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The Night Surrounds Us Like a Room Whose Door Is Closed

Illustration by Klaus Kremmerz

I didn’t recognize you when I saw you because you looked exactly the same as you did in 2017 and it was absurd that you wouldn’t have changed at all. I assumed you were someone from outside of my life until your forehead turned red like it always did when you were nervous or surprised. You shouted Jessie and everyone in the café turned to look at us. I shouted Gabe louder than you had shouted Jessie and we both started to laugh with our mouths wide open in disbelief. You raised your palms as if to indicate that you were surrendering to the immutable forces of life. The situation felt familiar: the two of us yelling each other’s names in public as a large crowd of onlookers stood by. It seemed preordained, somehow iterative, like a state the soul remains in after death.

I was at the front of the queue at this point and tried to buy you a coffee, but you said you didn’t drink coffee anymore. Instead you bought me a coffee and yourself a tiny decaffeinated coffee, along with two fragile-looking cinnamon rolls. We sat outside even though it was winter. We were both dressed warmly in almost the same exact outfit: turtlenecks, long wool coats, lace-up boots. I was facing the street and kept seeing images that felt symbolic, like metaphors for something ill-defined. A flock of pigeons taking off in unison, circling the block and then colliding back against the pavement. A building site, men standing around on scaffolded ledges against the sky. A stone spire sticking out above the houses.

We told each other about our lives. You were a journalist now, reporting on climate change for various major publications. You lived in Edinburgh with your girlfriend, who worked in “policy.” I was living in a flat with random thirtysomething people and interning at a literary magazine. You said, That all sounds quite Sally Rooney, and asked how university had been, even though we’d known each other that whole first year, your whole master’s. I said that I had spent all of university in the library and you laughed. I tried to make it sound less arrogant and more comically depressing and told you that all my memories of university were of various barren views in one library or another: the river, thick with ice, stretched out beyond the windows; a vista of flimsy metal bookshelves; rats running across dirty skylights above the desks. 

I was simply staring into my coffee as we spoke. I was avoiding your eyes because it made me feel abject to look at them, as if I was begging you for something. It was so easy to remember the way it had felt to be eighteen and watching your face move as you talked to me, and heard me talk to you. It had been so overwhelming to just look at you, back then, that I would sometimes stand up suddenly and turn toward the wall, go to the bathroom, wait out in the street until this vertigo of desire subsided. Those old emotions were revealed, now, and shining, after years spent lost inside the past. I shivered, embarrassed by those old emotions, and the thrill of them, and the roaring of the cars soundtracked my shiver while pigeons kept flickering in and out of sight. 

Still, it was easy to fall into deliciously inane conversation. I pointed out that there were large gaping holes in the centers of our cinnamon rolls, even though the very concept of a spiral is that it does not contain a hole. We laughed like there was something actually sinister about the holes. Pastry crumbs kept dropping onto the table, and we discussed at what point they would be small enough to be described as “dust” rather than fragments of something larger. This was the idiotic type of conversation which could never be narrated or written about, it had neither meaning nor content, and yet it felt to me like communication’s purest, most intimate form. It was completely dependent on the presence of the other person and on their willingness to co-construct an extended private act of speech, and to embody that speech through laughter. It was unglamorous to believe it, but stupid jokes eventually came to form the substance of “love.” I had known this for a long time, and the knowledge returned to me like water which had evaporated into the air and condensed back into water, streaming in great torrents down the windows of a room.

Flakes of snow began to fall and land in the white foam of our coffees. Our hair became damp and curled around our faces; we started shivering, which seemed literal and reactive, like the response a robot would give to the prompt of “snow.” You asked how long I had and if I wanted to go inside somewhere, maybe a gallery. I said Of course with such sincere enthusiasm that it sounded almost mocking. We descended into the station. I had a half-formed notion relating to classical mythology and the entry into a darker hidden world, and then the train came. Once inside, and moving, we didn’t bother talking. The carriages howled through the tunnels. I was preoccupied by the feeling of the train in the vibrations of my seat. It was life’s silent machinery starting up beneath us and propelling us into the future, a future that was white-hot and lonely, a future like the wet, black smoke that stained the subway tunnel’s walls.

The gallery was crowded and the paintings were fragmented by the people standing in the way. Certain images repeated themselves in the gaps between bodies. Babies suckling and grimacing before artists accepted the idea that babies were supposed to look cute. Babies grabbing at Mary’s white breasts as her fingers pressed gently into their infant stomachs. Doorways and archways everywhere, crowned with angels. Angels proclaiming things, their proclamations immortalized on scrolls. Some of the angels had weird leering expressions and surreal proportions, looking nothing like a person or the idea that a person would have about an angel. You said it was these implausible aspects of the paintings that were the most interesting. It’s as if somebody wanted to create something but honestly didn’t know what things looked like. What does a baby look like, the artist wonders fruitlessly. What does a doorway look like from the side when the door is only partially closed? As we stared at the badly foreshortened doorway, your phone rang and you went into a different part of the gallery to take the call. 

I stayed where I’d been standing, beside a muted, almost pastel painting of Jesus’ baptism within a fairytale forest landscape. His expression was regretful and submissive and I tried to find some kind of meaning in it. I wasn’t sure what kind of emotion I was fishing for. My mind was full of unartistic feelings: embarrassment, anxiety, jealousy. Suddenly the room seemed implausibly, hellishly loud. I couldn’t understand how we had heard each other speak at all. This was another superficial sensation, the sensation of sensory panic, and it was even more base and uninspiring than the unartistic feelings. I knew that I would not be able to engage with the baby-pink face of the baptized Christ or with any of the other paintings’ attempts at representation, and so I turned away, toward the door through which you’d left. 

I saw you walking through the doorway and you laughed and said, Let’s get out of here, an uncharacteristic phrase which you appeared to be saying without irony. As we got closer to the exit it was as if the world had acquired a strange atmosphere or tint; something about the light coming round the museum’s corners was alien. It was true, we stepped outside and the pavement was an unfamiliar red, which was the snow distorting the light of the streetlamps and car headlights. When we spoke our voices were dampened by the snow and it sounded like we were alone inside a room, our words sinking straight into every wall. I said this to you and you laughed. Like speaking while surrounded by lava, you said.

We went into the first pub we saw, which felt like a desperate and even sordid thing to do, and I made a joke about craving the night’s first taste of beer. I made some unspecific animal gestures to illustrate the rabid nature of the craving. It turned out that since we last knew each other we had both developed unhealthy drinking habits. I told you that each time I drank I got this agitated frantic feeling of longing. I mentioned that, not long ago, I’d thrown up on the steps of the BFI after an evening spent drinking alone at the bar, trying to exorcise the hungry feeling by writing inane poetry. I had sat nauseated on the bus home and fallen asleep in my clothes with the door to the flat wide open.

You suggested that there were numerous worse stories you could tell about your own life. You said that mostly when you were drunk you were preoccupied by the question of children. One night you were having dinner with some colleagues and you couldn’t stop thinking about how almost everyone there was a parent. You drank a whole bottle of wine because you wanted to get drunk enough to confess that you were terrified of fatherhood. In the end, you stayed silent, or if you’d said something you couldn’t now remember what it was.

I wanted to say that I thought you’d be a great father, but the thought of inserting myself into that hypothetical future seemed inappropriate. Instead I told you about how I was probably infertile, I found out last year when I had an ultrasound scan because of weird pains. Both of my ovaries looked like little rib cages, they were full of holes where the egg cells were missing or dead. We made real eye contact for what felt like the first time that day and you said, I’m really sorry, Jessie, in such a serious tone that I felt guilty. The atmosphere was suddenly heavy and charged in a way that was faintly erotic and you said you could go with me if I had to have another scan or something. I laughed because it was a stupid thing for you to say, and you started to laugh too, a slow and melancholy laugh, the laugh of an adult. 

Outside the windows the snow-covered trees looked like lightning, their jagged branches pale against the sky. The music in the pub had dulled so that it became a generic hum rather than any particular song or genre. The combination of the snow and the near-silent music reminded you of a strange memory, you said. Last year you were at a dentist appointment and the dentist unfurled a screen above you: aerial footage of a snowy landscape, with bracketed subtitles describing sounds—soothing music playing, wind whooshing. But the video was silent and the dentist made no reference to it. He leaned in front of the screen and the trees and hills imposed themselves over his hands as he examined your teeth. At the end he rolled the screen back up, and you walked into the empty sunlit street. 

I was inexplicably moved by this story. I said something about how it makes no difference whether you walk through a snowy landscape or see it on a screen at the dentist. Both things place the landscape in your memory so why does it matter where you really were, and what happened to you? You said it was true, that you were always remembering places or things people said without knowing if you’d really seen and heard those things or if they came from thoughts or dreams you’d had, or from novels or anecdotes other people had told you. In this way, reality was completely different from memory; reality was an arbitrary subset of memory, and yet it made itself real and immutable: The things that happened combined to produce the indelible structures of life.

I felt it, as you were speaking: life’s dark, solid body imposing itself around us like the pub’s own gleaming walls. I could feel life closing in, each of our lives exerting pressure, each a cold and concrete thing that could not be opened or entered. I went into the bathroom because I wanted to see what I looked like in the face of pressing life. I looked strangely drenched, my makeup smudged in weird spidery lines beneath my eyes. My pores were too large, with red inside which was the inside of my face. But I also looked oddly pretty and conventional, my cheeks flushed pink. In the stall I tried to pee, the warm and heady feeling came quickly, and for a second I sunk into the events of the unreachable past.

It was both unthinkable and totally obvious, the fact that you had at one point in the past been inside me. I wished I could remember the way that it had felt. I could remember the sensation of your body tracing mine as we lay spooning, a concept I had once found sentimental but which, I understood with you, was intuitive and even vital. My whole life I had been sleeping alone and I had never once realized how desolate it was, and how unnatural. You’d kissed the back of my neck whenever I stirred during the night: discreet, gentle kisses that were spontaneous and even unconscious in a way that was important to me then. I remembered the way you looked in the morning, your Renaissance-seeming face acquiring the secretive, amused expression of a person being looked at even as your eyes lay closed. It had been unbelievable to be in a bed with you, to nestle my body into yours beneath the sheets and to talk about the mindless dreams we’d woken from. The dumbest dreams were always yours: You had a recurring dream which you could only describe as my head is a cupboard full of plates. All these things were vivid but it was impossible to remember what the sex had felt like. The memory had been overwritten by subsequent, worse, and less distinct experiences which were somehow also sex, and I would not be able to access it again, even if I could remember the positions our bodies had occupied in space.

One time the condom had broken, I remembered that; you had panicked and felt bad and I’d laughed at you because it was such an easily solvable problem. We’d gone to get the morning-after pill the next day and I got my period soon after that. And so the cycle shifted, my period came when the moon was a thin crescent and not with the full moon like it used to. I remember thinking it made sense, that a kind of ecosystem had been shattered and reformed—the ecosystem of my body in the world. Something within nature had shifted, something objective and universal that represented and would always represent the fact that we’d been together. 

As I remembered these things, you were sitting in the pub’s black interior less than twenty feet away from me: The thought sent a shock through my body and my leg twitched with what felt like momentary pain. I washed my hands, the water’s coldness turning my fingers a sinister yellow, and I left the bathroom without looking back into the mirror. You were sitting at the table with an expression that implied a readiness to speak, and I knew then that you’d started carrying the night to termination. You said you had to catch your train, first in a neutral, efficient voice and then a second time in a warm and melancholy tone I could almost feel, as if I had placed my hand on your chest as you spoke and felt the vibrations of speech. No one had ever addressed me like that, with that same soft heaviness which spoke, to me, of desire and of sorrow, feelings which spread themselves out into the air and into my own body as you spoke. Your voice’s heaviness lingered as we stepped into the street and the red sky pressed itself onto us. All around us buildings prostrated themselves, each building exposing its core through illuminated windows. You said you loved windows at night so much. You loved the word apartment: the sound of it, the meaning, different parts all being kept apart, behind apartment walls. Rows of apartments lined against the sky, each dwelling an impenetrable piece of someone else’s life. Imagine it, you said. Alone and squinting up at all the windows. They’re shimmering, you said, making a twinkling motion with your hands, which acknowledged the sentimental nature of the word. Doesn’t it make you want to cry?

It really did make me feel terrible, the thought of standing there alone looking up at the shimmering and into various people’s lives held at unreachable heights. I didn’t have anything to add to that. We walked silently then and I wasn’t sure if it was normal to be silent or if I was trying to draw something out of the silence, something potent and decisive. The impulse to use language to beg you for things was strong, as if I simply had to produce the perfect sentence and the future would fall open. I knew that this urge to speak was futile, I felt it as we walked. I felt the soft pressure of language’s uselessness. I wondered what you were thinking about, probably the snow, how it was good that even in 2023 there was still snow. Maybe you were thinking that you wanted to stand in the snow and rip your heart apart.

We reached the station, where illuminated boards displayed the names of possible destinations. Those glowing boards were already a memory, an image I would recall whenever I thought about transport and stations, about you and your life. I blinked and tried to picture it: you and me separately inside of the places where we lived at some point in the future. Your girlfriend would be there as well, and a baby would be in a high chair spilling indistinct baby food all over the table and ground. You and your girlfriend would be laughing, because babies were funny, and because you were happy, because you loved and understood each other, which made you smile every time you looked at each other.

I looked up at you then and you rubbed at your eyes with your forefingers, an illegible gesture. Your eyes looked red because you’d rubbed them and I rubbed at my eyes too and looked down at the ugly speckled floor of the station and at your boots. You said Okay and I said Bye in a way that sounded ungenerous, and so I said it again, in a gentler voice. And you descended down the metal stairs away from me.

Leaving the station, every step I took broke the snow, which was already broken by other people’s shoes and becoming replaced with a weak brown water, the water of dirt and of warmth. My longing for you felt clear and ancient. I wondered where it would go, what form it would take. The insentient streets stretched out like the things that would come to form the body of my life, the life that would impose itself on and around me, each path unlit and drowning in the weather’s aftermath. 

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Published: June 6, 2024

Klaus Kremmerz is a visual artist whose work has been featured in Communication Arts, WePresent by WeTransfer, Its Nice That, Creative Boom, Ballpitmag, Elephant Magazine, KIBLIND, and MokaMag. His clients include Hermés, Rimowa, Flos, Aman Resorts, Picturehouse Cinemas, TIME Magazine, the New Yorker, the Economist, the...