by Michael Washburn
When you travel far, you expect there to be more than a plain room, interchangeable with any number of rooms all over the world, lying in wait for you. The length of your voyage magnifies the presumed significance of what lies at your destination. Someone is going to give a brilliant talk to a full auditorium, or dignitaries of the great powers will sign a treaty, or you will visit the bedside of a famous writer and talk for a while before his body gives up and he leaves this world, or there will be a waterfall or a canyon or the tallest building yet designed or something, anything, to redeem the time spent and the stress accompanying a voyage you began to think would never reach its end. But here you sit, now, in a room. The table is a cheap wooden one with nothing but a dull white cloth and a small cup on it, the narrow counter running along the wall to your left is bare, and the glass-fronted cabinet above it holds rows of cups of the same generic make. Across from you on the other side of the room is a night table covered by a rugged cloth with an image of a flower, the only thing here with any aesthetic purpose, however muted and underwhelming. Nothing else in this space comes close to acknowledging that the world is full of things to see and that that is one of the basic pleasures of living.
You are the sole occupant of the room and have little idea as to its purpose or what structure it might be a component of, nor do you really recall coming here from the airport. Or was it the train depot? Then again, maybe you did not travel much of a distance at all, you just walked in here off the street and it is mere impatience that drives this sense that you are entitled to a diversion, the type that awaits someone who has traveled far with a purpose in mind. Your thoughts wander. You love a young woman but her future is with a rich Bostonian who despises you. The one who hates you would keep his enemy closer, as they say, would imprison you in his world. Maybe you should end the futile game and jump into a river.
Every so often, the door to your right opens and a woman of indeterminate age, wearing an apron over her blouse and trousers, comes in and pours tea into your cup. The aroma is so faint and the tea itself so tasteless that you want to send it back with a request to let the tea bag settle longer, or better yet, let you handle the operation yourself, but the woman is brusque and if you speak she shakes her head as if she has no time even to answer a brief question. Here you sit for hours, sipping the unsatisfying tea, wondering what you are missing as the world grinds on outside and kingdoms rise and fall. Maybe someone important will show up soon, or someone whose presence means something at least in the context of your own inner life. So you wait. The next time the woman appears to fill your cup, you will ask her for a book or a magazine or maybe a cigarette. But her next appearances are even brusquer and she stops answering you even when you raise your voice. Everything in her manner says that only an imbecile would not know what the room is for or why he is here, and no one has the right to pester her with silly questions. Here is where your sense of the room and your relationship to it really begins to unravel.
Once again you entertain the notion that you did not travel a great distance to get here, it may have simply seemed that way because the room is so far outside the scope of your routines. It seems illogical that you would have taken a lot of trouble to come to a place against which your mind and soul would revolt. So maybe you came only a short way, or perhaps they stuck you here, though they, whoever they are, do not behave at all like captors, they pay some attention to you and observe the civilized nicety of serving tea. You begin to think that there is no one you could wish to meet with so badly that you could endure sitting here for hour after dull interminable hour, while the world lives exuberantly outside and people meet and fall in love and live together and die and cede their place in the domain they cultivated to a new generation desperate to extract last every drop of experience and fulfillment from the passing show. You cannot sit here and retain your sanity. The cabinet, the counter, the table covered with a poor imitation of art, the dreary white of the walls, all these things torture you with their refusal to encourage any form of extrapolation or imagining. This is the room where they have put you. They must understand that making such a weak nod at art—the coarse cloth with the floral design—is more tormenting in its way than the utter denial of art, and when it goes on long enough the type of human interaction you have in this place becomes a studied insult. When the woman comes in again, you will demand clarity, context. When she comes in. But she does not return, and hours now bleed into days, that is how it feels, sitting here alone. You would look at the clock, but there is no clock. You get up and try the door, but it will not open. You sit down again and wait. More hours pass, and more still.
Finally the door opens, and the woman returns, with a look as banal as if she had seen you five minutes before. Perhaps again it has been five minutes. For all you know. For all you know of anything. But this cannot go on. You get up and seize her wrist and it is not the vehemence of your action or the contact that shocks her so much as your naivete, your lack of acuity. You tell her you must leave. She shakes her head. You tell her this is a room where no one would think to put a guest for any length of time. Why not let you out? You can still meet whomever it is so important to meet. Again she shakes her head, as if dealing with a child or an idiot. You demand to know why, what is out there. Her lips form one word, whose pedigree and associations would take millions of pages to expound, but for now just one phrase will do. One word. Germany.
The word carries such power it might bowl you over, but it is your great fortune that this vision, this configuration of things does not linger in your mind. In the scene that comes now, you are still in confinement, but the banality of the setting is of a far more mundane and comforting character, if that even makes sense, because an augmenting of the plainness might just drive you to suicide. But you cannot find the river, not here, because the room where you find yourself now is a setting you know all too well, you are in the bathroom of a good friend who has no wish to betray or to expose you against your will but who cannot tolerate your presence here forever. You are naked and you know there is something deeply, gnawingly wrong with your body and that if you do not get out of here right now and make your way through the streets to a clinic that offers the medicines needed to nip your growing malady in the bud, then you can expect to die in a matter of hours if not minutes. But you stand naked in this bathroom with no robe hanging on a hook on the door or even any towels on the rack by the shower. It is as if this is a condemned bathroom, a small chamber that the owners of the property never want to use again if they have access to a more desirable one. This suits you well enough. Let the snooty enjoy their fleeting privileges. You love a young woman but her future is with a rich Bostonian who despises you. Maybe you should end the futile game and jump into a river, the one you always thought would find you in the end.
Above and to the left of the sink is a window that you just might be able to force open wide enough to permit your passage into the bright day. So you force it all the way up and the light hurts your eyes for a moment until you come to feel ready to gaze out onto the street below where people walk this way and that, and when you are just about ready to make the leap, you remember that you have forgotten the address of the clinic. It is unwise to head out onto the street naked if you don’t know exactly where to go and how to get there. You will maximize the time that strangers have to gawk and call the police to come and haul you off to a place whose nondescript character makes the plainest place you have yet set foot in look like Shangri-La.
Luckily there is a bit more complexity and variety to this bathroom’s furnishings than to those of other rooms. In the cabinet above the sink you find a jar with a label on it, and on the label the name of the clinic and an address printed in bold type. It is at 372 Carlisle Street. Equipped with all the information you desire, you make the quick trip up through the open window and out onto the street, where people are too absorbed in the urgency of the moment to take note of the naked figure bounding up the block. You race with a fury you believed to be always beyond your grasp as a nice boy growing up in the heartland, hoping, guessing, assuming that your state will not stand out all that much. Here is the city, not just a place falling within a general category but the city, where everyone grows daily more inured to the idiosyncrasies of those around them. This one talks to himself on a bench in the park, that one quotes the Goliard poets, the one over here screams and craps in his pants, the one over there gets down on all fours to talk to dogs whose owners smile but tug the leashes gently to say to the animal in their charge, come on, let’s not linger here, and this one, this one bounds naked up the street. Fine, each to his own, let’s not get in his way. That is a nice philosophy to hold and to project onto others but of course you know that not quite everyone subscribes to it, so on reaching Carlisle you begin to scan the numbers on the doors frantically, and it appears you are not too far from where you need to be, 364, 366, 368 Carlisle. Then something odd happens when you advance past the lobbies and storefronts and make it to where the clinic should be. There is no 372 but a big office park with the numerals 370-380 pasted onto a glass panel over a door that will not open. You need to get into this building but no one answers when you press the buzzers or responds to your cries. You could stand here all day or until your nakedness grows too odious for the uniformed public servants to ignore. It is a tragedy because what they could administer within the confines of the clinic might not cure you of what ails you but might at least make you more susceptible to the calming influence of non-institutional, non-coercive rooms.
It proves an academic point. Now the urgency and humiliation of the scene fall away as you stand at the edge of a cliff overlooking a ravine and a riverbed thousands of feet below, and over on the far side, on the opposite cliff, stand an army of young people, several armies, multitudes, hundreds of thousands, waiting in all earnestness to give you a chance, to allow you to manifest the moral and intellectual superiority on which you have prided yourself all these years, they stand there watching you in expectation, and you want to tell them all about the evil loose in the world and get them to sign on to the cause you represent, but as you study the sea of faces out there, the infinite iterations of youth born of hundreds of thousands of mothers across the length and breadth of the country, the rich and poor dwellings in the cities and plains and mountains and deserts and forests and swamps, the realization hits you that they are unlikely to take you too seriously given that you stand naked in the sun. The youth of the great nation stand there and gawk, disappointed, some smiling even now in polite if half-hearted encouragement, knowing that the leader they hoped to listen to on this bright day as the winds swept the dry canyon bed has not stood forward.
These visions do not torment you forever, as ever more immediate threats emerge to the tidy reality you made your home, where the river that appealed and beckoned to you had a discrete character and could never, to use a maladroit phrase, overstep its bounds. It is a river and it does what rivers do. The river has summoned you to come to it and if you lived a million years you might not, without the clarity of this dream, envision a scenario where the river comes to you. Now things are more fluid and the water knows no bounds at all, it surges and storms up out of its well-worn channels and overwhelms the piers lining the far west side of the island and comes racing across town in currents that quickly rise high enough to make workers on the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth floors and above think that not just the island but all landmasses are going underwater and if they have any sins to repent of, they had better drop their charts and pencils and do it. The waves smash right through Penn Plaza and crash onto Sixth and Fifth and turn and begin to surge downtown, picking up cars and buses heading toward the park and tossing them through the air like toys and making them whirl three hundred and sixty degrees until the people inside get motion sickness and yearn not so much for a safe landing as for a moment of clarity in which to put things in order before the end, now this is how much I made at cards the other night and this is how much I owe, and this is how much I tipped the jazz saxophonist and, if I can now get my hands on pen and paper, this is how much I should leave earmarked for him to ensure that no one else will make an exit from this world without the cool rhythms that advanced and receded and cosseted me in a warm intimate place as smoke coalesced in thick yet inoffensive clouds in the dark space above tastefully arranged tables and chairs where the detritus of the professional class, a coterie of men and women without aim or purpose beyond the next hour, sipped whiskies and tried to confer immediacy and purpose on the stuff of their lives in a manner convincing enough to lure another to come home with them to a unit of space tucked far off within the infinitude of overpriced apartments in one of the chic quarters of the Upper West Side or Chelsea or SoHo or Murray Hill. The waves come roaring and crashing over the hapless blocks once considered a triumph of architecture and a testament to the order and purpose of life in this year of our Lord, 1957.
But before the waves can accomplish their purpose, before they can induce mass suicide through the promise of death, a young woman with platinum hair sits at a table in a tony restaurant and raises her glass, clinks it with those of her parents, and delivers an encomium bestowing lavish praise on the city to the northeast where her relatives are ready to receive her, and not just her relatives but another, sinister presence she has never decisively shut out of her life, for all her professions to the contrary. Her parents look charming in their evening wear and their expressions convey that wisdom tempered with indulgence that they have come to feel is their most endearing trait, the one most likely to curry favor with the young woman whom they offended with their high-handed matchmaking, though the daughter still conveyed interest in the possibility of a future with the rich boy, the Boston Brahmin who never stops belittling you. Ask yourself now what you can do, you who stand bare before the ranks of the idealistic youth you imagined were just the people who might see your point of view and enlist in the cause. You might as well go and find the river if the river cannot find you.
Copyright Washburn 2024