“I never noticed how clever your closets are. Or that you had so many,” Liz says, as she pokes around one of the kitchen cabinets. It’s a deep, thigh-high pull-out cabinet, outfitted in the front with a rack for wine and at the back with a metal frame supporting a deep canvas bag. “What’s the bag for?” she asks.
“Baguettes. Maybe not so clever if you don’t eat bread.”
To be fair, I did when I was with Matthew, who designed the kitchen, and the rest of the house and its wondrous closets. But he’s long gone, as is the habit of eating bread, an ironic but wholly spurious correlation.
“It’s your Jesus cabinet,” she says.
“A drawer for bread and wine. But I don’t think I need one.”
Liz wasn’t always so interested in closets. She always had more than enough or none at all, and neither made an impression on her. After she got married she and Anthony set up house in a sprawling duplex apartment in the northern suburbs. After they split, she lived in a series of nondescript rental apartments, none of which made her feel at home in or inspired her to make a home.
These half-empty, make-do apartments reflected the unsettledness in her own life; neither her current job nor the last two men in life offered even an illusory sense of commitment. If she could have rented furniture as well, she would have. Her space was the brick-and-mortar equivalent of one-night stand. It satisfied a need but not the soul. And like the anonymous tryst, it was never spoken of and mostly left unshared. Liz never entertained at her place.
Her current interest in closets only emerged when she started renovating the small apartment her father had given her for her wedding. Even though she and Anthony had never lived there, the place had too many associations with their marriage for her to want to live there in the years right after their divorce.
But now was a good time. Her freelance design work was finally gaining momentum with the addition of an important account in Shanghai. The pain she had felt when their marriage was dissolving, as Anthony began his inexorable retreat into his solitude and whiskey, had attenuated.
She was surprised one day to realize that she could no longer summon up the anger and hurt she had felt then. She could recall afternoons lying in bed with him for a nap after Sunday lunch and could retrace in her mind in remarkable detail the twist of his torso as he turned onto his side without a kiss. She could remember how his wordless rejection, like the workings of a slow-working yet undetectable poison, would make her sick with self-doubt and guilt without her being able to say why.
But now the sharpness of feeling was gone and she realized how far Anthony had receded in her consciousness. That same day she decided to fix up the house that was her father’s wedding gift.
And now she needs to have closets built.
“So did you have half and Matthew the other half?” she says, pointing to the bedroom closet. It’s a wall-to-wall built-in unit with two sliding panels.
“Yeah. Surprising how quickly it filled up after Matthew left.”
I tell her it’s where I store carry-on suitcases and out-of-season clothes, and the out-of-Stephen clothes, too—the muscle tees and bow ties that were worn in the summer of a younger self.
It is home to things I want to keep but have no daily need for: boxes of letters from friends and lovers, and the journal that my brother kept during a year in New York—each entry written as letter to me he never sent—and that he gave me only years after he had written the last page. It is home to things I have to keep but don’t want to see, like receipts and bank statements, and the plans to the house.
A closet of farewells, the ones I’ve made and the ones I am preparing to make. A closet of absence, like the side of the bed that it faces and on which I never sleep.
And then there are the things I have no reason to keep but can’t throw away. The gear and toys I used with Wacław. The MRI’s of training injuries, and the swim paddles and cycling singlets I no longer use. A couple of flannel shirts I bought in Boston ages ago.
A cabinet of curiosities gathered over the years and of interest only to their collector. Or rather, to their accumulator, for collection implies intent and discrimination, whereas I have amassed these objects in the way thin people put on a little weight as they get older, a simple corollary of ordinary living.
“No wonder you’re not meeting anyone!” Liz says, when I slide open the door. “There’s no room for anyone else.” And then, as if seized by a premonition of dangerous things to come, like the scent of ozone before a storm, she shouts out, “Oh my God, what if this is your romantic corner?”
“You have to get rid of some of this You have to let this room breathe more,” she tells me. “This room doesn’t really say, welcome soul-mate. Though at least you’ve got two bed lamps, that’s a start.”
“They’re just things, Liz, not statements. I just haven’t gotten around to getting rid of them.”
“I’m just saying. I think you’re sleeping way too close to your past.”
I show her a pair of hip waders I had found in London and schlepped back with me to Athens during the time with Wacław. Liz isn’t shocked, though I knew she wouldn’t be.
“You don’t need to get rid of these, though,” she says. “They’re wonderful.” And she means it, in the way an artist would. “They hold good memories, don’t they?” she says
‘Yes, good memories,” I say, though I know it’s not that simple. Good memories are haunted by the echoes of loss, and the bad by the sense of relief of having survived. Perversely enough, it is the worst of memories that tempt me to believe in the divine: how graced am I to have gone through that and still be here, wounded perhaps but more or less intact.
“These you should keep, but do something with them. You could use them as a planter.”
I’m too much an empiricist to believe in this feng shui protocol, but I begin to feel that perhaps there is something musty or heavy about the closet. Maybe Liz is right, and the things I’m holding on, these curios of a more adventurous and bolder past, are holding on to me instead.
“You think so, huh?”
“Look at what you write about.”
She offers to come by the follow week so that we can sort out the stuff together. “I could help you decide about the clothes. If you’re not sure, say, if something suits you or not.”
What she really means is “if you’re afraid to throw this stuff out,” but she wants to save me the embarrassment of admitting I need moral support. Still, coming from someone who’s actually designed clothes, this is a valuable offer of help.
Back in the kitchen she notices a photograph in a plexiglass case on the mantel over the fireplace. It shows a fair-skinned, vaguely Slavic man in work-clothes. “Wacław?” she asks.
“No, we never took pictures of each other. I don’t know who this is actually. The case is really an exhibition catalog. There are 14 other men underneath him.”
I tell her about the Men of Pallados, an exhibition of portraits of immigrants and Greeks living or working together on a two-block strip of shops and modest flats in an old working class district of the city. There was an electrician and a tattoo artist, a parking attendant, an architect, the owner of a bridal wear shop and a few more. The catalog was a set of smaller-scale reproductions of the portraits. I never learned who was who. Every once in a while I rotate the photographs. It’s what a curator might do, I tell myself.
I open the box for her and she begins to flip through the photographs, sorting them like an Old World-matchmaker into piles according to our consensus on their attractiveness. She asks me who I think is the sexiest. I tell her and she places his photograph on the top, closes the box, and takes it into my bedroom, where she places it on the bay window bench behind my bed. “Just until the real one comes along.”
“It’s kind of weird having a picture of a strange man behind my bed.”
“Why? Think of it as an icon. Anyway, every man’s a stranger until you meet him.”
“As long as I don’t have to pray to it,” I say. I still think it’s a little creepy. I guess I’m more comfortable with ghosts in my bedroom than with men I’ve never met.
It’s sweet of Liz to care so much, even if it makes me feel like a project she’s taken on. Of course it’s something I should be doing on my own, making room for love, that is, placing myself in the way of love. It’s not just the bedroom closet. It’s where and when and who I go out with, even how I dress. Liz tells me that wearing black at my age is an affidavit of celibacy.
Still, falling in love is not a project to manage, not like renovating a house and building–or emptying–closets. It’s more like cooking. The best meals I make are the ones I improvise when relaxed, and thus the ones impossible to replicate on demand. Besides, the soundless ghosts in my closet, like Kafka’s silent sirens, lull me into complacency. They tell me how extraordinarily lucky I’ve been in my life. They remind me of the men I have loved and been loved by. It would be hubris to expect more, they say.
I’ll clear out some space in the closets. I’ll leave the photograph of the electrician—that’s who I’ve decided he is—in my bedroom for a night and see how it goes. It is not quite the “childish measure” with which Kafka begins his story of the “Silence of the Sirens”, a trick “that may serve to rescue one from peril,” but it will get me thinking. But I know the rest is luck. And I’ve already had my share.
The image for the post is a collage of two of the 15 photographs that Marina Siakola did for the exhibition Men of Pallados, which was based on an idea of Andreas Antoniou and held at Formika in June 2009. The proceeds from the sale of photographs and the exhibition catalog were donated to the Sophia Foundation for Children.