The dressing room was empty, and I was just about to turn around, go give somebody hell for wasting my time, when in walks Polk, one of the brand new kids. I’d seen him around the office but figured he was just another one of Berger’s nepotic hires, his kid sister’s kid or something. The kid had no gear, nothing with him. He just nodded at me and grunted a small, low Hey, then pulled the door closed behind him.
Polk slid off his jacket, hung it on a thick wooden hanger from a hook on the back of the door. He pulled his shirt off over his head, unbuckled his belt, and dropped his khakis. He was still standing while he pulled off his socks, rolled them into a ball, and stuffed ‘em into a jacket pocket. Then he sat on a stool in front of the dressing table. I knew what kind of a club it was. But Polk?
He looked deeply into the mirror, almost as if he were staring past the silver backing into some goddamned Wonderland, and two things were clear: 1) he wasn’t going to talk to me, and 2) he didn’t want me to talk to him. When he’d apparently found what he’d been looking for, his face changed as if his edges had blurred, like he was falling asleep but hadn’t closed his eyes yet. Then, in the time it took me to position myself to shoot a three-quarters head, I’d’ve sworn that guy stopped being Polk. The fellow sitting there in his shorts, regarding himself in the mirror, held himself differently than the kid. Everything about him had changed. His bones were lighter somehow. He pushed his hair back with one hand and stretched a thin skullcap over his head. I took some shots as he smoothed foundation over his face with his fingertips, lifted his chin, covered that too and continued down his throat. When he was done, he used one finger to pat some concealer beneath his eyes, then brushed loose powder over that. He stretched his eyelids by pulling against the occipital hollow and applied a night-sky-blue shadow with a small brush. He drew a dark line carefully along the base of his lashes and then out, past the corner of each eye. When he put on that red-red lipstick, he stretched his lips and pulled them back against his teeth in an ugly grimace, but one of concentration, not pain. His eyes never left the mirror. I’m not sure he knew I was still there. He took the wig from its stand and settled it onto his head, tugged it gently into place around his ears, pushed the hair up in front to give it back its lift. His forearms were softened by the silky, black hairs; his wrist, by the man’s thin, understated watch. His chest was still flat, with its sparse, dark hairs and quarter-sized aureoles; he had those sharply-angled shoulders. From his head to his clavicle cleft, Polk had disappeared and someone from a different world had taken his place. And she was alive at the moment the shutter did its quick-step.
Here’s the thing: It was more than illusion; it was a conversion. You could never say Polk was pretty, not even made-up like that, but beneath that ratted-up wig and under those fake eyelashes, some other transformation, one of a transcendent nature, had taken place. It was, I’m telling you, a goddamn transubstantiation. She loved herself in that mirror, not in a sexual way, but the way Mary might have looked at Jesus, long before he hung on the cross. Every nuance of bone and shadow was part of some larger thing, something of more consequence, even when those crazy, crap jewels effervesced at her throat and swung from her ears. She may have been half-rendered, yeah, but she was whole.
There was nothing to do but shoot the reflection. That’s what I had to catch: the once-removed image seen by the object of the image herself, by me, and by the camera’s fifth eye, all looking. It was a glory, I tell you. It changed me. I’ll never get over seeing that. I’m telling you it was a goddamn miracle.
Renée Ashley is the author of six volumes of poetry: The View from the Body (Black Lawrence Press), Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea (Subito Book Prize, University of Colorado—Boulder); Basic Heart (X.J.Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press); The Revisionist’s Dream; The Various Reasons of Light; and Salt (Brittingham Prize in Poetry, University of Wisconsin Press), as well as a novel, Someplace Like This, and two chapbooks, The Museum of Lost Wings (Hill-Stead Museum) and The Verbs of Desiring (new american press). She has received fellowships in both poetry and prose from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment of the Arts. A portion of her poem, “First Book of the Moon,” is included in a permanent installation by the artist Larry Kirkland in Penn Station, NYC. She has served as Assistant Poetry Coordinator for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and as Poetry Editor of The Literary Review. Ashley teaches in the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing and the MA in Creative Writing and Literature for Educators programs at Fairleigh Dickinson University.