If I can be honest, and when would that be possible if not now that I have your attention, I’ll admit there was a quality that set me apart from other children. It’s hard to imagine now, all these years later and with so little evidence. But if you could trust the word of my parents’ acquaintances, who needed to comment on something when I was introduced at our dinner parties, my eyes had a tendency to sparkle.
When a new pleasure was placed before me, a new story book, or a puzzle assigned to me for no other reason than that I was the only child present, it seems my eyes would light up. Then our guests would nudge one another, and from my parents’ proud and enchanted expressions, I assumed they were witnessing a special thing.
You couldn’t blame me for wanting to be a part of it, each time dropping the gift and rushing to the mirror in the foyer of our house. But from what I could tell, pushing up on tiptoe, those eyes were as dim and narrow as the front hall, where you could hear the party continuing in the other room. To be fair, a spark by nature isn’t meant to last, unless it’s coddled and can catch hold of something.
On one occasion in the dead of winter, when I was eight-years-old, we had invited the elderly couple from Winnipeg to dinner. Mr. and Mrs. Marr lived down the block, and despite the fact that they had a grown up daughter who lived in the United States, they seemed very much alone in the world. The invitation was a simple kindness that didn’t cost my mother too much effort, and the Marrs after all were a pleasant pair, though Mr. Marr was slightly absent minded. The stories he told were often beside the point, as if they were part of a conversation no one else could hear, and he paced as he told them, so that you felt compelled to trail him around the room. He was easier to keep up with than my own father, who moved quickly, always a step ahead of me.
As was the practice whenever we were having guests over, I was given my dinner early that evening. My parents were busy straightening up the house, and I was allowed to eat in front of the television. My mother put on a documentary about the solar system. I wondered how she knew I’d been thinking about stars just that week, since I hadn’t told anyone about it. When I finished eating, I climbed up onto the bench by the front window. You couldn’t make out anything in the dark sky, not any of the brightly coloured planets that were so clear to me when I closed my eyes. What I did spot was my mother’s reflection moving back and forth in the glass, her thick, sturdy arms reaching across the table to light a series of candles, which filled the window with a yellow glow and made the yard outside disappear.
The doorbell rang and the Marrs bustled through the foyer, ushering a wintery chill into the house. No one spoke out against this. My parents greeted the guests and led them into the living room, and I put on my most polite smile as I slipped down from my perch, shivering in the draft. As always, I came forward to kiss the Marrs’ frosted cheeks, warmed their hands and accept my gift. This time, it was a plush purple unicorn with a set of glittering wings. The animal would have captured the imagination of a small child, but my parents had already taught me what did and did not exist in the world. Still, I cooed at the unicorn and rocked it back and forth in my arms, and Mr. Marr hunched low and peered expectantly into my eyes. I could see that he was as disappointed as I was.
I was about to return to the window when my mother asked if I would take the couple’s coats and lay them on the guest bed, and play quietly with my new toy while the grown-ups got settled in.
It wasn’t unfair. Even if I didn’t know what to do with the unicorn, a number of other games were available to me. I could draw, for instance. I hadn’t made any pictures in some time, and my father had once told the Marrs that I had a gift. I entered the Guestroom and arranged the coats on the bed, very carefully, as if a sleeping body were tucked inside each one. It was the first time that I’d done such a thing, but then we’d never had a guest bed before that week. The coats had always been hung over the banister.
Until recently, the Guestroom had been called the Study. It had contained only a desk and a bookshelf stacked with hundreds of old issues of National Geographic that my father had bought at a garage sale one summer. On Saturday afternoons, he would sit at the desk, reading and making notes, and I would draw landscapes in my scrapbook on the floor. It was in those days that my father talked a great deal about travelling, and this is how I learned the names of the continents and their highest mountains, and the kinds of deep sea coral that had gone extinct before my time. Every so often he would peer over the edge of his magazine, or fold back its pages like giant leaves as if to study a new or undiscovered species. I’d go on colouring some jungle, but the arcing motion of my arm would take on a certain delicacy, as if I really were the creature he imagined.
The weekend before our dinner party, we had received a gift that had given the room its new name. Now jutting into the centre of the floor was a dark wood four poster bed, and facing it was a long rectangular dresser that ran along the wall beside the door. It was from the Marrs, in fact, that my parents had inherited the set. At the urging of their daughter, a chiropractor, the Marrs had bought a posturepedic bed on which the height and firmness of each side could be adjusted independently. It was strange to think that you could be just a few inches away from someone and experience a completely different sleep, but this is what the doctor had recommended.
The furniture had been in the Marr family for two generations, and as my parents hauled it down the street, with me trailing behind, Mr. Marr declared that he was happy to see it go to a good home. He said: “I’d always imagined I’d die in that bed.”
The new bed set imposed on the small room and carried a scent that seemed at odds with the rest of our house. Or maybe it was that Mrs. Marr had come by earlier that week to offer several decorative baskets filled with pungent dead flowers, which she referred to as “potpourri.” Now as I glanced about, counting the baskets along the dresser and the bed’s headboard, I couldn’t find a clear spot to deposit the unicorn. It was as out of place in the Guestroom as I was.
My father too had abandoned the space; he now took his magazines to the couch in the living room, and I was asked not to scatter my colouring pencils all over the carpet at his feet. From my new position at the kitchen table, however, it was difficult to catch his eye, and when he lay back with a series of journeys in his mind, I couldn’t be sure that he’d remember to include me.
Above the dresser was an old fashioned mirror with a wide brass rim. For the first time, I noticed that its two side panels could be adjusted so you could observe your profile as other people saw it. I stood with the stuffed toy under my arm and angled the glass back and forth in the silence of the room, trying to catch my eyes off guard—but I couldn’t find the light the Marrs had seen there. I gripped the unicorn tightly for a moment before shoving it into the top dresser drawer, holding its wings down so it would fit.
How generous were the tears that came in the end, blurring my reflection, creating two people where there had only been one. Now the fingers of my right hand felt my thin shoulder and closed around it, and my eyes filled and struggled to make out my left hand, which was fiddling with the dead flowers on the dresser top. I let the hair fall over my face and as I lifted my chin, blinked and peered through the strands, I was touched by the tender expression of the curtains, which were unable to do anything but hang there.
I climbed onto the guest bed and burrowed between the coats, rubbing my eyes hard. They would be red and puffy in the morning, and I promised to come back to the mirror and see them then.
I’d been lying down only a moment when the lights came on. Mr. Marr was standing in the doorway, his face full of confusion as he looked from the bed to the dresser.
Unable to speak, I sat up and shook my head. I wanted to tell him that this wasn’t his bedroom; he had given his things away. Instead, I pointed down the hall and fell back onto the pillow, pretending to go to sleep.
“Is it bedtime, my Annie? ” he whispered.
His feet padded softly across the room, and as he lay down beside me, the weight of his body pulled me into the centre of the bed. I rolled over the empty coats, and the sudden warmth against my side was comforting, even if it was there only because Mr. Marr had lost his bearings, and mistaken me for his own daughter.
In a few minutes, my father would venture off in search of his guest and discover him here. No one would disturb the old man—it was Mr. Marr’s bed after all. And if I remained hidden behind his mountain of a belly, we could remain there until morning, our figures huddled together as if bound by a single dream.