The empty corridor with its phallic lights. Absolutely nothing. Children’s laughter from somewhere nearby, so unexpected that I follow the sound. It’s behind one of these doors. I kneel down, my ear by the keyhole, the laughter louder, inviting me in. I rise from my knees and enter. The room is empty: a table, a couple of chairs, some ambiguous equipment in the corner, and a tape deck on the table, the hourglass with a tape inside.
Left you there in your bed, only to wander around this gloomy building forcing myself to worry about you, concerned with the need to force myself. Why laughter? Who could have known I would be passing by?
Smooth and silent, the door closes behind me. The empty corridor; the sound softer and softer. Can I still hear it, or is it just a leftover in my ears?
The elevator, an exaggerated coffin. I sit in the corner, my back against the wall. The door closes, cutting me off from the world. Instructions on the walls warn against safety violations, none applicable to my behavior. My eyes close. The elevator shrinks, earth’s atmosphere greedily swallowing ten feet in diagonal. Then a hiss—the door opens. A nurse. She doesn’t even look in my direction – she pushes a button and stares at the wall.
Another floor. She walks out without acknowledging my presence. Am I so accustomed to my unimportance that I’ve become transparent?
Two nurses push in a cart, something covered with a sheet. A folded corner exposes a pale foot. It hangs across from my face. In a few days you may occupy this cart. I reject these thoughts. They don’t work anyway, don’t make it any harder, any more painful.
Alone again, I rise from the floor, push the button. The door disappears. I walk out.
Corridors, all one corridor. The floor plans must be identical, the only difference is in the number on the wall across from the elevator. What if someone stole the numbers? My meandering path leads me to the lobby—a door onto the street, abandoned as completely as the corridors. Maybe everyone is transparent today? I choose a random direction. My first encounter: a bum sleeping on the pavement. He is very still. I can’t bring myself to check if he’s still alive.
Several more blocks. Buildings, buildings, buildings. You are the only connection I have left, waiting behind the door I closed half an hour or a year ago. You are there, in your selfish coma, deciding whether to die or to remain living, ready or unprepared to be part of my life, or someone else’s.
Then—laughter, through an open window. I knock. I expect the house to be abandoned like the room with the tape deck, but a tall, confident woman opens. She steps aside, letting me in. I enter a festive room with a group of people at the table. Food and drink abound on the white cloth. Kind faces welcome me. I take the only empty chair.
“It’s his birthday.” The woman points at a middle-aged man with an assured, caring expression.
“Happy birthday!” I offer.
He just nods three times, clears his throat.
“Are you familiar with the tale of the saint and the beauty?”
“A saint and a beauty are making love in the garden. Suddenly the dog appears.
What are you doing here? Don’t you know this is Its Majesty’s garden?
Yes, replies the saint. But we are not doing any harm, are we?
Who are you?
I’m a saint.
I’m a beauty. And you?
I’m a dog. I guard this garden. And I know that beauty and sainthood are incompatible.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Why? ask the saint and the beauty.
Why? repeats the dog. Do you know the tale of the man who heard laughter?
The saint and the beauty shake their heads.
A man left a hospital ward, closed the door behind him, headed down the corridor. Then he heard laughter. He didn’t know where it was coming from.”
I jump from my chair, interrupting the tale.
“Won’t you stay?” the man asks. “For my birthday’s sake? We have much to discuss.”
“I can’t. I must go.”
“Don’t you want to know how it ends?”
“No, I don’t. Not yet.”
I bow to everyone, hoping to be forgiven. The hostess rises to see me out.
“It will be okay,” she promises at the door, her face warm, kind.
The labyrinth of streets, but in the opposite direction, as though my former route were marked, a thick red line on the pavement. Buildings, buildings, buildings. The hospital, a symmetrical facade, so familiar after these weeks. I hurry. I reach the elevator—almost running now, the building abandoned, not a soul inside. I press the button.
Maybe it’s not too late yet, maybe you are still alive? What if I’m not quite so indifferent after all? The door opens, the same two with the same cart, a foot sticking out from under the sheet. It could be yours. I’m afraid to look. I barely fit between the elevator wall and the cart.
The corridor, so itself. Faster, faster; visiting hours are long over, even the untimely ones. It’s not about visiting anymore—it’s something entirely different, and there’s no need to open the door and check. To open the door, to find oneself behind the door opened by another. I turn the handle, pull, instantly increasing the volume. The children are here this time! They turn to face me, they welcome me, they laugh with me.
“Now do you understand why?” the dog says, and the children keep laughing while I walk in and carefully close the door behind me—after all, it’s a hospital; the laughter could disturb someone. I take a step, another step in their direction, my hands extended before me as if I were expecting a present. My shadow falls on their bodies in a peculiar way, but it must be the lights, yes, the lights.
I make another step, then another, and one more, until my fingers touch the screen.