what did you think you left behind? | the first room | a short story | part 1

So what brought you here then? How did you find me?

Stefan, framed by the obscurity of the interior behind him, examined the journalist who seemed impatient to make his way through the front door.

I’m familiar with the 1990 Kruger Case. I’ve been following your career ever since. In all of your interviews, I’ve noticed how you talk about your house, but nobody ever seemed to inquire further, to ask you to elaborate, but I’ve always found your language peculiar and outstanding. You’re always seen standing in front of it on the photographs. You never let anyone in as far as I know. And nobody would ever ask any questions. That intrigued me. And it bothered me. That nobody was willing to open their eyes. And that you buried your house somewhere in a sentence as if it didn’t matter. But I heard your voice and I saw its shadow. And I have questions. But of course, I’m repeating myself at face value here. I’ve told you this in my first email as you can certainly remember. May I call you Stefan as agreed?

Vince, that was the name of the journalist, stretched out his hand, eager for Stefan to shake it as its fingertips became part of the interior he so longed to take in for himself and his readers. Stefan pulled him in and his hand felt like wax.

You will write from your memory. Your perspective. Your subjective experience. I refuse to taint any of it. As you stand here now and as you will enter every room, you bring yourself into them all and I will have nothing more to do with it, is that clear? So every question you ask stems from you and what you’re feeling and cooking up. I think that makes sense. You react and I will see what you have in you. So get me out of your head. No cameras, no recording devices whatsoever. Just you, with everything hiding underneath your skin. You will take full responsibility for what you’ll experience. You.

Vince, who still sensed the residue of Stefan’s hand on his, felt as if he was treading on thin ice because he knew what could come out of this, but what’s the point of living if ever-cautious and oh so excruciatingly and hypocritically polite? Against the beating of his heart, he took off all his clothes, including his shoes and became aware, now more than ever, that he never knew what to do with his fingers if there was nothing to hold on to except himself, but everything would make him look insecure, which he was.

They entered the off-white room. Vince’s skin was cold. Stefan walked around with his eyes closed and his jaws clenched. These are all people… you know? Vince inquired, holding his arms. Do you?  Stefan’s voice travelled through the room, through the peach fuzz on Vince’s stiff neck. Are they here? Who are they then? Looking at them both were black and white portraits of people staring directly into the camera of the photographer who had taken their picture. They were hanging by a thread. There were concealed windows everywhere in-between the photos that were quivering mid-air. In the middle of the room was an empty chair. Solid wood. Carvings. Cushion. Relatively comfortable. Stefan stood beside it, waiting, pointing his finger towards the seat, making eye contact.

Vince was still hung up on a woman’s picture, examining her features, the frail smile at the end of her lips, the character-revealing wrinkles that he would like to draw, the childhood softening her eyes. Stefan hummed a guttural melody, opening his oval mouth, which burst open all the windows letting the wind stir up the room, making the photographs pirouette, and suddenly, Vince was faced with the other side of that picture, of that woman he had just encountered through his eyes, and he jumped back, aghast at the loss of control, and distanced himself rapidly from her.

Post-mortem photography. She’s dead, Vince. She’s been dead for a while now. They all are. You sit here with your ghosts. With the dead. Who’s looking into whom?

Stefan tapped on the chair to get Vince to sit down and breathe. The woman’s eyes were half-open, he could see them from across the room, he thought something beneath her eyelids was moving against him, seeking him out, and the wind made them pirouette and pirouette, alive and dead, alive and dead, dead and alive, looking back, not looking back. He had made contact with her and he felt that he couldn’t get rid of the connection, the images, the sensation he had established, imagined, experienced. She had gotten under his skin. Stay with her, why don’t you? Stefan’s voice, now beside his head, as Vince had sat down, wincing. Breathe.

Vince smelled the pine trees from outside. Faces hanging by a thread, paper, rustling across the white room, changing faces, how emotions had disappeared from every face, dreaming, caught, sealed, nothing on the surface now, sunken out, never to go back in, confined, masked, reappearing, lies, turn back time, give it back, knocked out, yet again, what am I doing here, at last, I breathe, out. How could he sit in this room alone, all by himself, Vince thought, why would he do that, why would anyone do that, he wondered how much money it would take for him to spend a night here of someone were to offer it, would he do it, at what cost, why wouldn’t he, what could possibly happen, maybe he was scared of himself the most and what he’d bring into a room.

Look at them, Vince. Look at them all. Vince looked up to Stefan instead. Stefan, who was slightly grinning, desperate, yes, but still, grinning, tears hanging around his eyelashes, as if he’d looked at them for the first time, he seemed tense and uneasy, the skin around his eyes yellow, and just as pale as Vince who tried to get back into his body, to harden it a little bit again. Vince followed Stefan’s gaze and got caught in the dead glance of a boy whose face, when he had still been alive couldn’t flutter its way back into view, so it stayed deceased for now. Vince jumped out of the chair. That’s a child, Stefan. A child. Come on!

Children die too. We all do. No matter what. That’s not new.

Why would you collect these images? Surround yourself with them? Exhibit them like this?

What’s wrong with me, you mean?

Well, what’s the point?

This is my house of fears, Vince. And this is the first room. I spend so much time here.

Why would you?

Peculiar and outstanding, you said?

Do you ever go out? Leave this house? Is this actually your home? Do you work from here? How?

You’re breaking the rules, Vince.

Questions contain revelations, Stefan.

You want to know where they are all coming from?

I’m cold, honestly.

Vince, with his arms locked across his chest, looked back at the boy whose face had come back to life now as if it had never known, never encountered death, as if it had never heard of it, never seen it coming, opening its arms towards him, as if it had never succumbed to any pain at all, smiling effortlessly into the camera.

Vince fell back into the chair, tearing up, but not letting go. The wind rushing past his back. And warmth rose up within him. And he knew where it was coming from, who it was and that it belonged to and with him. Stefan put his hand on his shoulder and whispered, looking at the boy, let’s stay for a while, shall we?

<<the second room>> coming soon…

My own drawing © Laura Gentile 2022 | Instagram: croque_melpomene

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