You remember your parents in the driveway, the way your mother unnecessarily adjusted her skirt at the moment you had expected applause. You think it is all your parents fault, this artlessness you carry with you. You start to hate them.
Somewhere, in a room, people are making art. Their voices are compelling and honest and strange but not too much of any of those things. Look, a woman has written a poem. In it, she uses the word sun in such a way nobody has ever used the word sun before. When you read it, you will think of the sun and of a million other things that are both sunny and not: your mother in bed nibbling on a piece of cheese, the glint on the tine of a fork, dreams within dreams, the anonymous weight of the earth that presses against you when you wake. She is titling the poem now, something both sincere and unexpected, like a scrap of fabric she found in a free box and repurposed as a curtain that makes light look both rare and expensive. Someone else in the room has made a small, difficult sculpture from Band-Aids. It is about pain, but really it is about anything except pain, which makes it more about pain than pain itself. Someone else is writing an essay about it. The essay is clear-eyed, includes an incisive glimpse into the history of Band-Aids, and considers pain as a gendered sensation. You are knocking on the door to this room. Once you are inside, you will finally say what you mean, and it will be art. You want to be in the room with the same voracious instinct that makes a dog want food. If the room were food, you would eat it until you threw up.
You are holding a hamster. You don’t know why you are holding this hamster, but you can feel the weight of its life pulling you a tiny bit harder toward the earth. That weight is a poem, you think, and you will write it once you are inside the room. You hear laughter. The people in the room are toasting to the success of their multifaceted works. A little champagne dribbled down someone’s wrist, and this makes the toast memorable. The people in the room are keenly aware of the magic potential in a mistake. The room does not have Internet, though someone has made an installation from string that invokes the idea of the Internet. People put down their champagne glasses and tangle themselves in the string, feeling the intensity of technology as a taut burning on their skins. They are still laughing. You knock harder.
Someone presses her ear against the door. She hears your knocking. It is like a stampede that rages through her body, erasing everything that came before. She thinks your knock is a work of art, a beautiful contribution to the room. Everyone can hear it now, and someone says the knocking piece is very smart. They quote D.H. Lawrence, “What is the knocking? What is the knocking at the door in the night? It is someone who wants to do us harm. No, no, it is the three strange angels. Admit them, admit them.” For a moment you think this means someone will open the door. They don’t. They start talking about what the three strange angels could be. You feel equally flattered and outraged.
You stop knocking. Now the lack of knocking impresses them. Someone mentions John Cage, the way he made silence audible. You have things you would like to say about John Cage too. You would like to tell them about the time you performed the piece 4 minutes and 33 seconds to your friends and family in your parents’ driveway when you were ten years old. You stood as still as you could, wearing a cape, thinking capes meant magic, which is what you were trying to make. A minute into the piece, your friend Katie started asking you when the music would start, and you wondered if John Cage ever had to answer questions like that. Your parents were the only ones who sat through the whole thing. They looked sympathetic and worried. You wonder if you are performing that piece right now, unknowingly, to this room full of accomplished artists. You wonder if you are finally receiving the accolades Katie never gave you when she deserted your performance to run through the sprinkler.
The chatter on the other side of the door dies down. You have arrived at the still point of silence and contemplation you had tried to achieve as a child, in your purple cape, standing underneath the basketball hoop. But then you hear snickering. You recognize this kind of laughter because it is what you used to do in the back row at church. You realize you have mistaken their silence for profound awe, when in fact it was boredom. They are no longer quoting poetry and talking about avant-garde composers. They are making crude jokes that can only be told in a whisper, and you are the butt of them. You wonder if this is the ultimate effect you have on the room, to suck the art right out of it. You wonder if this is the ultimate effect you have on the whole world. You remember your parents in the driveway, the way your mother unnecessarily adjusted her skirt at the moment you had expected applause. You think it is all your parents fault, this artlessness you carry with you. You start to hate them. You imagine the parents of the people in the room, their rows of well-curated books, their minimalist paintings. You hate them even more. You imagine all this hate growing into a wild swirling ball of energy in the palm of your hand, like you are a god creating lighting, and you think maybe you could turn this into art, but you’re not sure how, so you let the ball dissipate. You feel remorse.
You remember you have been holding a hamster this entire time, and you think of the thing Chekhov said: that if there is a gun in a story, it must be fired at some point. You think that this hamster is your gun. You say it to yourself, “this hamster is my gun” and you think it is a very good line, both strange and true. You wait for the hamster to do something, for the metaphorical firing of this metaphorical gun, but it mostly just sniffs at the air. You wonder if sniffing is enough to justify the hamster’s existence. You decide that it is. It occurs to you that if this hamster is a gun, you are a gun too: your knocking and thinking and breathing are your metaphorical bullets, even if they can’t penetrate the room.
The room feels far away now, like one of those tiny Greek islands you’ve seen on the Internet, peppered with white and blue houses that look like little dollops of cloud. You picture everyone from the room on one of those islands, daring each other to swan dive off a high cliff into the swimming pool blue water. Someone belly flops, and there is concern, but mostly laughter. The person signals they are okay with an enthusiastic wave, making a little spray of water that glints achingly in the sun. Someone thrusts his beer into the air, a little cheers meant for everyone, even God. For a moment, you think you really are on this island, standing with your friends on the high cliff, your wet bathing suit bunching around your waist because it is a half size too small. But the hamster nibbles your fingernail, and you know you’re not on the island, and that is okay. Maybe you are the island just like the hamster is the gun. You say it, “I am the island.” This doesn’t have the ring to it you’d hoped, but the basic idea is there. Maybe you are the cliff, or the little spray of water, or the beer, or the belly flop. You’ll decide later. And even if you don’t, you like thinking that you will. This thought becomes your own room, one you are happy to live in.
You like this new room, the one of your own making. It has gingham curtains and a white vase with daffodils on a wooden kitchen table. Outside, there is a wide field of tall grass that seems to go on forever. You realize your imagination has stolen this room from Little House on the Prairie, which you read as a child five times. You wanted to be Laura. You wanted to churn butter. You did churn butter once, twenty years later, at a pioneer themed party. The host poured cream and salt into baby food jars and everyone sat around a fire, shaking them. The butter wasn’t very good. It tasted like hard salted cream, which, you realized, is all that butter is. You hoped that after a couple of beers, this fresh-made butter would reveal its hidden dimensions of flavor. It didn’t. This room seems less exciting now, deflated of romance and possibility. You realize Laura didn’t have proper dental care, that she likely had one or several teeth pulled. You remember scurvy, scarlet fever, polio, death. The room feels horrific now, unheated, full of flat-tasting butter and pain. The hamster tries to burrow into your shirt, noses its head into the little hole between two buttons. You’re grateful for the hamster, that it woke you from this nightmare death-room of your own making.
The original room is quiet now. Maybe the people in it are performing 4 minutes and 33 seconds just for you. Maybe everything in the room—the Band-Aid sculpture, the poem with and without the sun, the taught web of string, even the dribbled bit of champagne—is just for you. Maybe they have been waiting for you this whole time! You fix your bangs, press the wrinkles out of your shirt with your palm. They don’t all come out, but that’s okay, you’ve done what you can. The people in the room will be forgiving. You are their guest of honor, wrinkles or not. Then you see it, a mustard stain on your sleeve. Wrinkles are one thing, but this is another. You lick your thumb and try to rub it out, but it only spreads and darkens into a shade of split-pea. You put down the hamster so you can rub with all your strength, and it scurries under the door. The small weight that was to become a poem, the furry companion that had saved you from the evil room, is gone.
You are alone with the stain. The more you rub it, the wider and darker it gets. It looks like an open mouth. You stick your index finger under the door and wait until you feel whiskers against your fingertip. Slowly, you pull your finger from under the door, hoping the hamster will follow, but it doesn’t. You are no competition for the room. The room has crackers and cheese and laughter and little bits of spilled champagne. If you were the hamster, you’d abandon yourself too. You decide this will be the first line of your poem: “If I were the hamster, I’d abandon myself too.” It’s much better than the line about the gun, you think: more vulnerable, real. You write this new line in cursive with your fingertip lightly against your sleeve, like you used to write boys names in middle school. You remember Jeff, who used to sit next to you on the school bus in eighth grade. The thought of kissing him was so forbidden you don’t even remember thinking it, but you’re sure you did, maybe while you watched him stuff a Hacky sack into his cargo shorts. Chantal would have called you a fag if she knew you were even thinking of thinking of kissing him. She had kissed J.P., which was a pretty big deal, so she had authority about these kinds of things. But you didn’t lead on. You wore flannel shirts, muted your gestures, said the most normal of normal things in Jeff’s presence, lots of yeahs and cools. Twenty years later, you got drunk and found him on Facebook. He was a ski instructor, living in a mountain town called Rhododendron, pictured with goggles hanging around his neck, holding a baby with a hook of black hair matted against her forehead. Three months with Hallie, the caption said. Looking at that photo, you felt a kind of sadness, like your whole life had been a hot air balloon, laying limply on a grassy field, filling and filling with air, and at just that moment, you had begun to float, to look down at the little houses and swimming pools you never knew were there, not knowing if you’d ever come back. You sent him a friend request. He accepted.
The stain has darkened to the color of a bruise, the kind you sometimes find on your shin, unsure of its source. You roll up your sleeves to hide it. You know the hamster will not return, nor will the chatter on the other side of the door. Maybe the room opens to a wide grassy field, and everyone is there now, petting the hamster’s head with the tips of their fingers, deciding what to name it: Marley, Christopher, Ren, Flo. You feel a sadness that is different from the hot-air balloon kind. It is denser, sharper, wild with life, like the burning tip of a needle touching the bottom of your foot, erasing your awareness of any other sensation. You remember the times as a child when, at the doctor’s office, you’d pinch yourself on your wrist at the moment the nurse gave you a shot, preferring the pain of your own making to that of another’s. Is this burning-needle-sadness the pinch or the shot? It’s a question you will answer in your poem, you think, or maybe it is a question you will only ask.