Traveler in Residence

By

In the kitchen, I tentatively press fingers on convection oven top and turn the knob gently, not anticipating the stream that rushes after the third gradated handle pull; I turn it off in fear—of being found out, of someone hearing—my actions and movements tentative, until I reach a breaking point hours after having moved into a new house.

Recently, I had to find a new rental room for the umpteenth time—this instance unusual: due to a failed romance. I’d gone through all the panic and anxieties that people face when trying to find a place in Dublin, with some of my own added shortcomings: lack of money, lack of bank account, being a foreigner, finding the idea of sharing with strangers inhibiting. The overarching problem of scarce housing in this country, in the UK, and all over the world seems minuscule compared to my anxiety around frying an egg at this moment without being found out.

The morning after I moved in, I walked to the vintage market and bought a wooden bracket, normally reserved for jewelry, where I placed bits of a rowan bush, yellow leaves, and conkers—objets trouvés—to bring the world in, to inhabit the new room without claiming it: breaching the threshold of nature. Bringing inside all the bits of myself which might have fallen off in the search for housing, or which were left behind in my previous rooms.

Once, during a half-asleep internet grazing, I came across a 2017 Paris Review article by David Ramsey entitled “Warp and Woof.” He writes about a difficult year of transition in which he and his wife cleared out his parents’ home in order to relocate them to a smaller apartment due to their failing health. Engaging in a “curation and restoration of what amounted to a private museum,” Ramsey listened to an eclectic, streamable radio program called Chances with Wolves: an endearing mix of lost-and-found songs of various genres with a few wolf howls, distortions, and stories melded in. He found the whirring and exploratory accompaniment apposite to his labor, as well as to his own penchant for listening to music in solitude.

Ramsey’s music of labor conducts his (re)moving: the inhabitants relocated from their home, uprooted by a shift from health to deterioration; at the same time he carves out a listening space specifically in tune with his working rhythm—a playlist curated for him. The workspace itself becomes transitory in a year of transition. It brings to mind the lectores of (mostly) Cuban cigar factories where each day, a different employee would be designated to read aloud to the working masses.

Now, I often listen to Chances with Wolves myself while doing jobs like cleaning, typing up handwritten paragraphs, or going for a walk. The last time I listened, I sat in my former room planning out an audiovisual project, listening to the DJs’ brilliant French music special. Along with the migration of the objects in Ramsey’s family home, of my belongings from rental room to rental room, the songs themselves are migratory: Western ballads covered by African jazz musicians, American rockabilly classics translated into hip French tunes—sonic transmissions from the whimsical Brooklyn DJs to Ramsey in Nashville, to my (re)movings in Ireland.

Of course, rooms are there for us to sit and wait in—the very conditions that make anxiety and depression hardest to quell. I often think of Perec and Queysanne’s The Man Who Sleeps, a film that gyrates splendidly with precise boredom around Kafka’s axiom about sitting and waiting at one’s desk for the world to unfold, though the movie’s protagonist prefers to do his waiting in bed, as I do. In this repose of sitting and waiting, I am in fact communicating with the room, specifically communicating this great, untrammeled fear. I lie in bed and wait while the room grows its own consciousness by dint of my communication; it turns into my witness, watching my fear grow as I watch the world unfurl. At some point, it becomes unclear whether the room is the cause of my fear or whether, by sitting still, I have transmitted my fear into the room.

This is why the very act of being in a room can unsettle the imagination. In Colette’s short story “The Rainy Moon,” the narrator comes to the realization that her secretary is living in her old Paris haunt. The secretary’s sad, fettered sister is shut up in Colette’s old bedroom.

A kind of meditative trance surrounds Colette’s story as well, particularly the fixation on a room’s physicality. She writes of sporadic visits to the old flat, hoping to make the acquaintance of Delia, the sister. The eponymous moon is a rainbow-fixed apparition on the wall which transfixes Colette, binding her old and new self together physically and emblematically. This spectral invocation converges Delia’s present unhappiness about a mysterious man and Colette’s past despair.

Strange things begin to happen; the secretary is often seen crying, Delia becomes ill, Colette witnesses Delia handling her beloved knitting needles in a sinister way, and the rainy moon becomes ominous. Colette assumes the apparition is a warning that the room is somehow cursed and responsible for the trauma of its inhabitants and all who come into contact with them.

As in the case of Delia, rooms can imitate or even enhance inner misgivings that turn into conjuring, until the habitant lives in a paralyzed reality, broken superficially only when carrying the room-consciousness outside. Colette befriends Delia precisely because she is safe from having to make any confidences to her, this reticent person—she can simply observe Delia’s sadness. Inexorably, Colette’s past returns, and her presence is taken over by her “hidden past [which] climbed the familiar stairs with [her], sat secretly beside Delia, rearranged furniture on its old plan, revived the colors of the ‘rainy moon’ and sharpened a weapon once used against [herself].” There is a perverse curiosity in Colette befriending Delia in order to embroil herself in the woman’s nefarious doings while Colette is going through her own unhappy period. As if a past unhappiness obviates a present one.

When leaving a room, its consciousness follows one into the outside world until the atmosphere and the people one sees become a kind of curtained domicile where the inhabitant can transfer their reified thoughts and inner conjuring. A transference of consciousness. Colette witnesses Delia do this in the market and the reader is unsure as to whether the room has conjured up Delia’s illness or Delia has bewitched the room—just as I cannot deduce if I’m the culprit of my room anxiety—making herself ill in the process.

I live with others, as in, I share common spaces with other tenants, but I live alone and don’t have visitors, so there are no spectators to the way I live. Today, we live cordoned off in our quarters in a seismic way, making intimacy impossible and the idea of it unbearable.

The title of Mina Loy’s short story “The Agony of a Partition” is a good name for this reality of lived existence: “agony,” succinct in rendering the violent truth surrounding the partitions of modern Irish house sharing. But such dolor can be amusing when it lacks an audience, or when the audience is yourself inside your own walls—you will the amusement into existence. At least being inside saves you from an angst-ridden non-being; at least the walls enmesh you into a mediated immediacy, so you can think of your life outside this room as a kind of memory. Were I to leave my partition, engage with housemates or people on the street, I might transfer the room’s sinister effect on me onto others, just as Delia carried the room’s wickedness with her everywhere she went.

In the interval between leaving my old room and finding my new one, I hopped from house to house, subletting and cat-sitting while friends and acquaintances traveled abroad. I carried my bags down unfamiliar streets in a city where I’d been living for over three years.

One Sunday, I awake in a temporary lodging and, coast clear to the kitchen, I rush to make coffee in the haze of a day apportioned to lethargy and depression. One of my housemates, groggy from a night out, leads me to the back garden where a robin fledgling, something telluric protruding from its face, falters halfway up the garden wall and tumbles back down. The housemate is on the phone to his father who says it’s probably a wounded runt and there’s nothing we can do. I, in turn, sense the potential of moving from an afternoon of non-doing into a cosmically regal experience, and somewhat driven by the poetic prospect of clemency towards a wounded garden bird, ring my friend who knows about wounded animals. She says I ought to put it in a box with holes and bring it to her place for further inspection.

The bird chirps and shudders in his temporary room—a Lyons Tea carton from which I contemplate him like Godzilla. As I walk to my friend’s place, I urge myself to shed my mental mottling, urge the bird to sublimate my condition, and hold up the box as a mirror/gift to this temporary state of unease and pain. How gauche! His legs clattering on the cardboard punctuate my steps into happiness.

I walk from my temporary digs near Constitution Hill to a place near Sean McDermott Street, oddly near the first house where I rented a room when I arrived in Ireland. I call on my friend in her own temporary accommodation and we talk about the trials of our respective rootlessness: submerging into our new neighborhoods to know them and emerging into our flats to disentangle the self from this knowledge. When she tells me about her struggles, I apologize that I haven’t gotten in touch sooner, but what luck that the wounded bird brought us together.

I spew out everything that’s happened to me over the past few months, in my little ancient mariner syndrome, watching various bits of light trickle into the walls in tandem with the birdsong, the weightlessness of other rooms inhabiting the consciousness of this one. I am in abeyance until I have to return to the nothingness of my own room, a virile condition if you’re a traveler in residence like myself.

When I meet my ex-partner for coffee, I tell him very little news about myself but go into minute details about my new room: its proximity to green spaces and work, the things I’ve bought for decorating. He can be witness to the transformation of my old self into the renting self, neither of which he is very familiar with. Now that we no longer live together, I defer to my ex with generosity and make criticisms with good humor and camaraderie. My anxiety diminishes; he is no longer a witness to my fearful self who agonized in our shared room, and is in no danger of witnessing my room disturbances like Colette witnessed Delia’s.

At this point, in our mutually removed intimacy, I can easily imagine us living together again, even come to desire it without the fear my desires usually inhabit; or, with equal equanimity, I can imagine myself living in a room alone for the rest of my life—parallel life stories, both scenarios equal to me now in estimation and worth.

Nowadays, I make a daily effort to clean up after myself because I’m scared of the wrath of my cohabitants and landlady, and feel as if I’m betraying my true slothful self. Magazines and newspapers are full of articles on the positive mental health effects of cleaning and keeping busy. But if Delia had done a bit more cleaning instead of staring at the rainy moon, there’d be no story.

This sort of life won’t last very long, I think; when I have finally become whole, the scraps of myself that I’ve left behind will converge like hair being swept up on a salon floor and I will mount the foundations of myself, slightly worse for wear, melding into a softened whole.

Then a light turns on and a panic sets in, like noise: unassailable, unnameable.

***

Rumpus original art by Lizz Ehrenpreis.


Jona Xhepa lives in the Balkans and is working on a short story collection. More from this author →