“I came into the room and I knew immediately. It was the smell of him, of his room, after he had been sleeping, in the mornings, when the room was empty but he was still there because of the smell.”
She was sitting, as always, in the chair by the window. She shivered and flexed her fingers around the mug of tea she had made herself with the keurig machine in the waiting room, which had infused this small space with the distinctive but fading smell of bergamot. She hunched her whole body around the ceramic vessel as if she was cold and it was the only source of heat in the tropically warm practice room. The tea was probably tepid by now. She had not taken a single sip of it. This was typical of her. She made herself a cup every session and then did not drink it. She plucked three tissues from the tissue box and laid them ready and convenient on the chair’s armrest to her right and then did not use them. She came into the room at the beginning of each Tuesday afternoon session with something very specific that she wanted to talk about, and then shyly, even coyly avoided and evaded it until the last ten minutes of the session. Invariably, at the end of the session I would be forced to interrupt her to tell her that our time was up, and then once she left, that last thought still dangling unfinished in the air, she would leave behind the mug of stone cold tea on the table, and the three pristine tissues draped over the right armrest of the chair by the window, left utterly forgotten for me to dispose of myself. I glanced at the clock surreptitiously, only moving my eyes, then looked back at her, and indulged her. I didn’t have an appointment after this one today.
“You mean to say… that this room in your apartment- the vacant bedroom?”
“Yes, the vacant bedroom.”
“You went into it yesterday morning–”
“Yes. I was just putting something away. I do my chores in the early morning. I like to clean, and I store things in that room. I keep it sealed the rest of the time. You know, I have it made up, for when I have guests, but mostly….” She trailed off and did not resume.
“So, you went into the room yesterday morning and it smelled like a man had been sleeping in it.”
“It smelled like he had been sleeping in it.” She was not one for making eye contact. Her eyes always bounced around the office, only sometimes flickering up to meet mine. Now they fixed on some spot on the carpet and she frowned at the spot.
“How can you be so sure it was his smell?”
“I couldn’t mistake it. You might think it’s, I don’t know, strange, but I know that smell. Every part of my body knows that smell.”
“Can you describe it to me? Your impression of it?”
“It’s pungent and-and salty, damp. Like a man’s body. But not any man. I can’t say how. But you must know what I mean. People have their smells.” She made a gesture, sort of vague and twisting. “I looked around the room. I smelled the sheets and the things in the closet, and in all the drawers. I overturned everything but I couldn’t find a source. It was just in the air. And then it was gone. I suppose the smell could have come from his old stuff. His clothing and such. I keep it all in there. I don’t really have anywhere else to put it all. But it was so strong. It was a fresh smell.”
I cleared my throat and said, gently, “How long ago was it, again, that your brother died?”
“And how did you deal with it at the time?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really like to think about that time. It feels better just to move on. That’s why I moved to a different city.”
I nodded. “Why did you come to this city specifically?”
“One has to go somewhere, right? If this was New York or L.A. you would never have to ask me why I was here, the city gives its own justifications. But other places, Pittsburg or Baltimore or Memphis, they’re all just places to be. Spaces to inhabit.”
“Looking at your medical history, you’ve moved more than once. Six cities in five years. That’s very unusual.”
“Well, you have to keep moving, or things keep catching up with you,” she said, and gave an odd little laugh.
“What catches up with you?”
“Oh, um, memories. Everywhere starts to seem the same, the apartments, the rooms, the jobs. I walk down a hallway and for a moment I’m unsure which hallway it is, which city.”
“And you’ve had eight different therapists in that time.”
“Why is that?”
She shrugged and shifted. “I guess that I’m just having a hard time finding the right one.” She refocused on the mug in her grip, clenching her hands around it, wearing an uncomfortable and unhappy expression. I wondered why she kept going to therapy. She wanted something out of it, clearly, something very specific, but she seemed unable to articulate, or even maybe to understand in herself what that thing which she wanted was. It would help if she were not so unfailingly dishonest, as so many of my patients were. She interacted with me through a cloak of lies and half-truths, feigned lack of emotion, always downplaying the things she cared about the most. Finding access to the truth was usually by a circuitous route of seemingly irrelevant questions.
“So you live in a two bedroom apartment, even though you’re just by yourself. Why is that?”
“I don’t know. It’s the kind of place I’ve always lived in. And if I ever have guests, you know.”
“Do you often have guests?”
“Can you describe the configuration of the place you lived in with your brother? I remember you said it was a small apartment.” I suspected something that I was trying to get at now.
“Yeah. Ah, it had a kitchen, a bathroom, and each of us had our bedrooms.”
“Did it have a guest bedroom?”
“Um, I don’t- I don’t remember if it did. I think so, yes. I’ve been in so many different places, you know. It’s hard to remember when they all look the same.” I could tell that she was lying to me about this. It struck me as very interesting compulsive behavior that she would do this to herself, be continuously in flight from the memory of her brother, and yet continue to put herself into the same sorts of places as the one she had once shared with him, as if she was keeping the vacant room for him, filling it with his old possessions, expecting that on any day he might return to it, and that it would need to be ready.
I looked into the vacant bedroom at my house. It’s for guests, of course, which we host fairly often. It’s down the hall, past the kids’ old rooms, with its own bathroom. The bedroom is pretty featureless, the mattress bare. We don’t store anything in the closets or drawers. It’s just an empty room full of empty furniture. Like a hotel room, before it’s made ready, I suppose. I sniffed the air, and it didn’t smell like anything.
I asked my wife, “Why don’t you keep the bed made up in the guest room? It’s never made up. Wouldn’t it be easier when we have guests for it to be already made up?”
“Well, hon, you’re welcome to make it now, if you feel that it’s important.”
“I just wanted to know if there was some sort of theory behind it. I’m not trying to make any macho complaints about your housekeeping.”
She leaned away from her laptop where she was at work and looked at me finally, raised her eyebrows at me. “My housekeeping?”
“I’m not conveying myself well today, I’m afraid.”
“I didn’t know it would be a problem if I don’t habitually make up the guest bedroom in my abundant spare time. Anyway, I just think it’s creepy to have it made when there’s no one in it. Call me superstitious.”
“Creepy?” I repeated in surprise.
“My mom’s fault. She used to say that made beds would always become occupied. If something is looking for somewhere to sleep, it’ll sleep there. You know, if you have an empty room waiting to be occupied, it’ll become occupied by something.”
“By what? Are we talking about ghosts?”
“She never specified what it was that we didn’t want- ah- taking up residence with us. Could have been ghosts. Something supernatural. Demons, or bad spirits maybe. But it’s just superstition. You can make up the bed, I don’t care that much.”
She was in the chair by the window. She had three tissues laid across the armrest to her right, and she had a mug of tea in her hands, which was releasing almost imperceptible puffs of hot stream, bringing again that distinctive smell of bergamot into the little room. She gazed fixedly at the liquid in the mug, which was invisible to me from where I was. She was a sickly-looking woman, though it was hard to define quite why. Perhaps she was just too pale and bony-thin, with skin that had a soft and porous look to it, like pinched pastry dough. She had pink nostrils and pink-rimmed eyes. The window lit one side of her brightly with the blank light of the white winter day. It gave her sort of a Rembrandt look. I could see the slivering light on her eyelashes, on the liquid rim of her eye, on the hairs at her temple that had escaped from her perpetual bun. She was as unchanging as these midwinter days. She was younger than she looked.
I had looked at myself in the mirror that morning, the full-length mirror on the front of the closet door that I usually didn’t use, because it was usually standing open, the mirror facing the wall and reflecting the empty triangle of corner to create a coffin-sized and partially imaginary space, or perhaps not reflecting it, with no human eyes upon it to verify the action. Without actually seeing it, the whole space became imaginary, invisible. Just that space behind the closet door. Today I had dispelled that imaginary space by closing the closet door, and in doing so confronted the mirror. I had seen reflected there the whole length of my completely naked body in the mirror for the first time in quite a while. The areas of darker and much lighter skin, the round, egg-smooth protrusion of my belly, the slump of my shoulders and the flaccid atrophied flesh of my upper arms. I was older than I thought.
She began to tell me one of her stories, the stories about her mundane life that she would use to avoid, but at the same time hedge around the topics that were truly concerning her. These would always bring a smile ghosting to her face, and her eyes, instead of roving the carpet, would drift up to scuttle about the ceiling, searching there for the next word. “I was cooking my dinner last night. Cooking is so different when you don’t have anyone to cook for, to eat with. It’s lonely, I suppose. It’s no longer an act of love. To occupy myself I like to listen to Librivox recordings while I work on dinner. It’s nice, the company of the voices of all those faceless people, just random ordinary people. You can hear them taking a breath or turning a page. You can hear the inflections and tones they apply, the quiet opinions they slip into the work. I prefer when the readers are women, faceless women speaking to me. I was listening to recordings of Virginia Woolf’s work.” She was such a particular woman. Her observations were specific and odd. Her eyes- they were always looking around searchingly. I wondered what she saw here in this office that I might not see. I wondered how she would describe this place, if asked to. I wondered how she would describe me.
I wondered, why three tissues? Did she expect that she was going to cry during these sessions? There were some of my patients who did, who could be depended on for it, but she never did. She arranged them so carefully, the corners pointing down over the sides of the armrest, the squares overlapping like napkins laid out on a buffet table at a wedding. Was this her way of feeling in control, of making my armchair hers? There was a domesticity about it, the arranging of objects, the particular annexation of a space through habit, making a small home here in my office chair.
I wondered, why bergamot? It was the hallmark flavoring of Earl Grey tea. The waiting area had a selection of teas. They had dubious keurig capsules of Apple Cinnamon and Passion fruit-Peach and then the more respectable names like English Breakfast and Mint Medley, Chamomile, Chai. When she could choose any of those, why did she pick Earl Grey? I could not understand why anyone would enjoy Earl Grey. It was the bergamot. It smelled perfumy, like the soaps found in the lace-cocooned bathrooms of certain old homes. Those little pastel-colored soaps that are shaped like seashells and seahorses and flowers, and are displayed in little floral china bowls and in glass jars, so that you aren’t quite sure that you’re really supposed to use them, so that you feel like you are spoiling them if you do. I did not mind the smell. It was nostalgic, to me. It made me think of creaking staircases and monogrammed silver. But to drink?
But then, after all, she did not drink the bergamot-flavored tea. Perhaps she liked that perfume, and made the cup simply to smell it. Perhaps it was nostalgic to her too, reminded her of certain old homes, perhaps even the home where she grew up, where she and her brother were children together.
“Woolf has such gorgeous, slow and pondering ruminations on the moments of everyday life, on objects and their significance in the mind, on domesticity.”
I tried to bring up in my mind some knowledge of Virginia Woolf. I had never read her work. I knew nothing about her except that she had been around and writing back in the twenties, and that she had killed herself. I hadn’t read many female writers, a fact that my wife had many a time fingered as a flaw of mine. She had said once, “You think you know everything, think you’ve read everything. But you’ve only read half of everything. You’ve excluded the whole of my sex from your studies.” That was a while ago, but I had to admit that I hadn’t much changed my reading habits since then.
“I saw a mark on the wall, just like the woman in her short story, just as I was listening to that story. Imagine, a woman in a sitting room, by a fireside. She is inside all day. She sits and has only objects to look at and consider. The sitting room becomes the whole of her universe. She has a man, a husband I suppose, who comes and goes from the house, and she waits for him to come and go, cloistered, shut up in the sitting room beside the fire, shut up with nothing but her own thoughts and her waiting. What a terrible thing, when you love someone, to be put in the position to wait for him. The absent person leaves a void, and then the void is filled with thoughts. Domesticity is her solitude, her prison. She sees the mark on the wall, an infinite mystery. It seems to suggest both nothing and everything. It seems to describe the whole of history. I had this sudden conviction that I am that woman, in the sitting room by the fire. I saw a mark on the wall, above my bed.” The ghostly smile had dissipated.
“Didn’t you say that you were making dinner?”
“Did I? Oh, I misspoke. No, I was in my bedroom. I saw the mark, just a smudge, and I wondered what it was from, and I felt like the woman in the story. When thoughts become almost too much to bear. When there are simply too many hours, too many hours in the night for lying awake, and seeing that dim smudge there, and knowing that on the other side of the wall is another bedroom, and waiting for a knock on the wall.”
I said, “You feel that there is someone you love that you’re waiting for. And you’re trapped, waiting for this person?”
Her eyes dropped now, and she went silent, her mouth pinching. I could see her chastising herself internally for having said too much.
“What do you mean, a knock on the wall?”
“Sometimes at night- it seems childish, but sometimes at night when he was alone he would knock on the wall and ask if I was awake. He and I both had trouble sleeping. We would sit up and talk. Sometimes we would talk all night. After a while I noticed that there was an oily mark, just a faint one, but distinct, on the wall where I leaned my forehead, on those nights when we would sit up and talk.”
“And you perceive the same mark now in the same place, in your new apartment.”
I asked her, “Have you gone into the vacant bedroom, in our time apart?”
She shook her head.
“I think you ought to,” I said. “I think that as long as you avoid that room it will weigh on your mind. But if you go in, and see that it’s just an ordinary room, I think it will be a relief to you.” On my words ‘ordinary room’ I could see the corners of her mouth pull down very slightly into an objecting frown. She had been avoiding the room for the very opposite reason, then. She wasn’t afraid that she might find something there, she was afraid that she might not.
I was doing the dishes from my dinner. The dish, rather. It was a little game I had with myself, to see how few dishes I could produce in the making and eating of my dinner. The plate I would eventually eat my sandwich off of was also the surface I sliced the bread on. The knife I used to slice the bread was the one I also used to spread the mayonnaise. On top of that would go the pre-sliced turkey, the pre-sliced provolone cheese, the pre-cut discs of sweet pickle and the squirt of yellow mustard which I would later find the neon yellow traces of on the corners of my mouth, in the bathroom mirror, in the morning. I would sup the orange juice directly from the bottle. This was not a problem, because it was my orange juice especially, which I bought for myself. My wife did not drink it, and she did not like the kids to drink it when they were still at home, because she said that it was pure sugar. I thought this was silly. It was fruit, with not a bad thing in it. Not that it’s important.
This is the most effort I will put into a meal on an average day, a workday. How could I have time for more? I buy a pastry and a coffee for breakfast, from the cafe near my office, on the way to work in the mornings. They know me there, they know the way I like my cup, will recommend what baked things are fresh. “Try the quiche. We just got it out of the oven.” The warm smile is very nice, the familiarity, however superficial, feels good. It makes the coffee taste better. For lunch I have take-out. I have my favorite places, within walking distance, and they know me there too. The Indian place, the Chinese. Sometimes pizza when I am feeling self-indulgent. And then invariably when night comes I will find myself still at the office, still working, and my god, look at the time! It’s late again, but even so I stay a little longer, sending glances every now and then to the chair by the window as if forgetting, as if expecting to find a patient there, sitting there and awaiting my attention. Most of them do not choose the chair by the window, of course, when the couch is large and inviting, plush and centrally located.
I stay a little later and know what I will come home to. The bright kitchen and the dark windows. The one plate and the one knife used. The sandwich that is always the same sandwich because maybe I am boring, maybe I like my comforts too much, or maybe coming up with something new is simply too much effort. Late again, the house a quiet sleeping thing that must not be disturbed. Well, these winter days it gets dark so early that six o’clock feels like the middle of the night, but when I get home it is not six o’clock anymore. On nights when it seems like too much effort, when the prospect of the sandwich is too much for me to handle, I will pop into a restaurant on the way home and then I will not have to wash the dishes. Dish.
I think about cooking being an act of love. Perhaps that is what is missing from my late night sandwich, the love. With no one to cook for it isn’t worth it to try to do better. But couldn’t the making of my dinner be an act of love for myself? I guess I don’t love myself enough to try to do better.
I used to consider myself quite the cook, when I was younger. I used to enjoy cooking rather a lot. I used to cook for my wife back when we were dating. I had this idea that it was really romantic, that instead of going out we would be somewhere private, at my apartment, where I could decorate with candles, where I could put on Bossa Nova jazz, and where the bed was only a few steps away. And most romantic of all, I could pour myself into an elaborate meal, something sumptuous and sexy. Lobster. Steak with béarnaise sauce and asparagus tips. Chocolate mouse and strawberries. The more food the better. The more complicated, the more numerous the courses, the more romantic it all was.
Eventually it all came out in a flood. She would rather just go out to dinner, for a date. She wanted to go out, go somewhere new. She wanted to be able to choose her own food. The stuff I made was too heavy, there was too much of it, but she felt like she had to eat it all and be enthusiastic the whole way through because I was sitting right there and watching her expectantly, hopefully. And then afterwards she felt so bloated and stuffed that the last thing she wanted to do was have sex, for god’s sake. She’d rather just lie down and groan in pain. And she didn’t like to see me cooking either, fussing over the food and bustling around, and not letting her help but insisting that she just sit there awkwardly and watch me. And I was so focused on the food I was hardly even paying attention to her. And when something went wrong I always got sad about it, when who cares? Who cares if the hollandaise sauce broke? It tasted fine to her, she said. And maybe I had a constitution that could handle eggs Benedict, but to her eating an entire carton of eggs in one sitting was just suicide.
It’s one of those many hundreds of miscommunications that every relationship has, that failure to recognize labor or agency. I thought I was doing something nice for her, and for her she felt like she was being smothered. Later I found out that she doesn’t like Bossa Nova jazz. It’s not important now. I don’t know why I’m thinking about it now. Where was I? I was doing the dishes. Dish. When I was done that, I went upstairs. It always felt a bit like my childhood, creeping up that way, trying not to wake anyone. But the staircase in the house of my youth was an old one, prone to creaking at even the pressure of the most careful and stealthy step. This was a new and characterless house, and the stairs didn’t have that protesting voice. It was late. My wife was asleep, I knew. There was no moonlight from the clouded off-yellow and flannel grey sky. The only illumination came from the hallway nightlight. I looked at the dark opening of our bedroom from the dim hall. I decided not to disturb her, not to push this little point of contention tonight.
I went and made up the vacant bedroom, and I slept in there. It was kind of nice to have such a large bed all to myself. I could sleep naked, so I did. I lay in the center of the bed. Space stretched out for miles all around me, and I pushed my arms and legs out into the space, feeling the silky sheets against my skin. There was no presence of people in the room, not even of me yet. Just clean sheets and empty air. The room was so invitingly blank, undecorated, unlived in, the smooth bare expanse of the ceiling like a canvas that I could project my night visions onto.
I don’t know why, because I don’t normally remember my dreams, but that night I dreamt, and when I woke up the memory of it stayed with me, clear and persistent as if it had really happened. Maybe it was just the strangeness of sleeping in a new room. Maybe I slept more deeply than I usually do. In my dream I was at her apartment in the vacant bedroom. I’ve never been there in real life, of course, because she’s my patient. But my mind invented the space, I suppose, though it looked similar to the bedroom in the apartment I had once, when I was in my twenties, living on my own for the first time and just starting to date my wife, before she was that to me. That was before we got a new place together, and I never lived alone again. I guess I was just thinking about that place, last night, and that’s probably why I dreamt about a place like it. In my dream I was there in her apartment in the vacant bedroom.
She was there, of course. I was standing, sort of off to the side, trying to look polite and neutral, with my hands in my pockets, trying not to show that I was quite concerned. I was feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed, like I really shouldn’t be there. She was walking around the room. It was a small room, with just a double bed and a dresser in it, and one window, and the sensation of a closet door behind me. It did not concern me, nor did it seem to concern her, that the room had no door by which to exit. She was walking around the room, looking under the bed, and then going over to the dresser and opening the empty drawers, and then returning to the bed now to pull back the covers, to run her hand over the pristine bottom sheet. She had brought me here to show me something, but now she couldn’t find it. She was growing increasingly agitated, looking for it. She was very thin and dark in the white room, and sort of wraith-like, moving about in that silent restless way. She was dressed the same as always, in her long dark dress and her overlarge sweater. The sleeves of her sweater were rolled up to three inches above her wrists. I watched the slender movement of her wrists as she turned back the covers again.
Then she looked over to the window, and exclaimed, “There! He’s there!”
I looked at the window, but I did not see her brother. Instead I saw, positioned by the window, the armchair and small side table from my practice room. The room had gotten slightly larger to accommodate the presence of these new pieces of furniture. I said, somewhat relieved, “That’s just the chair you like to sit in.”
“But don’t you smell him?” she asked.
Feeling odd and foolish, I sniffed the air, and I did not notice anything that smelled like a body odor, but I detected a whiff of bergamot. Looking more closely, I saw that there was a cup of tea on the side table. There were three tissues on the chair’s armrest. I believe that was the end of the dream. After that it changed into something else, which I can’t remember.
The next morning my wife was already up and about to leave for work when I came down. When she saw me the first thing she said was, “You slept in the guest bedroom last night.”
“Yes. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
She didn’t say anything more about it, except, “Be sure you strip the bed and wash the sheets. Don’t leave it like that.” I thought of the bed made up, the sheets still rumpled, upstairs in the vacant bedroom. I could tell by her face that she was angry.
“Of course, of course,” I said. I decided to leave it like that just for one more night, in case I came home late again.
I don’t know what I was afraid of, but I felt like I needed to make sure that she was ok. Maybe it was the dream, or the things she said during our last Tuesday session, but I suddenly felt sure that I perceived something hanging over her, some shadow of death that was not looming out of her past but rather her future. It seemed almost like a foreign presence, this morbid fixation of hers, like it actually was a ghost, or some insidious and seducing spirit. I knew what it was really, just a grieving woman with a wish for death. But these fanciful thoughts plagued me even so, dogged me all day. Finally, once all of my appointments for the day were done, I went over to her apartment. I had her address from the forms she had filled out, and it wasn’t far out of my way home. I had in mind that I would knock on the door and see if she was there, if she was all right. I wasn’t sure what I would do if she didn’t answer. Perhaps call the police.
Once I got there and found myself looking up at her building I was paralyzed. This was not a normal approach to this situation at all. There were ways to deal with a patient at risk. I could have called her, emailed her, called the cops from my own office if I was really sure of some danger. Why had I come here in person? Think, I told myself, of what this looks like from the outside, of what this would look like to her. Still there was another part of my brain that was trying to convince me otherwise, trying to tell me that it would not be so strange simply to knock and inquire. A phone call she might not pick up, an email she might not answer, and calling in some outside authority would certainly be an excessive measure. I stood in the street and looked at the building. There were three lighted windows in a row, and to these I assigned meaning. They were blankly yellow. They betrayed no movement within. It would not be so strange to knock and inquire. It would be unprofessional, certainly. It would be overly familiar, acting as if my personal knowledge of her made me a friend. But must what is professional, what is normal dictate all the rules a life is lived by? Would it really be wrong in some true and human sense to make towards her a gesture of friendship?
Imagine me knocking, and her answering the door. Her surprised but pleasantly, me apologetic and concerned. Her reassuring. No, no. It’s all right, it’s all right. I’m all right, I’m all right. Me stepping away to go, but her saying, Wait. I’m cooking myself dinner. There’s enough for two. Perhaps I could help her with the cooking. Perhaps she would open a bottle of wine. Isn’t there a void in her life? An empty bedroom? Maybe it’s time for her to move on. Maybe she could get a new place, a place that didn’t have that terrible empty bedroom, but a place with one bedroom, and one bed, big enough for two people. I stood in the freezing air, and looked up at the blank yellow windows until all of my illusions had bled from me. Then I returned home. I wasn’t hungry. It was late. I slept again in the guest bedroom.
It’s a terrible thing, to be trapped at home on a Saturday or Sunday. My wife was at the hospital working on Saturdays and Sundays. Things were quieter with the kids moved out. Sometimes I wondered about my wife’s schedule. Wasn’t she head surgeon? Couldn’t she arrange something more convenient to her, to her married life? And then I imagined what it would be like if she was here all day, on a Saturday or a Sunday. I imagined us skirting each other, tense with silence or sometimes the awkward overture towards conversation, towards romance, towards something, and then the failure of that, and the feeling of foolishness. I imagined her irritation and hostility. I imagined my bumbling obliviousness to the causes, doing that thing again, whatever it was, that she hated but would never identify. I thought of the pains each of us took to see each other only in glances over the course of a week, to always be terribly busy, swamped even with important emails to be handled, cases to be reviewed, whenever we happened to both be home at once. No, it was better that she was not here, on a Saturday or Sunday, to make us both feel even more acutely the absence of each other in our lives.
But the fact remained that I was trapped at home alone on Saturday and Sunday. Alone, and with the constant sensation that I was waiting for her, or anyone to come home. Why did it feel like this? Couldn’t I simply be alone, at home, and yet not feel lonely? I thought back and remembered that it had not been like this, when I had lived alone, when I had my own apartment that was just mine. It was different, when I lived on my own. I never had the sensation of waiting for anyone. I never had the sensation that I was living in a house that was too big for me.
It is a terrible thing, to be trapped at home on a Saturday or Sunday, with no company but your own thoughts. Thoughts that follow you from room to room. Thoughts that tread in tireless circles around you when you take a seat somewhere, when you make a gesture towards reading a book or watching the news. I could get myself out of the house, by some force of my own will prise myself from these empty spaces of a weekend. I could go to a museum or a gallery show in the city. I could make it a habit, or pick up a hobby. Join a book club or a community theater. Take an art class, a ballroom dancing class. Or otherwise I could put on thick boots and a scarf and go out, go tramping over the white-caked hills outside my windows, the winter-thinned woods and the barren streambeds, hour by hour, unheeding of the passing of mealtimes, noting but feeling unhurried by the changes in light. Wandering but willfully not in search for anything, unless it be some misplaced piece of my own soul. To look at things, just to breath the air, or at least to work off some of this belly fat. Imagine an old porker like me showing up at her door, expecting to be invited in for dinner. Thoughts of her follow me from room to room; tread tireless circles around me when I take a seat.
When Tuesday afternoon came, when the hour of her appointment arrived, so did she, punctual as ever. I felt a weight lift from me. She did not speak, except to quietly return my hello as she entered, and seated herself in her chair by the window, and arranged her objects about her. Then she lapsed into stillness. She looked dazed and frazzled, sunk deeply in some rumination.
“You seem distressed today,” I said.
“Oh,” her attention came back to me from wherever it had been. “No. No, I’m fine.”
“How have you been sleeping?”
She nodded. “Fine.”
“Have you gone into the vacant bedroom since we spoke last week?”
She frowned into her tea. “I did.”
I waited. Then, when she stayed silent, I questioned her further. “Did you experience anything out of the ordinary?”
“Yes, I did.”
“You perceived the smell again.”
“Yes. But- but the room, also.”
“What about the room?”
Her eyes narrowed. Her small mouth pinched. “You think I’m crazy.”
“No,” I said. “I have formed no such opinion. I’m just here for you to talk to. Do you feel like you’re, as you say, crazy?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. It doesn’t make sense.”
“What doesn’t make sense?”
“The room. It seemed lived in. Drawers were open and the things all rumpled inside. Some of the clothing was slung over the chair and strewn on the floor, like it had been worn and then taken off and tossed down. The bed was rumpled and tossed, and it smelled. The whole room smelled so strongly. Thick and salty and dense. That animal smell. The bed the way it was. It was like there had been people in the bed, fucking all night long.”
I shifted and coughed, and she seemed to become aware of me again, there in this room with her, in this place where she was situated physically, in the present moment, and then became embarrassed at her own words, blushing and ducking her head. I said, “What did you do then? Did you call the police?”
Her eyes met mine directly now, full of surprise and alarm. “No!” she said. “Why would I do that?”
“Someone had been into your apartment.”
She shook her head, her gaze falling away again. “No, no. I didn’t want- I mean what if I called them and they arrived, and I led them to the room and there was nothing out of place, and everything was as it should be?”
“You mean to say that you doubt the veracity of what you saw? Do you think that you imagined the disorder of the room?”
“Not that I imagined it, but- but maybe, even so, maybe that it wasn’t quite real.”
I didn’t understand the distinction that she was making there, but I let it pass.
She went on. “And whether or not it was real aside, I wasn’t going to call the police, because it wasn’t an intruder.”
“Because you believe that it was… your brother.”
“Yes,” she said, fidgeting her fingers against the cup. “It was him. It smelled just the way his room used to, after he had had one of his girlfriends over. And messy, like he always left it. He used to go to work early in the mornings and I would go in to clean before I left for my own job. I did that at least once a week. I had to or else he would never clean, so it would never be clean.”
I did not comment on this, though I thought it was interesting that she would have felt compelled to clean her grown brother’s room, as if she were his mother. Was she just saying that she had gone in there to clean in order to make it seem less strange that she was going into his room, that she was taking in his presence while he was absent, the residual odor of his nights coupling with other women? Instead I said, “The week before last you told me that you overturned the room, the vacant bedroom, looking for the source of the smell. Could it be that you yourself had caused this mess that you found, and that you simply forgot to clean it up, and forgot that you had made it?”
She frowned. She opened her mouth as if to contradict me, but closed it again saying nothing. She pressed a hand to her face. She fumblingly put her mug of tea down on the side table. “Did I…?” she began. Then abruptly she rose and left the room. I stayed still and silent in surprise as she exited our session thirty minutes early. I did not have a chance to even ask her to leave this time, to even ask if she would be coming Tuesday next. How many of her other therapists had she parted company with in this way, so suddenly, right when finally coming to meet the revelation that this woman was avoiding? She wanted desperately for someone to exorcise this haunting from her life and her mind, and yet she could not bring herself to let anyone do so.
I thought about rushing out after her, and my imagination supplied scenes in the waiting room, scenes on the street, me rapidly becoming a spectacle, her suddenly seeing me clearly. I would grab her shoulders and cry, with drama, like a priest from a movie fighting the hold of the devil himself, Let him go! Can’t you see that you’re letting him strangle your life? Can’t you see that you’re living in the past, in the land of the dead? I can help you; I can save you if you’d let me. Why don’t you come back into the land of the living? Come with me.
There were her three tissues, on the armrest. There was the mug of tea. It was still steaming a little. I decided that I would leave it, let it get cool before chucking it, but then an hour later, after I had phoned her once or twice, and sent her an inquisitive email, concerned but not overly prying, I still couldn’t seem to bring myself to do it, so I left it there.
Perhaps it is not only empty made up beds or vacant bedrooms that are vulnerable. Perhaps it is anywhere, in any vacancy in a person’s life that things may find the room to take up residence. There is an armchair by a window in my house that no one ever sits in. It is a red chair, similar to but not the same as the chair by the window in my practice room. I pass it a hundred times on a Saturday or Sunday, and a hundred times I imagine that on the armrest I find laid out three clean tissues, and that on the little table beside it is a mug of untasted stone cold tea. Do I imagine that I find those things, or do really find them? How did they get there? Did I arrange these objects this way myself and then forget?
Perhaps it is not really a physical vacancy that these things, these wandering and homeless spirits come to inhabit, but an unfilled space in someone’s mind. That it is not a matter of vulnerable places, but rather vulnerable people. They push themselves into the spaces where uncertainty can exist, finding the things we do not pay enough attention to, worming into the cracks in our memory or else creating the cracks in order to find a home in them. And then I fall to wondering: who or what are these things? Are they ghosts? Are they truly the absent people they seem to be, or are they something other, perhaps something parasitic that makes its way into our lives by taking on the resemblance of a missed one, a loved one? Do they come simply because they need somewhere to sleep, somewhere to stay, or do they want more from us? Do they want love?
On the following Tuesday she did not show up at the appointed time. It had been days of unanswered calls and unanswered emails. I canceled all of my appointments for the rest of the day. I waited an hour and then phoned the police. I had so little to tell them. No emergency contact to call, that space on her form left blank. No history that extended back further than five years. No city to point to as her hometown, no people to identify as her parents. No name even, for the deceased brother. He was always just ‘my brother’ or simply ‘him’. The police said they would go to her apartment, have a look, maybe find that everything was ok, maybe file a missing persons, maybe bring in a coroner. I called each of her eight ex-therapists offices, and left an inquisitive message at each one. Then I sat in my office and waited. When I looked at the chair by the window, two hours or three after our normal session would have ended, on this rare and empty afternoon, I saw that the three tissues were there on the armrest, the mug of cold tea on the side table, as if she had come and gone and left them there behind her. I stared at the tissues and the tea. I smelled bergamot.
Arden Wren Sawyer: I’m a genderless artist from Philly, and my pronouns are they/them. I’m an art student, working on a BFA at Rhode Island School of design. I’m currently taking time off of school to travel and pursue my writing.