We could hear it from any point in the house—upstairs, downstairs, even the garage. From the kitchen the sound was faint, like the upswing of a snore with no silent intervals in between—all intake of breath, no release. While we were eating at the small table by the window, forks and knives clicking against our plates, it was there in the background, a reminder. If we spoke loudly, the hum could be drowned out for a moment. In the beginning we tried, it was like a game, we attempted to keep a dialogue going during the entire dinner just to cover the hum with the sound of our voices. This went on for our first few weeks in the house, but there were only the two of us there, we knew each other well, and there was not much to be said during any given meal. At one point, without ever voicing a mutual decision, we gave up. We fell into long silences, just the click of silverware on plates, the sound of wine being poured into a glass, the polite chewing—and beneath it all, or above it, the continual hum coming from the second bedroom, the source of our livelihood and of our growing discontent.
With music we could disguise it, could even forget it for three or four minutes at a time, but there was always the moment when one song ended, the tinny whir of the CD player while it moved on to the next, so that, eventually, even music lost its joy for me.
At night, from our room across the hall, we could hear it. “It’s just white noise,” my husband said. “If you’d stop thinking about it, you wouldn’t notice it at all.” So I tried to stop thinking about it, but the more I tried, the louder it became. My unease was intensified by the fact that we were not allowed to go into the second bedroom, in fact we had never even seen it.
Twice a month someone would stop by to check the equipment. He or she would arrive unannounced and knock discreetly on the front door. Often, this person would bring a cake or a bottle of wine, so that it would look to our neighbors as though a friend had come calling. Once inside, he would avoid conversation and head straight for the second bedroom, toting a large duffle bag. Never once did any of the maintenance personnel—that’s how they always introduced themselves, not by name, but simply, “Hello, I’m the maintenance personnel”—agree to stay for coffee. Their abruptness heightened my sense that, even though we were merely caretakers of the equipment, not its subjects, we were under its scrutiny twenty-four hours a day.
Because the equipment had to be supervised round the clock, my husband and I never went anywhere together. If we wanted to see a movie, we would toss a coin. The winner would walk down the street, past the rows of primly painted mansions, the neat driveways with expensive cars, across the city road, to the Cinaromaplex. The place was so named because of the machines that piped appropriate smells into the theater during movies—the smell of gunpowder during a gunfight scene, smoke and liquor during a bar scene. The Cinaromaplex was even equipped with the musty scent of sex for R-rated movies, and for the more gruesome films, there was the distinct, metallic odor of blood. The winner of the coin toss would come home straight after the movie, and the one who had been house-sitting would go to the next showing. Later we would discuss the movie as if we had seen it together, as if we were an ordinary couple who went on outings as a pair, rather than as two halves.
It was the same way with restaurants, plays, and museums. When we first moved into the house, we made a pact that we would not sacrifice these small pleasures, the many cultural offerings of our beloved city. We decided to live as we always had, with minor adjustments. For a while we honored the pact, but about the same time we stopped insisting on dinner conversation we also ceased our elaborate efforts to see the same movies, eat at the same restaurants, view the same museum exhibits. The inevitable result was that, over time, we became more like roommates than a couple.
That is not to say I was entirely without companionship.
Some nights, unable to sleep, I would step into the back yard in my bathrobe. I would leave the porch light off, so as not to be seen, and would stand there in the dark, the wet grass working between my toes, and watch the Uradian Embassy. I would gaze up at the third floor corner window, where the light was always on, and I would watch the ambassador sitting at his desk, his tie pulled askew. I could never really make out his face, just the figure of him there, and he always sat as still as a man could possibly sit, and I wondered what he was doing awake, night after night, while everyone else in the building slept.
I wanted to call up to him. I wanted to tell him about the second bedroom, and the machinery that hummed behind the closed door. I wanted to tell him about the dissolution of his country, a dissolution which, to him, might be only the vaguest fear, or perhaps even a nightmare he thought would likely come true—but no matter how vivid the nightmare, how disturbing his fears might have been, he could not have known for certain that his country was being slowly dissembled at that very moment, and that the machinery of its destruction hummed in the stately red brick house behind him. This is what the equipment did: it listened, it watched, it recorded everything.
Those nights, standing in my borrowed yard and staring up at the ambassador’s window, I began to wonder if it is possible to love a man you have never met, if love can be born out of sympathy alone, and out of the knowledge that one’s own life’s work is intricately connected to the ruination of another. Could I love him simply for his insomnia, for the square of light cast by his window onto my sleeping lawn, for the knowledge that, without him, my own life would in some manner be rendered pointless?
I decided that I could.
I did not tell my husband about my late-night trips to the garden, although some nights he must have woken and found me gone. I did not tell him that I dreamed of this man’s country, of miles and miles of unused train tracks ending in abandoned towns, of once-prosperous markets that were now home to a lonely clerk guarding a few loaves of bread, a single poor cut of meat. I did not tell him that there were days when I sat for hours imagining myself in the ambassador’s country, starting a new life with him there.
Isn’t it true that everyone, at some point, dreams of beginning anew—with new friends, new surroundings, a new lover? Doesn’t everyone, at least once, dream of abandoning her own life?
Read the short story in its entirety in the summer 2007 issue of The Missouri Review.