1 • TABULA RASA
I had to make a decision. I had been resting my hand on this dingy brass doorknob for almost five minutes now. My hand was poised and ready to turn with only a moment’s notice. It was something that I’d done a thousand times before. Or had I? How many closed doors had really been in my life until now? I thought about the doors I used in my former daily routine. My home had none. It was one of those loft-style apartments that had been converted from an old sewing factory during the post-war boom. The bathroom, a shoulder-height wall and a small curtain, was the only enclosure on the whole floor aside from the old freight elevator that ran through the middle of the apartment. It was one of the things I had loved most about the place; inside, movement was completely unhindered. It was free and inviting, like a public library. No doors and no doorknobs. Entry to the building was through an unattractive steel door with a wide flat grip below the lock. It was too heavy for its own good and scrapped across the concrete with a gritty metallic screech that sent a physical chill through your body. It was better than a cup of coffee in the morning, but no knobs to speak of. The building I worked in was accessed by a large revolving door. Grocery stores, department stores, hospitals, bookstores; every place I could think of had automatic doors, grips, or handles. When was the last time I had turned a real doorknob? It seemed like such a common action, but I couldn’t surface a single recollection from the depths of my memory in which I was sure I had done it. Suddenly, I felt cold all over. I felt inorganic, like something that had been manufactured rather than born. Opening doors now seemed like a most important benchmark for measuring the worth of reality and I had nothing to show, not a single memory. Doors were the ultimate metaphor for opportunities and I wondered if my life had been wasted on the kind that opened automatically, indiscriminately.
I loosened my grip and retracted my hand ashamed like a teenager caught masturbating by his parents. The brass of the knob was sculpted with delicate designs that resembled scales. It was almost perfectly round with a knotted rope pattern etched along the outer curve. There was what looked like a Chinese character etched in a shallow recess in the outermost curve of the sphere. The brass was dull. It looked foggy and smudged like the condensation of breath on a winter-chilled window. I looked at my hand and examined the sweat that had formed on my palm. I brought my open hand up to meet my nose and inhaled slowly. I could smell the metallic odor of the brass that lingered on my skin. It reminded me of the scent of my hands after counting pennies. It was oddly pleasant; not sweet or alluring, but distinctly earthy and organic. It assaulted my senses like gasoline and ignited a fire in my memory that was fueled by familiar aromas. In the frenzy of familiarity, however, nothing bubbled up to the surface. The memories associated with the smell remained submerged and only hinted at a past. My mind knew the smell, but the rest was just guesswork.
The door was a dark red-colored wood and looked heavy. The grain was beautiful and polished to a highly reflective gloss. Except for a handful of nicks and scrapes along the edges of the wood, the door looked like it had never been opened. I was intimidated by the thought, given my apparent inexperience. I slowly turned the knob and pushed with all my weight. The door clicked and opened with incredible force, pulling me in to a hallway. I stumbled forward with my hand still wrapped around the knob as blast of cool air rushed past me. Hunched over, I took in a deep lungful and tasted it. It smelled fresh. I held the breath as long as I could and then slowly let it out through my nose. As I let go of the breath, the image of my former apartment, began to fade away. I tried to hold the picture in my head, but it slipped through my fingers like the fine sand in an hourglass. By the end of the breath, the memory had gone completely. I attempted to fish out even one piece of my past, but nothing surfaced. I feIt empty. A cold panic began to swell in me as even my name would not form on my lips. Where am I? What is this place? How did I get here? Questions racked my mind in rapid succession; the questions that should have been foremost in my thoughts upon waking in unfamiliar surroundings. The final question was the one I was most afraid of asking. Or was it the answer I was afraid of?
The question found its way to my mouth, “who am I?”
I stood up straight and examined the hallway. It stretched out in both directions lined on both sides by unmatched doors. I craned my neck around to look at the interior of the room from which I had emerged. The walls were rust-colored. The paint was chipped and peeling in the corners of the room and in one large dark spot adjacent to the door. The spot by the door looked like the result of water damage, but the pattern it formed was unnatural. It was almost perfectly circular and had no visible origin. It was slightly convex and the pattern formed by cracks and creases inside seemed to move imperceptibly in and out as if the room was breathing. The wall lamps spilled warm light around the room casting unusually long shadows. The mismatched furniture looked like it had been bought at a yard sale. All of the pieces were from a different time. The bed frame was the same dingy brass as the doorknob and it held a single twin-sized mattress covered by a deep red and gold comforter. The design on the comforter looked like something you would see on a travel program about rustic Chinese textiles. The patterns twisted and turned toward the interior of the blanket and concluded in the large outline of a bird. The form was barely distinguishable. Next to the bed was a small wooden table. It looked sturdy enough to bear the weight of elephant, but instead it bore only an old-fashioned alarm clock. The hands had stopped at 7:55. Was it morning or night? I couldn’t be sure. The room had no windows. Against the wall opposite the door, there was a large wardrobe made of a dark wood. The only other thing in the room was an old chair in one of the corners that looked to be in a state of near destruction. A gentle breeze could have blown the chair into pieces. I looked away for fear that the attention would somehow remind the chair that its time had come. The last thing I wanted to do was alter the room. It was like a womb to me, warm and safe. It had the ambiguity of a hotel room and, yet, it was not entirely unfamiliar to me.
My familiarity with the room was not the product of previous experience and it was not the result of a deep-seeded memory. Somehow, I knew I had never been here before, but the room had been waiting for my arrival. If I closed the door behind me, the room might cease to exist. I felt compelled to leave a part of myself behind, a way to claim the place as my own. Instinctively, I patted the front of my pants and my chest in search of anything that might be occupying my pockets. I looked down and my hands froze in place. Are these my clothes? My frozen hands regained some feeling and slowly drew the lapels of the jacket open. No labels. No names. The suit jacket was perfectly matched to the pants I was wearing. It was a dark charcoal grey color with hints of blue. There was a shine to the material, but the touch of it was coarse. I rubbed a section between the thumb and middle finger of my right hand. With my left hand, I rubbed a bunched portion of the pants between my thumb and index finger. They were obviously of the same material. Perhaps even the same source. Perfectly matched. It felt like wool, but the subtle shine was more characteristic of silk. It was light and comfortable. The fit of the suit was exquisite. It had clearly been tailored. Maybe they were my clothes, but something about them felt wrong on me, unnatural.
The shirt underneath was of equally high quality. It was a medium blue, the kind of color that had a subtle luster to it. The tie hovered between black and navy. It was the kind of color that only revealed itself in side-by-side comparisons. The shoes and belt were of the same highly polished leather. The tips of the shoes were slightly square; a recent fashion trend resurrected by European designers. I preferred round-toed shoes, but I didn’t seem to be in a position to make demands regarding personal fashion. It was the least of my worries now. The ensemble was topped off with a light grey fedora that gently hugged the crown of my head like a bandage.
I stepped back in to the room and walked toward the wardrobe against the back wall. There were no knobs on the doors. Instead, there was a single keyhole on the left side occupied by an ancient looking brass key. How long had this key been waiting to be turned? It looked much older than everything else in the room including the wardrobe that it obviously unlocked. The brass was covered in a thick layer of tarnish, but it resembled two golden ropes wrapping around each other and concluding in a large round knot. A recession in the outermost curve of the knot revealed the same Chinese looking character that was on the doorknob to the room itself. So much for my yard sale theory. This room and its contents had been meticulously designed and arranged. I carefully turned the key in the lock and pulled the doors open. The wood of the wardrobe was as heavy as it looked and the hinges creaked as the massive doors swung fully open. I waited for the light to fill the interior of the wardrobe and reveal its contents. The light seemed to move unusually slowly in this room. It might have had something to do with the long shadows that spilled across the floor like oil slick. There was a silent struggle going on around me. The darkness in the room was as resilient and cold as steel. The light pushed and pulled on the shadows trying to warm them and envelop them like a blanket, but there was no surrender in this place. I peered in to the wardrobe, now fully illuminated, and saw six identical copies of the suit I was wearing. There was an empty wooden hanger to the right of the suits. Farther to the right, there were six blue dress shirts and another empty hanger. Adjacent to the shirts, there was a hanging tie rack with six maybe-black-maybe-navy ties and one empty hook. Below the hanging clothes were six white cotton undershirts and six pairs of white silk boxer shorts, perfectly pressed and folded. I looked down the front of my dress shirt and pants to confirm my undershirt and boxer shorts matched the contents of the wardrobe. The resemblance of the outfits was uncanny; they were not six suits, but the same suit six times. There was obviously some kind of cosmological paradox going on inside the wardrobe. On the bottom shelf, there were six pairs of black dress socks arranged next to each other in precise alignment. Something about the sight of these clothes made me feel uneasy. I stepped back and closed the doors returning the key to its locked position. I wondered if I should take the key with me, but decided to leave it in the lock. After all, it was my intention to leave something in the room, not take something from it.
I reached in to my left pants pocket in search of something to leave behind. My wrist caught on the cuff of the pocket as I removed my empty hand. I was wearing a watch that I hadn’t noticed before. I pulled my sleeves back to inspect the timepiece. It was gold and very simply designed. It looked expensive, but bore no label like the rest of my garments. The gold band fit snugly around my wrist, closed by a nonadjustable latch. This watch had been fitted to me as well. The hands were stopped at 7:55 just like the old-fashioned alarm clock on the bedside table. It couldn’t have been coincidence. Despite my first impression, there seemed to be some method to the madness of this place.
I reached in to my right pants pocket and felt the unmistakable form and texture of coins. I scooped them out in the palm of my hand. All pennies. There were seven of them. They looked brand-new as if they had just come from the mint. The copper was bright and shined proudly like only an unused penny could. These seven coins had been spared a lifetime of changing hands and being discarded as the useless currency of the past. Stuffed in piggy banks and forgotten. Left in courtesy trays at convenience stores and gas stations, abused and abandoned. I could relate. I admired the craftsmanship of the coins for a brief time and then checked the mintmark on each one. They were all the same: “S.” All seven pennies were minted in San Francisco in 1955. I froze in my thoughts. How could I have known that? I couldn't recall my home or anything about my life, but I seemed to have Jeopardy-like knowledge of the US treasury department. The more I thought about it, the more was revealed. 1955 was also the year the San Francisco mint had closed. As a result, a limited number of one-cent coins had been produced that year. The facility didn’t reopen until the U.S. coin shortage in the mid-1960s. This too could not be the result of mere coincidence. There was a connection at work that I couldn’t explain. Like a puzzle with missing pieces, the image remained obscure. Numbers and possibilities rampaged through my head like the bulls of Sanfermines. In the frenzy, I was unable to consider or connect anything. Frustrated, I thumbed the pennies around in my palm for a while soaking the dull scent of the metal in to my hand. I shifted my thoughts back to memories of my life, but the focus slipped away and I was again left with a blank canvas. I slipped the pennies back in to my pants keeping one clutched between my thumb and index finger. They made a muted metallic clicking sound as they fell in to place at the bottom of my pocket. A sound rarely heard since the increasing convenience of the credit card. It made me sad to think that a child born in this day and age might never hear the sound of loose change. Sometime soon, a person might have to go to a museum to see a coin. It was inevitable, but it made me feel terribly old. Maybe I belonged in a museum too. At this, a chill shot down my spine and made my head twitch. A museum. Is that what this place is? Suddenly, I felt trapped. I kept myself from panicking by inhaling the lingering aroma of copper on my hand. Something about it calmed me. I took a deep breath, but still felt a little anxious. I had no idea where I was or why I was here. I took the penny that I still held in my hand and set it on the floor in the middle of the room heads-up. This was the piece of myself that I would leave in the room. Like dropping an anchor, it would keep me bound to this place.
I walked to the door and out in to the hallway. It was then that I noticed that the door opened outward instead of in. I looked down both directions of the hallway. The other doors all opened inward. I decided not to speculate on it. My head was already beginning to ache. A throbbing pain was swelling up from behind my eyes. It washed over me like a tidal wave and soon, the whole of my skull was engulfed in a dull cold sensation. I took a deep breath and held it slowly pushing the door until it clicked in place. I released the breath wondering if the room was still there on the other side. I looked at the rows of doors in the hallway.
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