Staying In

Anything can happen outside. I haven’t left my home in nearly thirteen years, for all intents and purposes. From my backdoor, the trash and recycling carts are about twenty yards away, where I venture once a week or so. I am not a hoarder. But my groceries are delivered; all my clothing and possessions are purchased online, every stitch and knick-knack (two cheers for modernity!). I am comfortable, I am content, and most importantly, I am safe. Take, for instance, an article I read not ten minutes ago, just before the urge struck me to write at my very sturdy, very old-timey desk, which I bought from the Salvation Army years and years ago. It may have been the last purchase I made in person, as a matter of fact. Perhaps, this should be discussed further at some point, but I digress. The article: this young woman, just twenty-six years old (not much younger than me when I decided to take leave of the outside world), had her scalp sliced off in an accident. She apparently worked in a jewelry manufacturing unit, and her waist-length braid got caught in the mechanized strings that are used to make chains and necklaces, peeling off her scalp from eyebrows to nape. Her coworkers rushed her to the hospital, holding (it does not say where—in a cooler, in their hands?) her scalp with the hair attached to it still. Lucky for her she survived. In a three-hour operation, the surgeons reattached her scalp after the hair had been removed from it. Here’s something I did not know: only your scalp has follicles, which means the young lady’s hair will regrow. Now, I know nothing about jewelry making, understand very little the syntax of Indian English, and who knows what you can believe nowadays, but this seems true to me. Anyone can fake a picture, but this, too, looks like the real thing. And there are countless stories like this one, if anyone believes I am exaggerating. Just look at our neck of the woods, no need to leave the country. A bus crash killed one person and injured eight in a five-vehicle crash in which the bus ended up on the sidewalk, pinning one person underneath. And how about the train derailing that killed eight and injured more than two hundred others. These are all public record and I would not make any of this up, especially considering the gravity. Granted, I’m not completely protected from such randomness by remaining indoors. My floor could cave in, or so could the ceiling, a pipe explode, a faulty wire ignite a fire and engulf me. I accept each of those, and infinite more, as possibilities. But if one were to judge security on a scale of one to ten, one being the most insecure and ten being the safest, I have placed myself so near ten that it is not an exaggeration to consider myself fully protected. Avoiding accidents is only part of the picture, however.

I know out there are also wonderful things, bike trails and dogs at play, timely breezes, even the feel of a sudden rain. I remember all of this, along with so many others, and there are times when I want to experience them again firsthand. But that urge never outmuscles the knowledge that I’m better off as I am. There are windows in my apartment facing west, where each day, if I so choose, I can see the sun slowly sliding downward through a thicket of trees and rooftops, daubing the horizon with shades of purple and pink. And a single window of mine faces east, and if I wanted, every morning I could see the sun pulling itself from bed to touch every point of earth with its sultry light. There, too, for me to experience are sounds of the hustling and bustling outside. I can hear children playing and people laughing, and couples fighting and cars driving too fast. I am as aware of what I no longer have as a man who loses his sight, and like that man, I feel the presence of that departed sensation. But over the course of these thirteen years every instance of life out there has come to feel more tangible than they had before. In my mind’s eye, the actions of life are performed as vividly as ever.

My name is V. Henry, and no one has ever called me Vincent, only Vin or Vinnie or V (my personal favorite) or VH in the case of Patti, whom I must now discuss at some point. I last glanced at myself in the bathroom mirror a few hours ago while brushing my teeth (it’s now dusk of the following day), and my black hair is cut low and even; my teeth are mostly straight, except for a slightly rebellious upper right canine; my eyes are an uninteresting shade of brown, and, I believe, there is a slight twitch in my cheeks when I smile. There is some graying in my beard, which I can comfortably ignore for about two more days without a shave, and my frame has survived some middle-age weight gain to remain more or less thin. I have lived in this apartment for the last fifteen years. It is modestly furnished and decorated: I have one bedroom with a bed and two smallish dressers; a living room with a couch, two footstools as tables, and television that is mostly unwatched; a shelf-less room I have turned into an office where I spend much of my time and books are kept in clear, alphabetized plastic storage containers. At no other point in history, perhaps, could I have transitioned as smoothly from one way of life to another. I was formerly an in-house copywriter for a mid-size marketing agency that is somehow still chugging along. It would be a lie to say I loved my work—many of the clients, I felt, did little good for anyone but themselves—though it did have its perks. I was paid well and professionally the experience was invaluable. And although our work only resembled art, and attempted to use that resemblance to lure people into purchases, there were a few campaigns I worked on that gave me a chill of creative accomplishment. My favorite involved an upstart (now defunct) sports apparel company named Grit. Its clothing was hideous and uncomfortable, but we had been brought on to “shape it’s [sic] message,” as one of the memos said. I remember seeing for the first time its neon-colored shirts, hats, and shorts, which had been laid out on a conference room table, each sporting its tiny logo (simply the company’s name with a pickaxe as the “t”), and thinking of the campaign’s tagline: “The rain falls down. But it keeps coming. Get Grit.” Be that as it may, professional unhappiness was not the cause of me no longer leaving my apartment. The work-life of a man who does not leave his home is hardly peaches and cream. Moreover, I don’t miss the relationships with my coworkers, most of which were manifestations of a time and place. The few with whom my rapport was real remain my friends to this day: I am as knowledgeable of their goings-on as I would be at a vending machine.

There was as well a girlfriend who survived my transition for a short time. She supported my decision then questioned it before finally having enough. She was tall and had long, black hair that was unmanageable in the rain. We met at work, where she remains as the lead of our former department. While we were together, the transience of our relationship was always clear to me: so losing her was for the most part an acquisition of time. On my final day at work, she said “I’ll see you tonight,” on the final day of our relationship, “I can’t believe you never changed your mind.” Admittedly, she was the main person whom I thought of when I mentioned “manifestations of a time and place.” But I say this with little bitterness (some is to be expected and warranted) and no sense of loneliness. We were never destined, and the pleasures of a partner I have easily found elsewhere. Not lost love or the quivering ubiquity of regret caused the way I live my life. I have not, as Dom Casmurro did, constructed a replica of the home where I grew up. A painting of a crucified Christ does not hang on my living room wall, as one did on my mother’s, there is no room for MLK on my mantelpiece, and peonies are not my flower of choice. Opening de Assis’s book, nonetheless, I am struck by an underlined sentence: “Life is filled with obligations that people meet however great a desire they have to shirk them.” The context is unclear, and my skimming is doing little to explain the passage, but this may be it, at least approximately. Perhaps it’s safe to say: I have not left my apartment simply because I do not want to. There seems to be no better reason than that. As I said before, nothing is stronger than my inclination to remain indoors, which I consider a function of sober contentment rather than anything else. I am fine as I am. My packages are never lost; friends and family visit when convenient, for them and me; and if there are moments when I want to speak or see someone who is not there, I seemingly always bump into a neighbor, at our mailboxes or during my short treks to the trash. There are six units, and I am the lone holdover from my move here. A line that floats around about one’s relationship with any group of people—professors and students, aging athletes and newcomers—is pretty apt here as well: I get older but they stay the same. Had I not seen and heard the semiregular arrival of movers and moving trucks, I’d be hard-pressed to distinguish the guy across the hall from his predecessors. The same can be said about the couple above me. Other than our chance meetings, they are little more than a collection of muffled voices and inconspicuous footsteps.

Fortunate for me because the only thing more difficult to imagine than going to an office every morning is possibly trudging to a writer’s space at some point during the day. I was unaware of this trend until fairly recently when I read an article online. As I understand it, there are some people with professional arrangements like mine (the “gig economy” it’s apparently called) who nevertheless spend their working hours at shared spaces with desks and eat-in kitchens, their fill of coffee and tea, and WiFi, all I must say are amenities of my apartment. Nevertheless, these places are everywhere supposedly, New York, Hamburg, and even Charlottesville, Virginia, go figure. It may work for the rest of the world, but it could not for me. My kitchen cabinets are filled and there is never a line in my bathroom; my desk, too, is solid and oak, and it is unfathomable any place has one as nice and well-built as mine. Its surface holds a printer, laptop, a saucer and plate, and a nice-size cup as well. The kicker is it does all of this while also having a desktop drawer and two more running down my right-hand side. I have no idea who owned it previously, but they must have been forced to give it away. No one would willingly depart with a desk this wonderful. If I had it my way, though, it would have belonged to an old professor and gifted to him at retirement, as nobody could take his place. The college where he taught was small and remote, naturally; and there, for decades, he listened to the same problems from different students, shuffling into his golden years before transitioning mid-slumber into his final sleep. A shame that after his widow died his family had no room for it.

These are the types of stories I tell Patti. It’s essentially how we met. Some time ago, I picked up the habit of fictionalizing real-life events. I would take a place and person and invent a history and life, and eventually went from amusing myself to posting them online. Plenty of sites will let you publish writings for free, even the less-than-serious pieces of mine, and I take advantage of the Internet’s unending appetite for material. Mostly I’d use V or VH, but for the ones even I was less proud of I would come up with a penname, my go-to being “Siren,” the only relic of my childhood being my interest in Greek mythology, on occasion coupling it with my first initial. Although she hates this opinion, Patti is a lost soul. We met because she would spend hours online reading the very same sites where I would post writings, rarely the famous or reputable publishers. She would post appreciations and critiques, and after seeing “WereWoolf” so many times I responded (granted, many, if not most, of her posts were about others). This was nine or ten years ago. And it took about a year to divulge our real names and about another year for us to meet (between disclosing our names and meeting I told her I never left my home, about which she was curious but not judgmental and didn’t believe it weird at all). Remarkably she lived, and still lives, about an hour away, an hour and a half if the roads are congested. “Remarkably” because online you assume everyone is faraway. And the first time, she was apprehensive of coming inside, though she hates this opinion, too. Patti has dark hair which was in two ponytails down her back when we first met and her nose scrunches when she smiles and she has read more literature than anyone I have ever known. I felt most of my books she had already gone through cover to cover. Nevertheless, our friendship was instant, as though we were reintroduced after a separation. There is nothing I would be afraid of her knowing about me; and she, I’m sure, feels the same. But I do worry because she is unhappy: her children don’t bring her the joy they once did. One time they sat in the car while she quickly stopped by to check on me, as errands had brought them nearby. Another occasion they came in with her because she had forgotten a school holiday coincided on a day she would visit. Her eldest daughter has her face and eyes, but the younger girl has her mind, it was clear even at the ages of six and five. She told me afterwards that they would not tell their father because she had promised ice cream desserts for a week. But maybe I should clarify what was said moments ago: in point of fact, I actually know little about her husband. His name, Martin, they had been married about a year when we contacted each other, owner of a barely break-even bike shop, where she moonlights when IT jobs are hard to get. But there could be little more for her to tell me about him, if not in detail maybe in spirit. I, nevertheless, don’t spend much time thinking about it. And I expect her pretty soon, actually, or should I say it would not surprise me if she stopped by. We last saw each other three or four months ago, and she has a knack for being there at the right time. Her presence leaves the impression you were always waiting for her, and it goes without saying, I will be here when she arrives.

In the meantime, I could send her this strange, unbelievable article, since she’s on my mind. A sturgeon leapt out of a river and killed a five-year-old girl, and also injured her mother and brother. It appears people are regularly injured by the flying fish, four people having been hurt this year, and in 2007 a woman lost her left pinkie and a tooth. The fish can grow as large as eight feet long and two-hundred pounds, too, but here’s the most interesting part: biologists don’t know why they jump. What a world …