by devika ranjan

In the early days of the pandemic, when everything felt chaotic, I over-controlled what I could: my body through fitness, my work through extreme hours, my creativity through rigid and unhelpful structures. All of these activities were online. Faced with the stillness of social isolation, the collective grief of the pandemic, and the mayhem of political upheaval, technology was a space of (often literal, healthy and unhealthy) self-reflection. 

As we stare at ourselves on Zoom or edit our bodies online to make them more palatable to our own eyes, technology has become a space of the self. And now that so much  of our social interaction occurs through a screen, this particularly-difficult facet of our online existence is almost inescapable. Mirror fitness equipment and fitness technology that claims to “see” the user invite the ultimate vulnerability: watching one’s “undesirable” body next to its white, toned, sleek “potential.” 

Simultaneously, the draw of unplugging, of going off the grid, feels more urgent than ever. I found momentary pause in daily walks, which served as both a break from screen time and the first time I really saw nature around my childhood home. When I stared up into the pine trees lining Haggetts Pond, I felt a part of one short moment in the long spine of history. It felt so novel that I took a picture and posted it to Instagram. In the pandemic’s social isolation, the cyborgian body becomes all the more present — its violences, its cultivation of possibility, its cravings for connection.

The stock market, on the otherhand, is one of the least embodied objects in the world. It is a construction created by a self-serving industry, albeit with very real consequences. In Mirror, through her job as a stockbroker, Neha is entwined in the preservation of the disembodied as an escape from her bodied reality. Ultimately, the natural world has the potential to cut through this noise — to bore a hole into what we are used to imagining in the confines of our four walls. This story is about the quest for control, the replacement of one avenue of capitalist reward for another, and the hope of a future grounded in environmental, interpersonal, and embodied awareness.

The Mirror was a Christmas gift from Neha’s boyfriend who, shortly after giving it to her, became her ex. They had seen ads for it on the subway, promises of transformation and joy. The models in the ad glistened with sweat. They were radiant, even under fluorescent light.

He thought he was helping. Neha snubbed the gym with jokes about the Spin Superstars, the grandmas who jiggled their way through Zumba, her liquid diet. The Mirror proved that he saw through it. After he left, those bleak days between December 26 and the new year, Neha covered the Mirror with a sweater that no longer fit her. It was hard to lie to someone who wasn’t there.

When the holidays ended, Neha ignored the ads, answering emails and avoiding eye contact with the other grey passengers. She evaluated double the stocks of anyone on her team. The firm congratulated her as she brought in new investors, even slid promises of a promotion between the lines of emails. Neha stayed long after the rest went home, researching every detail of the firm’s portfolio. Over the weekends, she meticulously tracked her bets.

She found out it was President’s Day when the office doors were locked shut. Hours later, cradling an empty green bottle, the sun flashed in her eyes. She stumbled to her living room window to lower the shade. Her bare foot caught in a tangle of clothing.

Neha grabbed the Mirror, bracing for the crash. For the first time in months, she felt hope — that the object would be gone, swept up by the cleaning lady, out of her home. But the Mirror still stood. She yanked the sweater from its frame; even then, it did not fall. It was sturdier than she thought. In the Mirror, Neha saw the steroids from last year’s skin infection, the Pill, the genetics, the depression, the wine, the luxury of knowing that someone had loved her. Her head spun. And even though it was February and resolutions had been passé for weeks, she made a pledge to herself.

Neha unwound the cord from its plastic wrap and plugged in the Mirror. The instructor smiled at her. Neha clicked the volume down, barely audible, so that the sound would not seep through the condo walls.

Hello, the instructor murmured. Thank you for choosing yourself.
At first, she just stood still, eyes closed, listening to his gentle instructions. She imagined her downstairs neighbors banging on the ceiling. What are you doing up there, whale?

During the second set, she cracked her eyes open. If she focused only on the instructor’s image in the Mirror, his fluid motions, his slim hips, her own body could become a blur next to him. She began to move, small rotations of her shoulders. She nudged the volume one bar higher.

Neha did not tell anyone about the Mirror. She did not want them to think about her body, to think about her as someone who was thinking about her body. Still, she found herself repeating the instructor’s phrases to her team, tender encouragements she earned after a particularly difficult session. As disaster struck, her team clung to those praises, anticipating the barbs that would come.

By the time Neha had to work from home, the instructor would not let her have time off. His expectations became higher, and his approval less frequent. He was pushing her, he explained. He knew that she could be great, if she just tried.

Neha set up a series of monitors on her coffee table. Rumors swirled of financial ruin, echoes of 2008, industry-wide layoffs. Her investors started to pull out, and with them went the firm’s revenue. One by one, Neha’s team was laid off, locked out of their systems overnight. More rumors: of the remaining analysts, maybe five would stay. Maybe only three.

The market continued to plummet, its hollow bones too fragile to hold itself up. Her colleagues sold. She waited, gambling against time. The stocks that she had watched for months, predicting every quiver, suddenly plunged. Still, she waited. She kept the shade down, working through the nights, the days.

Only the instructor kept time. Whenever he commanded, she stood. His words and his image became sharper. She thrust her body along with his movements, outdoing his intensity. She felt good, strong, one of those ancient warriors who ate little and gained power.

When she finally woke, her monitors had dulled into sleep mode. Her gaze slipped around the living room. The instructor stared at her from his gilded frame. He coaxed her quietly, dangerously. He whispered things he had never before said. She started to move. Her head felt too heavy to hold up.

At the end, Neha sank in front of the Mirror. The instructor was silent. She knew that he was disappointed. She rolled her forehead against the cool of the Mirror. Its mechanisms purred to her.

Her parents’ first computer had sounded like that. When she was a child, Neha would crawl underneath the faux wooden desk, leaning against the warmth of the CPU. Her father sat in front of the keyboard, back straight. He tapped out messages with his pointer finger. Her mother leaned over his shoulder, dictating notes to her parents about their new routines, the local library, the sudden colors of autumn. They scanned a picture of the Styrofoam solar system that they had assembled for Neha’s science class. They revealed their homesickness in requests for recipes from her grandmother, whose stews they tried to recreate in their tiny kitchen.

Neha pressed her flushed cheek to the Mirror, searching for the vibrations of the CPU. She waited for her parents to finish writing their emails and carry her to bed, placing her warm body between them.

By the time her fever broke, the instructor was gone.

Neha stared into the Mirror’s reflection. Eventually, she filled a bowl with dry cereal. The milk had expired a long time ago. When she turned the shower on, it leaked red, rusty water before it ran clear. She sank back onto her couch. She didn’t know where else to go.

With one keystroke, the screens flashed in anticipation. Letter by letter, she entered her password, stretching her fingers across the letters. Incorrect. Neha shook her head, trying to recall the last time she changed her password, maybe after she started working from home.

She tapped in the last one she remembered, her ex’s middle name and his favorite numbers. Incorrect. One attempt left. Neha’s stomach churned. She entered her father’s birthdate, carefully this time, without any mistakes. Then she deleted it and keyed it in again.

Locked out. Acid burned her throat. She typed her passwords again and again, her fingers drilling into the machine. Maybe she had just forgotten. The monitor kept flashing. Locked out. Her keystrokes rang in her ears. She remembered the missed calls from her colleagues in March, panicked when they couldn’t sign in. Did you try IT?, she texted back, knowing fully well a password reset wouldn’t solve their problem.

She dropped her head in her hands. But the sound of typing still surrounded her — deliberate keystrokes, an incorrect password, a slow email. The tapping grew more urgent, faster than her father could type, and despite herself, she imagined the instructor boring through the glass, breaking through, standing in her living room above her.

The Mirror showed that she was still alone.

The tapping drilled through her, faster still, maybe a jackhammer from infinite City construction. Neha pulled the shade up, releasing a cloud of dust around the window.

The window did not edit her body the way that the Mirror did. In fact, it distorted her, pulling limbs away from each other and shining a street light through her like a ghost. When she put her hand against the glass, she felt the tapping through her teeth. A little black woodpecker drilled into the window frame.
It was dusk. Maybe cold outside. Neha picked up the old sweater from where it had fallen at the foot of the Mirror. It fit her now, but not the way that it used to.

By the time Neha came downstairs, the bird was gone. Water, or maybe the cold, seeped into her socks. After months of climate control, the sharp breeze tingled her arms.

Someone was out for an evening jog. He didn’t look as he crossed the street. The last time she had been outside was the winter, packed into the subway with the rest of the commuters, their backpacks, their puffy jackets, their downward gazes.

The loneliness was different now.

Neha searched for the hole that the woodpecker had made, a tiny portal into the innards of her apartment. The monitors glowed through the glass. She thought she saw the shadow of the instructor, pacing in the confines of his frame. Neha sank her feet into the ground, asking for another moment. She waited for the next runner.

Devika Ranjan is a theatre-maker, ethnographer, and educator who tells stories about migration through performance, research, and advocacy. Born in Nashik, Maharashtra, India, and raised all over the United States, Devika found her roots in her family as they moved from the mountains, to the prairies, to the shining sea. She is resident director of Albany Park Theater Project, a social justice theater that tells immigrant stories. She also teaches theater and performance studies at Georgetown University. Her devised theater and facilitation work has been commended by Meghan Markle for its importance for disenfranchised migrants and political crises at large.