The Locked Room

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Takashi dressed in long black rags, ripped fishnet stockings, and big black boots with long loose laces that splatted at the floor when he walked. He smelled strongly of old sweat and cigarette smoke, and his face was scabbed from tearing his pimples open and squeezing the pus out with dirty chewed-up fingernails. He covered the scabs with makeup that was too pale for his skin. He used scissors to cut off all his eyelashes. Sometimes he drew a French mustache on with black felt pen. He was very intelligent and preoccupied with death and suffering. He had a way about him I really liked. His hair was long and bleached and dyed rainbow colors. Occasionally he bit into his lip and dribbled blood down his chin. Sometimes he vomited in public just to make a scene. Strangers would rush to his aid, offering handkerchiefs and bottles of water. People even stopped to take his picture when we walked down the street. Takashi’s taste in classical music was just like mine: Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Ravel. He was talented on the violin. He said his instrument was worth more than his father’s car. He chewed licorice gum sometimes, his favorite flavor, but his mouth still tasted like excrement when we kissed each other. Takashi was my first real boyfriend.

Last spring, we got locked in a practice room above the large concert hall at the music school where we both took lessons on Saturday afternoons. This happened during a rehearsal of the youth orchestra, in which Takashi played violin. At first I thought Takashi might have arranged the entrapment to take advantage of me sexually, but that was not the case. How it happened was so funny: We went up a secret spiral staircase behind the concert hall while the orchestra was tuning. We just wanted to explore a bit, before Takashi’s rehearsal started. In the practice room, we closed the door behind us and then we couldn’t open it again.

The locked room contained a couch, a radiator, several chairs and music stands but no piano. As a pianist, I was never part of any orchestra. I was mostly studying composition then, and that kept me from having to perform very often. I was not as outgoing as Takashi. Everything made me nervous, in fact. It was partly why I liked Takashi so much. He seemed fearless, like he could do anything he wanted to do, even if it was disgusting. In the corner of the room was a rack of costumes that I recognized from the student production of Figaro. The opera had been part of the holiday festival in which my first composition for violin and harpsichord had debuted. Takashi had played the violin part very well. The harpsichord part was so difficult, and I was so nervous, that my piano teacher, Mrs. V, had to fill in for me at the last moment.

We banged on the locked door and yelled but nobody could hear. We heard the conductor shouting, and then the orchestra began to play. I tried picking the lock with one of my barrettes. Takashi had a small knife he carried around for mutilating himself, and we each tried using it as a screwdriver to dismantle the lock or take the door off its hinges, but it was impossible. The other door was a fire door of reinforced steel bolted shut. Behind that door was another secret staircase that only maintenance workers used, we learned later. The room had one window looking down onto an alleyway. Across the alley was a concrete parking structure. We were on the fifth floor.

“We should knot these costumes together, make a rope, tie one end to the radiator, and throw the other end down to the alley. Then you can climb down and come back up and let me out,” I told Takashi.

He scratched at the veins on his wrist. “Let’s just stay here forever,” he said. “Anyway, you should be the one to climb down. You’re lighter. You’re the girl.”

We were quiet for a while after that. Then I took a few costumes off their hangers and tried them on. I could see my reflection in the window. I looked like a tiny clown in the big blouse and vest. Takashi found a short gray wig and tried it on.

“You look great in that wig,” I told Takashi. He took it off and held it in his hands, petting it like it was a kitten he loved so much.

I took off my costumes and tied all the garments on the rack together with double knots. Takashi held up a blue cotton undershirt, sniffed it, and threw it on the ground. “If we have to pee, we can pee into it,” he said. Luckily, I didn’t have to pee. We tied the makeshift rope to the radiator. We opened the window and threw the rope out. The end of the rope did not reach the ground, but if one of us climbed down to the end of it, the remaining distance to the sidewalk was only one or two stories. I didn’t think it would be a lethal jump.

A thought came into my mind. It was a question: “Do you see this, God?” God seemed like a fly on the wall, like a hidden camera. I mentioned the thought to Takashi. He told me that he was an Atheist, but that he believed in Hell. I leaned out through the open window and looked down. A homeless man was pushing a shopping cart of garbage up the narrow alleyway.

“Hey!” I shouted. Takashi grabbed my arm and told me to be quiet. “We’re trapped up here!” I squealed. When Takashi clamped his hand over my mouth, it tasted like baby powder from the wig, and excrement.

I bit down on Takashi’s finger, not very hard, but hard enough for him to let me loose. I picked up the blue undershirt for peeing into and threw it out the window, hoping it would get the homeless man’s attention. It simply drifted off to the side of the alley and disappeared behind a dumpster. I spoke to God in my mind. “Please, open the door,” I said. I tried both doors again. Of course, they were still locked. And then I felt very stupid.

I tried to express the idea of mind-over-matter to Takashi. “If you believe something, really and truly, it becomes reality,” I said. “Don’t you think?”

“I believe in death,” was Takashi’s reply. He leaned out and spat blood down into the alleyway. Some blood and spit bubbled down his chin. Then he sat down on the couch and petted the wig again.

I felt like I had to try to escape from the locked room. I tugged at the rope. It seemed to be tied securely enough to the radiator. So I wrapped it around my arm and held on and began to step out onto the window ledge. Takashi sat on the couch and picked at the scabs on his face and watched me. I told him that I was not afraid of falling. And for a moment, I wasn’t nervous. Not at all.

What happened next is absolutely true. Once I was all the way out the window, I gripped on the rope, lowered myself a little, and put the soles of my shoes flat against the side of the building. Then a car came squealing up the alley. It was copper-colored and very shiny. The motor was very loud. The car screeched to a halt below me. I froze. Takashi threw the gray wig past me, out the window. I screamed and pulled myself back up and crouched on the ledge of the window. I looked down, though it made me dizzy. It was windy up there in the sky. A man got out of the car. His movements were violent and angry as he pointed up at me and yelled, “Young lady, you better get back inside this instant!” I’d never seen anyone so angry. Even my mother had never seemed so angry. “Young lady!” the man repeated. He swung his finger up at me, stabbing at the air. In my mind now, I picture him in a black suit and shiny black shoes, but I couldn’t make out his pants or shoes from so high up in the air. I think he was actually wearing a white T-shirt and dark sunglasses.

Of course, I did what he told me to do. I grappled with the rope, hoisted myself over the windowsill, and climbed back inside the room. I hid by the couch. It was so warm and quiet inside the room. I could hear my heart pounding. Takashi got up to look out the window. He said he saw the man shake his head and get back in the car. I could hear the door slam and the car drive away.

“We should put the clothes back on the hangers,” Takashi said, lazily pulling up the rope.

I was pretty shaken up. I wanted to talk about the man with Takashi, but Takashi wouldn’t look at me. I helped pull the rope back in, and we untied the garments and put them back on the rack. I wanted Takashi to tell me that he was happy I was safe inside the room, and that he’d have been sorry if I’d died. I wanted to discuss the angry man. I wanted to say I believed in guardian angels, but I was scared Takashi would roll his eyes. He blew his nose into a white dress shirt and pinched a pimple on his neck.

We sat on the floor with our backs against the couch and watched the sky darken behind the parking structure across the alleyway. The orchestra rehearsal had ended hours since. I knew my mother would be angry that I wasn’t home in time for dinner. Takashi pulled a cigarette from his purse and lit it. We passed it back and forth, blowing the smoke at the sliver of moon visible from where we sat on the floor by the window. Finally, Takashi told me his theory about the man in the car. “He was a hallucination. We’re in a vortex. We’re in a black hole. We’ve always been in it. Nothing we’ve ever seen has been real. Only this room is real.” He ashed his cigarette onto his tongue. “You shouldn’t have thrown that blue shirt out the window,” he said. “Now our reality has been punctured. And I have to pee.”

“You shouldn’t have thrown out that gray wig,” I said. My heart raced again when I thought of how that gray wig had flown past me, a tiny kitten pawing through the air. I don’t know what happened to that gray wig. Maybe the man in the car caught it and brought it home. I told Takashi I didn’t want to be his girlfriend anymore. He said nothing.

I felt very depressed after that. All of eternity seemed to be laid out in front of me, and there was nothing but the couch and chairs and music stands, the wrinkled costumes, the radiator, and Takashi. That was Hell there, in that locked room. When the cigarette was finished, Takashi tried to kiss me. I just turned my head away.

Not long after, a janitor came and let us out. “I smelled smoke,” he said, eyeing the crust of blood around Takashi’s chapped lips.

I cried as we walked down the secret staircase and through the dark, quiet hallways of the music school. Takashi found his violin and I found my composition notebook in the place we’d left them, under a table in the concert hall where the orchestra had rehearsed.

Outside it was a warm and pleasant evening, like nothing was wrong. Takashi waved goodbye at the bus stop and I walked to the tram. At home, I sat in the kitchen and my mother gave me a cold, boiled potato, black instant coffee, and a small container of diet yogurt.

“You should try harder to please me,” she said. “For your own good.”

“I’ll try harder,” I told her. “I promise.”

But I never did try very hard to please my mother. In fact, I never tried hard to please anybody at all after that day in the locked room. Now I only try hard to please myself. That is all that matters here. That is the secret thing I found.

Ottessa Moshfegh is the author of two novels, McGlue and Eileen, and the collection of short stories, Homesick for Another World.

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