A Room for Sorrow
by Andriy Lyubka
Translated from the Ukrainian by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler
From the outside, his building looked absolutely ordinary. The old, two-story stone structure had been divided into four apartments. His was on the first floor of the right wing. The neighbors didn’t exactly know what he did all day. Perhaps they noticed that he only left the building on rare occasions and almost never in the morning, which meant he didn’t work or worked from home. Their street was rather sleepy, although it was close to the center of town—just a few dozen cars would go by on a typical day, and even fewer pedestrians. The long fence of an abandoned factory ran along one side of the street, the emptiness of its windows shining. On the other side, there were a few two-story buildings erected a century ago—once luxurious villas, now apartment buildings—spaced quite far apart for a city. He’d just rented an apartment in one of them.
Ascold led the life of a recluse, because he primarily found happiness in memories, not the present day. Naturally, he enjoyed listening to the birds singing at five in the morning, when everything’s just waking up. He loved taking evening walks along the water, and especially a glass of good wine. So, to a certain extent, this man was a hedonist, but only when it came to innocent little things. He lived his inner, spiritual life in the past. Though he didn’t realize it, that was the real reason he left the bustle of the capital he once loved so much, moving back to the city where he’d been young and graduated from college.
He would’ve kept loving it, if it weren’t for his wife’s death, which hit him where it hurts and ruined his long-harbored dreams of a happy, loving retirement, travelling, and a new phase in their relationship. His magnificent and beloved Maria burned to death—some terrible fever that had doctors absolutely dumbfounded. Ascold returned to their apartment after the funeral, sat down in the big room, and just kept sitting there, motionless, for several days straight, as though life, even its most primitive instincts—eating, drinking, sleeping, relieving himself—had died inside him. He found himself in a rather unenviable position: at an age when it’s too late to dream about starting a new life, without any interests or hobbies that could stave off the boredom of the mundane, without any children or a family that could enrich the life he had. Everything had lost its meaning; he’d become indifferent toward the whole world.
Forty days after the funeral, Ascold picked up the urn holding his wife’s ashes and headed to the countryside, where he scattered the person closest to him over a river. He’d always treated the body, which merely caused people problems, with a certain degree of scorn. After all, people would be much closer to perfection in uncarnate, immaterial form, just their souls fluttering above the earth. He didn’t feel any particular sentiment toward Maria’s ashes, since he knew that her soul had flown away long ago—from the crematorium to some unknown dimension. After he’d performed that rite, there was nothing keeping him in the capital.
He gave his home library to the university, donated some of his clothes, packed two big suitcases, and called a real estate agency. His plan entailed selling his apartment and then using that money and his life savings to travel the world, which he’d dreamt about ever since he read Jules Verne as a kid. That’s the way Ascold wanted to waste the rest of the time allotted to him, harboring the hope buried deep in his subconscious that death would find him somewhere along the way, on a ship in the middle of the ocean or deep in the jungle. He was really just trying to kill time as he awaited death, although he didn’t admit that to himself. Nothing could keep him in the big city, or his apartment, now that he’d lost Maria. His very presence on planet Earth seemed inappropriate and superfluous.
While the real estate agency was handling all the paperwork associated with the apartment sale, Ascold decided to pay what he thought would be a farewell visit to the city of his youth, where he went to college, met Maria, and ultimately married her. It was supposed to be a short, sentimental trip, filled with melancholy, memories, and attempts to recreate the past; however, the city of Ascold’s youth unexpectedly forced him to change his plans. He lost interest in the idea of traveling to every continent and decided to stay here. The elderly man assured himself that at his age, prolonged voyages bring the gifts of fatigue and aggravation, instead of delight.
This was all because Ascold suddenly felt that he could relive the best moments of his life in the city of his youth. All it took was concentration and some peace and quiet. Just lay down, eyes closed, and focus on recalling those moments, that’s all it takes to get back into them, feel the warmth of that distant day on his skin, inhale the fragrance of flowers, and taste that first bite of pastry and the coffee that follows it. The most important thing here is to concentrate on the details, rather than recalling generalities or blocks of time. For instance, try to recall what Maria was wearing the morning when they went to church to bless their paska, what other food was in their basket or what streets they traversed to reach the cathedral. In other words, do what Ascold, the professor of literature, advised his students to do—put all your trust in the magic of the text; after all, books enable you to experience the kind of incredible journeys and adventures that only a few people in the whole history of our civilization have been fated to see. So, now Ascold was reading the book of his memory in similar fashion, flipping through cheerful, sad, and mundane pages.
He decided to rent an apartment instead of buying one, so he wouldn’t be tied down to this city and would remain free if his desires or plans were to change. Of the options the realtor offered, there was just one—an apartment in an old villa—that captured Ascold’s heart. It was in a quiet neighborhood, even though it was just five minutes from the city center. He could see Castle Hill and the castle itself out his window. The tourist attractions were on the other side of the hill; down here you were in the thick of things, yet tucked away from people at the same time. The only drawback was that it turned out to be a three-room apartment. What was a single man to do in so many chambers? Compared to the capital’s real estate prices, the rent for this place was just a nominal fee, so the professor did wind up taking it.
It matched the principles he built his life on; he always said that one must practice proper intellectual hygiene, which meant not working in the room where you sleep. Ascold dubbed the transition from bedroom to home office or living room an initiation, which turned a sleepy, weak person that just satisfied the animalistic need for sleep into an intelligent, social being that speaks, thinks, and lives. So, here’s how he set up his apartment: a bedroom with just a bed, lamp on a night table, and wardrobe, a living room with a table, rocking chair, small library, and couch for afternoon naps, and a third room—with another bed—in which the professor kept his suitcases, boxes, and all kinds of junk.
Once Ascold had gotten the keys, he couldn’t quite decide where to set up his bedroom. Three rooms—it was obvious the largest would be the living room, but that still left the identical small ones—one right next to the front door and another at the end of a tiny hallway, with a window facing a courtyard. Which room would it be? The answer came all on its own when the old front door clanged as one of the neighbors stepped outside. People leaving for work in the morning or coming home late would disturb him. So, that’s how his bedroom wound up at the end of the hallway, and the professor made the front room something like a storage space for junk he wouldn’t be needing every day. There was another bed by the door; the realtor spun this as a great place to host guests, although he knew that Ascold wouldn’t be having any. Just like he wouldn’t have any new friends, to say nothing of a new love, because everything in the professor’s life was and remained in the past.
So, things gradually started taking shape in this new city—well, more like old, for Ascold—in the old city of his youth (yes, that may sound like an oxymoron). The man developed a kind of routine; he mostly sat around at home, only leaving to pick up groceries (which he tried to do no more than twice a week) and take his customary evening stroll. He liked walking when twilight was replacing daylight, because he believed he could enjoy the luxury of seeing two cities at once that way—the daytime one and the nighttime one, which are always completely different. Besides this contact with civilization, as he dubbed it, he tried to always be alone. He enjoyed cooking, so he devoted a great deal of time to culinary experiments, nearly his only consolation. He’d tune in to the classical music station and chop colorful vegetables methodically, making complex sauces and mixing spices in search of new shades of flavor and aroma. He read a lot, too; literature remained his favorite form of escape into other worlds. He tried writing—or finishing, more precisely—the book he’d undertaken a good two decades ago, on the themes of escape and exile in Ovid—but writer’s block would throw a wrench into the works after just one or two paragraphs.
The routine of Ascold’s days changed the instant he stepped into the room where he kept his suitcases to grab an ironing board. Suddenly, something pricked his right foot, so he sat down on the bed, took off his slipper, and began examining his injury. A small, yet rather sharp pebble, which got into the apartment God knows how, turned out to be the cause of the noxious stimulus. After the man determined the source of his pain, he found that he was in no rush to rise from the bed, for some reason. Actually, off came his second slipper, and he lay on his back. Some light, unknown fatigue overcame his body; suddenly, all he wanted to do was lie here. Ascold sprawled out and looked at the ceiling, feeling his body gradually becoming lighter, nearly weightless, until it basically disappeared.
He woke up in the dark, so for the first few seconds he couldn’t figure out where he was and what he was doing here. When the man’s consciousness did finally return to him, he just lay there for a few minutes, motionless in the gloom, trying to keep a dissipated dream inside himself. It was one of the most sublime dreams he’d ever had—so bright, colorful, fragrant, tactile, that it seemed more real than life itself. In that dream, Maria and he were getting ready to go to the Philharmonic. She’d been looking for her hairpin for a while; Ascold’s patience ran out, and he joined the search mission. The hairpin wound up being where nobody had looked—its usual spot. They enjoyed a hearty laugh; his wife had scoured the fridge, the bathroom, and all her purses but didn’t think to look in the little box by her mirror where she kept her accessories. After that, she asked Ascold to zip her dress up in the back. He pulled the zipper up and then leaned in to kiss his wife’s shoulder and neck—she loved when he did that—he leaned in and then stopped dead—the incomparable scent of this young woman he loved, her skin, her perfume, lotions, shampoo, and hair had hit him right in the nose. That scent, intricate as a symphony, was so splendid that the man froze and just stood there, turning wholly into the sense of smell, becoming a scent hunter, a fervent smeller trying to inhale his darling and dissolve into air along with her. Without knowing what charms he owed it too, Ascold managed to capture that instant in his dream, as though he’d pressed an invisible stop button. So, while the man slept, those few hours were him studying his wife, being near the bouquet of her hair and skin, and they were hours of happiness. That’s why the man would lie there motionless for some time after waking and try to catch that dream, remember it, and imbibe its minutiae down to the molecular level—that’s if a person’s soul is composed of molecules. “When you stand behind your wife, inhaling the splendor of her hair, at that sweet moment when you’re frozen before pressing your lips against her warm and tender skin, your soul is composed of molecules, and those molecules are molecules of happiness,” Ascold thought as he lay in the gloom of his junk room.
The man went into that room the next day, too, and lay down on the bed, but lethargy and fatigue took a while to come to him this time around. He looked at the ceiling and surveyed the room, thinking that his consciousness and memory looked rather like it; his head also had shelves, suitcases, and separate rooms for every stage of his life, every event or important moment. All you have to do is plunge into yourself, force your consciousness to submit, and select the day you’d like to return to on your inner DVD player. Ascold lay there awhile, remembering his best years, and then eventually fell asleep. Maria wasn’t in this dream—well, she was, she just wasn’t there, because the man was driving to see her. He was trying to get home as quickly as possible. He was so impatient and jumpy the tickets were practically scorching his fingertips. Just an hour ago, he’d gotten an honorarium from an American university for his book on Lorca, and some unknown force urged him to do something impulsive. He ran over to the travel agency and bought two tickets, for himself and his wife. To Venice, the place Maria had been dreaming about for ages. Now he was taking those tickets back home to his darling wife, who was expecting him for lunch and didn’t suspect a thing. A happy Ascold was driving and smiling inside, while his soul had outpaced him and was already at home, showing Maria the tickets and looking into her happy eyes. Then came a long kiss. So, there were three Ascolds: one lay in bed having a dream that was actually a day from his past, a second Ascold was hurrying home to surprise his wife with tickets and an impromptu journey, and a third was already kissing his magnificent beloved.
Now the man kept coming to this room that lavished dreams on him. In his mind, he called it the room for sorrow, although it would’ve been more logical to call it the room of happiness or the place of memories. Ascold gave it that particular name because he felt a certain bitterness and sorrow whenever he woke from a happy dream. More than anything in the world, he wanted to stay in one of those days or dreams, not wake up, relive those moments, and be with Maria, but he’d wake up every time. He wouldn’t dream at all in his bedroom; he couldn’t sleep right during his afternoon naps in the living room because the man’s thoughts kept just scurrying along. His body could never fully relax. So, he gradually moved into his room for sorrow and started living there. On the one hand, his life was motionless, supine; on the other, it was so intense that nothing else interested Ascold anymore.
The need to take his evening stroll and look at the city disappeared, since all the cities, sunsets, and delightful breezes were inside him. He could think up anything and return to any moment he desired by channeling the marvelous power of the room for sorrow. While he lay inside it, he travelled, ran, fell in love, dined at fine restaurants, gave lectures, undressed and dressed his Maria, read and wrote books, and woke up a few minutes before his wife so he’d have the chance to look at her in the dim morning light. In this room, he was happy, young, and in love, but most importantly, he wasn’t alone. He was with Maria, the only person who knew him well, who felt every twist and turn of his mood, who could calm or aggravate him, and loved him just the way he was—occasionally awkward and goofy, at times dignified and gloomy, yet always loving. Ascold’s room for sorrow gave him all this wealth, this panorama of his life, although there was almost nothing inside it—just an empty wardrobe, a few suitcases and boxes in the corner, and the bed he slept on. It actually had everything, though—his life was here. That’s why the man would leave this room less and less often, until he completely stopped going to the store, or going outside at all, or even to the living room, kitchen or bathroom. The magical room satiated all his needs, so Ascold didn’t feel any urge to leave.
During one of the moments he was reliving—lying there on an unmade bed in his room for sorrow—a key started grinding in the lock of the front door. The man sprang to his feet and dashed into the hallway just when the door opened and the realtor stepped inside, followed by a young couple with an infant. Ascold turned crimson with rage and yelled that he didn’t allow anyone in his apartment, so they’d better hit the road, and the realtor had better give him his key back immediately and never intrude on his personal space again. The visitors couldn’t hear him, though; it seemed like they hadn’t even noticed him. They passed right through Ascold and went farther into the apartment, surveying the rooms, poking their heads into the bathroom, and assessing the view out the window for quite some time, oblivious to the elderly professor’s wailing. Ascold became short of breath after his two-minute protest and stopped yelling. He merely looked warily at the people traipsing around the apartment without his permission. They still didn’t seem to have noticed him, as though he wasn’t even there.
“Maybe that’s it,” Ascold thought. “I went back to the place where I was happy, so that’s why they haven’t noticed me. They can’t see me because I’m not here.” The disquieted man slinked off to his room when the visitors left, closing the door behind them. He lay down on the bed, closed his eyes, and tried to fall asleep. Shortly thereafter, the room took Ascold to a small wooden house high up in the Carpathians. It smelled of the wild flowers Maria had just picked, the firewood the man had loaded into the cast-iron stove, and the bitter black coffee rushing upward inside a copper cezve.