She dwells in the house she built for the two of them, after he said they will not cohabitate. The house is a maze of rooms that lead to a tower. It is filled with rainbows and forget-me-nots. There is a misty room which dries tears, and a long hall of little puddles of light where their thoughts and ideas play the game of relay, filling the house with twinkles of laughter. There is happiness in collecting them. In the middle of the tower is a couch. It is elegant, the color of a pale olive. When she dives in it, she imagines him daydreaming of her enclosed in the couch’s softness, a cup of her morning coffee in the hand, courtesy of his love. In the house he is always there, and she throws herself into the enchanting solace of his embrace. He is her hero.
In her actual house she is in bed. The early afternoon has the hue of night. Rain hangs vertically out of unremitting clouds like loosened fibers out of ripped fabric. She fixes her eyes on the reddened tiles of the roof across and stares for a long time, waiting for the world to move. Her pet-bird is locked away in a cage. An hour ago, he said he would be here, bringing prescription painkillers she didn’t have. She ran out of them when the insomnia hit, a couple of months ago. The analgesic effect, she read somewhere, was good for the aching heart. It didn’t work on her and she didn’t bother to renew the supply. Instead, she grew a cyst on her ovary. It got so big that she worried he will not find room inside her and would stop coming altogether. The cyst, she decided, was to be drained. Now her guts are pulsing with pain. Leaving the hospital, she purposely did not to stop at the pharmacy. She has developed a habit of banking the requests to which he can’t say no.
Threefifteentwentythreethirtytwo. Is she seeing right the digits on her electronic clock? He is delayed, he messaged, with no specifics. The pharmacy is on his list, however. She doesn’t dare to ask: he might construe her question as an imposition. There are things to take care of, her turn will come, she just needs to be patient. She told him about the operation when he called the previous night. ‘What time?’ he asked. ‘Ten in the morning,’ she answered. ‘I will be sleeping then,’ he said, his rest not negotiable. Her heart drained of blood. The surge rushed towards her imaginary house with uncontrolled ferociousness. The house tremored. Worried that it might collapse, she tried to stop the trembling. ‘I know. No worries. I asked a friend to pick me up,’ she said. The archway that led to the house fell anyway. She felt a pang of panic.
In the imaginary house live all kinds of creatures born of their conversations, touches and penetrations. Some of them do not have bodies but still can be stroked lightly to release softness, healing all kinds of love maladies. Others are just a mouth, red and juicy. They make her body quiver. The creatures don’t stay with her forever but come and go, new and old ones intermingle. Once upon a time, there lived magic caterpillars that could crawl through her eye sockets and ear canals straight to her heart, where they nested. They appeared when he spoke — of her being the one. At first, she was terrified and wanted the caterpillars out, but then the silky cocoons released butterflies into her stomach and she agreed to their residence. Now her vision darkens when she thinks what will become of them if more of the house collapses.
In her actual house he sits on her bed a distance away, a crumple of a blanket and a sheet between them. Stubble covers his chin. He doesn’t shave when he comes over. There are flecks of white in it. She thinks how frequently he now complains about greying. In cheery voice he speaks about his plans for the weekend, the next week, the week after. He will finish writing a code, start on a report, clean his place, take his daughter to the dentist. He is glad the holidays are close — he will have time for his carpentry, for trying out a new recipe in the kitchen. He doesn’t offer to cook for her or bring her a meal. He asks if the bird bothers her. The bird, deprived of her body, is in a frenzy. Filled with raw energy and unbridled affection, the creature always torments her with loud screeches, erratic bites, refusing to leave her body, to detach. While loudly objecting to this, she secretly finds comfort in its animalistic clinging.
She looks at him and sees his emptied eyes, her presence eliminated from his projected dreams, his game plans, his life arrangements. She is no longer aware which of her organs hurts. She wants to shout out her memories of promises he made. She softly asks if he remembers: they had a plan, an island to assail with their naked bodies, a city to run ragged with explorations. He’s pauses, hesitant, then he consents. He might do one of the two things with her, no, maybe one-and-a-half, but fine, perhaps, a little extra.
Another shockwave goes off and the imaginary house takes a hit. A hallway collapses, blocking the entrance to the room of care. In that room lived their souls sheltered from egos. Climate control in it was set to innocence, and the souls frolicked frequently in the shower of attentiveness. Recently, the spigot malfunctioned, but they neglected fixing it. Instead of a jet, attentiveness began to dribble, then stopped. She listens to the souls tear at the wall, and weeps silently. She will abandon them in their blockaded chamber.
Not long ago, during a sunset by a lake, he asked her to see him less. He wanted her to become a rarefied appearance in his life, an unexpected accommodation — and let his other muse entertain his genitals. That night, under the stars, he skinned her alive, then looked at the pinkish mess of capillaries laying before him and panicked. He tried patching what he could. In his confusion, he used her words and feelings as his own. ‘I love you’, she whispered; ‘I love you too’, he echoed. ‘I do not want this to be over’, she sobbed. ‘I don’t either’, he recited. ‘I take you as you are’. He copy-pasted her thoughts and hit ‘reply’ on his heart’s keyboard. Desperate, she kept still, uttered nothing, waited for a sound to come from him. He did not speak.
While building the house, she placed it somewhere between her ribs and lungs. The house gave her breath and made her chest expand. Now, she regrets the choice. Toxic dust from the crumbling house floods her air pipes. The flow of disheartened conversations between them pollutes her veins and arteries. No emotions, no doubts are shared. The world is no longer viewed through the optics of their collaborating eyes. He scaled her down until she was small enough to occupy a mere corner in his existence. He, on the other hand, grew large enough to populate eight nights of her week, each filled with loneliness.
In the imaginary house there is a room of mirrors. When she asked the mirror-smith, he told her that no truth-speaking mirror may ever be created, that beauty or deformity is always in the beholder’s eye. At first, when she entered the room, she saw herself encircled in a shining hallo of inspiration, her levitating self articulated beyond its limits. Then, one day, when staring at her reflection, she saw her body losing its contours. A smudge replaced her mouth. She hurried to another mirror for a restored image. A harpy stared back at her from it, picking bloodied bits off something that looked like a plucked bird. She ran away in horror to never return.
His allotted time with her is now over. He leaves her in the bed and softly closes the entrance door behind him. Not even a turn of the head. She stays and trudges wearily among the remnants of her imaginary house. The forget-me-nots are gone, and the floors and walls overtaken by weeds and poison ivy. The golden light is clouded over and no longer lends its hue to the tower’s dome. The silver laughter is now terrifying moans. The mirrors are muted and reflect not contours but shadows devoid of contrast. Not long ago she found porcupine’s prickles in her bed and spotted a dragon wing hiding under the couch. On the couch where she used to sit, she noticed a blob of cancerous flesh, small at first. Soon it grew gigantic and squeezed her and her flock of softies out of the tower.
She leaves the house and locks the door with a barrel key. She holds the key and walks slowly to the sunset lake. There, she scrapes herself carefully into the barrel. When she is done and all of her is inside, she drops the key into black waters. She leaves no forwarding address.
Without Helen Faller, Liena Gurevich, Nitsan Chorev and Julia Loktev and their encouragement and care, all of this would remain in the solitary confinement of my imagination.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR & ARTIST
Olga Sezneva is a sociologist, writer and art curator currently teaching at the University of Amsterdam. She dedicated much of her work to unraveling the complexity of history, geography and culture in transferred territories and divided cities.
Susan Ossman is the author of several books, most recently Shifting Worlds, Shaping Fieldwork, a Memoir of Anthropology and Art (Routledge 2021) and the director of The Moving Matters Traveling Workshop art/scholarship collective. Her artwork has been exhibited across Europe and the US. She teaches anthropology and global studies at the University of California, Riverside.