He wakes. It’s like every other time he wakes. He knows he is awake before he opens his eyes, enjoying the dizzy shift between dreaming and being fully conscious. It’s during this shift that the nerve endings tied to synapse bundles tied to electrical impulses in his cheek register a hard, cold surface. Once his cheek has made this deduction, his chin follows, and then his shoulder, his ribs, and his hip. By the time he plants his hands on either side of his torso for leverage, his entire self is awake and aware that it has not woken in a bed.
His eyes open. The floor is at eye level. Wooden, dirty, old enough to be slathered with cheap wax about a hundred times and littered with piles of clothes, could be anywhere. It could be in his own apartment. It’s when he pushes himself into a sitting position that there is a moment of mental freefall. The dizzy shift into consciousness has become a full tilt void. If he were not firmly planted on the floor, he is certain he would fall off (or out, or up) into nothing. This is not his apartment. It is not any place he knows.
This could be an attic room with the way the walls cant and push back into eave-shaped holes. But there are no windows. There is no door. The color of the walls is dingy like an old French saloon. Someone has been smoking here judging by the full ashtray at his side, but the room doesn’t smell like smoke. It smells like dust and vintage clothing stores. The only light comes from a hanging fixture in the center of the room, right over his head, and a small, shadeless lamp at the top of the bed.
Oh, so there is a bed. Well, it’s not much of a bed. No bigger than twin size, slouchy in the middle, and pushed sideways against the wall. The brass rails would look like something from a mental institution if it weren’t for the heart stickers half peeling off. The linens are unmade and there’s a depression in the pillow, but he knows he has not slept there. One corner post is strung with Mardi Gras beads and concertina wire. On the other post is draped a wool jacket. He can hear the hissing of the naked bulb in the broken lamp.
Between the top of the bed and the adjacent wall is a pile of instruments, sketch pads, typewriters, and doll parts. It’s as if someone has dumped their unfinished projects here and left them, disused and dusty, presided over by an upright bass with a cracked neck.
The corners of the adjacent wall recede into darkness, and he imagines that there are blacked-out windows at the ends that he cannot see. The center of the wall, though, is high and wide, and he sees himself reflected in a mirror. The mirror itself is a huge, disc-shaped piece of glass with silver spots like cigarette burns showing at the edges. Wreathing the mirror are long black feathers. Muted golds and greens shimmer from teardrop-shaped fans. He knows there are white peacocks, but he’s never seen a black one. Some feathers reach to the top of the mirror and curve over; it’s as if the bird’s entire tail was sold from the back of a caravan or a stall in the souk and placed on either side of a vanity in this room.
The mirror and its feathers sit atop a bureau. It’s top has been covered in lacquered magazine clippings. Fashion ads, mostly, but here and there a word like “BROKEN” or “LUST.” This is what he can tell through the rest of the debris, which consists mostly of lidless lipsticks, perfume bottles, and ticket stubs for concerts he has never seen. There’s another ashtray here. It’s homemade and the edges curl up like a sea monster. In it are menthol butts and two damp-looking roaches. One of the bureau’s drawers is open. Reaching inside, he pulls out a straight razor. The blade is dull, but the handle shines with mother of pearl.
The chair for the bureau vanity is against the other wall, the one opposite the bed. It has been placed before the crates of records, books, and magazines crammed into disorganized piles. There is a separate pile of notebooks, too, and spent ballpoint pens litter a single square of carpet. He picks up a notebook from the top of the pile and opens it to the first page. The date at the top left is from two years before, and the poetry there is juvenile. At the bottom corner of the page, the poet drew a spiderweb. He flips through the rest of the notebook, but most of the pages are blank. Dropping the notebook, he sees that the records are good. He thinks about putting one on, but he doesn’t see a record player.
There is a TV, though, against the next wall. He should have seen it reflected in the mirror earlier. It’s a small TV, maybe a few-years-old TV/DVD player model. The bottom half of the console has been painted with purple nail polish. Sitting precariously on top of the TV – it’s top is just barely sloped – is a glass of water. The water died long ago. There are no bubbles clinging to the inside of the glass, and a single blond hair is perched over the lip. Thinking ahead, he takes the glass and sets it on the floor. He smells flowers. Scattered around the TV table are dried orchids and devotional candles. Burnt up matches get stuck to his bare feet. He is picking them off when the TV switches on. He has not touched the buttons at all.
The TV is new enough, but the picture opens up like it’s being shot out of antique tubes. First the dot in the middle, then the horizontal expansion like light over an horizon. He stumbles backwards until his naked calves touch the bed. He sits on the edge and leans forward, waiting for the image on the TV to turn from pure light to something he knows.
He’s in the picture. It’s him on the TV screen, his face, his hair, and that T-shirt he wore for days on end but left at an old lover’s place at least a year ago. In the TV, he is not sitting on the bed of a strange room full of things he has never owned. Instead, he is in the driver’s seat of a car. His hands rest at ten and two. Out of the back window, he can see a seaside road and mountains. The road curves and the landscape shifts, but like in old movies, he does not ever turn the wheel. The version of him on the TV occasionally checks the mirror but mostly stares straight ahead with no expression. He does not appear to see the real him, sitting in this room. There is no sound coming from the TV at all.
He looks up at the hanging light fixture. One of the bulbs is missing, and there is a Christmas ornament in its place. It doesn’t hiss like the bedside lamp, though, which he’s starting to worry will cause a fire. He leans over to turn it off, bracing his hand against the pillow on the bed. A familiar perfume wafts upward at him, but he doesn’t bother to place it at the moment. The lamp switch is at the bottom, and turning it, he sees on the table a Diet Coke can with a smudge of lip-shaped grease and an asthma inhaler with an expired prescription.
Then, he remembers how long it has been since he breathed.
While the TV version of him drives listlessly along a coastal highway, the real him remembers that he no longer breathes, hungers, or feel physical pain. He remembers how long it has been, and though he cannot remember the places he has been before this room, he knows that there have been others. He understands again, as he has multiple times before, that there is not only one version of Hell. Sometimes the Hell you receive is the one you create. It is the one you make with your own actions, your own words, or to another person.
Just as he has done in all the other rooms that came before this one, he knows that this is the Hell he helped create for another person, and that he will stay here, sleepless, soundless, and without a door or window or even the smell of cigarette smoke, for some time.
Looking down at his hands, something in the pocket of the wool jacket on the bedpost catches his eye. It’s the corner of a Polaroid. He pulls the image from the pocket. It’s like something from a photo booth with that watery blue background. No faces in this but definitely people just out of the frame. A thin, jacket-covered shoulder in the lower left corner and curled around it, possessively, with none of the casualness of longtime friends or the tenderness of true lovers, a hand. Masculine in its angles and with broad fingernails, it matches the hands holding the photograph.
And written on the thick white bottom in ghostly familiar, idiosyncratic script, is written:
do you miss me yet...
This is the thing he cannot remember, and the reason he will be here until he does. This is the room, the Hell, the place he created for someone else before he ever had reason to come here, where he will stay until he can answer