Sean McDonell – An Apartment in the city
An Apartment in the City
What was nonexistence like?
Well, any analogy is inaccurate.
I could ask you to picture the heart of a mine at the core of a mountain, to imagine that feeling if all sensations (the coldness, the stone scent, the sounds of dripping lime) were removed, but you would also have to imagine that there was no mine, no rock walls, no mountain to hold the mine, no universe to hold the mountain. And even then the most important thing to remove from the picture would be the hardest. Nonexistence cannot be likened to any experience, because anything that I ask you to imagine involves a relation to something that exists: you, experiencing nonexistence. There was no possibility of imagining before there was a universe, because there was no universe for us to imagine, nor an us to imagine it. Those of us who were there at the start and remember what it was like feel strokes of sickness and sadness, upwelling touches of nausea, when the new people speak of pre-birth or death in terms of nonexistence, ignoring the energies and atoms, the very is at the root of their bodies. Approximation ignores the fact that once existence was, there could never really be non-existence. That’s why I speak of it as though it was past. Metaphors are betrayals. They carry us farther and farther away from the thing we miss most.
Why the sadness?
How can I explain it? The universe was, well, an accident.
Suddenly, when we least expected it, we existed and existence was swirling everywhere around us. Suddenly, there was an us, and we were a part of it. Suddenly there was Laura on my right, and Amanda on my left, and behind us and around us were the others who were there at the very beginning, tossed together by accident. Of course, we didn’t recognize it was an accident at first. We were too shocked. We stood around, embarrassed, baffled, shuffling our feet, trying to account for those feet. What else could it be but an accident? How else could we account the sense of displacement? Who or what would separate us from our native void? Things would have had to exist for them to exist. Our confusion turned to sadness, horror, rage, envy directed at past non-selves, feelings made all the worse as in helpless awestruck silence we watched accident spreading. Immersed in that startled bath of emotions that follows on the heels of blunder, when the only sense is that the new half-hallucinatory order of things by all rights ought to be temporary, I had one agonizing wish: for the universe to melt away, to reverse itself, become undone, return back to nothingness. Instead it cooled into grim, hot, sharp-edged solidity.
While the early pangs of existence were still trembling, we found hope in culpability, the chance that some evil or irresponsible person had caused the accident. So we formed the firms. We hoped to find that first mote of catastrophe, anything that would allow us to understand the guilt we now somehow carried. Loose organizations at first, the firms grew into enormous investigative apparatuses. Each a sprawling maze of offices, laboratories, archives, these fluorescent hives became the palaces of our employment. I lived with Laura, who I had met again when the Earth was cooling. She worked at Amethyst & Power. Amanda was my partner, and we worked together at Barnacle, Byte & Finch. We spent days up to our waists in hot, seething stars, tiring our feet in treks across deserted puffs of hydrogen, poring over Saturn’s girdles, probing planets, slipping over continents, sliding through countries and towns into buildings, stopping by license plate assembly lines and breweries, running with bug nets through barrens and fields, interrogating grasshopper legs with microscopes.
Laura and I moved in together. We rented an apartment just outside the city core. We decided that we would not put anything in it because an empty apartment seemed like the best way to escape the world of things. With blank clean hardwood and the blank white walls we’d maintain a little piece of almost-nothing. We slept on the floor in the dark. Our work clothes remained hidden in closets. We had an empty kitchen with an empty, unplugged fridge, an empty bedroom, and, of course, an empty balcony. Our balcony overlooked the neighbourhoods that rose from the hills. The business of the city intruded on the balcony with its mess of sounds, its images in twilight: peach-coloured streetlights, taxi cabs, cats on railings, pedestrians with clicking heels. We kept the balcony door shut, kept the sight of it, behind closed blinds, and never set foot on it. I am convinced our troubles were primed when we tried to ignore the balcony, but it’s probably this tilted wrought-iron table that’s to blame. The catastrophe came one afternoon in April some months after we moved in. I was rushing home so I could have the emptiness a little to myself before Laura finished work, when I noticed something sticking out of a trash-heap at the end of a lawn and stopped. It was a short, black, iron patio table, sitting by the sidewalk.
My breath shallowed. My palms were damp. A crack ran across its lip, as it leaned to one side, but nonetheless an image was growing in my mind. I gulped. I was picturing that cast-iron table on the balcony. I was imagining opening the blinds in morning, seeing the sunlight falling on that table, perhaps a few stray flower petals from a hanging planter caked to the metal by rain.
The balcony isn’t in the apartment, is it? One tiny thing on the outside won’t disturb the emptiness, will it?
I grabbed the table. It was heavy, and I had to carry my briefcase too. Each block or so I had to put the table down, breath while I sweated through my shirt, as I crossed the blocks to my apartment. I lugged that table through the lobby, to the elevator, up to the fourteenth floor. I was frightened, unlocking the door. What if Laura was there? What would she say? What look would appear on her face, telling me that I had done wrong? Broke faith with our almost-nothing? Inside the apartment, the blinds were open. The outside air was free to pass in to the living room. Laura sat on the balcony, looking down on the streets, not on the bare cement, not even on a pillow, but on one of two slightly damaged wrought-iron patio chair, placed across from another, a faded yellow cushion, almost the colour of the flower petals I had pictured, on each one.
“I was going to ask if you wouldn’t mind grabbing the table,” she said, half- shocked, over her shoulder, “It’s only a few blocks from here.”
She turned around.
That night we didn’t eat supper. We slipped into fresh clothes and rushed down to the shopping district. We stopped at a furniture store and picked out tables and chairs and a sofa which movers would bring the next day. We bought plates and bowls painted in Portugal, and bushels of gleaming cutlery, enough to set a table for six. We filled shopping bags with towels, blankets, and sets of silk pyjamas. We bought sugar and flour and eggs, champagne and orange juice. When we got home we dropped our bags at the door and made love on the balcony. The next day, we sipped our mimosas and took little bites of homemade crepe off our Portuguese ceramics in the yellow flood of morning, not saying a word, laughing while we waited for the furniture to arrive.
Walking to the firm the next day, I felt a pressure like a pebble in my shoe. Each stride felt like a slight misstep. We had spent eons in the tumult of the universe living in temperance, only making a few necessary concessions to the matter around us. At last the world had gushed its way in. Those things we had once wished had never come into being we were now drawing towards ourselves. We became drunk with possession, like children at an unsupervised party after their first sip of booze.
Months passed. We bought, decorated, furnished. One day I picked up a pack of cigarettes. Laura purchased two boxes of wine. We sat on our slightly-damaged patio set, quiet, tired and drunk, watching the city-piles twinkle shoals of sparks. I forget who spoke first. One of us said that we would live in a larger place one day. We would purchase a condo, and fill it with book cases, and each shelf would warp under the weight of our books. We’d decorate the shelves and our cabinets and tables with porcelain bowls from the import store, filling each one with something different: clay beads, seashells, beach glass, and stones. We’d own three radios, one in the kitchen, one in the bathroom, one next to our bed with a built-in alarm clock.
We’d refurnish the kitchen, with marble counters, tiled floors, a gas stove, a stainless-steel refrigerator.
Perhaps we said those things. Perhaps desires usurped our hopes. Perhaps we were seeking death by object, allowing ourselves to be carried away by the things around us until there was nothing left of ourselves. I remember the lights and the smoke, the mimosas and crepes, Laura, wine, and the foggy mornings, but words themselves make such dim impressions on memory. We may not have said anything.
I like to think that hope was the reason I turned to adultery, hope for escape. I noticed that Amanda, always plain-dressed, always Spartan in adornment, had begun to carry gemstones. They followed her like a cloud of dust caught by a comet’s gravity: turquoise earrings, coral beads, rings and bracelets of emerald, sapphire, garnet, beryl, jade, gleaming in my eye. When our investigations took us to Bermuda, I found myself always having to glance away from these dangling minerals that appeared like a halo around her. As I drank deeply from my iced tea and rum, I found myself fingering the little pearls around her wrist, gently playing with a necklace of chrysoprase. A reciprocating pair of hands felt the fabrics close to my skin.
Pink is a colour that I will always associate with Amanda, whether it is on a curtain or the pink-painted porcelain fold of a conch, a wind-caught cherry blossom or a sugar-dusted cube of Turkish delight, because it was on the pink sands of a Bermuda beach that we had our mishap, in a place where the floating long-tailed shorebirds called to one another above us, and our backs shifted pulverized rocks and coral beneath a beach towel.
It might have been the waves, those notorious gossips, who passed along the word, the stream of rumours that fell like flakes of hot pepper into Laura’s ears. She had worked with the ocean at Amethyst and Power, was old friends with the puffins and parrotfish, icebergs, typhoons and the Maelstrom. Whenever she spoke to me after I returned from my trip to Bermuda, her words had the assonance, the sibilant hiss of slippery sea foam, an accent seasoned with the tones of the waves. Either she heard their words, or she smelled Amanda on me. She had taken to candle-dipping, perfume-making, crafting pot pourri. Scent became her niche with the order of the world. Adept-of-nose, it is possible that she smelled the particles of Bermuda sand, carried by winds from the Sahara, and knew.
Laura was as sharp with hearts as she was with smells. Instead of volcanic arguments, she chose the grinding frigidity of glaciers. Our lives now passed between chill glass walls in our apartment in the city. Yet we did not leave each other right away. We had both become part of the decor of our apartment, objects participating in the clutter, things that could not be extracted. The stuff we’d piled in it, thrift store furniture reupholstered in paisley, red rusty rivets collected on walks by the train yards that still smelled faintly of iron and tar, the marbles and mallets and forest-picked deer bones that lined our mahogany shelves, all of that had become a part of us, as we were of it. Even the air, stuffy in summer, but in fall as soft and clean as mother-licked kitten down, felt in distinguishable from ourselves.
Yes, it was on account of that place that we bore each other‘s’ company. In fact, we found relief in the new uncrossable silence between us. In a blizzard of things, we had accidentally discovered a feeling that was the same as what we felt the day we arrived and agreed to keep our apartment empty. Soon enough, no words were spoken. The frost itself was something close to what we remembered from before there was a universe. Even if it was only in the space of emotions, we came home to a kind of emptiness. We made our separate dinners from groceries separately purchased. We went to bed at different times. Instead of sleeping together, we touched ourselves in the shower. Each room was decorated separately. I would paint one the colour of green grapes and without consultation she coated another in damask-print wallpaper. Laura bought and framed stretches of vintage gift wrap that pleased her, and I collected a handful of decorated ostrich eggs. While we both, in separate rooms, worked on our books from the firm, our schedules and technical manuals and reports on the progress of the investigation (which was still going poorly), I jotted flirtatious letters to Amanda.
Laura was also writing letters, of course. There was a way Laura had of looming in certain rooms that told me traces of somebody else were hidden in our apartment, even if it was only an imprint of memory.
I started seeing Amanda more. I was startled by the staccato that appeared in our conversations, gleeful voids I only noticed for their brevity, submerged allusions dancing a cetacean waltz under velvet tides of normalcy. There was something barbaric about our quick, vicious, signifying conversations, about returning home at the end of the day to the comfort of the nothing I shared with Laura. Amanda and I made lunches for each other. I cooked bloody red bowls of spaghetti and brought them to work in thick plastic tupper wares to share with her. We planned trips abroad in whispers. She bought me a watch that shone like a brass shield, and I bought her a pair of red shoes as bright as apples, and together we sipped sweating cups of iced coffee on café patios, where bright flowers spilled purple, red, and white from their planters. Later we would fall on one another, ripping off clothing, scattering cuts of expensive fabric on the floor. It made us so happy, and it made us so sick, to be people together spinning in that way, though a little smudge of wrong flawed every smile, manifested itself in every slight brush the hair that fell from her temples.
I awoke shocked one morning, to feel the cool, damp folds of my pillow. I had dreamt of the first day after atmosphere’s arrival, the first time I ever breathed. On that Precambrian morning I had opened my mouth and spluttered as sandpaper air scorched its way through branches of my lungs. Laura and I had stumbled around the world, separated in a storm of falling meteors, only to collapse in what I assumed would be forever-separate places. But on that morning that both of us awoke in the same crater of sulphur and obsidian, and confided silently in each other about the trauma of breath. From that moment on we slept in the same crevice of burning stone every day, huddled close together in a snow of ashes, hoping that this would be all that we would have to go through, that after this burning there would be no more transformations. No oceans. No continents. No trees and bees and fishes. And dreaming about this, I had been shocked by my sheets, shocked that pillows had come true.
The profound wrongness of everything I was doing, everything that I did, struck me as suddenly as the picture of the table on the patio. I felt bruises from my rapid conversations with Amanda. I saw the clutter around me. The new people like to tell stories of a primordial flood as if it was a literal event, as if the true deluge of the world was a crushing fold of water, and not the rubble of existence, the once clear mind choking on matter and sophistication, emptiness glutted to burst on a profusion of detail. We grew so tired of swimming in being that we let ourselves sink, let waters of material enfold us, let ourselves slip quietly into those depths, though all around us we felt the pressure mounting. And now I was tired.
Laura and I broke our long silence in the park by our apartment. Wordlessly we met and walked beneath the maple trees, which were dropping down their spinning seeds. There were children in the sandbox, and out of habit we asked them if they knew anything about the origin of the cosmos. One said it started with a cloud, another said a planet. A third, a turtle. I looked down at my shoes. Where the grass met the sand, tiny ants were creeping over a popsicle stick. Laura said that it was time for me to leave, to take my books and my railway spikes and eggs and my cast-iron table when I went. She wanted to keep her chairs.
I left my firm, took a job at Houston-Crake and Associates. Amanda and I lost touch. My new firm had given up on finding who or what was accountable for the accident, striving instead for a systematic investigation of the nature of the disaster. Adaptation was their philosophy. I spent seven months perched with a flock of petrels on ocean-spattered cliffs, floating on gyres high above the sea, and a season sampling street food in Thai markets, tasting shrimp cakes and dumplings and curry. I went to Turkey and studied warts of commercial architecture. I wrote a short study on varieties of tulip bulbs. I spent a week on the sun, and met an old woman who lived amid the blazing plasma. She told me that she had learned a lot from looking at tea leaves. I bought a keyboard at a garage sale and learned to play jazz piano with modicum of competence.
Years passed. In a fit of mania I quit the firms entirely. I packed everything I owned in shipping crates and bought a plane ticket to Brazil. I was going to bury my rivets, my baseball cards, my keyboard, my wrought-iron table, in some place far underground, a place where I would never have to see them or worry about somebody else seeing them, where entombed in stone the old rocks and soil would keep them limited company and one day the tectonic frothing of the earth would crush them into wafers. I found a cave in the Amazon. Amanda was there. She was still active in with the firm, investigating Amazonian cave systems, still part of the original investigation. I told her about my eclectic work. She complimented my beard.
She told me that everyone was leaving. Those who had been there at the awkward start were becoming violin teachers, restaurateurs, soldiers. One was a sales associate at an electronics store, another owned a bank, and one worked the reception desk at city hall. The lingering firms were making some speculative statements about the possibility of a guiltless, spontaneous genesis, but almost nobody bothered to listen. The universe was here, after all, in our faces, dancing on our skins. We had become wrapped up in the intoxicating daily melee with matter and, like boxers; enough of us had begun to enjoying ourselves that the blows we received were less and less an issue. She seemed to think that the exodus into the world was a good thing. It seemed to me as though everyone was simply slipping at the same time. We investigated one another on the dry dirt of the cavern floor.
My resolve broke when it came time to bury my things. My possessions came home with me in crates. There was a letter from Laura in my mailbox. She was popping into town for a few days, said the letter, and was wondering if I was interested in going for an iced coffee, but she had arrived and left in the time I was gone.
To be honest I don’t know if I remember nonexistence anymore. It is possible that I only imagine I do, that I only ever imagined I did, that now I confuse nonexistence with the nothingness touched in sleep, though that nothingness is frequented by dreams of craters and rasping atmospheres. But can you see how easily the world crowds in? How its objects, needs, movements, progressions swamp everything? How quickly it muffles the quiet? How silence on the subject is the only way that we have to talk about it?
I couldn’t let go of that broken patio table. Some things I managed to part with, to donate or sell or feed to the landfills. But this I never could. Whenever I look at it, I feel a little as though I am spinning back towards nonexistence. Laura is there: she spins too, towards that place, as does Amanda, and the bank-owner, the teacher, the sergeant, the sales associate, all of us who witnessed the start of the accident. I feel as if together we might yet meet in a place where there is no eating, or breathing, or sleeping, where we have no cells in our bodies, no atoms around us, though I know that this is impossible. Perhaps if I ever die, that will be close to nonexistence, though I’ll die knowing the molecules that made me will continue shuffling through chains and circles of matter and energy, and the accident will simply trundle on without my thoughts to tackle it.
No matter how I spin, it seems that what I yearn for will always be far away, like the glow of a distant city seen at night from a patio. It is so much like a glow, or a memory of the glow, or a memory of a memory, that feeling I have, fading away as it slides closer and closer to the unknown, shrinking like birds in the clouds at night above a pink sandy beach as the sun falls, tumbling like a glass of wine from a pulled tablecloth, shrinking farther and farther away like a petal on a breeze, something that travels almost to the edge of nothing, but only ever almost.
Sean McDonell is from Ottawa, Canada. His works have appeared in The Parenthetical Review, Joypuke, 7Mondays, Bywords, and the anthology, The Pleasure, the Pain, and the Profit: Young Writers on Writing. He currently lives in Japan.