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Radical Closure
Today you try writing outside your apartment. You walk to a small neighborhood café, order an iced coffee, and take a seat at one of the wrought-iron tables on the covered deck. You can tell at once that it is not an ideal writing space: there are no power outlets, and the conversations at the tables around you are loud. But earlier, when you made the decision to come here, you reasoned that you would be more productive in a public space. Above all else, you told yourself, you had to get out of the apartment. For the past few days you had locked yourself inside, and you had not written a single word. Now the apartment was too haunted by your failures—too haunted, in a word, by self-hatred—and you already knew how a work session would progress at your desk. After opening your laptop to the blank document, you would stare at the screen for hours, possessed by the same thoughts that you had been thinking every day. Idiot, you would think. Failure. These were the thoughts that haunted your apartment. You could not sit down at your desk without thinking them. Just as a ghost, you imagine, must repeat its dying words for eternity, so too were you doomed to repeat these thoughts. It was as if some part of you had died at your desk, and now you were the ghost of that moment. If you tried writing there today, you knew, your mind would simply pick up where it left off yesterday: caught like a specter inside this eternal loop or hesternal circuit. No, the apartment was out of the question. Whereas the café, you told yourself, was an unhabituated space: you had never worked there before, had never developed any previous patterns of thought, positive or negative, and so it was possible that the shock of its novelty would defamiliarize the blank document, allowing you to write at least one paragraph. And even if you failed to write, you reasoned, it might be refreshing to fail in new surroundings. You had to get out of the apartment. You had to leave that suffocating structure behind. But now—as you open your laptop to the blank document and take the first sip from your glass of iced coffee—you understand that you have left nothing behind. Idiot, you think. Failure. The self-hatred is as strong here as ever. You are thinking the exact same thoughts here as you would have been thinking at your desk. And so it is as if, you reflect, some part of you still is at your desk. As if, while your body is at the café, your mind has remained behind in the apartment. Thinking its apartment thoughts. You should have known that it would not be so easy to escape. Your mistake lay in conflating the apartment with its physical dimensions: its walls and hallways, the thousand square feet that it occupies in space. In addition to these, you realize, the apartment must possess something like psychological dimensions, a state of mind that you generate around yourself. Over and above the apartment structure is the apartment construct, a zone of influence or domed logic which, encompassing your body, follows you wherever you go. Looked at in this way, it is less that the apartment is haunted than that you are haunted by the apartment. For from the point of view of a ghost, that is precisely what haunting means: while a mortal tenant is free to leave at any time, a ghost is bound to the premises eternally. Even if the house is demolished, the ghost will go on haunting its grounds. And if a skyscraper is built in its place, the ghost will haunt the skyscraper, wandering down its hallways and its stairwells as if they are its house. Transpose the ghost’s bones to a new burial ground, on the opposite side of the world, and it will persist in haunting its new graveyard, behaving in all things—in all places—as if it is still inside its house. The house is its haunt, which means that it is haunted by the house. Everywhere it goes is the house. Even when crossing a misty field, or a hotel lobby, the ghost is still walking down the hardwood hallway that it died in: all it sees are the fringed rugs beneath its feet, the crystal chandeliers above it. While the physical structure of the mansion may have burned to the ground centuries ago, the mental structure lives on as a spectral projection. Wherever the ghost finds itself, this bygone mansion’s hallways and chambers will radiate out from its regenerating body, like a system of hardwood starfish arms. That is how things stand with you and the apartment. Recalling now the lightness you felt this morning, as you stepped out into the sunshine and locked the front door behind you, you are filled with disgust. You were a fool. It was no use fleeing the physical apartment when you were still immured in the mental apartment. Exiting the physical front door brought you no nearer the mental front door. Every block you walked toward the café—every step you took away from the physical hallways—only led you deeper into the maze of the mental hallways. And at the end of the day, whenever you leave the café, the five blocks you will have to walk back to your physical apartment—the half-mile of oak-shaded concrete leading straight to the physical apartment—will all still be inside the mental apartment. You can never breach those mental walls. That is the true philosophical paradox: not how you can travel from point A to point B without first traversing a spatial infinity, bridging all the subdivisible points between them; but rather, how you can travel from mind A to mind B without first traversing a psychological infinity. Leaving the apartment in one frame of mind, how could you ever arrive at a new one? Between what you are thinking now and what you would like to think, there are a billion thoughts—a billion iterations of Idiot and Failure—that you first have to pass through. You begin gulping the iced coffee, stifling the urge to flee the café. There is nowhere you can go. Even if you went to the farthest library, you would still be trapped in your apartment consciousness. Even if you boarded a plane to fly across the country—across the world—you would manage to transform the passenger cabin into your apartment. You experience a fleeting vision of yourself on the moon, sitting cross-legged with your laptop alone in that white wasteland, and it is an image not of escape but of imprisonment. Even there, you understand, you would be in your apartment: the moment you set foot on its lunar surface, it would become an apartment moon, a one-bedroom moon, its cratered landscape carpeted over with your apartment’s carpet. No, you think, finishing the iced coffee and drumming one foot against the deck. The moon is not far enough because nowhere is far enough. There is no minimum physical distance you can travel that will suffice to access an outside. There is no apartness from your apartment now. Everywhere is your apartment. The apartment is involute, endless, all perimeter: a kind of radical closure. Even when you are outside it, you are inside it, because it is inside you. You have internalized its thousand square feet of space, and now, wherever you go, you are there. The bedroom. The living room. The kitchen. Like any ghost, haunted by this space that you died in, you are halfway between a hermit crab and a hologram: the apartment is both the shell you carry around yourself and the spectral image you project onto all your surroundings. Your heart starts pounding at this thought, and you look around you at the café courtyard, at this so-called café courtyard. Darting your eyes from left to right, you survey the scene for any evidence that you have actually left your apartment. There are other patrons sitting at the wrought-iron tables, lifting white demitasses from white dishes; there is a finch perched on the splintered banister, regarding you with an eye as impassive and black as a security camera; there is a grass-green anole crawling across one of the planks of the deck, its head raised as if tracking prey; there are ashtrays; there are palm trees and chairs, dead leaves on the ground, you are to all outward appearances sitting in the courtyard of a neighborhood café, but still, nevertheless, you can just make out—flickering transparently over everything—the image of your bed, your desk, your bookcase. You never left, you think, pushing the empty glass away from you. You never succeeded—not even for a second—in getting out from under the ceiling of your apartment. It will always be like this, you think. It will always be like this. As if in despair, your laptop screen goes dark with sleep, and you do not move a finger to the keyboard to wake it. You stare beyond the dull screen, down to the deck, where the anole is still crawling forward, making slow progress. It looks from left to right guiltily as it advances. It seems to be heading for a dead leaf lying a few feet away: the deck is littered with crisp brown discards from the vines threading the trellis overhead, and you watch as the lizard closes in on—then crawls on top of—this one. Its toes grip the papery surface. Once it has established its fourfold foothold it pauses, standing perfectly still. Its body tenses, as if every pore in its pebbled skin were a straining ear, listening. And then that green skin begins to fade. For a moment you assume that a shadow has passed over its body, the way that the air will dim when a cloud crosses the sun. But soon you see that the lizard is changing colors: its skin yellows at first, then descends through gradations of brown, until finally—after having slowly darkened through bark tones and the pale beige of wood chips—it reaches the exact same shade as the leaf. In the space of a few seconds, the lizard has traversed the color spectrum of two seasons: it has crossed that chromatophoric infinity, passing from green to brown just as—in the preceding months—the leaf had. The lizard has synthesized September in its skin. You cannot stop staring at the lizard. Was that what your brain looked like, you wonder, as it learned to mimic the mental apartment? While you sat perfectly still at your desk, did your brain embrown like this, blending gradually with its surroundings, flushing itself with darker and darker thoughts until, in the end, you could barely distinguish your apartment-colored consciousness from your apartment? The lizard, too, has grown indistinguishable. You can still make it out on the leaf, but you know that if you had not been watching this entire time—if you had just arrived in the courtyard and glanced down at the deck—your gaze would have swept across the floor without registering it. It has merged that completely with the dead leaf. Its body has all but disappeared into the deadness, grown invisible against a background of brown decay. It is, you imagine, a form of ontological camouflage, no different from a possum’s playing dead. The anole is disguising itself from predators by absenting itself altogether from the world of predators and prey, of beings and being, retreating instead into the nonbeing beneath the leaf. Maybe, you imagine, that is why it had to pause there so long, with such concentration: maybe it had to draw the death out of the leaf, absorbing autumnal energies into its body, growing brown from this bloodmeal the way that a mosquito’s belly will redden as it drinks. By standing on the leaf, you think, the lizard is drilling down into death. The leaf is just the visible vein of that invisible world. And at this thought you suddenly want—you do not know how—to warn the lizard. Do not do that, you want to tell it. Do anything but that. For you know, as the reptile does not, what the price of entering a radical closure is. Like a ghost in its house, or like you in your apartment, the lizard will soon become an eternal tenant: having partaken of the death of the leaf and therefore died before dying on the leaf—having entered, even for a second, the brown house of the leaf—the lizard will never be able to leave. Everywhere it goes, it will still be deep inside it. Indeed, even as you are thinking this—even as you drum your foot hard against the deck, to scare the lizard away—you see that it is already too late. For although the lizard does scurry across the deck in fear, its body remains exactly as brown as before, retaining the leaf’s shade: its body has left the leaf—all four feet have departed from its surface—but its mind remains behind, still enmeshed in that brown logic. Every cell of its skin still thinking leaf thoughts. You watch it dart off the deck and disappear into the shrubs beyond, where, surrounded by green grasses, its brown body will prove a liability, a provocation of conspicuity to the birds that prey in the courtyard, perhaps even to the finch that, you see now, has vanished from the banister. Yes. The lizard is still inside the leaf, and it may very well die there: while trapped beneath the finch’s talons, you imagine, while being crushed in the bird’s beak, the brown lizard will still be inside the brown leaf. Not even death is an escape, you think, rising from the table and packing your laptop back into your bag. Exiting the courtyard, you begin the long walk back to your apartment. Not even death is an outside for the dead.

Bennett Sims is the author of the novel A Questionable Shape, which received the Bard Fiction Prize, and the collection White Dialogues (both Two Dollar Radio). He is a recipient of the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome and teaches fiction at the University of Iowa.