Being born without a reflection did not make Henrietta sad, even though everyone she came across seemed to think she ought to be. It was one of those things that should probably make her feel lesser than, but since she never had it, Henrietta never missed it, much in the way the average human did not miss having wings, and women who never had orgasms found perfectly productive ways to fill their time.
There were days when life was difficult, certainly, but not always for Henrietta herself. Her poor mother first discovered her daughter’s disability when the newborn photos she paid a mint for turned out to be filled with awkwardly arranged blankets and straw baskets, a vague gray shape where her beautiful baby ought to be. And so Henrietta’s baby book was filled with painted images, created by her mother’s friend who in all honesty was not a fantastic artist. Henrietta never looked at her baby book—even though she had no idea what she looked like as an infant, she was pretty sure that kid in the pictures with the cartoonish round eyes looked nothing like her.
The doctors had no treatments for her, save for informing her mother that if one day she found just the right combination of light and shadow, she might be able to capture a photo of her daughter that almost showed her face. Her mother spent a good portion of her childhood staging photos and taking photography classes. She never produced anything beyond the gray blob, and Henrietta humored her by acting disappointed. In reality, she wasn’t sure she cared.
School years were tricky, but adaption was in her nature. Grade school teachers often lamented that she couldn’t see her own pretty face, but Henrietta did not see the fun in posing and making faces in the mirror, which other children her age were fond of. She learned to always wash her face to avoid embarrassing food bits sticking to her skin, and when it came time to paint self portraits, she delighted in being given free rein. She was happy not seeing her own face, and she learned to fix her hair and make sure nothing was sticking out by squinting at the vague, transparent gray blob in the mirror. Her fingers habitually felt around her face and neck, checking for stains, slicks, and jutted collars, and she wore blue jeans, solid-colored shirts, and white sneakers every day, a simple and easy solution to skirt the complex—and in her opinion, unnecessary—rules of fashion. Human bodies were made for habits, and Henrietta was nothing if not a creature of habit.
The teen years proved the most challenging. Teenagers preferred to be cruel rather than helpful about the speck of spinach between your teeth. By high school, she had added flossing to her post-meal routine and began to avoid overly green and leafy vegetables when dining in the company of others. Makeup was impossible and she found it difficult to trust anyone to put blush and lipstick on her without being able to see the results. When her mother did it, she always puckered up at Henrietta afterwards and remarked how “precious” she looked. Somehow, at fifteen, “precious” wasn’t quite what Henrietta wanted. Ashley, her cousin, took a stab at it once. It took a good thirty minutes and she kept looking from Henrietta’s face to the Vogue magazine in her lap. When it was over, she scrunched up her face and said, “Maybe this isn’t your color.”
And so Henrietta kept her face plain and her hair long. She was blessed with straight, smooth brown hair and she learned how to trim split ends by watching a short video tutorial. She sometimes felt a little bad for those born with her type of disability but were not lucky enough to have smooth hair. Those poor souls had to trust beauticians to fix them up, then trust family and friends to tell them they looked passable. Unfortunate, it must be, to have to have so much trust when it came to matters about one’s own face.
She met Daniel Harrison in Mrs. Grand’s class in eighth grade. She always remembered Mrs. Grand because the woman went out of her way to remind Henrietta if she had a hair out of place or something stubborn stuck in her teeth, which was very helpful given that her class was right after lunch. Henrietta appreciated that, even if old Mrs.Grand tended to say things like, “You wouldn’t want the boys to see you with something unsavory in your front teeth, dear” or, “It’s such a pity a pretty girl like you can’t fix yourself up.” Henrietta didn’t have the heart to tell the well-meaning old woman she didn’t care what the boys—or anyone—thought of her looks.
“Why does she always do that?” Daniel asked one day as Mrs. Grand went over the significance of pi in finding the circumference of a circle.
“Do what?” Henrietta asked. It was the first time he’d spoken to her. She didn’t particularly like talking to him, not for anything she had against him, but because she disliked looking at his dark glasses and seeing that faint gray blob reflected back.
“Tell you you have stuff in your teeth.” She shouldn’t be surprised, she supposed, that he heard Mrs. Grand’s whispers to her. After all, the blind were stereotyped to have superhuman hearing.
“I don’t reflect,” Henrietta said simply.
“Oh,” Daniel said, and for a moment she thought that was the end of it. But then he leaned over and said, “So you can’t see yourself.”
“I can’t see you either.” He smiled. “In fact, I can’t see anything. Can’t even tell if my hair is sticking up. Is my hair sticking up?”
She giggled, and so did he. Then they both got in trouble for talking in class. They remained friends until the end of high school. She thought of him every now and then.
She left town and went to school in a bustling city, where she studied technology and programming—a career that she figured she could do in a quiet corner, without a lot of expectations when it came to dressing and primping. In college there were boys. Boys, not men, because she had difficulty thinking of anyone incapable of making a stable living as “men.” But she didn’t mind boys, since she herself was still a girl and not a woman. There was John, then Ravi, then Charles. Out of the three, Charles was the best in bed, though it might’ve had a lot less to do with his personal skills and a lot more to do with the fact that by the time she got to him, Henrietta had figured out that she far preferred doggie style to missionary, being able to avoid looking at her awkward gray reflection in her partner’s eyes.
When she met Stanley Erik Carlton, what made her fall for him was his laugh. It was an open, broad sound that told the world, “Do you hear me? I don’t have a care in you at all.” He laughed like that on their first date when she told him a joke about ducks, and he laughed like that on their third date when she told him why she liked sex the way she did. He laughed like that when she said yes to his proposal. He laughed like that as his best friend gave their wedding toast. And he laughed like that when she told him she was leaving him, having found a multitude of evidence of his infidelity. Later that same night, he held her against the wall of the bedroom they had shared for nearly eight years and informed her what he would do to her if she tried to head out the door, and he did not laugh then.
The irony of life was never-ending. This minor inconvenience of life turned out to be a lifesaver when she showed up at the office with bruises on her neck and face. She didn’t think she’d hit the table corner all that hard when he pushed her, but it left a mark. Enough for her office mates to stare, then point, then whisper, then call the police to swing by her home that evening. She had no idea her face was even bruised until a tight-lipped officer pointed it out as her husband was escorted out of their home in handcuffs.
Feeling safe took some time, but moving on from the marriage wasn’t as difficult as she thought it would be, especially with their wedding album full of photos where her own image was painted in. The artist was quite talented, much better than the one who painted her baby pictures, but Henrietta still could not see herself in that pretty, blushing bride. The album looked like a collection of images that had nothing to do with her—the man who was in her life for a while, and a woman she didn’t recognize. Throwing it out wasn’t hard; neither was selling the home and the possessions they shared. Then, when it was all done and the divorce finalized, she moved back to her hometown and looked up Daniel Harrison.
From the window of the coffee shop down the block from her old family home, Henrietta looked out at the fiery red maple trees lining main street. The coffee shop was older than she was, and the couple that opened it used to give her a fresh madeleine if they happened to be making them that day. They had since passed. Their niece and her husband took over, a young, fresh-faced couple who did not know Henrietta by face or name. If she could see her own face in the shop window, Henrietta mused, she probably would marvel at the marks the years left on her skin. But she had never seen herself young, and she would never see herself old, so those maple trees and that coffee shop looked exactly the same, and so did that gray blob reflected in the window.
“Henny George,” said a smiling voice.
She smiled back, though he couldn’t see it. “You found me.”
“Delta pointed me over here.” Daniel had gained some weight, and his hairline had long receded. From what she gathered on social media, he was working as a voice actor, reading books from braille. He looked kind and warm.
“You sound as beautiful as ever,” he said, sliding into the seat across from her with practiced dexterity. After all these years, she wouldn’t be surprised if he knew every inch of this town like the back of his own hand.
“And you’re still a flirt,” she replied. “And it’s Henny Carlton now.”
“Ah, yes. I heard you got married.” He paused. “Chose to keep the name, did you?”
“Doesn’t seem right to pretend it never happened, however it ended.”
“Are you still with Grant?”
“Not for a while now.” Daniel rolled the handle of his walking stick in his hand. Henrietta had a feeling that while within this town, it was more decorative than anything. “What brought you back, Henny? Don’t lie; I can’t see for shit but I can hear lies.”
She did indeed consider lying, something about wanting to return to her roots and forget the divorce and such. But he would call her on it, like he always did. Straight shooter, Daniel was, and she always liked that about him.
“I wanted to figure out how I see myself,” she said. “After splitting with Stan, I felt like everyone saw me a certain way, like his victim. I didn’t like it; then I realized I didn’t know how I wanted to be seen, since I’d never seen myself.”
“So you came back to where it all started?”
“Not sure what I want to find, but this seems as good a place to start as any.”
“Well,” Daniel said, “let’s order some coffee and talk about that.”
He raised his hand and Delta came over. He ordered a cappuccino and she ordered black coffee. The steam from their drinks rose and condensed on his glasses. She offered to clean them, and as she did, she looked into the milky white of his eyes and for a moment, as the light reflecting off the shop window struck them just right, she saw the face of a middle-aged woman with long, brown hair and wide, round eyes. Before she could memorize it, it was gone.