I was about to turn thirteen and we had just moved, and I hated moving. There were things I liked about it–new fresh start and so on–and things I hated–what had I left behind, and was my green silk elephant scarf in fact packed somewhere, and if so, where? In the neighborhood we had moved into were new, strange children, who might be enemies and might be friends.
The place we had moved to was Norman, Oklahoma, and earlier in the day my brother and I had hooked up our stereo and played an old 45 of someone singing, “Norman, ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh ooooh, oooh,” really loud, with the speakers pointing out the window, until our parents yelled at us. I had unpacked most of my clothes and put them in my closet–I had a big one–and my dresser, but my stepfather hadn’t attached the mirror to my dresser or the headboard to the bed. I had wedged the mirror behind my bed so I wouldn’t get up in the night and knock it over and break it. The last thing you need, when you’re in junior high and in a new place, is to invoke seven years of bad luck. A goodly number of boxes were strewn around the room (and in fact the entire house), we had no rugs down and no curtains up, and I finally collapsed into bed with strange shapes all around me wondering where I’d put my elephant scarf and why it had suddenly assumed such critical importance.
Now I should add that in addition to being a bit jumpy on account of moving, I was a somewhat spooky almost-teenager. Owing to some movie I’d seen (Haunting of Hill House, I believe), once I turned off my bedroom light at the door I had to get to my bed in a minimum number of leaps and make sure I slept with nothing hanging over the edges of my bed, otherwise something would reach out from under the bed and grab me. See in addition to all the well-known superstitions I, along with the rest of my family, observed a great many personal ones, also. So, I turned off my light, leapt over a couple of boxes, pulled the covers over my head and listened to the house creaking. I think I was the last one to go to bed, that night. I wished we were still playing “Norman.” That would have masked all those sounds.
Then, probably pretty quickly, I fell asleep.
Some hours later I woke up, because I was sure that something was about to get me.
Now this wasn’t really like me. Oh, it was like me to think something would get me; it wasn’t like me to wake in the night. Once I was in bed, and tucked neatly into the center of the mattress, despite all my superstitions and groundless fears I generally slept like a dead person and had to be dragged out of bed by my mother in the morning, or sometimes in the early afternoon. But that was different because this time something was about to get me. I lay there, on my stomach with my face buried in the pillow, and took stock. I was in the center of the bed–check. My feet weren’t hanging over the edge–check. I tried to think about where the light was, where the door was, where the wall was, and which direction I was facing, and I had no idea. But something was definitely going to get me, I knew that. So, should I just lie there and let it get me?
This is an awful dilemma. Only a couple of years earlier I had gone through a thing of which way my head faced. If I faced the wall then something could come in and get me and I’d never see it, if I turned my face toward the door then I could see it get me, which did I want? I had solved that by deciding I would be brave and face the door but as a practical matter I slept prone, with my face buried in my pillow.
So I lay there, pulling the covers around me even though it was July and we didn’t have air-conditioning, wishing we were still playing “Norman” and wishing it was light and then I remembered that I was brave and raised my head from the pillow.
And sure enough, something was there. Two eyes, burning right back at me. Glittering in the moonlight. Strange, evil eyes, full of malice and contempt.
I screamed. What else could I do? And not just any scream. Not a little-girl squeak, oh no. I gave it my best roller-coaster yell, really hitting the high notes. From the bottom of my lungs, and the top of my lungs, and probably the middle. And because there were not yet books in the bookcases or curtains on the windows this unearthly yell reverberated around the room, which scared me even more. But only for a second–because then I realized whose eyes were staring at me.
My own. I was looking into my mirror.
So in mid-scream I broke off and, with the scream still echoing around me, I started laughing at my stupidity and, probably, with relief.
Boy, was I dumb or what? Hee hee hee. God, what a flake! Ho ho ho ho.
About that time my mother appeared. “Honey? Are you okay? What’s happened?”
Oh my god. I couldn’t possibly explain this. Even thinking about trying to explain it (“Uh, I saw these eyes in the mirror…”) made me laugh harder. I did try. “Uh, I–hee hee. Well, it’s–snerk! Ha ha ha”) but I didn’t really get anywhere.
She switched on the light. Where, before, I had just been laughing like a lunatic in my own little world, now the whole thing was in perspective. I was laughing like a lunatic in my room, with boxes all around, and I had woken up my mother and who knows who else …For some reason I found this hysterically funny, and laughed harder. I tried to think about what she was seeing. Her daughter, who had just screamed a mighty scream, lying in bed in the fetal position quivering and totally unable to speeak.
“I–” Hohohoho. I couldn’t talk.
She came over and sat down on the bed with her mouth open and realized that I was laughing, not crying, and smiled rather tentatively. “Everything okay?”
Snort. Ohmygod, hee hee, sure, everything’s fine, just fine. I couldn’t say a word. I think I tried to nod. And then she started laughing.
And then my stepfather came in, standing at the door, blinking sleepily. “What the devil is going on here? What did I just hear?”
I knew, but by this time I had tears running down my cheeks and wasn’t even coherent enough to reassure him. And my mother was rapidly getting into the same state. I don’t know if she had figured it out–the bed, the mirror, the disorientation–or if my laughter was just so damn infections, but she had to sit down on the floor.
“Well,” my father said–and then he chuckled.
Now I should stay here that at that period of my life I thought of my stepdad as an old grump, and believed that he thought of me and even my brother as subhumans that he had to put up with. Whenever I had a slumber party he always yelled at my friends and scared them, and I thought my real father wouldn’t have done that. (I’ll bet he would have, though. This was one of those things that, when I got older, and had kids, and they had friends sleep over, I understood, because about two or three a.m. my husband would always stalk out of our bedroom in his saggy underwear and yell at the young guests to pipe down, people are trying to sleep, for god’s sake.) But then the old grump chuckled. And then he started laughing, too. And as loud as he was when he yelled, his laughter was louder.
We had now reached the point where everything was hilarious. When the dog walked in, understandably perplexed, and sat down and scratched her ear, we were the ones who howled.
And then my brother came in. So now we had the whole fam damily. My brother (who was two and a half years older and actually my stepbrother) stood there and joined in the general laughter but at least he was coherent enough to comment. “I heard a scream. Oh, you saw yourself in the mirror. Yeah, that’d make you scream all right. Make anyone scream.” Hee hee. A few minutes later he managed to gasp out that, if there was anyone awake in the neighborhood, all our new neighbors had to do was look in the uncurtained window and they would see the whole Suze family in my bedroom, some of us standing, others in total collapse, all of us laughing like loons–himself included, I should add–and the neighbors might well conclude that they should drop a net over all of us, then and there. Hee hee. Probably the SWAT team would show up at any minute, wouldn’t that be funny?
Everything he said just made us laugh harder. The only thing that would have been funnier was if somebody had had to go to the emergency room.
There is something really invigorating about hysteria. Eventually we got to the point where we were only chuckling occasionally or letting out the odd whoop. Eventually I managed to choke out that it was a good thing I was not a violently inclined person or I would have had those seven years of bad luck. My stepfather decided that since he was awake anyway he might as well find a screwdriver and put my furniture together–to avoid any future occurrences of the event.
For a couple of days after this event nobody referred to it. Then my brother showed up at dinner with a copy of The Thurber Carnival from which he read, or tried to read, “The Night the Bed Fell” and “More Alarms at Night,” the second one particularly being really hard for him, or any of us, to get through–at least when trying to read it aloud. And that is how this experience, paralleled only by the night my sleepwalking mother dragged me out into a ferocious thunderstorm because she thought there was a tornado, came to be known forever in our family lore not as “The night we moved to Norman” or “the night Hilarity saw herself in the mirror and freaked out,” but instead was invoked by the phrase “Name some towns in New Jersey.”