Breath & Shadow
Spring 2018 - Vol. 15, Issue 2
"The Spare Room"
Anna had left her addictions behind.
Anna had left her addictions behind.
Anna had left her addictions behind.
(Think it three times for good luck.)
The thought made Anna light and weightless as she shut the door to the spare room behind her. She felt certain that the past half hour had been the last time she'd ever indulge in her habits. And tonight, she would tell Steven about her success. She would tell him she had gotten rid of her addictions, and he would be proud.
Anna left her apartment and hurried down Ninth Avenue, feeling, as she often did, a spike of fear as she merged with the crowds around her.
The streets teemed with a life that seemed on the brink of bursting, cyclists streaking by on her left, a passing subway rumbling beneath her feet. But she took comfort in the order of the city: the clean lines of skyscrapers, intersections at neat right angles, the city's grid-like structure and its rules, traffic laws and parking tickets.
She stepped on a crack in the pavement. Careless! she thought. Better count, just to be safe. One, two, three. It was only a small thing.
Steven would never know she'd done it.
As she rounded a corner, the Eight Bean Café came into view. The place where she'd met Steven. She remembered the days she'd spent watching him from behind her tablet screen at the Eight Bean, where he was a regular. When she first saw him, she'd been overwhelmed by fascination, attraction, and repulsion, all at once. She was repulsed by those dusty plaid shirts he wore, and that giant beard (she wondered if food ever got stuck in it), and those stretchy earrings in his earlobes. But she was delighted when she overheard him ordering nothing but local, gluten-free, vegan food and decaf coffee with soy, and when she saw the books he read-Sartre, Heidegger, Camus. Once, three of them were on his table at the same time, which delighted her further. (Three was her lucky number.) She couldn't stop watching him.
She'd never interacted with such a wild-looking man, and it was fascinating to observe him in his natural habitat, reading his books and occasionally meeting with other tattooed, pierced, plaid-wearing strangers to discuss politics and veganism. Everything about him looked incongruous next to her neat blazers, her tablet flashing with her Twitter feed and the financial news.
For weeks Anna watched, hiding behind her screen and hoping to lure him with significant glances. But their moment finally came. One afternoon, a rat darted from the kitchen into the Eight Bean. Anna and Steven fled outside with everyone else. When a staff member killed the rat with a broom, they bonded by exchanging their expressions of mutual outrage. People could be so disgustingly cruel. They vowed to discuss it further over craft beer. He looked just as surprised as she was to find himself sitting in a bar discussing veganism, animal rights, and politics with this suit-wearing woman. The night ended at
2:30 AM in her room, with the strange, novel feeling of that scratchy beard on her neck.
Within a month they'd talked about moving in together. The jokes her friends made about his scruffy appearance didn't bother her. He bought her three cacti, and every afternoon, she fussed over them and adjusted them on the windowsill over and over, to make sure they'd get the most possible sunlight.
"You're tense. Just relax a bit and don't worry so much," he told her once. He said that often in the ensuing days. She wanted to just relax a bit, like he said, but she didn't know how.
Anna's hands trembled as she turned onto the driveway leading to the basement suite where Steven had lived since they split up. It had been a year since she'd seen him. She could've phoned first, but she wanted to surprise him. She was wearing her sharpest blue dress and looked clean, smart, and professional. The moment he saw her in person, he would see her triumph; he would see how much better she was doing.
She knocked on the door, three times.
Nothing. No sound came from behind Steven's door.
She knocked again.
He wasn't home. The thought rang out like a bell and made her wilt.
Somehow this simple possibility had never entered into the fantasies that had filled her head all day. She'd have to come back in an hour.
The streets didn't look the same when she returned to them. They grew longer and more perplexing as her mood shifted. The city seemed to darken, and car horns blared and startled her. The clean lines of the city, its grid-like structure and its rules-they no longer felt strong enough to contain the life teeming from within. Pedestrians crowded by, pressed in from all sides, jostling her with shoulders and elbows.
Men stared at her, like they had on her way to Steven's, but this time it felt like they didn't look to admire; they watched her with suspicion, as if she were guilty of some crime.
One, two, three.
The pedestrians looked, stared, and laughed.
One, two, three.
They looked, stared, and laughed.
Just a bit more counting to clear her head. She was still doing fine.
Her addictions were more or less behind her.
She ducked into a café, ordered a decaf soy latte, and sat by the window. It was cold outside, and night was falling, the buildings marked with yellow squares that grew in number as the sky darkened. In her mind, she watched little worries drift up and then disperse: the patch of dirt on her table; whether she'd left the stove on. For now, the fears were still indistinct. Her mind didn't grab onto them for long, and they faded without demanding much attention, floating up and drifting away. But she wondered whether the real worries would come and take her soon.
"Don't go into that room again. It isn't healthy."
She remembered Steven's voice, a year and a half ago. He stood outside the door to the spare room.
"It helps me," she said.
"It doesn't. You can stop. Please."
His face was pale and purple circles had appeared under his eyes. Last night she'd woken him three times getting up to go to the spare room. Their conversation ended in a fight. One the neighbors must've heard. He left the apartment. But an hour later, he came back with another cactus for her and apologized for getting angry. They made love, and afterwards he held her and said, "You're tense. Just relax a bit."
As Anna waited in the café, a thought began to force itself to the foreground. She hadn't washed her hands before she left her apartment.
It started as a small worry, but for her it grew and grew, until it pushed away all other thoughts. The room shrank. She felt as though she were underwater; it was hard to breathe, and pressure weighed in from every side. A pageant began to play out in her mind as it might on a stage. Fear set the backdrop, like the red curtains hanging around the stage, framing everything; then came the shame and guilt, vague forms drifting through the pageant; and scenes came in and out of focus, thrust into the foreground, then receding: she saw herself coming into the café and touching the doorknob, then the money she'd handed to the barista-she'd passed him a germ, no doubt-and above it all, in the air above the pageant, hung the impulsive desire to end the terror. To cleanse herself. To ensure safety. That desire frightened her with its intensity. It was deep and unspoken and it must be kept secret. It was shameful. Frozen, she stopped sipping her coffee when a new thought intruded.
She had touched Steven's door. The thought flooded her brain like dark water. Her mind rushed and pulled. She saw Steven pale and sick, vomiting blood, and his father with red, strained eyes. She loathed herself for the stupid, careless thing she'd done. As everything outside that thought fell away, the world became small and contracted.
Her world had been reduced to a single thought.
"I'm done with that for the day," Anna promised, shutting the door to the spare room behind her.
"Good," Steven said. "It feels like I hardly see you lately."
But later that night, she had a dream where Steven died of an illness. She jolted awake, but the dream wouldn't fade. In her mind, flowers wilted next to the bed in his hospital room, the petals withering and browning at the tips. She slipped out of bed. Steven lay on his side, breathing softly. He looked thin and vulnerable, lying there in nothing but his underwear. He'd lost weight lately. In her mind, the flowers withered, browned, and dried. One, two, three. They withered, browned, and dried. The carpet in the hallway muffled her footsteps. At the end of the hall was the door to the spare room, left ajar. She moved without sound. The petals fell from the flowers one by one in her head.
Somehow, she sensed that if she did nothing, she would be responsible if he did get sick.
Spidery cracks stretched across the wood of the door to the spare room. She pushed it open and shut it partly behind her-but not all the way in case the sound woke Steven. He'd never need to know she'd been in here. Heavy stillness filled the room. It was a storage area, and it felt separate from the rest of the apartment, scented by dust and rusted metal. Whenever she passed through the doorway it was as though she moved backwards in time. Boxes and random things cluttered up the space, but she barely saw them; she saw only the tall grandfather clock that stood against the far wall. A family heirloom. Wood twisted up and down its base, and living things were carved into it-leaves, animals, human figures-in a panoply of life and nature, but the images were frozen and unmoving. It had always struck her as unnatural for living things to be so immobilized, stuck in their wooden existence.
The pendulum on the clock was the only thing in the room that moved, shifting back and forth, its movements regular, identical repetitions. The time on the clock read 4:09. The angle made by the two hands was awkward and uneven, the minute hand sticking out on the right. The irregularity was unbearable. The room was alive with the fear she felt, visions of those dried flowers still flooding her mind. The minute hand moved to mark the change of the time, now 4:10. The movement reminded her of the convulsive twitch of a muscle. Impulsively, she reached out and moved the hour hand back to 3:00.
Then she moved the minute hand back to 12:00. The two hands were still now, arranged in a perfect right angle. A picture of symmetry, order, and certainty. One, two, three. Symmetry, order, certainty. Relief swept through her body like a drug. Her mind felt cleared, reset, wiped of those visions. Blissful certainty overwhelmed her, and she shuddered with the intensity of it.
The world came back into view, a world that had other things in it besides the image of that hospital room. A world of details. Silvery light poured through the window, and the boxes were piled up in teetering towers. She remembered that she was a person with many interests, that her favorite smell was lavender, that she loved playing Scrabble, that she ate kale salads for lunch.
A noise sounded behind her. Startled, she turned around. A figure stood in the doorway.
The figure took a few steps, stepping into the beam of wintry light from the window. It was him. He looked frail and exhausted, still wearing his underwear. The outlines of his ribs showed on his sides.
"You need help," he said.
"I'm done now."
His eyes were foggy and red. He hadn't been sleeping well lately. He'd been smoking more weed than usual, then passing out and dozing fitfully; sometimes he started awake and looked beside him-she'd seen him do it when he thought she was sleeping-and then, if he saw her still lying beside him, his shoulders would relax and he'd drift off again.
"I just don't get it," he said. "You've been in and out of this room all day."
"I told you. I know it doesn't make sense. But it clears my head. I feel better."
"Isn't that just superstition?"
"I had a dream about you getting sick."
"Listen, you can control this. I know you can. This is all in your head. Just don't worry about things you can't control, and try to relax."
They fought again that night. In time, Anna sought help. They wanted her to stop resetting the clock and washing her hands and other things. But her intuition was strong. If she didn't do those things, something would happen. And she would be responsible. Besides, as she tried to explain to Steven, she was improving on her own. She was on the mend. She was going to leave the rituals behind her. They fell into a routine. She did her rituals and he caught her again and again.
"You can beat this," he said each time. "This is just in your head."
When she promised to stop, his anger drained away and left weakness and exhaustion. They went in circles. Their lives became like the movements of a wheel. Eventually, Steven packed his things into cardboard boxes, loaded them into a van, and drove away, the leaves of his plants fluttering in the back window as the vehicle disappeared.
Anna's mind fixated on the spot where she'd touched Steven's door.
She'd forgotten about the coffee she was holding. That patch on the door filled her mind as if a magnifying glass had been held up to it. It was right below the eyehole, to the left of three little dents in the paint. When she returned to Steven's, she would have to clean that door.
She made her way back outside, barely noticing the cold. Soon she would see him. She didn't want to go back to her apartment, where the rooms were too big for just herself. Nerves tightened her chest, but she was excited. She'd done a few rituals today, but he wouldn't know about those. She was most certainly doing better. She was on the mend.
One, two, three.
She passed a few figures huddled on the sidewalk, their eyes glazed. They must be drug addicts. There were a lot of them in this neighborhood. As she walked by, their eyes didn't follow her. Their worlds had been reduced to a single thought: their next hits and how to get them.
As she descended Steven's stairwell, her heart beat quickly. She pulled out a cloth and sanitizer, wiped the spot on the door with one swift motion, and shoved the sanitizer deep into her purse, where he wouldn't see it.
The door swung open.
A medley of impressions struck her at once. He was the same. He was different. His beard hadn't changed. He had two new tattoos on his left arm. And his skin looked harder than it used to be, the lines around his eyes drawn deeper.
She had no idea what to say.
He broke the silence. "Come in."
She stepped inside and took off her heels. He brought beers for them and they sat on the couch exchanging forced small-talk about his cat and his job at the bar.
"I'm doing better now," she said when she'd gathered her courage.
She strained to read his expression. There was an emotion in his face, but she didn't know what it was.
"I want to believe you," he said. "But you've said that before, many times."
Small muscles moved in his jaw, like they did when he was thinking. Slim and wired with lean muscle, his body was tense, one hand fidgeting in his lap. Around his fingernails, the cuticles were cut and red. She wished she understood the expression on his face, but it was unreadable.
"I haven't been doing well without you," he said. "Are you really better?"
As she looked at him sitting there, his thin frame hunched in a slouch, she knew that it was true, what he'd said a minute ago. He wanted to believe her. It was a good thing she'd hidden that sanitizer deep in her bag. He wouldn't go through her things, because he didn't want to find anything.
He believed her. She could tell. They folded into their weakness, and he kissed her. It felt the same as before. The same taste of cigarettes and weed smoke. That sameness, it was like the pendulum on the grandfather clock, moving back and forth, like the figures carved in its wooden base, beings that never moved or changed.
She was almost telling the truth, she thought. She'd left the spare room behind her for the most part. If she still had to sneak in there when Steven was sleeping, it wouldn't hurt. There would be life in her home again: Steven's plants back by the windows, green leaves catching the sunlight and cacti cluttering the windowsill; the noise of the coffeemaker in the morning when he woke up early; the semi-circle his arm made around her when they slept. There would be life in her home again, but the spare room would be there too, the minute and hour hands rotating around the clock, moving in slow circles.
A.M. Todd is a Ph.D. Candidate in English literature at the University of Toronto. She is currently assisting with editing University of Toronto’s graduate literary magazine, Echolocation, as well as an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories.