guided by voices
september 10, 1999 - november 21, 1999
i never sleep. i’ve never slept at all. i’ve never had a dream. all of that could be true.
i live in a city where everything is heading towards destruction. the buildings crumble just by walking past them and the sidewalks crack under your step. it is a city full of rooms that you can rent for a week or a day or even an hour. and these rooms are tenanted by people who have disappeared, or been ostracized. they’re all crawling on top of each other like bugs in a jar. and everyone here has the same look; the snuffed-out eyes of people who just watch when something happens even if it’s happening to themselves. they’re people without prospects in a city without prospects. a city that has nothing to offer except the memory of one’s own past, and it can’t even salvage that any more.
though it’s late, about half the lights in my hotel are lit, which gives it a deceptively homey look, like a house where the people are still expecting someone, though most of the people inside don’t have anyone to expect, and probably aren’t even awake. it’s a building full of people who for all kind of reasons, prefer to sleep with the light on.
my mail is mostly junk, a few bills and occasionally an envelope that says: have you been lonely too long? it’s addressed to all the residents of the hotel and i put it in my pocket and go up to my room and get undressed and lie down on the bed and roll over on my side and take the envelope out of the pocket of my jacket and open it up. dear single, the letter starts. tired of the dating scene? i nod, although haven’t had a single date since i’ve been living in this city. tired of being alone? i nod. “this will finally make you happy,” the letter promises. i don’t look atthe enclosed questionnaire. i fold the papers up and drop them under the bed. this will finally make me happy, i think to myself.
sometimes i try to imagine where he is at the moment, what he’s doing, where his bed is, where his head rests when he’s sleeping at night. then i put my ear to the door of my room and can hear him breathing on the other side. i can smell his skin through the thin wood. and then there are days when i would like to remember him, his face, or words that he spoke, but at those moments i try, my mind a place where nothing happens. goes perfectly blank. it’s like a room that no one has ever entered, a room without windows or doors, a place where nothing happens.
the evening passes like any other. my face floats in the dark windowpane of my room and i stare through the mirror image of my eyes at the street below. people walk by outside and look up at me and say something i can’t understand. i smile. i smile at all of them. i am here to be seen. their eyes rest on my face for a minute before they move on. they drift past my window like the weather. i lay my head down on the windowsill. my heart is a moth fluttering against the walls of my chest. my throat is a moth. my brain is a tangle of spiders wriggling and roaming around. a wriggling tangle of wriggling spiders.
the sky outside is dull and getting darker. the street is dull and getting darker. the light and the people and the cars, everything is dull. everything is getting darker.
“i have prospects,” i said when i left him. “i have prospects,” i tell myself but when i close my eyes and try to imagine what they consist of, i see what’s directly in front of me: a hotel room surrounding me closely on all sides. there’s a single bed in the room a night stand next to it and a chair and there’s a window that looks on to a narrow alley. i have no hot plate, no radio, and no pet. he would laugh if he saw me here. what prospects could i… a person like me… possibly have, he would ask.
i read an article about a woman who spent a year by herself in a cave. actually it was a subterranean room with walls, light, and a generator. she was a psychologist and was conducting an experiment. the room was especially constructed for the experiment. she killed herself a year after she had come out of the cave.
when i came home, he would be there and the tv would be on and he’d be sitting in the armchair staring out of the window. when i came in, he wouldn’t say hello. wouldn’t say anything. and never changed his angle of vision. i don’t know what he saw. there was nothing to see there except for a long row of pitiful buildings, but he was always looking at them as if he were looking at a field full of flowers.
in the article about the woman in the cave, there are two photographs of her. one taken just before she went down into seclusion, and the other just after she climbed out again. her husband is in both pictures; in the first one he’s looking at her and bursting with pride but she has already turned away to start climbing down and you can only see her face from the side. when she comes out again her face is flat like a plate, and pale from lack of light, and although she is looking straight at the camera, her eyes seem to have disappeared, they look like little black pebbles. her husband is standing next to her and watching her with a worried look. he reaches out to her but it looks as of she were shrinking from his hand. i tear both pictures out of the magazine and carefully cut the husband out and hang the pictures of the woman next to each other above my bed.
when i left, he seemed like an object that a guest had left lying on an armchair and that was waiting to be picked up… apathetic and with no expectations or experiences that went beyond this dull, indifferent moment. he was sitting in his armchair waiting for something that, to his mind, was going to happen some day.
the woman in the cave kept a diary, both during her time in the cave and after when she emerged. she writes, that she saw how disjointed her thoughts had become in the cave. towards the end she noticed that she was thinking of things that had never interested her before. for example, she almost spent an entire week thinking of elephants, nothing but elephants. she said she spent hours on the ears alone.
i’m sitting on the chair by my window, smoking a cigarette and thinking of the things i would like to have, the things i want. i write down: radio. then i can’t think of anything else. there is something i want. cat, i think to myself. i write it down. cat. then i can’t think of anything else. there is something i want. i know there is something i want but i don’t know exactly what. hot plate. i write. radio. television, i add to the list. and armchair. one would fit in the corner, and i would sit in it of an evening and the cat would doze at my feet. we would cook supper on the hot plate with the radio and the television on. we would spend our lives here together. we would never have to leave our room.
a spider. a spider is running across my heart. and then another spider runs across my heart and if i close my eyes, i can hear the rush and the rustle of their tiny dry bodies scurrying through me.
the neighbor to my right has a radio and he leaves it on most of the time, even when he is not in. he keeps it tuned to a station that broadcasts only sports. “all sports, all the time” a shrill male voice blares, vows it’s cheerless jingle, which is followed by the surging roar of a crowd at a stadium and then a cracking sound… of a tennis racquet? over somebody’s head? usually you hear people calling in to ask questions or give opinions, and most of the callers seem to be drunk or angry or both. my neighbor does not look athletic and he has a weird haircut, pretty long but layered with a ponytail and puffed up on the top of his head like the crest of a bird. his face is pale and pasty and he has a limp. it’s hard to imagine him doing sports.
now he’s here. i can feel his hand, his eyes, i can almost see his face but when i open my eyes, there are only the contours of my own dark room, and the hand on my face is my own. what i feel is my own touch. my hand flutters around my face like a moth bumping into the window.
someone walks by my door and i try to guess who it is, to guess which face belongs to the footsteps. i should be able to recognize all of them by now but it’s always only the coming and going of strangers.
in the article about the woman in the cave, it says that she took a number of things along to help pass the time and at first she kept herself busy with them, read books, performed little tasks, was still focused on the experiment. but after a while she realized that all she could do was think. she tried to write down her dreams but after one or two months, she said, all she was dreaming about was air and about what it would be like to breathe it.
i raise my hand and wipe my mouth and smear lipstick all over the stubble on my chin while i roam through my room with my eyes searching for the sea.
there’s a hail storm outside and it’s cold. the woman from the cave looks down at me. she says that she thought about weather all the time at first when she was underground, but after a while she forgot what weather was. sometimes she lay on her bed and thought: rain, but she could not remember what rain was, what it felt like on her skin. the sun had become a pure figment of the imagination with no reference to anything, and after a while light itself began to confuse her. weeks went by in which she would never turn the light out. then suddenly there would be days where she could stand nothing but darkness, and she would not turn the lights on, lying on her bed for days, unable to see a thing. not the walls, or the floor, not even her own hand in front of her face.
the man with the cat lives to the left of my room although pets are not allowed in the building. the man talks to her all the time. sometimes it sounds like he has a friend there with him. he is so chatty and conversational, but usually he just murmurs the cat’s name. annabelle. over and over, like something someone’s saying in a trance. he is gaunt and resembles a squirrel with his long bones, long bony ears, a long, thin nose, and long, thinning hair falling on his bony, blotchy skull. everything about him is long and looks sickly, pallid and anemic, like a wasted plant that has been in the cellar for so long that it has turned white while blindly reaching out along the floor in search of light.
sometimes i would wake up at night and he’d be standing at my bed. his hand on my face, which was gently stroking my skin like the hand of a blind person, as if he were trying to extract some kind of meaning from the shape of my cheek. i could smell his skin, hear his soft, tense animal breath, a gentle, damp breeze drifting across the desert of my face. i longed to open my eyes and look at him but at the slightest move, he would take his hand away and retreat into the darkness. so i lay there motionless without batting an eyelash, even when his fingertips were caressing my eyes. his touch was as if a delicate insect had landed on my face. a delicate wing beat and it would already be in flight.
the woman from the cave stares out through me. she said that there were days when she found herself in the middle of some chore, like brushing her teeth, and she would have to stop, suddenly unsure whether she had just begun the task or had been at it for hours. or she forgot what sunlight was. it was sunlight especially that she had wanted to see again, but when she left the cave, she realized that she couldn’t stand the sun.
my room is one huge, luminous insect trap. poison is laid out all over the place. little traces of boric acid running along every wall.and every couple of seconds there’s a crackling sound when an insect hisses and burns up in the electric circuit on the ceiling. and little ant traps are spread all over the room. and a huge flycatcher is hanging in front of the window. it’s like a huge sacrificial feast, masses of insects solemnly dying. flies and bees try in vain to get away from the sticky flycatcher, halfdead bugs and ants struggle across the floor. but the room is still full of insects anyway and every time i hear something fluttering, i whirl around, jump up and run around with my dirty mangled flyswatter. my window is speckled with the remains of squashed insects. even when i’m sleeping, i suddenly jump out of bed to mash an insect on the wall or on the window, and then i lie down again to go back to sleep, still clutching the flyswatter.
in the end we stopped talking to each other and when he did speak to me, then only in short, angry bursts, and when he looked at me, then only in order to stare me down. most of the time he sat in the chair next to the window, as if in a dark pool, his face turned away from the light and surrounded by pictures that he’d torn out of magazines and was pinning to the wall. pictures of families, cats or dogs that looked down at him and he sat in their midst waiting to be rescued.
i dream that i’m living in a wooden house and everything in it is made of wood. the shelves, cupboards and tables, and i sleep on wooden sheets and pillows. and outside wooden grass is growing and the garden is full of little pets; dogs and cats of wood. and when i go outside, my short wooden legs creak in the damp air and his wooden hand caresses my wooden face.
i look out of the window and see directly into a room in the apartment building opposite. i’m surprised. the room is exactly like mine except that the walls are covered with pictures of cats. most of them have been cut out of magazines but there are also pictures from calendars, cartoons and even ads for cat food. and on the floor there are countless plastic cats set up in long, strict rows. like a cat army. and there’s a big round mirror and a man standing in front of it. he’s dressed only in boxershorts and something’s lying next to him that looks like a heap of small furry pelts. the man rummages in the pile and then picks something up and puts it on his head. it still looks like the pelt of a small furry animal although it’s a toupee. out of cat fur? the man turns his head from side to side and looks at himself and squints and looks glumly into the mirror and suddenly he grins and then he smiles and finally laughs and nods. i watch him trying on several toupees. they all look similar, like little pets sitting on his head. then he takes a hand mirror and turns his back to the big mirror; our eyes meet as he turns around. i smile and he stares back at me for a minute and then abruptly puts out his hand and lets down the blinds.
my face. i see my face reflected thousands of times in the shattered mirror scattered on the floor under my bed.
when i open my eyes, i don’t know whether i was asleep or whether i’m awake. that’s what the woman in the cave said. after she had been under the earth for a few months, she sometimes couldn’t tell the difference between a waking thought and a dream. when she lay down to go to sleep at night, she often wasn’t sure what would happen, what it meant. she said it was hard after a while to recognize what was real. at first it bothered her but she gradually found it comforting. she said it made her feel less responsible for everything, and by the time she left the cave, it was no longer a problem. but when she was aboveground again, she caught herself looking at her hand, for example, and wondering whose hand it was. it hadn’t bothered her in the cave, but where she was now, it seemed to be important. the worst thing about it, she said, was that it seemed important.
“no one will ever love you,” he says. “no one could ever love you. only i could love you. you’ll always be alone.” he leans towards me across the dark sea between us. “everyone will love me,” he whispers. “i’m the one they will love.” i sink down and surface and sink again to the sound of his voice and the brush of his hand over my face, crossing the skin, the eyes, moving over the rise and fall of bone. i shudder and jerk from sleep to find my hand in my mouth.
the woman from the cave gazes out at me. she’s been dead for several months now. she wrote in her diary that she might just as well have died under the earth. when she came out of the cave, she thought she was safe. but after only a few weeks, dying was already the only thing she could think of. how she would die, at what time of day it would happen. it was easier just to do it herself instead of thinking about it all the time.
everywhere around me there’s the restless sound of people murmuring that flows like a river from room to room, while we’re all lying on our beds trying not to think about our opportunities.
i’m wide awake and lying on my bed and sleet is spraying in through my window and spiders are running through the cave of my chest and i can feel them tremble with every beat of my heart, and he’s watching me from the trees and waiting for me, and he holds out his hand. “save me,” he whispers, and the words are like feathers falling on my face. “save me.”
i’m reading the newspaper and go to the personals section. all the ones i read have been placed by people who say they are professionally successful, cultivated, open, well-educated and have a sense of humor. all of them are people who are constantly in touch with nature, constantly traveling and fluent in all kinds of languages. a host of laughing people, straying in the woods all harried and leaping into the trees and holding out up there until they can drop down onto something that is moving underneath.
i’m standing under water in a corner of my room and wearing diving goggles without a snorkel. the water is murky and my goggles are steamed up so that i can only see the blurred contours of the fish swimming apathetically back and forth between bed and chair and window. i sit down on the floor and wait for something to happen, and just as i am about to drop off, a big ray fish comes gliding my way. an enormous, flat something about as big as the lid of a garbage can. i see that its tiny eyes are looking at me and i raise my arms. i don’t know if i want to catch it like that or ward it off. but before it turns away, i touch it and then the ray fish almost seems to be lying in my arms. i can feel its muscles tensing and relaxing, and something under its skin is throbbing on my arms. i don’t want to let it go anymore.
where i am is the deepest part of the deepest cave. where i am there is only his voice and everywhere the rustling of spiders. “i’m here,” he says. “we’re here forever.” his hand is a spider at my throat, his hand is a spider on my stomach, a spider in my mouth.
i roll over on my side and close my eyes and open them again and wait for my head to empty out. the woman from the cave smiles at me and i wonder what they did with her body after she died, if they buried her. i would think that the last thing she would have wanted was to go back underground.
i sense him waiting for me. he’s perched in the trees like an animal, patiently and inescapable and staring out at the landscape while the shiny skin of his face catches isolated sunbeams and throws them aimlessly back into the branches.
the cigarette falls out of my hand onto a pile of brochures that slowly begins to smolder. everything around me starts to catch fire and my skin gets hot and my blood warms up and my bed is on fire and i get up and look at my hands. they’re in flames and the flames are licking at my arms and i watch myself burning. “come to me,” he whispers from the open window while the heat melts the skin off my face.
it’s bright and warm outside and i’ve got tons of time. i am sitting on a bench near the hotel, in a park full of pigeons, squirrels and people. people who sit around on benches all day long, dedicating themselves to their chitchat. a muttered litany of people who simply have nowhere else to go, no one else to talk to, and nothing else to do besides sit on a bench staring numbly at whatever passes by.
i’m standing in a store and want to buy a christmas card. i’m going to hang it up over my bed right next to the two photographs of the woman in the cave. there are an awful lot of christmas cards in that store and i go through most of them before finding one i like. it says merry christmas and a happy new year. on the cover, a cat is sitting next to the christmas tree and looking at a little pile of presents in her feeding bowl.
there is a shopping cart next to me the whole time i’m going through the christmas cards. it contains drinks and snacks for a party. potato chips, little cups, a six-pack of beer, several large bottles of soda. nobody’s come near it since i’ve been there, and i look around and then drop my card in the front of the cart and walk off with it. i push it around the store for a while before standing still. i’m like everybody else, i think, i’m giving a party.
the streets are deserted and there’s no wind while i’m walking home and i feel as if i’m being watched, followed by the lunatic gaze of tiny beings that live in the cracks of houses.
list of works