)
Her parents were amazing, always. But still. The therapy and the dating, the days that dragged even while the years sped by, created a different Bella. One who finally, finally, bravely made the decision and intended to enjoy her new, fully independent life — only to have to deal with… this.
She’s scared to tell anyone. It’s bad enough that she’s on the wrong side of 35 with no ring. All she needs is to turn into a crazy lady too.
But here she is. In front of the weird mirror and talking to it.
Today a rosy face in a white bonnet appears, sharp green eyes looking straight into Bella’s.
“Hi! I’ve never seen you before,” Bella starts, allowing herself a small flicker of interest despite her misgivings. “What’s your name?”
British, Bella thinks.
The first time it happened, the face in the mirror so closely resembled her own (that’s what mirrors are supposed to do, Bella thinks bleakly), that it took her a few seconds to realize that first of all, she had never worn her hair in a pompadour in her life, and second, the face was the same, but everything else — the voice, the gestures — was different.
Bella clearly remembers how she’d stood there squeezing her eyes shut in disbelief (I’m not old enough to need bifocals!), opening them, huffing on the mirror and rubbing gently at the condensation, only to find the pompadour very much there.
The next day there was an Elizabethan ruff framing the chalkiness of her face. Still her face. Bella had actually run out of the house, ending up in the supermarket without her purse, wandering up and down the aisles, peering at her image in the mirrors behind the vegetables. She looked normal then, still looks normal now.
And then the faces started answering her. It was a Thursday and Bella, in a fit of pique because her Friday night invitation had fallen through and it was too late to do anything about it, banged her fist on the glass and growled “Who are you?” at the sallow face opposite — and got a reply.
She had stumbled backward, hands clamped over her ears as she stifled a scream. She wasn’t a woman prone to hysteria, had held up stoically in the face of adversity — and anyone could testify she had contended with a lot of it. But this was different.
I’m losing my mind; I’m losing my mind. Tiny slaps on her cheeks. Snap out of it, mirrors don’t talk. When she had checked herself in the bathroom excuse for a mirror, it was just her — plain, tired Bella.
“Aaaaahhh,” she had told her reflection.
“Aaaaahhh,” it had echoed.
Could it be? A haunted mirror?
The weeks had passed, and against her will, Bella adjusted to the fact that these faces were somehow here to stay. They never spoke first, didn’t volunteer information beyond Bella’s questions.
“Hello, Hannah, are you from England?”
“Yes.” The voice is soft yet firm.
“Are you married?” Bella likes to get that out of the way early on.
“Do you live with your parents?” Hannah’s eyes are tired, but her face is unlined.
“I do not.”
“I am employed as a personal maid to the Lady of the Manor.”
Oh, this might be interesting, Bella thinks. She’s just finished covering the Victorian Era with one of her classes.
“What year is it?” Her reflections are often illiterate women, usually unable to answer where in history they belong. Then it’s up to Bella to guess with some well-aimed questions.
But Hannah looks intelligent, and should know the date if she’s helping her lady answer letters of any sort.
“The year is 1853.”
They’re all Jewish, her mirror images. Eighteen fifties and a lady of the manor. Bella feels a quick flash of excitement.
“What’s your employer’s name?”
Bingo. She’s discovered that if she holds the conversation, keeps it going for at least five minutes, the responses get longer. More often than not, though, she’s too uncomfortable or has nothing to say and steps away, leaving unasked questions hanging in the history of bygone eras.
“She is childless, your lady, is she not?”
“Yes, that is true.”
And yet she’s still remembered. For her brilliance, her philanthropy, social influence — ah! Bella tries to remember when Lady Judith penned The Jewish Manual, and for how long it remained anonymous. She’s just about to ask Hannah about it when something dings behind her and she suddenly thinks to look at her watch — six fifteen, and she has to get ready for the wedding and pick up Mommy at seven!
Bella looks up, desperate to ask Hannah one more thing — is your lady a happy person? — before she has to get dressed, but the mirror is blank.
“Mommy, what a necklace! Don’t tell me — a gift from Daddy before he went away?”
“No secrets from Bella.” Mommy winks.
“Well, good he didn’t ask me, I would have said you need bigger earrings,” Bella says, deadpan, as her mother admires the plates hanging off her earlobes.
Mommy fake-slaps Bella’s arm but lets her hand linger there for a few seconds longer. “You okay?”
“Yeah, great! I’m happy Daddy’s not here, this way I get to take you, and he gets to skip a wedding. Win-win!” She smiles brightly as they enter the lobby, trying to forget how desperately she doesn’t want to be there.
They work the hall with hugs and air-kisses, Bella’s smile fixed in place as she braces herself for the inevitable foot-in-mouth moment. Still, sometimes staying home and imagining the comments (“Oh, such a pity Bella couldn’t come!”), the lowered voices wondering if she was on a date or just couldn’t bear the thought of another younger cousin getting married, was infinitely worse than actually sitting there and smiling gracefully at the “im yirtzeh Hashem by you!” wishes.
“Ha! My favorite niece! You gonna make sure your old aunt won’t die of boredom tonight?”
“Shhh, Aunt Shana, people will hear you! And you’re not old.” Bella slides into the empty seat.
“Not old old. Just older than you. And wiser. And you know what I’m going to ask, so you might as well tell me instead of both of us sitting and pretending there isn’t a certain suggestion of mine on your plate at the moment — and I don’t mean this choux pastry.”
Bella plays with her fork and wonders what to say.
Bella prays for someone, even Aunt Miriam, to come and sit on the other side of her.
“You go out with a guy your dear, aging aunt thinks is juuust right for you, twice, I might say — which means it isn’t completely off the mark — and?”
“And. It’s only two dates, O Wise Aunt. What do you want me to say?”
“You wanna know what I want you to say?” Bella clenches her hands under the table against what she knows is coming. “This is what I want you to say. ‘Yes, Aunt Shana, your favorite niece in the world is going to decide what she wants to do in her dating life instead of coasting along waiting for the dates that might work to get bored or impatient or hurt—”
No one gives a good glare like Aunt Shana. Bella resists the urge to squirm. “‘And now I’m going to think seriously about this Mehler guy and come to a clear resolution. Yes. Or no. None of this wishy-washy I’m-not-sure-maybe…’”
Aunt Shana leans forward, the passion draining suddenly from her eyes.
“I love you, Bella. With all my heart, I want to see you happy. And if you said yes to a third date because you had no reason to say no, please. Give yourself the right to be happy.” She looks at Bella’s stricken face and sighs.
“I didn’t mean to ruin your evening, I’m sorry. Can we splurge on some éclairs and pretend nothing happened? We’re good at that.”
Bella wants to go home. Exhaustion suddenly pulls at her eyelids, too much missed sleep reading through history assignments. But she can’t leave now, although Mommy would protest heartily at being the one to make her stay. Quietly escaping in the middle of a simchah when she’s on her own is one thing, making a fuss is another. So she adjusts her slipping smile and lets herself wonder what Judith Montefiore’s Bola d’Amour tasted like.
The mirror is empty in the morning.
“Thank goodness,” Bella mumbles, keys clamped under her chin while she rummages through her briefcase for the pens she bought last week. It’s not as though she has time to entertain ghosts in her daily rush out of the house, but once in a while she checks. No one is ever there.
These are the rules Bella has figured out. Late at night seems to be a bad time for her reflections — Bella won’t deny her wish for distraction when she comes home from a botched date. Or a successful date, Bella. Admit it.
And she never knows who will be there — the face she’s getting to know after several encounters? A face from long ago that she’s almost forgotten? Or the one-timers, ephemeral images that evaporate before she can think about them.
And the ones Bella tries not to think about, a slight prickling on her neck as she clicks her seatbelt into place and braces for morning traffic.
Bella smells unrest as she starts her second tenth grade class of the morning. She thinks of ways to get Michal’s attention — that girl is gifted, but a loose hand means she’ll stick to her rebel status.
“I was going through your assignments last night. Really nice work, girls.”
The fidgeting stops completely.
“Now what I’d really like to know from all of you is where you got the idea that you’re writing historical fiction?”
Her star history buffs look blank. The majority of the class is smirking; Michal eyes are flashing in triumph, a dare lurking in onyx eyes.
“Really, really creative, I must say. I’d love to know how James Watt got to see Catherine the Great — because honestly, how am I meant to give you grades on flights of the imagination?”
Michal is on her feet in a flash.
“History is boring. Nothing ever changes! The World Wars were in the 20th century, Fleming discovered penicillin from mold, Florence Nightingale had a lamp, blah blah and blah.”
Bella jolts internally at the mention of Nightingale, a memory trying to claw its way out. She forces it back and waits for Michal to finish.
“History gives us context. It gives us a better understanding of the world.” Talk, Bella. Think later. “We need to know how government systems and ideology and technology shaped the society we know today—”
“What’s the difference, none of us are going into politics or engineering,” Michal announces, and although there’s a dim knowledge at the edge of Bella’s consciousness that she should reprimand Michal for interrupting a teacher, there’s an even stronger sense of rising panic that turns her mouth dry as she corrals the class with pat answers to an age-old question.
When Bella gets into her Civic at five, she sees a text from her friend Yael about tomorrow’s shiur, sends a quick reply — yes, tomorrow @7? — and finally has her own space to focus on the unsettled feeling she’s been carrying around all day.
She closes her eyes and thinks. Something she’s forgotten to do? Something someone said? Nothing comes to mind. She mentally runs through her week: Daddy coming home tomorrow. No big appointments. She has a third date tonight, but that’s never been cause for panic. And Bella’s not prone to superstitions or premonitions. Which is hilarious, she allows.
She drives home. As she has her daily scuffle with the lock (seriously, how hard would it be to replace?), Bella grasps the tail of an elusive thought. The debate about history. She rushes to her room, yanks open the closet. Refocus. Breathe. Think about where this is going. Third dates are no-man’s land — not a no, but not a yes either.
Bella leans over the sink in the bathroom and applies a shimmery gloss to her lips. A pity she doesn’t have a decent-sized mirror, she thinks for the thousandth time. If she could just replace that one in the hall…? No, she mustn’t think about that now, she’s promised herself never to look before a date. The last time she did that, the appearance of a Spanish woman from the early 16th century shook her so badly (betrayal, torture, scars) that she had to cut the date short.
Once Yisrael picks her up, (what kind of a name is Yissy, she’d wanted to know when Aunt Shana suggested it, does everyone call him that?) they both admit that they’re not hungry enough for a heavy meal and decide to stop at a bagel place instead. You can’t really linger over avocado toast or grilled cheese, though, so they go for a walk in a nearby park.
Which is a terrible idea, seeing as Bella is woefully unequipped for wandering around in the fierce cold. She rues agreeing to this and wonders how to back out gracefully.
Yisrael looks across at her arms folded against the wind. “Would you like to go home, or somewhere else? I didn’t think it would be this cold, I’m sorry.”
Ten points in his favor for noticing.
“I’m sorry,” and then without thinking, “I should have noticed it was a dark and stormy night.”
He snorts out a laugh. “I hope you’re not expecting a shot to suddenly ring out?”
Bella stops short.
“You’re a fan of Peanuts?”
Yisrael laughs again. “Less to eat than to read.”
Something light wraps around her heart even as her teeth chatter as they hurry to his car.
Bella hopes he doesn’t think two hours is too short for a third date. He drops her off, and Bella is relieved that he doesn’t see her tussle with the lock.
She flops into the olive-green monstrosity, pining for a coffee. She needs to put her thoughts in order. But Bella feels the edginess in her system, knows it’s not a good idea to dial it up with caffeine. Heaving herself up with a sigh, she prepares a tea.
What are you going to do, Bella? There’s not one good reason to say no. And you know he’s going to say yes. Aunt Shana’s voice joins the chorus — “give yourself the right to be happy!” The right.
She lets her thoughts turn away from the Yisrael Mehler topic and thinks of Michal and her outburst. Florence Nightingale.
It must have been some three months ago. A thin, drawn Becky, eyes sunken and bloodshot, had stared out. Bella had almost stepped back, but she was desperate for diversion after saying no to a potentially promising shidduch, so she forced herself to hold Becky’s gaze. The reflection shared a horrific tale of following Florence Nightingale into the blood and gore of the Crimean War, descriptions of endless calls for Nurse, Nurse, Nurse that turned Bella’s stomach, but still Bella stayed, asking questions (do you regret volunteering? Is anyone waiting for you at home?) until her feet could hold her no more.
Becky had never returned, even though the specter of her stayed with Bella for days afterward. And then she’d met Nomi and Giselle, and The Nameless One, so Becky was forgotten. Until today.
What’s the difference? Michal had shot at her, and Bella, with the memory of Becky straining to break free, had almost lost her equilibrium.
That’s what’s been scratching at the edges of her consciousness all day.
What’s the difference, indeed. What’s the difference that she sits here, a Jewish woman in 2022 with a loving family, a great job, a busy social life and endless opportunities for self-expansion, yet the future is empty and the past draws her in over and over again?
A hundred years from now, who will know or care that a Bella existed, poured her heart and soul into the things dear to her? Who besides her knows or cares about the unknown women of yesteryear — the Beckys who ran themselves ragged for the injured, the Franciscas who escaped from Spain, the Hannahs who devotedly salted chickens?
An inner compulsion propels her toward the hallway. She shouldn’t. She’s promised herself again and again that she absolutely will not look at the mirror late at night. Even though it’s usually empty, The Nameless One haunts her still.
If anyone is there, Bella will ask the question burrowing deep in her gut, twisting her innards, throwing her back, back, back, to reports of twisted metal and shattered glass splintering her heart into shards.
The mirror is blank, yet Bella stands there asking the mist, what’s the difference?
Bella has barely kicked off her teaching pumps when Yael is at the door.
“Hi, Bells, I’m off work early — no point in schlepping all the way home and then back again for the shiur. So I’m crashing here, lucky you! Hot water on?”
Before Bella has a chance to reply, Yael is opening and closing kitchen closets.
“No decaf? It’s like you don’t want me to come over! Never mind, what’s this tea? ‘For relaxation’ — huh, it works?”
Bella feels overwhelmed — she usually loves Yael’s company, but not after work, and not today, when she’s twinned with the weather — blustery and miserable and about to storm. Even with (or despite, Bella?) the yes she received at lunchtime.
“You need boots even if we’re going by car,” Yael says as she points at Bella’s kitten heels, left out from last night’s date.
Bella nods and picks them up causally — she doesn’t discuss dates until number five unless she needs advice.
“I’m going to dig them out,” she throws over her shoulder, padding through the hallway, averting her face as she passes the mirror — just in case.
She looks tired in the little bathroom mirror, smudged eyeliner throwing her eyes into shadow.
“Yael, I’ll be a back in a few, just redoing my makeup!” she calls through the door.
“Sorry about that,” she says five minutes later. “Ready?”
Then she freezes. Yael is standing stock still at the mirror. A deluge of panic pours over her as she rushes forward — surely she can’t see anything…?
Yael jumps and turns around, blinking her huge blue eyes and shaking her head a little dazedly.
“No, nothing. I’m suddenly really tired.”
But Bella sees Yael glancing worriedly at the mirror. She remembers the first time it happened to her.
“Was it something you saw?”
Yael stares at her, through her.
“I don’t know… what? Something I saw. Yeah.” Then she snaps back into focus. “Bella? What was that?”
Bella is not often lost for words. But now she gropes blindly for a way to express what she’s been living through without sounding like a lunatic.
“What did you see in that mirror?”
“You’ll think I’m crazy. I mean, I am crazy, but you’ll think I’m crazier. I’m hallucinating, seriously. There was someone else in that mirror. I mean, it was me… but not. I can’t explain it.”
Yael rubs her eyes, smearing mascara down her cheek.
“You mean someone with your face. But someone from the past.” Bella’s voice shakes a little, the secret she’s been holding close to her for so long reluctant to come free.
“How… You know? Was I dreaming? Am I dreaming? You’re the rational being, Bella. What is this?”
Bella starts pacing.
“There’s something crazy about that mirror.”
Her knees suddenly tremble, weak with relief that really, there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s not suffering from delusions after all — a possibility too awful to contemplate, but was always lurking underneath everything she did. They can’t both be imagining the same thing. Two people can’t share a dream.
Yael pulls herself up, and together they stand at the mirror.
“Okay, I’m done.” Yael’s using a brisk tone Bella’s rarely heard. “Let’s go to the shiur, I can’t stay here anymore.”
The wind precludes much talk, which is a relief. The room is half full when they arrive, Bella feels strangely close to tears, and tries to snatch a glance at Yael’s face. What now?
All she hears from Rebbetzin Krishevsky is the topic of the shiur: “Breaking Free of Your Personal Mitzrayim.” After that her mind takes her away and she’s sinking into a dreamlike reverie, the kind born of a heated room, cashmere sweaters, and overtiredness.
A memory comes into sharp focus — the time Bella had been feverish, tossing and turning as the night dragged on, until she gave up and relocated to the living room. It was stupid of her to look in the mirror, dizziness clouding her vision and rationale.
A hag, wizened before her time, looked back at her, eyes bulging, skin hanging in folds around her mouth.
“Who are you?” Bella had croaked, hot and cold tremors coming over her in waves.
“I am The Nameless One.”
Terror pinned her to the spot.
“Where do you live?”
“I live everywhere and nowhere.”
“Are you married?”
“All I once knew are dead.”
Bella had paused then, shivering.
“Who do you live for?”
“Live? This is no life.”
And The Nameless One began to cackle, her gaping mouth sending Bella to the bathroom to retch miserably, the cackling thundering in her ears till morning.
A murmuring suddenly shakes Bella back into awareness. The shiur is over, women pushing their chairs back and bundling up for the way home.
“Are you okay?” Yael doesn’t look too good herself, eyes shiny and cheeks flushed. She saw a ghost, Bella, what did you think she would look like?
“I think someone set the heat too high,” Bella wobbles to her feet. “We’ll be okay once the cold wakes us up.”
Warning cracks of lightning flash in the distance, and they rush back up Bella’s street. Yael slides into her Yaris, anxious to be home before the storm breaks, yelling, “I’ll call you!” as the wind whips her words away. Instead of turning up the path, Bella goes to sit in her own car.
She lays her head on the steering wheel, takes a deep, shuddering breath and lets it out.
“I’m scared,” she whispers, The Nameless One’s shadow touching her with fingers of ice.
It all washes over Bella, memories piercingly sharp. Her broken heart (“there’s bad news, Bella”) broken dreams (“his whole life ahead of him…”), broken identity (“that’s their kallah”), broken image (what’s the difference, what’s the difference). The shattering of belief and self.
And she thinks of the aftermath, introspection, and renewal, growth of new layers, the rebuilding of Bella. Of learning and living new truths. And now — of the possibilities inherent in a fourth date, a certain tenth-grade student, and sticky locks. Of breaking free.
She wrenches the car door open and dashes inside, fierce torrents of rain blinding her.
Eyes screwed tight against whom she might meet, Bella presses both palms against the mirror and thinks of ghosts. Of the thoughts that draw her back again and again to this shady corner of her apartment. Of Yael’s ghosts. Of the ghosts all human beings carry around inside of them — the spoiled and the persecuted, the happy and the grief-stricken. Her own ghosts — the ones who tether Bella to her past, shackle her soul in castles built eons ago. The ones holding her back from looking outside, from looking forward.
She swallows deeply, eyes still shut, and grasps the frame. You’re meant to show me who I am, not who I was, she whispers fiercely. History brought me here — but now I can leave the past to the ghosts.
The fear turns her hands stiff with cold, and tears slide down her cheeks.
I don’t want to carry you with me anymore, she tells the women of the past. I don’t want to have to think of you instead of — a new face appears in her mind’s eye. Not her own. Not one of these women. Instead of Yis… Yissy Mehler, who notices when I’m uncomfortable and laughs at my corny jokes. You need to stay where you belong.
“And I’m going to say yes,” Bella suddenly blurts out loud, although her voice wobbles at the end. “Yes!” Stronger now.
“Look at me!” She opens her eyes and raises the heavy mirror high. “I’m Bella, here and now.”
She thinks she catches sight of the faintest glimpse of a smile as she hurls the mirror downward.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 778)
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