Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self, in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one's nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned.
-- James Arthur Baldwin
I stare at my face in the bathroom mirror and silently ask my reflection, Who are you? I consider my nose, the skin dry and peeling. I raise and drop my brows, paying close attention to the horizontal lines that appear and disappear on my forehead. One short white hair, the first of its kind to grace my body, is partially hidden among the finer brown strands at my hairline. I pucker and smile, pucker and smile, until my lips take on a life of their own, my mouth a nomad roaming across my face instead of the permanent resident it should be. Gazing into a mirror until I no longer recognize myself is a practice I picked up when I was ten years old. The first time I did this was by accident. The electricity had gone out and my family was gathered in the living room, playing board games by candlelight. I had to pee, so I grabbed one of the candles and made my way to the bathroom.
The darkness didn't scare me. I finished my task without incident. But when I turned to wash up and caught my flickering reflection, I froze with fear. The left half of my face, fallen in shadow, deviated with the light, my features appearing to toggle between my own and those of an old lady. As a superstitious kid who avoided stepping on cracks because I was convinced doing so would compromise my mother's spine, I assumed this strange half-face was a ghost, and that I had been chosen as her conduit to communicate something crucial from the other side.
When I returned to the living room, I was surprised no one asked where I'd been for so long. Apparently, what must have been five hours in the dimly lit bathroom had been five minutes in the living room. As I resumed my position at the Monopoly board, I told myself I'd spill all at the slightest provocation but would not volunteer anything about my unexpected meeting with the ghost in the mirror. My sisters didn't seem to notice that I was distractedly going through the motions of the game while my mind was racing with the encounter I had just had at the other end of the house, a dimension away.
Off and on for the next few years, I tried to summon the old lady. Who was she? What did she want? Would I be able to help her? Sometimes I would try facing myself in the dark. Once, I stole a match from above the fireplace and lit a candle, hoping no one would notice that the power hadn't failed. Having considered the possibility that the lady might not be able to appear in the same place more than once, I alternated mirrors in my attempts to reconnect with her.
As I entered adolescence and gave up all things childish, the silly idea that ghosts exist disappeared along with my Barbie dolls. But the girl in the mirror still intrigued me. On some mornings, after showering, I would linger in the bathroom and stare at my flipped-around self.
I was 15 when I had my first out-of-Barb experience. During a routine stare, I gave in to the sudden urge to speak my name out loud. "Barb." The word sounded strangely foreign to me, something used to describe a sharp, inanimate object, not a person. "Barb," I tried again. "Barb," I said over and over until the sound, beginning and ending with a short burst of air through my closed lips, lost all meaning. My sense of identity escaped from my mouth along with the now peculiar sound of my name. "Barb." Who was this Barb? What did she want? Would I be able to help her?
Most people reach middle age before they experience a crisis of identity. My perplexity regarding what makes me me has been as much a part of my day-to-day life since childhood as brushing my teeth. I realize now, staring at this one white hair, this small reminder of mortality that helps frame this face in the mirror, that I am still in the early stages of getting to know who Barb is.
I have allowed my circumstances to define me at different times in my life. In the clouded bathroom mirror of my apartment in Los Angeles, Barb is a single, 22-year-old woman who likes to do drugs and go dancing; her eyes meet mine in a desperate stare that always say the same thing: "I want people to like me." In the tall, narrow mirror nailed to the back of my bedroom door in my parents' house, Barb is 18 -- she doesn't have a job, she doesn't have many friends, and she often says to me aloud, "I don't like you." In the gold-framed mirror that hangs in the entrance of my father's condo, Barb is 27 and the confident sheen of her eyes tells me she is experiencing one of those rare moments in which she is sure of who she is. The moment soon passes.
Here I am, in the master bathroom of the home I share with David. Barb is 29. She hates loud bars and shallow people, and loves to travel. Her eyes locked on mine, she says, "If you're who I think you are, I like you. And I don't care what other people think." But I detect the familiar hint of doubt in her voice.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word "identity" as "The set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable." Such characteristics are difficult to identify by staring at one's face. There are few things that all of the Barbs in all of the mirrors of my life have in common: we all love to read, we have a weakness for animals, a need for attention, an eye for beauty, and a tendency to be judgmental. However, all the "significant" aspects of my life -- behaviors, opinions, and careers, or those things around which most people form their identities -- have changed with each passing year.
More than a decade has passed since I thought of the ghost. Usually, David is standing next to me as we brush our teeth and get ready for bed, but tonight he is still downstairs, catching up on his e-mail. I flip off the light and everything reflected in the eight-foot-long mirror on the wall above the dual sinks blends into the background -- the tub and shower behind me, the towels, even the green carpet and walls of the bedroom to my left, take on a blue cast. From the downtown buildings in the distance, red, yellow, and white dots, like stars, fill the circular window above my head.
My features are difficult to discern. My face falls in shadow, but I continue to stare at my reflection. A thought enters my head -- I am not a ghost. My eyes widen with surprise and awareness, and then the muscles beneath my skin relax and fall calm. Perhaps there was an old lady after all -- not a supernatural being trying to travel through dimensions, but merely a Barb I have not yet met, standing before a mirror I have not yet seen, and wondering if who she is has anything at all to do with me.