The main floor of the house I have always preserved the way my Grandmother left it. The house was left to me when she passed away in her sleep about five years before my party happened. She might have left it to her son, my father, but he never liked how old it was or any of its quirks, while I had spent a lot of my time growing up exploring it’s eccentricities with my Grandmother. Though I quickly realized after moving in that the eccentricities were as much a part of my Grandmother as they were the house, it was falling apart and was nothing special without her filling it. I suppose that’s why I’ve kept the main floor preserved as much as possible, to keep her presence from leaving the house.
Her hips and knees went first as she got old and broke apart, so she had moved everything she wanted from the upstairs rooms to the main floor. She slept on the pull-out couch when she felt like going to the effort, but mostly slept on the couch as it was, she swore it kept her back straight despite how the rest of her body had started to warp out of place.
She left fake, potted plants and flowers everywhere in a plethora of varieties. My Grandmother had always tended a garden and a few dozen houseplants, but had admitted to not being able to keep track of what had been watered and when. Thus, she had each plant and flower replaced with its exact plastic replica while she slept, as though they had been there all along.
While my Grandmother had moved everything to the main floor, she had never really provided the space for it all to belong. In part, this was because there were simply too many pieces of furniture, holding too many belongings to find space for. More so, it was because she was an eccentric old lady who didn’t really care and didn’t have the energy to do anything about it if she did. All around are neatly stacked boxes of her belongings beside neatly stacked piles of books and magazines beside manila file folders full of memories like her marriage certificate or paperwork from when her and my Grandfather finished paying off the mortgage on the house. At times, I’ve wondered why I left it all where it was and didn’t pack it away somewhere, but it’s always kept me company, reminded me of where I come from and made the space feel more alive. To everyone else I’m sure it looked halfway between the living room of a hoarder and an old folk’s home.
If the main floor was a museum dedicated to my Grandmother, then the upstairs was a gallery featuring me. When I moved in, the three rooms upstairs were mostly empty, save for my Grandmother’s bed, which became mine, and a few other pieces of furniture nobody liked.
The first and largest room was my bedroom, like it had been my Grandmother’s. It housed little more than my bed, lamps and a wardrobe, which held all of my clothes. The bed was a queen, meant for two, and took up the better part of the space. While the curtains were now tightly pulled, I remember when sunlight would find a way to keep the room well-lit from the time the sun came up to the time it went down. My Grandmother would time her days by it, allowing the sunlight to dictate when she would get up in the morning and go to bed at night. I laugh now thinking how her days must have grown unconsciously shorter until December came around and they got longer again. My Grandmother always used to say hour much more energized she felt in the winter, it was the summer’s that were going to kill her. She died on June 20th, 2008, the longest day of that year.
Across the hall is the bathroom, covered in three different types of blue tile my Grandfather had scavenged from a construction site when they have first moved into the house. It would’ve been in fifties and the bathroom was the only reason they could afford the house, because it was left completely unusable by neglect. They had no money, but they lucked out on a toilet, sink and claw foot tub to go along with the blue tile that had come out of an old hotel. It made me feel like I was in Atlantic City during prohibition. If I could see out the window, the sits six feet up the wall, I imagine the boardwalk, a Ferris wheel and the Atlantic ocean swathed in the decadent yellow wash of lamplight and the cool glow of blue from the moon.
At the end of the hallway, to the left, is the room I’ve set up as m lab, for developing photographic film and making prints, the old fashioned way. It may have started as a hobby, but somewhere along the way I started making enough money to supply a living for myself. I suppose it had probably happened around the same time that camera shops stopped developing film, despite the fact that it was still widely available and going through a renaissance in the hands of hipsters taking grainy photo with their parents old Leica’s.
It allowed me the opportunity to explore light, like a mad scientist in my red lit room. I could investigate and understand it’s many eccentricities and exploitations, for light does not adhere to the laws of matter, does not have mass, exists across spectrums we can and cannot see and is not made up of the same colors as the physical world. It is unpredictable, difficult to control and can be produced by natural, chemical and electrical means. Negative by negative, photo by photo, I analyzed light sources; their qualities, the yellow fluorescence to white LED to tungsten and flame and moonlight. I documented them all, one by one, so I could return a find a particular light and its source should I need to. I became an expert, on light and it’s many sources, except for sunlight. I had never been able to quantify or categorize the light of the sun, for it comes in an infinite number of forms and produces so much light that I can’t begin to understand it. Besides, it’s the only source of light out of my reach, I’ll never be able to change it.
The final room of the tour was what used to be a small spare bedroom, about eight foot by six, that I would use when I stayed with my Grandmother overnight. Now, it is the life-sized camera obscura I mentioned before – my portal to the outside world.
At each party I’d held previously there was had always been a positive reaction to my life sized camera obscura, on some nights there would even be the sounds of surprise from a few people. This particular night, unlike the other, there was a genuine reaction of awe and surprise from everyone in the group, and audible rise and fall of wonderment that passed through the room. They were excited by what they were seeing and curious for me to share its secrets. As I described the way light was projected through the tiny hole in the window covering on to the back wall of the darkened room, I realized that there was light outside, more than what was coming from the moon.
Everybody else caught on pretty quickly that mine was the only house without power and I realized that I wouldn’t be able to ask people to stay this time, there was no logical reason I could find to keep the party at home. It began to sink in that either everyone was going to leave, or this was going to happen now, this was the moment I had been steering myself towards. The weight of it began to press down on me, as though the air had thickened around me and the sky was weighing me down. I moved slowly, sluggish in my stupor, lost in the moment as someone asked the question: “Should we all go to the pub down the street?”
In the drowned state I swam through I was caught surprised by the first response that came: “What about Margaret?”
“Will you come?”
“We don’t want to leave you here.”
“We should all go.”
“Yea. You won’t be alone, we’ll all go together.”
“What do you say, Margaret? Is it time?”
Like I was swimming towards the surface of deep water, these strangers supporting me, dedicating their encouragement and not leaving me behind, drew me up from my drowned state to pop my head above water. I looked at their faces, thinking clearly again, at the excitement in their smiles as they convinced me to join them, in that moment coming together to make sure I wasn’t left out.
“OK” was my reply and they all cheered and reassured me of us all facing it together. I realized that I had decided to leave, had said it out loud, had committed to it, to leaving. How that was going to happen was beyond me, I had no choice but to take it one step at a time, but I despite all of my preparations and well-intentioned plans, I hadn’t, until that moment, actually decided to leave. I had wanted to, but never stepped forward and said: “OK. I’m leaving.”
As we started back downstairs from the gallery of Margaret Lamb, I colluded with other Margaret I had imagined. She walked down the stairs beside me as we spoke, matching my steps, looking identical to me, even wearing the same burgundy skirt and black boots.
“You’re going with them aren’t you?” she asked critically, folding her arms across her chest.
“I hope so.”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“It’s not a question of why, but if, if I can go or not.”
“It’s not like you have other plans.”
“I have to get out the front door.”
“What’s the problem? Why wouldn’t you be able to get out the
“It’s complicated.” I didn’t bother to try and explain, this ski-loving, white picket fence living woman I was imagining wasn’t about to sympathize.
“Are you in danger?” She asks, pushing me to get to the point.
“Are you sick?” She pushes again.
“Are you in trouble with the police?”
“Are you agoraphobic?”
“In a way.”
“What’s your deal?” She asks plainly, demanding a real explanation, a resolution to my dilemma.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know where we’re going, how we’re getting there or what we’re going to do when we get there. I don’t really know who these people are, but I’m supposed to trust them. I’m worried I’m going to end up having a panic attack and be left alone in some strange place.”
“So?” Is all she says in response as I try to calm the panic I have stirred in myself in describing my situation.
“So, that’s why I can’t walk out the door.” I justify.
“You can’t control everything, or anything, besides, the unexpected things people remember. Nobody remembers when everything goes to plan.”
“But you died skiing.” I remember.
“But skiing wouldn’t have been as much fun without the possibility of dying. I have no shame in that, better than dying an old woman, all alone, with nothing to live for. I was living when I died.” The calm tone in her voice prevents any doubt from clouding her statement, but does little to supply me with any form of advice.
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
“I don’t know, try skiing?” With that she pours herself a drink, gin and tonic with lemon and lime wedges, before disappearing through the crowd.
I was left looking at my party guests searching out the jackets, finishing their drinks and lacing on their shoes; getting ready to leave as their excitement continued in animated conversations. The room was alive with the connections these strangers were making with one another, more powered then it would have been with electricity, and it was all about to walk out the door. Those people who had shown me support in the moments earlier, didn’t seem to notice me now, caught in a trance, licking my dry lips with nothing but the cotton balls crowding my cheeks. They didn’t notice me needing time; time to process, time to make my next move and time to control the variables, if I could just slow everybody down.
But I could still hear the other Margaret and came to realize that she was right, in some ways. I couldn’t control what would happen. I couldn’t control what these people were going to do, let alone when they’re going to do it. If I did, then everything that happened would be something I expected. I would be skiing without the danger of falling. I would be a light bulb without the possibility of burning out.
For the five years previous, living inside, there wasn’t much I had to divide one day from the next. However, each day had at least one unexpected thing that would happen; one phone call from Glenda at the CRA or one photo on a roll, of a bride at the altar with her dress caught in her underwear. There would be one thing out my control, one unexpected thing that I would oftentimes begrudge, but would in fact - as I consider it then, my eyes stuck on the crowd readying to leave – have made my life more than just the routine. These moments were almost always at the hands of people. I couldn’t control any of it, and I came in that moment to know that I wouldn’t have wanted to. The only thing I could control was me, and I wasn’t doing much of anything.
I walked directly to the front door and opened it. Outside, the moon was almost full in the sky and the streetlamps beyond my yard cast their hazy hue of yellow almost to my door. There were no people on the streets, no cars driving by, but in the lit windows I could see my many neighbors, watching their TV’s, eating their dinners, tucking their kids into bed and having small parties of their own. I only needed to take a step and I was out. All I needed was one step.
I lifted my foot as I had so many times before, in pursuit of step four, and it levitated against some imaginary barrier coinciding with the doorway. It was as though the air outside was so thick it took all my strength to force the point of my foot through it, like the world outside my door was jello. My foot slid forward and as it came downwards my face felt contorted with concentration, forcing against air as thick as dirt, will battling something ingrained deep within that was manifesting itself. Inches from the ground my foot hit solid air, an impenetrable barrier preventing me from stepping outside. I must have looked insane, a bead of sweat rolling down the bridge of my nose, one foot out the door, and me pushing with all my might against nothing in mid-air.
I finally stepped back, and again and again, to take a run at it, but my foot encountered the same barrier. I stepped back again, without pause, and tried again with the same result.
At this point, it had caught on with everyone what I was doing. What started as a few people watching in mild amusement had quickly became the entire group as my personal pep squad. They were convinced of the struggle I was fighting and were supporting me like a prize fighter in the ring. Part of me was gaining confidence from their support, egging me from each misplaced step, while another part of me was being worn away by my failed attempts and the increasing pressure of expectation to fight through it.
Before another attempt, I took a moment and sucked in a long draw of air, letting the yells of confidence inflate me. I pictured my foot coming down outside on the ground. Then my other foot coming down. Then again, and again. I saw the sidewalk come towards me as I stepped down the stairs of my porch and the view down my block as I turned to look west. I took one step, then another and then the entire wall of boxes and belongings stacked next to the door come tumbling down on top of me.