Through the crowd and zones of light they had a scanning kind of way, as if they exchanged with the outer world only light reflexes of tinge and tone. If you caught them watching you across an aisle or from a table in a crowd, they would not look away at once, but would hold their sleepy watch on you, exchanging words between their gazes as if you were on a screen or a stage. So that first night, when they came and sat across from me as strangers and we talked awhile together, I did not know what they liked about me, what had brought them there, and I found myself becoming more and more myself under their expressions, more and more the one I am in my head alone, yet somehow also stranger. They never responded immediately to anything I said, but always kept the phrase suspended between their faces for a while with oblique private references, spiraling gradually in toward the subject as you or I would test and adjust the temperature of a bath. I talked as though talking to myself or thinking out loud, and they spoke as if they heard my thoughts and thought their own out loud to one another. So when they asked me home with them, it did not feel like it had actually happened, as I rose and walked behind or alongside those two identical figures, out into the night and the city streets, where they always felt to me like tourists in among the local routes. And the entire time, even as we crossed the threshold of their home, it all felt like no more than a greeting that had been prolonged and then prolonged.
Rooms have always suggested a sense of personality to my mind, but the rooms in that place of theirs evoked identities so vivid and distinct that after awhile it was almost as if they had faces I could reconstruct as clearly as I could my mother’s, complete with voices and idiosyncrasies I could recall as if they were real people I had known once and forgotten. My dreams always took place in those same rooms, always carrying on the activity we had put off to sleep as if we had not gone to sleep at all, just as we resumed in the morning as if we had not awoken. The conversation was that of two people who know each other well enough to feel no obligation to be interesting or to avoid silences, just the kind of practical observations that fill the gaps between a meal and cleaning up. Yet they had a way of offering what I might want only when I could not want it, of asking me a question and turning away as I answered, as if their sense of propriety was a clock out of time that they depended on only to know the world was still turning. I remember, one late afternoon or early evening—I had just had a shower, and as I passed from the closeted damp to a cool space among tall white walls and stood upon the tiles in the air, I saw one of them approaching from a distant entrance, white and level in the stagger of transition, smiling somewhere beyond my head. He came and passed and asked, in passing, “how do you do, how do you do,” in a loose and tired, old-fashioned kind of way, smiling past my face as though to someone else, all subtly wrong but not out of place, strangely perfect for the juncture, but I can’t say why. It was as if he greeted the moment instead of me. And the longer I stayed with them, the more some vague rhythm of our talk predominated over meaning, and the less the meaning seemed to matter.
So by the deep end of my visit, our observations, requests, acknowledgements took on this numb momentum I remember from the psalms of Christian churches: I will extol thee, my God, O king; and I will bless thy name for ever and ever. Every day will I bless thee; and I will praise thy name for ever and ever...— the same excess of sense hanging from the soft and heavy beat of mantra: how are you, how do you do, what are you going to do... filling the air and softening the spaces between things as with a dense warm dampness, giving everything a floating abstract quality, like an aquarium. It was all like that—all haphazard, slightly off. And there was an odor everywhere—not only in the air, but permeated throughout it all, so that if you bit into an orange it coupled with the taste, though it was strongest in the corners, a smell like all the smells of a dry and crowded summer afternoon stalled and puckered into sweet and musty purple tones. You could barely detect it in the light, but at night, when I would leave, let’s say, the warm lit space we talked in for a dark corridor between rooms, it smelled so strong I sometimes lost my way, and I imagined that if ever I found myself in total darkness, the force of it would render me unconscious of anything but smell. They had a vague schedule of things that slipped further down the day with every day I spent there, so that by some sunsets we would rise for breakfast, and some late mornings go to sleep. And as we slipped more loosely from the general time out outside, deeper into time indoors, all the more did events resound a sense of deja-vu so that, in the ripeness of my stay, everything we said and did sounded as though it had been said and done before, in that same place, with that same such-and-such a way of saying things.
And I remember entering a room once and finding them each sitting on a separate windowsill in the after-calm of conversation lapsed. They took up talking for a while with me. But as I spoke this time, as I played about in their dim and slanted interest, they narrated me to one another: “he didn’t look at us when he said that” and, “the smile made it wrong,” and “so he is being funny now,” so that I felt abstract, divided from myself; and when I spoke out loud and heard my voice, it sounded strange to me. From then on, I would always have their voices at my back, describing my attitudes and behaviours to one another. And then one day as I was sitting in a room where I had gone to be alone, I heard my thoughts themselves uttered by those two identical voices, spoken through the door as they occurred to me. They spoke my thoughts better than I could myself. I was offended, but I did not know why. I thought I should probably be angry, so I turned and pronounced myself quite fiercely across the walls and them. But my anger faltered and broke up in echoes as it left me, diffusing all about their four distracted eyes, while they contributed their two “oh no”’s. But I did not feel embarrassed, as one turned to the other and asked a question only the other could understand, but only the sense that I should feel embarrassed. So they went on uttering my thoughts as I thought them through the day, and I felt no resentment, but only the sense that I should feel resentment. And in the same way I no longer felt joy or sadness, anger or ease, but only the sense that I should feel such-and-such a thing. And the more they spoke my thoughts, the less I thought and the more I heard, so that I came to think no longer, but only heard the thoughts of some separate me they cast between them. And from then on, I felt myself a stranger to my thoughts. I could no longer be alone, for when alone I felt and thought nothing but uneasiness, and I made a sound like crying though I did not cry. And if I found myself in a certain room, arranged according to a particular sense of things, that sense of things would speak through me in a series of sounds and gestures. I would lean out of windows and watch walkers in the street, and I would speak their thoughts, what their thoughts must be, softly to myself as I watched. And if I heard crickets chirping in the grass, then I would chirp along, on my back upon a sofa or along a carpet on the floor. And then I truly did lose track of time. Today, the circumstances of that period recur to me only in dreams, as a parade of distorted images, of overwhelming corners and stupefying windows. I do not know how I escaped that place and state of mind. I just recovered my old, familiar consciousness on the street one day. I remember the two of them walking ahead of me. They did not look back, but continued on into the crowd beyond while I stood watching, overwhelmed and undecided as to whether I should follow them or turn off to the side and make my own way home.
Originally from a small town in Northwestern Ontario, Thomas Sorensen is currently at large in California. His fiction has previously appeared in the Danforth Review.