- Alexandra Kleeman
THE LAST WORD: ALEXANDRA KLEEMAN'S "INTIMATION"
I was trying to think of all the different things I liked about doors. Their size, their heft, the sense that they were made for bodies to pass through them freely. The way they put holes in spaces in which you would otherwise be trapped forever, looking for some way in or out. All of the best moments in my life had been preceded by entering or exiting a door, or maybe just having a door waiting there in the background, offering the possibility of escape. They were the only things I could think of that were truly reversible: no clear beginning or ending, passing endlessly through a series of midpoints and temporary stops. They were beautiful in this revocability, flexible and soft.
All except this door, which seemed to be unidirectional.
From the outer side it had looked like any other, but here I was running my hands over it and looking for the seam, clawing at it, pounding my hands against this faint echo of a door that lacked all the features I had heretofore prized among its kind. The doorknob was fixed in place, and when I ran my fingers over the line, it felt of paint, thick and dark, on a smooth surface. If this door offered hope, it was only in trompe l’oeil form, a thin veneer of it laid planlessly. I turned to look for another way out.
Behind me lay the insides of a small house: coffee table, sofa, then a dining table and chairs. What looked like a kitchen to the right, then a long, narrow hallway that probably ended in a bedroom or bathroom. The apartment was small, and it seemed to funnel off into a point too small for anyone to step into, or out from. A man was seated on the sofa. He watched me, and he tilted his head.
What are you looking for? he said.
What’s wrong with this door? I said.
That’s a really strange question, he responded.
Something about his statement really irritated me. Yes, I was able to see how it could be considered a strange question. But in this situation, this strange situation, it seemed to be the only reasonable question to have. The fact that he wasn’t asking the question himself made him the strangest element here. At least by the standards that existed outside of this house.
Look, sorry, where are my manners? he said. Have a seat, would you like anything?
I had just walked into his house, a complete stranger, and began clawing at the walls, tearing at the empty form of the door painted on it. I wanted him to feel as I did, trapped and hungry for answers. He should have been demanding information from me, demanding to know why I was here and who I was.
Don’t you want to know how I got in here? I asked.
He laughed a little. Okay, he replied, I’ll bite. How did you get in here?
I’m not sure, I said.
Now that we’ve settled that, he said tolerantly, do you or do you not want something to eat? A beverage? He stood up and headed over to the dining table.
I used to have a pet mouse that was actually just a normal mouse that had been living in our kitchen, someplace behind the oven. My mother caught it in a Tender Trap one weekend and I begged her to give it to me instead of crushing its head with a hammer and flushing it down the toilet, as she had threatened repeatedly to do. This mouse was cute, but it never got used to the fact that it now lived in a cage. It smelled bad in a feral way and wouldn’t learn to groom itself. You couldn’t play with it because it was wild, dirty, and fierce, but I used to like to press my face up to the clear plastic walls of its habitat and watch it digging furiously at the bounds, and when I did this I tried to make sure that my face showed a similarly desperate expression just so the mouse would know that it wasn’t crazy.
He was pouring a glass of wine and didn’t seem to be looking at me at all.
You have beautiful eyes, he said all of a sudden.
I hated compliments like that, compliments that carved out one particular part of your body and put it on a platter for viewing. It always took a while for me to reabsorb that body part afterwards, to add it back to the whole. The best kind of compliment to give me was something vague, plausible. You’re alright. Or, Don’t worry, it gets better.
Eh, I replied.
He handed me the glass and began saying things to me. He described his feelings on organized religion and organized sports, on organizations in general, on bodily organs (the liver was his favorite and, he felt, often overlooked), and the economics of organic fruits and vegetables. I felt invaded at first, but as he talked, I experienced a sudden swell of something calmer, more complacent. This was a feeling that he talked into me, it sunk in through the skin. It wasn’t anything in particular he had said, just the fact that he kept saying it, whether I responded or not. This ceaseless stream of talk might seem aggressive from some perspectives, something I couldn’t affect except through participation, but I felt it more like light illuminating a room, a harsh and inescapable substance that was ultimately harmless.
This feeling of lessening disturbance, coming from within myself, unexpected, was profoundly disturbing. As I sat still growing less and less alarmed by the situation, I knew that I had to move fast, move as fast and as far as I could within this small, cramped house.
Do you have a bathroom here that I could use? I asked.
You don’t need to go to the bathroom, he said. He said it like it was a fact that he had read recently, in some news article. And it was true: nothing had changed for me physically since I entered this house. I had grown no thirstier or hungrier, though my mental parts felt increasingly in flux.
What I mean to say is I have to go into the other room by myself, I said.
For what reason? he asked.
I couldn’t think of a good answer. I couldn’t tell him that I was going to look for a functional door or window that I could sneak out of without seeming ungrateful for his hospitality. I couldn’t think of a way to tell him that I wanted to get away without sounding crazy, like a person not in command of her own life choices. I couldn’t think of anything at all, really: it was so warm in here, so much warmer than it had been outside, and the air seemed a bit thicker and sweeter than usual, like watered-down honey.
I’m going to bake a cake? I said, testing this answer out.
Well, that sounds great, maybe we’ll have something to celebrate in the future, he said, winking in my general direction.
I left the room before I could figure out exactly what bothered me about his response. Was it the way it seemed to assume a future for the two of us? A future in which I would continue to be unable to leave this house? Was it the presumption that I was making a cake for him when, really, I had no idea why I was making a cake at all?
Now I was in the kitchen and I could at least rely on the task to keep me from thinking of those questions. I took cocoa, sugar, flour, salt, baking powder, vanilla extract, and butter from the various storage places of the kitchen. What was strange was that all of these things were present in the room, everything I needed, but nothing else. The fridge contained one stick of butter and four eggs, no more. The cabinets were empty except for the dry ingredients of my cake, exactly one cake’s worth. This information seemed to have a bearing on my situation, and I filed it away to think about it later.
Ever since I had been young, I had maintained a special agreement with myself wherein I was permitted to avoid thinking about whatever I wished, at that moment, to avoid thinking about, provided that I think instead about another problem that I had wished to avoid thinking about in the past. In this way, I would never be shirking my responsibilities entirely, but I also would not have to deal with the most difficult of the possible problems at
its most pressing time. At this moment, I decided that I would try thinking about the problem of reversibility and irreversibility in physical processes. Why was it true that one could stir sugar into a cup of tea, but not stir it back out? Why did living things age only in one direction, and so unfalteringly in that direction, without pauses or stops?
By exerting my own energy, I was able to combine the ingredients of this cake together in the mixing bowl. This was done freely, of my own will. Why, then, could no amount of effort or will unmix the ingredients, make them as they were before, whole and full of potential? If I could unmake this cake as neatly as I could make it, I would be able to stay here in this separate room forever, making and unmaking and never having to deal with the man in the first room who seemed to have ideas about me that I didn’t share in.
It was at this moment that I realized I had forgotten the baking soda, and without it I knew the cake would turn out wrong, though I did not know in what way, exactly.
I went back into the living room to ask him if he had any baking soda in some nook I hadn’t checked, but when I entered the room I saw him hiding something under the dining table.
What’s that? I asked.
What are you doing, trying to ruin the surprise? he responded.
I would have asked about the surprise, but I knew it would go nowhere or go somewhere I didn’t want to go. So I asked, instead, about the baking soda. He looked uneasy.
You should have everything there that you need, he said. Maybe you got the recipe wrong, he added.
I looked angry, and then I picked up one of the plates and smashed it on the floor.
It seemed as though, being the only two people in this small, closed-in space, we couldn’t help but have a relationship, and if we couldn’t help but have a relationship, I felt that it was important to be upset now so that he would not shift the blame to me in the future.
Suddenly he also looked angry, and he picked up a larger plate and smashed it near mine.
We stood there, pieces of plate scattering the ground between us. Then he spoke.
Sorry, he said.
There was nothing else I could do but say sorry myself. His apology had left a residue in me, a residue on my thinking, and continuing on in this house without saying it would be entirely awkward. It would turn the small space toxic. So I said it, though I tried to lessen the potency of the apology by mumbling.
I have something to ask you, he said.
I shifted my position to one more suitable for being asked a question. I was now curled up on the couch with my knees pressed up against my body, my knees shielding my face from seeing what was going on.
My question is, he began. I think I knew from the first time I met you that I would not be meeting another person quite like you ever again. You are unlike anyone else around here. I have not seen anyone like you in quite a while. So, should we be exclusive?
Everything seemed to be moving so fast. I had to stall.
When did we meet again? I asked.
It feels like forever ago, he said.
Wouldn’t you say that this is still part of the first time that we’ve met? I asked.
He shrugged. You’re being avoidant, he said. You probably have a history of it, he said.
I got up to go back to the kitchen and put the cake in the oven. Probably it would not go well for the cake, or for whoever tried to eat the cake. It did not look as though the cake were going to turn out particularly nice, having been made for confusing reasons and lacking certain essential ingredients. But what else was there to do? Wasn’t a terrible cake better than some terrible cake batter?
What I really wanted was to opt out of the causal relation between myself and this cake, the causal relation that I couldn’t seem to avoid, living in this house that I now appeared to live in. The proximity was changing me: I couldn’t avoid seeing or noticing things that happened in this place, and because I was the only other person around, things couldn’t help but involve themselves in me. I decided to think about the orbital motions of the moon around the earth, and of what might happen if the force of one on the other ever exceeded expectations, pulling the two uncomfortably close, causing them to crash together in a fiery and highly destructive event. But he was taking up so much space in me now, I could no longer think around him, peer around him to the shapes of things I had known before I entered this place. What had he meant by a surprise, and what had he meant by something to celebrate? How much time had elapsed in his experience, and was it really different from how much time had elapsed in mine? Or was I instead just a highly avoidant person with serious difficulties connecting to others? I didn’t want to be so difficult, but that difficulty felt like a part of me, a part that I didn’t want taken over by new features belonging to a me that did not yet exist.
I heated the oven to three hundred and fifty degrees. In this house events seemed to move unusually quickly. Would the cake still require the usual twenty-five to thirty minutes of baking? Or should I try to calculate the temporal properties of this home and scale the time appropriately?
I slid the cake into the oven and walked back into the room. I missed you, he said.
I missed you too, I said.
That sentence came as a real shock. It felt as though it were spoken from some point further down my throat than tooth or tongue or gag reflex. It felt as though it came from someplace deep within my body, from some speech organ that I had never heard of, that had never been discovered, and that probably didn’t actually exist at all.
He smiled warmly and took my hand. It felt strange at first, both colder and softer than I had expected. But when I reexamined that feeling, I found that I couldn’t remember ever having expected something else.
Now we were standing around holding hands and not much was going on. I began to think of words I had known, just for fun, just to fill up the blank space in my head. Couch, I thought. Cuisinart, I thought.
The words felt different right now than they had before. They meant a little less, held a little less, but seemed somehow fuller: I had never really noticed how much sound there was in a word. The way it filled your mouth
up with emptiness, a sort of loosened emptiness that you could tongue, an emptiness you could suck on like a stone. Stomach, I thought. Variety, I thought. Expectation. Intimation. Infiltration. Infiltration: I tongued that one further. I knew it had a hostile aspect, like someone breaking into your house or posing as someone that you should trust. But it also had a lovely sound, a kind of tapered point and a gently ruffled edge, and as I repeated it over and over in my mouth it took on a really great flavor and I thought of water filtering in and out of a piece of fabric, back and forth, moving between, soaking it and washing out, soaking in and taking with it pale tremors of color, memory, resistance, all that stuff, until I felt like one of those pieces of cloth on the television commercials that got washed with the name-brand cleanser and is now not only white, but silky and mountain-scented.
Suddenly, I remembered the cake.
I think I have to get the cake out of the oven, I told him. Hurry back, he said.
I walked across the room to the kitchen and I hoped that the cake would be okay. Certainly it wouldn’t be pretty, but hopefully it would taste like something full of butter, sugar, and cocoa, which was what it was, and how bad could that be?
In the kitchen I took the cake out of the oven with two nice new oven mitts and I carried it back over to the dining-room table. As I set it down, I noticed something written on the top in pale blue icing.
Congratulations? I read.
Congratulations for what? I asked him.
It’s your surprise, he replied. I had a very strange feeling in my stomach.
He advanced toward me holding something in his arms. As he got closer I saw that it had a face. Look who it is, he said, smiling down at me.
Who is it? I asked.
Can’t you tell? he replied.
I looked at it. It was a decently-sized baby. It didn’t look like a newborn. It didn’t look like a toddler. I couldn’t tell if it looked like me. I suppose we looked similar insofar as we were both humans, with eyes and noses in the right places. But at this stage, it was too difficult to say whether we resembled each other.
Why don’t you hold it? he said. He levered it off into my arms.
I don’t know, I said.
Just then it began to wail, and he handed me a little spoon full of mush.
Somehow I knew that if I put this food into the mouth of the baby, I would never be allowed to leave this house. But if I didn’t put the food into the baby, who would? He wouldn’t do it, and the baby was unlikely to feed itself until it was at least a week or so older. My best hope was to wait around, try to figure out how things happened here, and learn how to make time pass faster and faster until it was grown-up and ready to leave. Then maybe I could sneak out through the hole it made as it escaped.
Say something to it, he said.
As I looked at the baby, I felt nothing taking shape in mind or mouth. I had no idea what the sort of things were that somebody would say to a baby. I had no idea why anyone would say anything to a baby. I held it carefully, as one would a sack of apples. And then, with him watching me, nodding encouragingly, I began to say to it, for lack of anything else to say, all the words I had ever known, in order.
- Alexandra Kleeman