Eric Markowsky is a freelance writer working in the Boston area. He earned his MFA from Emerson College and was recently awarded an Artist's Grant for Residency at the Vermont Studio Center. He is a co-founder and contributing editor at chamberfour.com.
I’ve always been terrified of open doors. Even as a child, before I’d given infinity much thought, I could never sleep unless the door to my room was shut tight, the only exception being during bouts of fever when my mother insisted on leaving it open, so she could check on me. When I woke on such nights, from deep, exhausting sleep, I’d see the light in the hall halted at the threshold of my room, and I’d hear the TV buzzing downstairs, and I’d understand that I’d been forgotten, that the hall led to other doors, and those doors to other halls, and the world stretched on and on and never ended while I grew smaller and smaller beneath my comforter and would someday die.
This is all to say that I didn’t view an open door as an invitation the way Anna did. It was an old Georgian townhouse, probably a grand single-family home once upon a time. The bricks were discolored, the windows smeared with grime, or broken. The door hung half off its hinges, as if slowly lowering itself to the stoop.
“Let’s just take a look,” Anna said.
I said I could see just fine from where we were, but Anna was already halfway up the steps before I finished objecting. Through the open door, I saw a hall filled with gray light and, beyond that, another open door. Inside smelled of rain and mildew. Carried on by warped floorboards past faded seafoam green walls, I felt we’d emerged in the middle of the ocean. A photograph of a girl with tousled brown/blond hair hung on the wall to our left. She wore a black evening gown and held a black feather under her chin. She had smooth, clear skin that was so pale it turned violet under the faintest shadow.
“I think I’m in love,” Anna said. She tried mussing her hair like the girl’s in the picture. “How do I look?” she asked.
But I was fixated on the picture, not on the girl but on the background. It was the same faded sea-foam green as the walls, as if the picture had been taken in the house as it stood now and not sometime in the past. In its thin black frame, the photo looked like a window into a room just off the hall where the girl was waiting to receive us. In a way, she was. In every room, we found another photo of the same girl, wearing a bridal gown, wearing a boxy men’s suit, wearing only a bowler hat and a masquerade mask, always before the same faded sea-foam background.
“This is so weird,” Anna said smiling.
I followed her into a room at the back of the house where one dingy window obliterated the world outside in a bright smudge. For an instant, I understood we were all that was left: me, Anna, and the girl in the photo. There was this room, the door we’d come through, and another to our right. All else was desolation.
In this room, the girl appeared again before the same background, this time surrounded by pink out-of-focus flowers. She clutched an orange sheet to her breast, though there was nothing embarrassed or even shy in her posture; she clung to the sheet not out of modesty but out of sheer, secret longing. Bugs crawled across her arms. A dragonfly rested in her hair. A branch sprouted from one bare shoulder, a leaf from the other. She was disappearing or decomposing. Her eyes were closed and her chin turned down in a way that made me ashamed for watching her unaware.
“What do you think this is?” Anna asked. She put her nose right up to the picture as if to smell the flowers.
I pulled her away by one arm.
“I just want to look,” she said, fighting free.
I grabbed her again. This time she fell. I was certain I’d hurt her. I forced myself to focus on Anna, to ignore the girl on the wall, to ignore the doors, which opened into other rooms with other doors.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked, looking down at her hands.
I turned back the way we’d come, walking with my eyes cast down until my vision fell on the concrete steps. Anna called after me, but I kept walking. I don’t remember how far I’d gone before I realized she wasn’t following me; I had thought she was, but it was only her cries echoing behind me. I’d reached a more populated block, and the drum of city life drowned her out of my head. Up and down the street, people stepped in and out of shops as though it were nothing.