Different Rooms, Different Spaces
by Hermann Mensing
Transposed by Priscilla Layne
While searching for definitions I might have found a mathematical and a physical definition for space, but not one for room. For example, I could not find out whether a space has windows. Nor could I find out whether a room has to have windows in order to be considered a room. So I decided I would call a physical space a room only if it had windows. If it has windows, then it naturally needs a door as well. Yet what if a space doesn't have windows, but does have a door? What would it be then?
room (n.) From the Old English rum "space" (extent or time); "scope, opportunity," from Proto-Germanic *ruman (cf. Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old High German, Gothic rum, German Raum "space," Dutch ruim "hold of a ship, nave"), nouns formed from Germanic adjective *ruma- "roomy, spacious," from PIE root *reue- "to open; space" (cf. Avestan ravah- "space," Latin rus "open country," Old Irish roi, roe "plain field," Old Church Slavonic ravinu "level," Russian raviina "a plain," Polish rum "space"). Old English also had a frequent adjective rum "roomy, wide, long, spacious."
This is a space that once had windows and doors, but it was never a room, at least not in the sense that we usually mean when we say "room." It was a space in the basement of a two-story office building. The building had been reduced to rubble during the earthquake. The space, which hadn't been a room despite its doors and windows, had collapsed underneath the rubble. A few hollow spaces had formed between the debris. Auntie A- is lying in one of these hollow spaces (no doors, no windows). She had sought shelter in the basement during the tremors. And although she can hardly move around, she hasn't been injured. It's dark. And it's eerily quiet. She knows what happened and she's hoping she'll be rescued. She calls out. Someone will answer her at some point. But it'll be hours before someone can free her from these confines.
I was fifteen when I moved in here. It didn't have more than a bed, a dresser, a small table and a chair. From the window I could see the district court and jail cell bars. At the age of eighteen, I moved into a room in the attic. That's when Auntie A- moved in with us. At the time she had been working for her sister's business in the rebuilt building that had nearly buried her alive. She moved into my former room. A cast-iron stove stood in the left-hand corner across from the door. The door connecting my room with my parent's was blocked by an olive-green dresser. There was a bed to the right of the door. In front of the bed stood a small table, two cocktail chairs, and a sofa with two pillows sitting regally like miniature kings. The way I remember it, everything in this room ranged from green to olive-green. And although Auntie A- lived there until three years ago, she never really used it. She sometimes went upstairs to take a nap. But in the evenings she sat in the living-room with my mother and father while I listened to loud music in the attic.
This was also the room where K- slit her wrists; a sign that she could no longer take the oppression and violence. The family doctor came and downplayed everything. He said something like "the course of true love never did run smooth." What was he supposed to say? Rub salt in the wound of a family catastrophe? - No. He taped together K-'s wounds and said goodbye. All that remains is an image of K- in bed. Large bloodstains on her sheets. Shamefully looking away. No understanding. Silence.
Last year someone died in this room. It was the grandmother of a Cambodian family who moved into the building after my mother and aunt entered a nursing home. My grandparents and parents had lived there since the turn of the century.
Did anyone have sex in this room? Not to my knowledge. But considering that people generally enjoy procreating, you would have to assume it happened. Who and with whom? - I don't know. I only know that after the earthquake and until the 1950s a displaced baker and his family lived on the second-floor. The room was part of their apartment. I also know someone masturbated in this room. Because it was me. And I know that someone threw up in a bucket next to the bed for 24 hours in regular intervals. That was when I got drunk for the first time, and I never got that drunk again. I don't know what's going on in this room right now. But my knowledge of human nature tells me that everything people do is now taking place in this room.
It's night in this room. Two lamps burn dimly and Trainspotting is on TV. Someone's sitting at the computer. He just got back from LA. He played a gig there. They told him he did a good job. I assume that's the only reason why he left his room, got on his motorcycle, rode into a cold north wind and walked into a tapROOM.
An entire lifetime played out in this room. It's a stage. Father and mother moved in after their first child. Soon they had a second. Different animals walk back and forth: mostly cats, but also a guinea pig, a hedgehog, a bunny and birds. During this time, the prop designers have their hands full. They carry sofas in and then drag them out again when they're threadbare. They put together bookcases and take them apart. They arrange chairs around a table. They discuss what would be the best spot for the tiger chair. That's what happens year in, year out. In fact, there is only one spot in this room that has remained unchanged over the years. That's the spot on the left, underneath the large window. It has an amplifier, a tape recorder, a radio, a CD player and a record player. These devices stood there even before anyone knew how the life in this room would be decorated. The speakers were placed by the opposite wall. Then the prop designers chose what music to play during the move and they got to work. We can assume that they're still busy. For the past few years they've been occupied with paintings and sculptures. They hang them up and move them around as if they had a plan. But there isn't one. They decide everything spontaneously. Everything could be over all at once. The room's occupants find that important to know.
This is a space where everyone has spent some time. It has neither doors nor windows. Still, everyone finds their way in and - despite some difficulty - back out again. There's no talking, eating or even drinking in this room. There's only complete darkness. You can float. You can change your appearance. All in all, this is a space where something magical can happen. Something uncanny. A holy space. It's the first place people stop and the first place people leave again. Many try to return to this space years later. Unfortunately no one has ever succeeded.
Who'd have thought we would rush from space to space so quickly. After all, an entire life lies between the last space and this one. A life lasts only so long. No one has any guarantees, but if it ends, it always ends here. This space also has neither windows nor doors. And you cannot enter this space on your own. And you cannot leave it. From its appearance you can easily tell whether it's inhabited by rich or poor people. And there's something else that differentiates it from other spaces. It can be carried. It has brass handles on its left and right side. It can be carried from here to there, and there is either a hole in the ground or a hole in an oven. One way or the other, after a long or short period of time, the space and all of its contents disappear in the hole. Who would have thought that spaces could dissolve? You learn something new every day.
I'm small, my heart is pure, and only Jesus shall find room in it.
Another room with a window facing the district court. But you have to stretch to see the barred jail cell windows. If you don't stretch to see them, all that's visible is a tall, red, brick wall. What do you think is behind it: criminals who go outside once or twice a day. There's a door in the wall; a tall, gray, iron double-door. No one has ever seen it open. In the 50s this room had an oven with enameled doors and a stove you could use to heat up a pot. A handrail ran along the edges of the oven. A gas stove would later take its place. Both cupboards were ancient. They had two sections. The pots were on the bottom and the plates up top. There was a table in the center of the room where everyone had a spot. At the head of the table with a view of the window: father. To the left of him: mother. Across from her: son. Across from the father: the daughter. There was a sink in the right-hand corner next to the window. Eventually there was a washing machine in that spot. For a while, this was the only room in the house that was always heated. A lot of fights went on in this room. People would scream and yell in this room. But this is also the room where I flew across the Pacific to Australia while my father lay on the chaise lounge and balanced me on his stretched out feet. In this room I heard things I will never tell another soul. This room was the center of my world. Until the day I hurled a cup of coffee at my mother.
This room had a number. It had three beds and the walls were chalk white. Two of the beds were empty. W- lay in the third. He was a feeble-minded man in his 50s. He worked in the hospital kitchen, swept the courtyard, did a little of this and that. You might say he liked the charity he received for his work. Then came the day when he ran in front of a car. I was told to console him, because he didn't have anyone else. I don't think he was conscious. There was a monitor at the foot of his bed that showed his heart rate: a curve that rose and fell. The room was partially lit. I found the quiet that filled the room uncanny. W- breathed peacefully. I looked back and forth between him and the monitor. His heart rate flat-lined. I ran to find the attending nurse. She said I shouldn't worry. He was dying and nothing more could be done. I should just remain at his bedside. So that's what I did. The quiet in the room felt surreal, though nothing is more real than death. But this was my first encounter with death. After a while I got used to it. And when W- died, I realized there was nothing scary about it. I just left the room and said "W- is dead."
Why is it so quiet? Does danger lurk around the corner?
We've reconsidered. We'll allow you to enter at your own risk. The people here might remind you of your own life. So you should be careful. Enter the room(s) as if wild animals roamed inside. Act as if demons were sitting on shelves and storms could blow everyone away.
Two people are lying in bed. They just did it. First of all, because they love each other. Second, because this is the city of love. The bed rocked and squeaked. It's amazing that it didn't break. The room is shabby. They couldn't afford a better one. It smells like cat pee. Through an open window you can hear screaming, a hand smacking bare flesh, blows, wood splitting and glass breaking. The sounds are coming from a movie theater where they only show Kung Fu flicks.
There isn't any room with this number. So it's either 12a or 14.
My room is small. It's more like a hole. I built an alter in a small nook. It's got a photo of C, a candle, incense and my diary. The door leads to a courtyard with reddish-brown walls with white roses climbing up it. I bathe in the courtyard fountain. The water is ice-cold. The people are the color of bronze. Some of them giggle when they see me.
You'd have to fly in order to get here. But you could also take a ship across the ocean. Either way you have to travel far, far away.
When Greg and I went to school together, his room was decorated with panties. He claimed to have stolen them all. Not that anyone believed him, but still it was worth seeing. The panties were brightly colored. Some of them had frills. There must have been 10 to 15 of them. He had pinned condoms in between them. He had different kinds of condoms, even though there wasn't much of a selection back then. The rest of his wall was covered in posters of Cream, Led Zeppelin, Cuby's Blues Band and
A room for premieres. Narrow. There's a sink to your immediate left. There's also a children's bed, shelves, books by Twain, Dickens, London school books. They are mostly in brown and beige. It's a room in a bungalow. The smell: breathtaking, because there are two women and three men with stinky feet living here. One of them, the mother, is depressed. I'm nineteen and a frequent guest. But nothing will come of the premiere. The sink, which is supposed to play a supporting role, refuses to play along and quits. So we have other things to do.
The stage has been set. A room for illusions with partitions, props and lighting. The play being staged is A Street Car Named Desire. Williams. It's about New Orleans slums and their fluid social milieu. In scene two, the aristocratic lady is sitting naked in the bathtub. She's very attractive. The lighting technicians (including me) and stage hands usually sit in the breakroom playing cards and drinking beer. Instead, we're standing in the gangway and trying to give the impression that we're about to change sets. But there's no set change coming. The countess is about to step out of the bath. After that the gangways are empty.
A window, a door, a hole in the floor with a porcelain bowl above it. The window in a quarter of a semicircular tower that clings to the house like an awkward hug. The window is small and high above the ground. But you can still reach it. You just lean a bike against the wall, climb onto the seat and grip the window frame with your right hand, stick your leg through the window, pull your lower body up so that you're hanging out of the window sideways. Then you try and reach the pipe attached to the tank with your free hand, pull in your head and slowly work the rest of your body into the room. During this acrobatic feat, one foot hangs out the window, while the other hovers high above the porcelain bowl trying to reach the seat. You tear the crotch of your pants, but then you've made it. You pull in the other leg and stand with both feet on the seat and hope the door isn't locked from the outside.
I walk through a warehouse, down a dark hallway and stop in front of a door. I open the door and go inside. It's a large square room. To my immediate left, two sets of four desks face each other and divide the room. My enemy's desk is in the back row on the left-hand side. To the right of the door is a large oven that I have to keep heated. Behind my enemy there's a teleprinter. And there are sansevieria plants on the windowsills. Underneath - two desks for women. The rest of the office is male. Every day from morning till night, men of all ages work here. I'm the youngest. I make it possible for everyone else to leave. But my enemy has to stay. I chain him to the teleprinter. Then I douse files and desks with gasoline and set them on fire. And I leave the room. I watch the fire engulf the space and burn down the building, leaving nothing but its foundation. I'm happy. He's finally dead.
There's only a bed. And SHE's in it. Bedridden since her fall seven years ago. Blind. Nearly deaf. Never complaining. It's a hydraulic bed. You can set it to eight different positions. There's a night stand next to her bed. A talking clock, two bottles of peach juice, cough drops and lotion on it. A radio and a telephone on the windowsill. Pictures of her father, mother, in-laws, children and grandchildren on the wall at the head of the bed. The walls are white. Even though I visit once a week, I don't know what the floor looks like. (My inattentiveness sometimes frightens me.) There's no escaping this room. SHE will die in this room. And I hope I'm here when she does.
You haven't said anything yet. Maybe you haven't even started thinking. But you have to accept such things. It's unavoidable and happens every day. You face each other, eye to eye, and ask critical questions, which go unanswered every time. Then you brush your teeth. You wash your face and under your arms. You tremble early in the morning. And when you think you've made some progress with your observations, you risk taking another look. Yeah, that might be you. You've seen this face before. After a long period of reflection, incoherent thoughts consolidate into memories. You've been in this body a while now. You can even remember its name. But you have no clue how you got in there. You leave this room to go drink coffee someplace else and distract yourself with news from around the world. You'll make another attempt tomorrow. But you still won't get much farther.
Finally a room for contemplating. A "holy site for the removal of all evil" where we often find that conflicts of the soul evaporate - even if they leave behind a smell that takes some getting used to. So what happened? How did we reach this catharsis? We can't really explain it, but every morning we humbly make a pilgrimage back here. We mutter our mantra surrounded by pictures of holy cows and flying pigs, watched over by John Z., a drawing done by our youngest son M. and some stick-figures drawn by our eldest son J. While elsewhere there are other explosive mantras scaring away the morning.
The floor is made of stamped clay and the walls are made of clay and hay. The roof is thatched. A small window with a burlap bag hanging from it. A low door. Always half-lit inside. An open fire pit there. It's my magical house. When I go outside, I can see sky-high mountains in the northwest. China's out there. I cast spells. I go down to the ocean. I cast spells. I sit on the bus and return to where I came from. I cast spells. But my house remains empty and the rabbit doesn't like carrots.
All the rooms so far have been three-dimensional. That's why I've been hesitating to describe this room; it only has two dimensions. And they only come alive when electricity flows through the room and a video recorder is on. We see an Italian family on the beach in Tijuana in 1990. Bored kids between the ages of five and ten. A woman whose gaze longingly wanders over the horizon. And a morose, chain-smoking man. If they say anything at all, they sound tired. Then there's a sudden change. He sets up a video camera. When everything is ready, he gives the camera to his wife and starts playing with the children. At first they are confused, but soon they cheer up and embrace it as nice for a change. She films. He makes witty remarks to the camera. The next few minutes turn into a display of happy roughhousing on the beach. Close-ups are followed by panning shots. The woman films like mad. But once the filming is done, the family falls back into the motionless, joyless rigidity of the three-dimensional space.
If I remember correctly, this place is called Dhurbar Square. It separates the new part of Kathmandu from the historic center. And the jail is on one side. I often looked up at the barred windows. One day I saw someone wave. I knew him. I had seen him in Sri Lanka. He asked whether I could get him some paper and cigarettes. I nodded. I bought what he wanted and headed for the building. As soon as I passed the first guard a nightmare began. Everything smelled like urine and filth, the walls were stained, the lighting was dull and I wouldn't have been surprised to hear screams. I told a watch officer why I was there. He directed me towards a specific office. I went over and knocked on the door. Someone asked me to come in. Cigarette smoke. Bars on the windows. A metal desk. A chair. A metal file cabinet. Everything was dingy, with piles of files everywhere. A man sitting behind a desk. Small, with a dangerously shifty look in his eyes. Why had I actually come to this hellhole? "Sit down," he said, not "Please have a seat." Suddenly I realized that I was at his mercy and he wouldn't hesitate to treat me as he saw fit. He interrogated me. And the worst thing was that I had some hashish on me. I thought, "I'm never getting out of here again!"
Another space that doesn't quite fit the definition we have in mind. The space taken up by language. The space in which I grew up. A space which during my childhood was still divided by the insignia of two different countries, even if it was permeable and can be entered or exited with less scrutiny since NAFTA. On my side we spoke standard English and Californian English. On the other side they spoke Spanish and Spanglish. Californian English and Spanglish use a lot of the same words. Despite those similarities, Americans and Mexicans have a hard time understanding each other's cultures, which might have to do with the fact that Mexico was settled by the Spaniards and the US by the Brits. I grew up between all of these words and at an early age I began to imitate them. At the age of 15 or 16, I crossed the border and succeeded in shedding my American skin in exchange for a Mexican one. I liked that. There were a lot of reasons to change. One of them was, I could finally escape my American past. I still love this change even today. And if there were such a thing as reincarnation, I'd insist on being born near a border.
The floorplan is square. A simple toilet in the left corner. A cot in the right corner. A small table next to that. No windows, but a dim light hangs about 13 feet in the air. The walls are painted an unnerving turquoise you can wash. A steel door can be opened with a large key. And there's a flap in the door. You can throw sentences through this flap. Sentences like: We meant a play and not a series. We meant a radio play and not a reading disguised as one. If you respond, I don't have time to waste on three sentences, then you hear the answer Whether or not you get to work is up to you. So you sit in this room. You're fed regularly. You could leave if you wanted to. You chose this. You sit in this room and voice your desires to the people who always win out.
Another boxy floorplan. No windows once again. The color of the walls: a washed-out, translucent blue. Two fiberglass rods that intersect under the dome hold up the construction. The space is mobile. After a little practice, you only need 15 minutes to set it up and get it ready for moving in. The woven walls are all that separate the inside from the outside. One wall has a zipper which allows you to exit or enter the space. So, a commonly heard sound is the zipping up and down of these kinds of walls in similar spaces throughout the neighborhood. I've often enjoyed spending the night in these rooms. I especially enjoyed the proximity to the outside world. Though I have to admit that on stormy nights by the ocean there was something uncanny about it. I'm thinking about a night in San Francisco. As I stood on a pebbly beach by the bay, with a view of Treasure Island, again and again the wind pressed the dome more than halfway down into the room, allowing it the chance to return to its original form with an explosive pop. It's nearly impossible to sleep during nights like that. On nights like that, you wish you were back in a room with sturdy walls. But nights like that are an exception. They pass, and with any luck, a clear sky will appear around the world the following morning and reconcile us. Our backs hurt, the camping pot boils water for coffee, you squat there like an Indian and just live. That's nice.