Mirror, Mirror

Jan Edwards Hemming


My ex-girlfriend Asha once said that her mother’s favorite attribute of hers was her loyalty: that it was unwavering and fierce and swallowed one whole. Her mom illustrated this with a story about how her kids would approach entering a room to look for her: when Asha walked into a room, she’d ignore everyone, no matter what, until she found her mother, whereas her brothers would speak to everyone first, knowing that their mother was somewhere there and would be found.

Asha was proud of this. She had strict definitions of love, of family, that applied solely to her perception of the world. She called certain beings her soul mates, regardless of their romantic status in her life. Her brother, the one who had passed away: soul mate. Her dog Henry: soul mate. Her grandmother: soul mate. There were others, but I was not one.

I tried to pose a Harry Potter reference as an alternative, about the twin cores in Voldemort’s and Harry’s wands. Each of their wands contained a feather from the same phoenix’s tail. Maybe we’re connected like that, I offered. Two parts of the same whole.

She thought Harry Potter was childish. You’re talking about twin flames, she said. She was very into spirituality.

Sage and teacher Todd Savas says that twin flame relationships can be tumultuous, because they force the participants to face the things they want to avoid, their self-doubt, and their shortcomings.

Perhaps Asha was my mirror, telling me truths I couldn’t see about myself.


When I came out to my mother, she wrote me a letter. I’m glad you remember us calling you our princess, because you are. You are the child who made me a mother. But the princess finds her prince, not another princess.

I creased the paper between my fingers and folded it back into the envelope.

Later, my mother called me. A high school classmate of mine had just gotten engaged. I saw that online, I said. I don’t know the guy, but I’m happy for her.

My mother started to cry. I just feel so sad, she sputtered, because I want that for you. I’ll never be able to tell anyone that you’re getting married.

I thought about a night in 2009, as I walked home after a night with Girl #2. My body had buzzed at the thought of holding a real-life girl’s hand, kissing her on a fire escape, feeling for the first time like something might actually be right with the world—right with me. But then I had looked up: a church towering on the approaching corner loomed over me, and I stopped in my tracks, as if the floodlights highlighting the Holy Name of Jesus and St. Gregory the Great Parish sign had somehow swung toward me and frozen me in a tractor beam. Suddenly, all I could think of was my mother, and the moment soured. I burst into tears on the street and thought, stupidly, of the Warheads we used to eat in grade school, and how I couldn’t stand the yellow ones. While no one was looking, I’d carefully open the package, take out the candy, rinse its caustic coating off in the water fountain, slip it back inside its foil pouch, and then at recess pretend to be able to stand the acidity, puckering my face with everyone else.

Okay, I said. I’m going to go now.

Before I hung up, I added, I’m sorry.


In Asha’s mother’s analogy, I was like the brothers.

She wrote about her mother’s story, and me: I’ve watched as one I’ve made my world walks into a room full of others and charms the crowd, casually keeping an eye out for me. All the while I was at the entrance watching my beloved like a ghost. If I were truly a ghost like the ones from the past that tightly grab on to haunt, because any life is better than not living, well then I would have been seen—definitely. But I am not a ghost and I’m not a crowd. I’m just another person looking to be recognized above all else.

I thought again about the twin cores, twin flames. Not souls that were connected across time and space, but ones that mirrored each other. Perhaps it was apt. After all, neither Voldemort nor Harry could live while the other survived.


Asha loved notes and letters. She left them on my bed, in the pockets of my coats, in books she bought for me. I, too, have a penchant for inscriptions, as does my mother. As a child, I ran my hand over my mother’s name where she’d written it in the covers of books, marveling at the letters as though they contained some treasure, the same way I pressed my fingertips into the indentations in the spines of our encyclopedias: gold-embossed edges like secret passages to some far-off land. When I gifted Asha a copy of Anne Sexton’s Love Poems, I wrote her notes in the margins of my favorite poems. Ever determined to make her a Harry Potter fan, I gave her a copy of the first novel in the series and filled the front matter with a note about how one day I wanted to hear her read it to our children.


While at NYU, I worked full-time as a nanny. The family, the Ramblers, had two girls who were four and almost two when I started working for them in September of 2009. I had heard and read so many horror stories of nannies in New York. But I was good with kids, and my resume was strong.

Steph, the mom, told me she called her husband crying after my interview. She’s the one, she said to him. She’s perfect. I settled seamlessly into their home. I adored their girls, loved them like my own. I potty trained and handled the terrible twos on city buses and toted a cello on my back while carrying a stroller unaided by men who hurried past me on the subway steps. I cooked dinner and read books in voices and gave baths, took photos to send to Steph and Mark of the girls with bubble bath beards. I was exhausted, but I loved that job.

When Steph had her third child in early 2011, just after I met Asha, she took a sabbatical from work. I still worked part-time with the Ramblers, but they kindly helped me find work with other families to supplement my income. None of the other families were like theirs, though, and I missed the girls dearly. I used to tell Asha stories about them. They’re not yours, she snapped one day.

My eyes filled with tears. I know, I said quietly. But I love them.

She replied, sternly, Jan, they’re not your family, and they never will be. 

The night I took Asha to meet Steph and Mark, we drank wine in their living room, and I hoped she would be nice to them. I felt more nervous when she met them than when she met my own parents. She was cold but behaved, and the wine was good, so that was a plus.

Still, we fought on the way home in the cab. That man wants to fuck you, she said. They’re weird.

I said nothing. It was the thing it always was.

Asha had told me that she was my family, and I suppose her actions fit with my expectations of love; it was always tied to criticism.

I’m not sure at which point I noticed I was dating my mother. The similarities between her and Asha did not end at their green eyes. My mother, like Asha, had always been critical of my every move. When she read my diary in high school, she took me out to eat at Copeland’s to confront me about giving oral sex. Under the guise of a girls’ night out, she shamed me in the dim light at that dark table. I know you think you’re a good girl, she said, but good girls don’t do this. When I didn’t want to practice piano, she compared me to my friend who took lessons from the same teacher. I bet Mallory Herlevic never complains like this. That’s why she won Rally last year. When a beloved paralegal at my dad’s law firm died, I asked if she’d bought Girl Scout cookies from me, and my mom screamed, That’s what you’re thinking of? A woman is dead! Who cares if you get paid for your stupid cookies? I can’t believe this is the kind of daughter I’m raising. I cried and tried to explain that I was just trying to remember her face. When my boyfriend cheated on me the summer before college, she let him into our house, came to my door, and said, Just hear him out. It’s not like you’re innocent in this. There’s always two people in a relationship. When I won a poetry award at LSU, she told me, That sounds nice, but I hope the things you write won’t disgrace our family, as though we were the Kennedys, or I were little Barbara Bush, being arrested for underage drinking and embarrassing her family on national news. When I got into NYU’s MFA program and called her, ecstatic, she said only, Well, that sounds interesting, but I think you’re making a mistake. I had a job doing technical writing for a correctional healthcare company in Birmingham, Alabama. Stay at NaphCare; that’s a real opportunity.

Asha was at Stern, getting her MBA. That was real school. My classes involved navel gazing and writing about fucking people. My “friends” (she always put that word in quotes, as though they were only allegedly in my life) and I only wrote about sex, which anyone could do. It wasn’t a talent.

I stared out the window as we sped down the West Side Highway, at the river on my right, Chelsea flying by on my left. I had never received the benefit of the doubt. No one had ever asked my side of the story. Why would that start now?


Asha used to ask me if I’d marry her, but I was afraid. Even as a child, I did not play wedding. Marriage always seemed so far off and strange. Plus, she’d been married when I met her; I didn’t want to be the next one someone like me happened to, left alone in a house doing chores while Asha fell in wanton love with someone new. She had been with her ex-wife for four years, so I told her, to buy myself time, that if we were together for longer than four years, I’d marry her.

I couldn’t imagine it happening. I didn’t know yet how to say I didn’t want it to. I didn’t want to marry my mother.

I do, however, wonder if she kept the Harry Potter book; if she’s ever read it to her daughters.


Once I wrote to her: This morning I smelled like you and didn’t want to take a shower. I smelled my own hair and my wrists for traces of you. My mouth was swollen from kissing, my lips dry. I thought of touching you between your legs, of holding you by the hips and pulling you to me. I wished my fingers were fastened to your bones.

This, I remember. There was a moment when I felt safe enough to undo myself, to show her the pulp of my insides. Or maybe I only told myself it was safe. Perhaps I knew from habit that I was setting myself up for failure. I had learned my whole life that to seek comfort was to receive blame.


In psychology, there is a term called repetition compulsion, in which people reenact past trauma in current relationships. It’s the body’s way of trying to heal; if I can do this again, the brain thinks, I can get it right. If, for example, a person experienced repeated harsh disapproval from a parent during their childhood, they may later exhibit hostile responses to criticism, and/or have ego deficits that lead to psychosocial problems, such as self-abusive behavior and low self-esteem.

Ding, ding, ding, I think as I read about this. I tried, over and over again, to do better for my mother: with my body and food and piano and writing and grades and relationships. No matter how good I was, I failed.


When I read back many of my old emails to Asha, there’s a distinct cognitive dissonance. Clearly I wrote these things, but I don’t know the person who has chosen the words. I use the term “make love” and address her as “lover.” I have no memory, none, of ever using either turn of phrase; in fact, I openly make fun of people who do say these things. I wonder why it is that I cannot remember this self, if I have shed who I used to be like the skin of a snake, or if it’s something else.

I wonder if I was trying to pretend myself into being someone I wasn’t: her other half, or a version of myself who could fill her holes.

I wonder if, one day, I will read back these words here and meet a stranger on the page.


Ten months after Asha was gone, I followed a girl in a beanie and worn out Converse through a city of sprawling lights. I breathed and wrote and we stayed close—her red hair across my pillow, damp with sweat, my body falling into hers like a question mark. We played jazz records and went to concerts and wore fuzzy socks as peaceful and quiet as the future we wished for: a home with a porch and cats and wine. It was a small life but a happy one. I asked her to marry me because we had a love with nothing to prove.

I wore two dresses: one for the wedding, one for the reception. Both were from the era of Asha. I’d never worn them; she had told me they were both ugly. My mother wasn’t there. I wore her pearl necklace anyway, in case she wanted to see photos someday. The morning before my wedding, my mother texts me for the first time in months: So, are you the bride or the groom?

From my father, silence.


In the spring of 2016, nearly one million LGBT U.S. adults are in same-sex marriages. I am one of them. So, I see on social media, is Asha.

We have not spoken in three years, but I sometimes see her comments or photos through mutual friends’ profiles. I decide to email her. I wanted to congratulate y’all on your marriage. I also ask her about the cat we had together, which she kept. I have two cats with Annie, and I think often about the one I left behind. I receive no response.

I wait for marriage to feel real.

I change my name.

I want to shout at people who ask how married life is. The same, I want to tell them. It is the same but I am angrier. I start going back to therapy.

I wonder if I would be happier if I’d married a man. I think about Asha, how she’d smirk at this and say, I knew it. I know the answer is no, but I wonder anyway. I wonder why I still think about these things.

When I post my wedding photos on Facebook, in an album cleverly titled “That Time We Got Married,” I am still waiting.


The first time I went to a sleepover, my mom parked the car outside my friend’s house. She stopped me with that parental hand across the chest and looked at me. She said, If any of your friends tries to kiss you, just scream.

I am sure I blushed because what the fuck sort of thing is that to say to your third grade daughter going to a sleepover? But I nodded. Okay.

She continued in a grave voice. Once I spent the night with a friend named Molly Martinez. She pronounced “Martinez” in the way that, later, I realize only people in Baton Rouge do: with the emphasis on the first syllable, and a short i. She asked me to play marriage. ‘I’ll be the boy and you be the girl and I’ll lie on top of you and kiss you.’ I told her if she touched me, I would scream.

And, here, my mother did the thing that is so my mother and that she only does when she really wants to be heard. She ground her teeth and spat the words staccato: If. You. Touch. Me. I. Will. Scream.

Again, I nodded. I didn’t yet have words for the hum I felt between my legs when I gazed upon Jennifer Connelly’s perfect mouth while everyone else raved over David Bowie’s bulging crotch in Labyrinth. But I think my mother knew, because maybe she saw herself in me.

I’ve never asked her about Molly Martinez, but I wonder if my mother wanted to kiss that poor girl back and only knew, as she continued to know, how to respond with anger, with fear, with pain. When I came out. When I got married. She just kept trying to convince me it wasn’t possible that I was gay. But I wondered if maybe she knew it all along because she knew herself; she didn’t like to see herself in me.


My entire life I have defined myself by what other people have told me to be. Did I enact all of my anger on Asha because I wanted being with her to heal me, but it only made things worse? A relationship with Asha wasn’t going to fix what was wrong with me. It showed me what was wrong with me. She saw herself in me, too, I think. I was her mirror, and she was afraid.


My mother has never, and probably will never, apologize for not attending my wedding, nor for criticizing my body or diminishing my feelings about myriad things. I don’t think she thinks she’s done anything wrong.

At the end, Asha wrote that she knew she wasn’t good to me, that she wasn’t proud of how she treated me. More than anything else, I share that sentiment.

I, too, am sorry.


Jan Edwards Hemming holds an MFA from NYU and a BA from LSU, and her poetry and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Los Angeles Review of Books Blog, and elsewhere. Her poems “Bird” and “Oven” were each nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and she has been awarded residencies from Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Vermont Studio Center. She lives and teaches in New Orleans.



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