I was at a wooden entry door. As far as I recall, I didn’t notice the structure around it at the time, except to take in the fact that the door was set into an outer wall. In other words, it was ostensibly an ordinary entrance into a building of some kind. Suitably enough, there was nothing ornate or colorful about it: it was just a plain slab of wood stained a dull brown. And it was slightly ajar, with no one standing either inside or outside. No one except myself.
I hesitated. Even if the door had been left open intentionally, this didn’t necessarily mean that it was all right for a random passerby to open it wider. On the other hand, if it had been left open by accident when someone rushed out to deal with a crisis of some kind, this didn’t necessarily mean that closing the door would be a good idea. It might lock automatically and the keys might be inside. But what if the door had blown or otherwise been forced open, and no one knew about it yet? What if a violent intruder had gotten inside and was about to attack someone—or had already done so? In which case I should do something about it—like running as fast as I could for help.
First I knocked on the door—lightly, to avoid inadvertently pushing it open farther. There was no response.
Perhaps my knock had been inaudible. Holding onto the doorknob and sticking my foot against the door to keep it steady, I knocked louder. Still no response.
Now I called out, “Hello? Anyone home?” Still nothing, as far as I could tell.
How could I turn away without finding out if someone inside did need help?
Pushing the door open farther and peering inside, I saw that, at least from the doorway, the rooms were laid out just as they are at home, and, walking into and through them, I discovered that they were also apparently furnished with my things: at least they seemed to be the same tables, bookcases, chairs, couch, clocks, radio and stereo equipment (I heard familiar music playing), lamps, vases, bedroom furniture, and, on the walls and shelves, pictures (photographs, art reproductions, a few paintings by friends) that I’ve collected.
It’s of course possible that I had stepped into a replica—though I can’t imagine why anyone would bother to copy something so unremarkable (except to me, for its connections to my life). Or was someone trying, by deliberately recreating what I’ve done haphazardly, to find and understand the coherence in an insistently private life? Or perhaps not to understand but to mock it?
But I didn’t remember having invited anyone to stay here during my absence—I never know how long my absences are, if they even take any time at all in the ordinary world (no one ever seems to have missed me when I return). It seemed likelier that someone had moved in while I was away, and not knowing when I would return, had left my things just as they were.
But despite the evident sameness—everything in its usual spot, as far as I could tell—the place radiated an unfamiliar atmosphere that confused me. Perhaps it was the shock of returning when I hadn’t planned to, so that I had failed to make whatever adjustment I make before crossing the threshold at the usual times.
Or maybe I was imagining things and the stuff only looked like mine because the new occupant and I happened to have similar tastes. How many of my things are unique, after all? Not having telescopic vision, I was only assuming that the photographs on the opposite side of the room were of my relatives and not another family and that the books on the shelves were mine.
Despite my not understanding what was going on, I felt—wisely or not—that I was still in possession, which meant that I was free to poke around quite confidently, though with some minimal cautiousness.
Continuing to call out as I went, I opened closet doors and looked behind the couch and under the desk and the dresser. Wherever I looked, I found more of what seemed to be my belongings—more than I remembered having accumulated. This may simply be because I was getting a fresh view after being away. Or else I was in fact mistaking someone else’s things for my own. They didn’t even have to be identical: since I seldom pay full attention to furnishings and clothes or food and drink, I could easily be mistaken.
Maybe the place itself had traveled in my absence. This would account for my having come upon it so unexpectedly. And after all, why should it be any more anchored than the buildings and mountains that I have seen hovering near the path in the park? Why shouldn’t it be as restless as I am and go looking for more favorable surroundings—and perhaps for occupants that it would prefer to me?
Or had it come looking for me because I had been away longer than usual (if this was in fact the case)?
There was an unfinished crossword puzzle in the bathroom (one of my preferred locations for problem solving), a half-empty coffee mug, still warm, and a half-eaten orange, not yet dried up, on my desk—assuming that it was in fact mine. And the laptop computer was open, with its various lights on and its screen displaying a page on which the word Wednesday (underlined) had been typed in the upper left, followed by a long dash and, under these, the words “I was on a dirt path that cut across the grass between a paved walkway and the narrow river snaking its way—” I didn’t remember putting this down or being interrupted while I was at my desk, and as far as I recall, I always put down the whole date (as though it tells me much) when I write in my journal, but of course I might have stopped myself, might suddenly have set out without noticing that I had come to such a decision. But then again: the other occupant of this place might be responsible for the unfinished page and it was simply another coincidence that our experiences were so similar. After all, why should I think that my actions—walking, writing about it—can’t just as easily be performed by other people?
In the kitchen, the refrigerator was well-stocked with the kind of food that I keep on hand, and there were dishes drying in the drainer next to the sink.
I went through the rooms several times, looking and listening for I didn’t know what—more similarities? striking differences? someone waiting for me to finish and be ready to talk? Once I did hear a sound that I couldn’t instantly identify, and it startled me, reminding me that someone else really might be here, perhaps making sure always to be in a room that I had already left. But then I saw a venetian blind stirring in the breeze, bumping against the window pane.
Anyone who was here might be quite hostile, for, unannounced, I could certainly be considered an intruder by any tenant who had moved in with the understanding that the place was vacant. Or by the person who rightfully lived here, if “here” wasn’t where I thought it was—was only a place that resembled mine. Of course I could try to explain, perhaps as I was backing out of the door, that I hadn’t planned to intrude: “I thought I was home,” I would say, if I had a chance, “and I do think it used to be mine, but I wasn’t planning to come back just yet or I would have gotten in touch beforehand. I did call out, but no one answered. The door was open.” But if the person was scared, which would be reasonable, or just unfriendly, I wouldn’t get a chance to say so much, and whatever I did say would probably sound like a nervous covering up of some other explanation.
On the other hand, I might instead be recognized as the rightful owner, interrupting and scaring a burglar. In that case, I probably wouldn’t be given a chance to say that I was only passing through and didn’t care about any of the stuff—or, to put it more strongly, that I often feel guilty for having it, as though I’m the one who has acquired it in illicit ways or who should at least have known better than to keep it, cluttering rooms and closets and mind for no good reason.
After some unknown amount of time during which I continued to explore without finding another person or coming to any better understanding of what was going on, I decided for no reason that I could articulate that my identification of this place as home was correct. But the quiet felt quite odd, and unsettling. It reminded me of the country, where I’ve never been entirely comfortable, far from busy roads, houses, even lawn mowers. Except as an intriguing, and brief, theatrical effect, stillness has always seemed unnatural and ominous to me: at any moment something might spring out of an unsuspected hiding spot. In the city any relative silences are in fact filled with the ambient sounds, both inside and out: cars and trucks chugging and wailing by, people talking, chairs being moved towards or away from tables, pots getting knocked into each other as they’re put away, water splashing in the sink, music emanating from the radio or from people practicing, and always, under everything else, the hum of electrical gadgets and power lines—a hum I only notice when it stops, as it does during a blackout, when things are not as they should be.
And so it was now. Perhaps the place was shutting down, becoming a fossil. If I didn’t leave I would be trapped, but if I left, I might never be able to get back.
I covered my ears with my hands, tugged at the lobes, and even put a bathroom towel over my head to determine whether my hearing, or rather the loss of it, was responsible for the muted quality. I also rapped my knuckles on the kitchen table and marched around the room, knowing that the floor was creaky in certain spots (at the sink, for example, and the doorway), but these actions failed to reveal anything abnormal: my own motions sounded just as they should, and there were no sounds coming from anywhere else.
Had some environmental disaster changed the density or conductivity of the air? Or had the floor and walls been treated with specially absorbent material in my absence? Perhaps custom-made packing material had been added to the whole building so that when it did decide to relocate itself, it would remain intact, and the wrapping happened to provide soundproofing as well, while leaving my usual sounds essentially the same. This treatment might actually be required by law if the building was in the habit of taking off now and then, since the sound of walls, floors, and furniture bumping around from one spot to another might otherwise cause an unacceptable increase in the local noise pollution. Neighbors would object and lawsuits could result. I didn’t see any indication that the walls or floor were different, but perhaps I simply didn’t know what to look for. I know very little about building materials, and perhaps insulation stuff could be applied only to the outside walls or stuffed between the internal and external surfaces, where I wouldn’t see it.
I was tempted to escape my growing uneasiness and yield to the drugged feeling that was creeping over me by going to sleep, but I didn’t like the idea of being found while I was unconscious. I might be captured and shackled or even shot. Or else the rooms might lift off while I was still inside, in which case I wanted to be awake to take it all in.
If the rooms stayed put, I would wait until nighttime and wrap myself up in a dark blanket before stepping outside. Even if people saw me then, they wouldn’t recognize me. Or should I stay without telling anyone? I could order food over the phone and have it delivered to the door, and I could work and do my banking from home, and renew my library books on the computer. Sooner or later, people would forget about me, and I could leave without fearing a commotion.
But why was I so nervous? There was no crime that I was afraid of being confronted and charged with. Or was I worried that I would have to account for myself—my absence, my return, my ambivalence about remaining? This was absurd: there was no one who had the authority to question me about my activities. There might be people—probably were many—who didn’t understand or agree with my choices, but that didn’t mean that they had any right to impose their preferences on me any more than I claimed a right to impose mine on them.
Not that I had any preferences I would care to impose on anyone else—as far as I knew.
And then a shadow darkened the living room, where I was sitting and thinking about what to do. I looked up for the first time since walking through the doorway and saw that there was no ceiling overhead. At least there wasn’t one now. Cool air was filling the room, and I was looking straight up at storm clouds that parted at times to reveal stars against the deep blue sky. Then the furniture dissolved too, the walls vanished, and bare earth was underfoot.
The only trace of the place, in case I were to doubt that it had ever been here—with or without me inside—was the smell of the half-eaten orange, mixed with the faint aroma of stale coffee.
“Home” is part of Owen’s full-length work, Path Cycle.
Header photo of open door by mikeledray, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Chris Gordon Owen by Ellen Grossman.