Mise en Abyme

by Mia Xuan
Issue 14: Megacity | 1,266 words

untitled, © faiyiro /Adobe Stock

The population of Droste is one and not one. One, because the only person who lives among the endless glass windows and clear curtain walls is Miss Misset. Not one, because there are so very many Miss Missets.

She exists in the same way the words “sheep” or “fish” exist, in both the singular and the plural. Each reflection as she passes by the mural-sized shop windows of the downtown thoroughfare emerges as yet another Miss Misset in the throng, smoothing down her dark hair, though sometimes it is gray with age, or white from stress, or blonde from bleach. On rainy mornings in Droste, when Miss Misset’s visage catches in the droplets that ripple into gutters and lash against the parapets, a cavalcade of more Miss Missets spill from the upper stories and fire escapes. Some Miss Missets remember their umbrellas and dress in smart beige coats against the downpour. Other Miss Missets sprint down the street in sopping shoes, cursing at their snoozed alarms and the weather report, delivered by, of course, another Miss Misset, with her hair snipped in a neat bob.

Despite being peopled entirely by one person, Droste is not a harmonious city, for Miss Misset presents a new facet in each windowpane or compact or rear-view mirror she passes. Her multitudes share a predilection for clutter and collecting, a height of approximately five foot eight depending on nutritional intake, and a competitive streak kept well-hidden by a smile well-trained for congratulations. Outside of these commonalities, the Miss Missets have speciated in the manner of island finches. This Miss Misset kept to her dogged belief in hard work, punching into the office every day at seven with rigid punctuality; this Miss Misset surrendered to her sentimentality and bought nine cats, one for each life. This Miss Misset never managed to leave her summer job as a waitress and continues to glare at customers and take too long on smoke breaks; this Miss Misset pursued her lofty dreams of grants and galleries, and of course the other Miss Missets find much to admire in her work, as it is proof of the potential they always suspected lay dormant in themselves. Some of the Miss Missets truly achieve greatness and get their faces plastered over monolithic billboards and digital screens, further additions to the array of Miss Missets comprising the city. The other Miss Missets look upon a bright smile so much like their own, beaming down at them from such lofty heights, and they wonder if they could be the next Miss Misset to make it, even as they all drink the same coffees from the same cafes and buy the same blouses from the same boutiques, posting the same photos to the same sites, in another sprawl of Miss Missets that tangles in the greater overgrowth.

It is inevitable, with so many Miss Missets occupying the same space, that there cannot be room enough for all of them. The traditional Miss Misset has a taste for seafood and an affinity for art and architecture, but the lines for the freshest cuts at the trendy bistro are truly terrible, stretching for blocks and blocks, and there are only so many exhibitions and blueprints to go around. Only the finest of Miss Missets confirm their place in rooftop penthouses with skyline views, while the rest are left to scrabble in their wake. Countless Miss Missets spring from the sleek tinted windows of the office buildings and find their way inside, sharing cubicles and break rooms with equally bold, equally ambitious Miss Missets, each wearing crisp dress shirts and blazers to leave a good impression. Thresholds to studios erode from countless Miss Missets who haul in their sketchbooks to labor away at life drawings that double as self-portraits. And each kind remark and encouraging note they give to each other scrapes past with friction.

Like does not always suit like, after all, and Miss Misset is unlike the gridded avenues and crosswalks she navigates—she has the wrong edges to fit neatly against herself. When she goes out to the new cafes to meet other Miss Missets, she is understood, and terribly so, as she realizes her thoughts are well-trod, her dreams pedestrian. She sees what makes the select few Miss Missets succeed, which only serves to discourage her when she cannot commit to those same habits, like waking up before sunrise to exercise before work or setting aside time to meditate. There always appears to be a Miss Misset who is doing better than she, even though they start from the same template. A mirror is held up to Miss Misset every day, and it always finds her wanting.

Observing the Miss Missets who are worse off brings no comfort, either, as it is difficult to learn that one is difficult to like. Miss Misset is not oblivious to the twinge of superiority she feels when she sees another Miss Misset shivering in a threadbare coat or easing her feet from too-small shoes, and who is to say that the Miss Misset at work, who has alligator skin handbags and a nicer car with leather seats, does not feel the same way when she sees her practical windbreaker and worn briefcase. How can anyone distinguish between compassion and contempt when every Miss Misset has the same sympathetic smile? And though she sometimes musters enough magnanimity to spare some change or sound advice to an unfortunate Miss Misset, she would rather not witness how poorly she handles adversity. The Miss Missets who have upscale apartments in the nice blocks avoid the Miss Missets who snip coupons and count change out of necessity instead of frugality, because they do not want to know how easily they lapse into cursing others for their circumstances, how quickly they resign themselves to their fate, when they write in their resumes about being diligent, proactive problem solvers.

One notorious Miss Misset is said to have surfaced from the sheen of a knife, or the shards of cracked glass in a dark alley, though it is far more likely that she came from a changing room mirror or car window. Whatever the case, the ramshackle walk-up she used to call home has been abandoned, and the rumors say that she is now living as another Miss Misset. Worse than hearing that a Miss Misset is missing is the thought that nobody is quite sure who has been replaced. The new Miss Misset can be agreeable, gracious, and very endearing, and might even be more industrious than the former Miss Misset, after learning to appreciate functional heating and well-stocked fridges. And the other Miss Missets gather together to mourn their fallen friend as they encounter each other at park benches or coffee shops, chattering on about how awful, how selfish, how greedy that Miss Misset must be, instead of how frightened they are, because none of them wants to admit to suspecting everyone.

The population of Droste is one and not one. Not one, because the city is teeming with Miss Missets, who duck into vestibules to escape the autumn storms, who fidget in long lines for oyster dinners, who look over the city from balconies dotted with string lights that match the traffic patterns, who speak more in canned responses than candid ones, who commute between home and work in subways packed with identical passengers in identical seats and identical slacks, who start and spend and end the day staring into mirrors. One, because no matter how many reflections she passes by, each Miss Misset is still on her own.


Mia Xuan

Mia Xuan

Mia Xuan is a writer from New Jersey, or the Extended New York City Metropolitan Area, according to everyone not from New Jersey. She enjoys drawing and making comics. Her work has been previously featured in Apparition Lit.