Several days a week, sometimes twice a day, I go into the Room Where My Friends Die. Outside of it, I watch ants weave through empty snail shells. I review my notes like flashcards. I kill time before entering.
You might find anybody inside. Friends as you remember them or as you never imagined them. Dennis, Wyatt, Constance. Melody, crumpled blue-faced wide-eyed and smiling on the ground. (Smiling, I tried to convince myself, because we hadn’t seen each other in years.) I’ve entered to find my friend Malik covered in vomit and pulverized in a passenger’s seat or a driver’s seat (all you can ever see is the body, so you have to imagine some things).
Of the friends I’ve encountered, there’s the occasional one I didn’t know was deceased. While they never see me, I like to think they feel my presence. I like to think we share a silence.
Isaac flies in for his first layover. I stand at the terminal looking for him, my eyes stinging in the daylight. We were never especially close, but we have a common connection. I feel a clap on my back, then—
“There you are,” he chuckles. “How about finally getting a phone again, joining the real world?”
We catch up at the airport bar. I sip tonic water and watch him knock back a shot. He doesn’t look much different.
First, we swing by a store and stock up. Later, we come to the building. I lead him up the steps and inside. We walk, climb, zigzag, double back. It’s dark and hard to see. He trails behind.
“I’m feeling kind of lightheaded,” Isaac calls.
I wait at the apartment door as he wheezes up the final stairs, where I hand him a cough drop. In the living room I make a bed out of extra blankets and old pillows wrapped in older T-shirts. I turn around and Isaac has a finger hooked on the drawstring of the attic door.
I ask him not to pull it.
He asks me why. Then follows my pointing finger to the water stains on the floorboards. Does he smell the mold?
If he pulls the drawstring—I explain—we will be flooded.
Isaac retracts his hand.
I light a couple of candles. Our ensuing conversation finds its legs but predictably flounders shortly after.
The truth is, I’m apprehensive about talking too much. I haven’t talked in a long time, so I’m afraid that once I start I won’t know when to stop, or, worse, I won’t be able to stop even when I know I should. I’m thinking maybe this is what it’s like, preferring to listen.
How you get here is you enter the building (easy enough, it being unlocked and abandoned). You go up the stairs to the second floor (watch out for the damp). You pull down the attic door, you climb up the ladder. Now you’re in the attic, but the attic is a basement. You’ll know what I mean when you find the other stairwell and follow it up past the other first floor to the other second floor. That’s where the apartment is. It has a bathroom, a kitchen, a living room, and two other rooms: the room where I sleep, and the Room Where My Friends Die.
The days that I don’t go into the Room Where My Friends Die, I’m usually in the one where I sleep, though sleep doesn’t come easily, there or anywhere else.
“You haven’t seen him, then?”
I shake my head. Since I told him about the Room, he has wanted to know if his friend is still alive.
I haven’t seen Dylan. Not yet, anyway.
Isaac clears his throat. “Good,” he says.
I have dreamt about it, though, Dylan being an old mutual friend. In one dream, he’s lying limp as a noodle over a tree root, a snake drooling out of his shirt collar. In another: bound and gagged in a chair, skull dented and slick. On a frigid mountain pass: his skin liver-marked with frost and pulled tight over muscles locked in an unnatural contortion.
I stare at my hands, wringing them.
Isaac asks, “What’s wrong with your fingers?”
I used to go more often into the Room Where My Friends Die—several times a day, in fact. When my fingernails fell out and my asthma worsened, I started to moderate my visits. I felt a sudden empathy with the snails I watched through holes in the walls, inching doggedly over the always-damp paneling. Always putting themselves at risk of entrapment in corners, of hollowing out to nothing. Sometimes I see them disappear behind the baseboard of the Room and I wonder what happens to them, if they ever end up going all the way inside.
If I have been indoors for an extended period of time—breathing mold fumes and dust and whatever else—I can squint and see faces on the snails’ shells.
The more plaster crumbles, the more things I see. My discomfort makes the Room all the more seductive. Since imposing limits on myself, I’ve learned to sidestep them: I scribble questions on scraps of paper and jam them under the door.
—who’s there? do you want to say something? what do you remember and what do you want me to remember for you? what do you feel? etc.—
I make guesses and sometimes I think I do get things right, because on the other side of the door I’ll think I hear the occasional sigh of relief. Wiping my eyes, I proceed to fall into a deep, exhausted sleep.
Upon awaking the first time afterward, I opened the door to find the papers all lying or afloat there in the dark. (I’m still not sure whether it counts as a floor or not.) Looking at them as they began to spiral, I wondered if their formations didn’t qualify as messages in their own right.
As Isaac and I sit—him stoically trying not to bring up Dylan, me puzzling over the right things to say when he does—the air pressure changes slightly, followed by a low reverberation that Isaac doesn’t notice.
When he begins to tell me how he is going to find Dylan, I pretend to listen. What I’m really listening for is a series of thuds, a muffled cry, a crash, something. You can hear them, the deaths. As they’re happening. Not all of the time, but sometimes. From different angles, around corners.
There have been times that I’ve opened the door to find someone I didn’t know I knew, someone I must have forgotten. That’s what happened when I originally came to the building, the apartment, to the Room.
I opened the door and there was a boy, younger than me. Nineteen, maybe. His whole arm was dark and bumpy, like a wet log. He nodded at me. I nodded back. It was clear that he was dead, had most likely just finished dying.
Later that night, pulling my sleeping bag into the empty room next to the Room that I didn’t yet know was Where My Friends Die, I realized that I knew the boy. We had been in rehab together; we’d even spoken on a couple of occasions. But I don’t think it was until he became dead that we bothered ever looking each other in the eye.
There were times before I discovered the building and the Room. They feel less and less real, but I remember them.
Janine, discovering me teetering on her doorstep. Catching my arm, helping me inside. In my delirium, I was baffled by how easily she could manage walking straight. She cracked open a beer to make me feel less drunk and alone. We talked about Siggy. His favorite comics, his weird allergies (household cleaners, guinea pig dander). I brought up the times we ran into each other in the hallway, smiling, both late for the same class and walking in.
She told me, as we lay on her bed, how weird it was that he’d never sleep there again. She knew exactly how he felt inside her, exactly how he breathed. Now, he didn’t breathe. His hands didn’t feel anything, he was allergic to nothing, he was inside a box.
One thing I’ve asked my dead friends about is sex. I ask them what sex means to them now that they are dead. On the occasions that I enter the Room Where My Friends Die and am greeted by someone who had sex with me, I never know how to tell them what it is like for me, staring at them, their deadness, knowing they once shared their body with me. If in fact they can see me, maybe they don’t know what to say either, and that’s why they don’t say anything at all.
It’s not like I had a lot to begin with. Right before I went off-grid, Isaac contacted me—he’d be in town, could he crash at my place for a night or two? I didn’t want to turn him away, but it meant he had to know about the Room.
Leading up to his visit, I spent many nights on the floor outside the Room, my head pressed up against the door. The sounds of my friends’ deaths vibrated through the wood, through my pillow, into my skull, warbled. For some time, it was the only thing that helped me sleep. A suggestion of a sense of finality. Satisfaction for my morbid curiosity as well as provisions for eventual piece of mind, I thought. The most that they could share with me. The most that I could handle.
If you’re going to take up the task of recording your dying friends, then your pens have to be of the utmost quality. Your paper, as well. Your handwriting must be pristine. If you screw up, then you crumple it into a ball and throw it away and start over from the beginning. Your friends deserve your best. You give them everything that you never gave them.
We stand at the door of the Room Where Our Friends Die. Isaac takes a swig from his bottle. I catch myself wondering what it would be like to partake.
“It might be anyone,” I say, trying to focus. “Could be Dylan, someone else…”
“That’s okay,” Isaac says.
“They might not know you’re there.”
Isaac pours a glass. “That’s okay, too,” he says. He sets the bottle on the ground, next to the wall.
“You’ll know if they see you.”
I don’t know why I tell him this because it’s not true (at least, I don’t think it’s true), but he nods anyway. Maybe he’ll experience things I’ve never experienced, things I can never even hope to experience.
There’s a degree of mythmaking that happens after death. It doesn’t have to be made up to be what it is. A disembodied story, a myth. Try an exercise: catch yourself rolling a name around in your mouth. You’re feeling for a crack, a secret entrance to its core. You might do this when the name is still attached to a living person. Or, if you’re like me, you may find yourself only doing this when the name belongs to a dead person.
In the moments preceding their deaths, I take careful note of the clothes my friends are wearing, how tired or awake their eyes are, how they interact with their environment (which is never visible to me). I consider what I know of them, what our last words to each other were, I write down what I think was mostly likely to have happened in the final days, the final hours, of their lives. Almost certainly I get things wrong, but I try my best.
The ants inevitably overtake the snails. They march in thick formations, erasing everything in their path. Sometimes they’ll walk straight under the door to the Room Where My Friends Die and disappear themselves. Do they eat my questions? I wonder. I dream that every time a name enters my mouth, there are ants there to consume it.
“God, it smells,” Isaac gasps, shutting the door behind himself. He blinks. Inhales long and full. I have been staring at the bottle he left.
“Baskets,” he says.
He nods, still catching his breath. “Piled up everywhere, along the wall, stacked. Peaches,” he says, “apricots, plums.”
“What’s in your glass?” I ask.
He lifts it, swirls it gently. Inside, grayish liquid sloshes around.
“Is it juice?” I ask. It is not what he originally poured in there. “Juice you made from the fruits?”
He looks at me like he can’t believe I’m here.
Apples scattered across a windless void. It’s like a still life, a work in progress on a black canvas. You don’t know where the light is coming from yet, you just have to trust in your hand.
Another experiment: Come back with a bag of apples. Each time you return, there they are (all nine), organized differently but otherwise seemingly untouched. In the room where you sleep, draw diagrams of the apples’ positions. Join them with lines. Puzzle over each arrangement.
I never brought peaches, apricots, plums. Never brought baskets.
I wake up to the creak of the ceiling. I’m in the living room. I try calling out to Isaac, but my throat won’t work. Your voice is one of the first things to go if you stay here for any length of time. I pop a cough drop into my mouth.
I go downstairs. In the first floor living room, Isaac is standing on a chair which he stacked on a couch, his head cocked, ear to the ceiling. Shhh, he signs.
“The acoustics are different,” he finally tells me, climbing down. He stumbles, catching himself. Puts a hand to his head, groans. It’s the pressure. I forget that I’m used to it. Occasionally I have to swallow to pop my ears, but other than that I hardly notice. I point to the ceiling. “What can you hear?” I ask.
“It’s like—” He coughs. “It’s like they’re all happening at once.”
It’s the angles. Sometimes they line right up.
My therapist was stabbed to death. I was never told what happened; the family was tight-lipped about it, I guess. For me, he just became dead—one day alive, one day not.
With the windows boarded up, I never know the time of day. This allows me to focus on things I hear without presuming their source. They could be apartment-sounds (snails, disintegrating ceilings, dying friends). They could be beyond-the-apartment-sounds, namely the curdling swell of an incomprehensible body of water. That day, or night, or afternoon, the throbbing behind the walls was so loud, I could hear nothing else. Unable to sleep, I pushed the door of the Room open and there my therapist was, standing but buckled over, held up by an invisible force. Lines were opening in his torso. So many lines, there was no counting them. Eventually the invisible force withdrew, and my therapist fell, landing on blackness which substantiated only where his blood spilled. I could not be there for when he stood up. That wasn’t a person. Certainly it never could’ve been my therapist. That was just an opening of red lines, and a collapse.
On his last day, Isaac has no fingernails. He has talked so much that his voice is ragged. He’s tired. Not from talking to me, but from visiting the Room Where His Friends Die. But—
“I had a dream,” he tells me. “I’m walking down a beach and nearly trip over him. For the past, I don’t know, however long, Dylan’s been sunbathing. Just sunbathing. Totally oblivious to the fact that he’s gone missing. ‘Oh,’ he says when he sees me. ‘Just lost track of time, I guess.’ That was it.”
His dream is so nice that I drift to sleep not long after hearing it. I wake up to a goodbye note. Standard stuff. It concludes: “PS: There’s a leak in the Room. Maybe take this as a sign?”
Next to the letter sits a glass full of liquid. I take a sip. It is not juice, apricot or plum or otherwise. It is water, paint-blemished and coarse with bits of wood and glass.
I close my eyes. See apples cascading through nighttime, papers unfolding to reveal words in others’ handwriting. I get up. I go into the Room Where My Friends Die.
Siggy, lying on a hospital bed.
Four days in a coma before they had to pull the plug, but when was the last time—the very last moment—that he was Siggy? is what I always wanted to know. Could never shake the thought from my head. Visiting the hospital on day four, I felt ridiculous, talking to him as he lay there, knowing he was gone.
I remember how he felt when I put my hand on his chest. Burning up, like he was fighting off the flu. It made me feel so weird, gazing at his face, so dead-looking already, my fingers on his collarbone and seeming, almost, to sizzle. Just because you’re warm doesn’t mean that you’re still you.
In here, you feel so cold yet so hot at the same time. Your sinuses get clogged. The Room has a deadening effect on the senses. You find yourself holding your breath.
But this time, when I breathe, I smell the mold. I swallow and pop my ears. I listen to the distant trickles, off in space.
The bottle that Isaac left rests in my hands and it’s like I took a little bit of the Room with me.
If I listen really hard and the throbbing behind the ceiling happens to be faint, I can hear the city buzzing. It can often be easy to overlook, but now I breathe in dust, particulates of decay, the exhalation of a dozen gathering molds. With this cocktail swirling in my frontal lobe, I experience a state of heightened awareness; I can detect things not otherwise audible to humans. I start to lose consciousness.
I wake up, mouth open. I check my shoulders for snails. No faces anywhere—what’s the fun in this?
I should go downstairs, get a breath of fresh air. So, I heave myself up. Hard to say how much more of this my body can handle. I pass the first floor, the attic-basement, and arrive finally at the other second floor.
I shove my head through a space where a window used to be. I rest my chin on the jagged glass of the broken window frame, drawing blood. I drink in air for as long as it takes my head to clear. Then I duck back inside. Go back up the ladder, back up the stairs. Back up the ladder and back up the stairs again. After a while I lose count.