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August 10, 2016

Story by Michael Sarinsky (Read author interview) March 19, 2018

Art by SmokeLong Quarterly

Not until seeing the Janus House did Tessa realize her college friends all hated her.

Or wait, it was before that.

She’d first heard about the Janus House her freshman year, though not from any of the campus maps distributed during orientation week. It was located a half mile east of the stationery stores and food co-ops that lined Main Street and made parents swoon over the pretty college town where they’d sent their kids. (The liquor stores were all on side streets.) The House’s legend was part of a freshman’s inheritance at Helmsley College. Where one hears about these sorts of things becomes impossible to remember.

But mapmakers face choices. What to include, what to omit. My mother’s dog is staying with me this week while she cruises around the Italian peninsula, and just this afternoon, while we were out walking, a man gestured for me to take the headphones from my ears. (Holding a leash is the surest way to get stopped for directions.) He was searching for an eyeglasses store I’d never heard of, at an intersection I’ve crossed every day for years. I told him that odd-numbered buildings are on the north side of the street, then looked up the address once I came back into range of my lobby’s wireless. “Sarinsky,” my doorman said, and handed me a package. If I could trouble a dog for its thoughts on any subject, I’d want to know what it thinks elevators are. Magic boxes?

She kept suggesting they visit. Let’s bike to Janus House, let’s take a walk to Janus House, let’s see what the fuss is about. But Tessa’s friends didn’t merely dislike her. They didn’t just find her boring or dense. They felt an abiding revulsion for each of her gestures, from the way she flicked her earlobe between thoughts (weird, this tic, the attention it brought to cartilage) to how scratchy her voice sounded in the mornings. And they tried telling her.

In the stands at tennis matches, her hatchback paralleled in the lot, they told her not to waste her figure on another Diet Coke.

On line for smoothies, shuffling ID cards behind their backs to determine who would pay, they told her not to check her email so often, nobody important was going to write.

In the community showers, where she wore flip flops to avoid the mold, they denied finishing her shampoo, they slid her curtain open by accident, they told her fraternity parties were invitation-only. She couldn’t hear their hostility through the water.

There’s a saying we used to toss around in writing workshop: absence of proof isn’t proof of absence. It’s true, but intellectually dishonest. Like how my building has no second story. The leasing company flouts basic arithmetic to make its rentals seem farther from the ground. On the fourth floor, Socrates stopped at every apartment and looked back at me as if to ask: “Is this my home? Do I live here?” And I said: “No, sweetie, that’s not our door,” until he sniffed at #5L. The package was from my high-school best friend, who’d sent me a book on physics following our last discussion about my novel. Socrates dropped a squeaky toy at my feet while I read the card.

Still, Tessa wouldn’t give up. She wanted badly to see it for herself, to share in the campus traditions, and on a Friday afternoon, after much cajoling, she wrangled her friends for a walk to the Janus House. They passed hiking trails. The fishing lake. Its many rusted No Lifeguard On Duty signs. Like so many of their classmates, they’d heard that the House amassed the highest electricity bills in town, but they understood it was untrue. And when it appeared, without a rock misplaced in the driveway or a petal missing from the marigolds potted outside, they found the same mystery that had confounded generations of students before them: the Janus House didn’t have a door.

When I picture the Janus House, I see the final turnoff before our family’s country home, that farmhouse atop a hill we passed every Friday and Sunday night. I see the novel I was writing when I started school, so panned in workshop that it never saw another edit. At our first class, the professor talked about fictitious dictionary entries designed to catch copyright infringers, words like “esquivalience” that ghosted long ago into the New Oxford American Dictionary — n. the meaningful shirking of one’s responsibilities [late 19th cent.: perhaps from French esquiver, “dodge, slink away”]. As if there’s a more natural way for a word to enter common parlance. I see the city people who traveled upstate to visit a mapmaker’s copyright trap, found it missing, and settled it themselves.

The truest ghost stories make you question whether you’re the ghost. Tessa circled the property, looking for a storm cellar, for hinges secreted in the paneling. Wondering if she was being kept out, or someone else kept in. Her friends had returned to the road and begun discussing weekend plans, and she already knew.

Reading about black holes again this morning, I came across something new. Perhaps it’d been explained to me before but escaped my comprehension. I’d understood that black holes are gravitational phenomena whereby an entire star is absorbed into a fixed point, and that only after a galactic wait does it then eject its matter back into the observable world. But because black holes collapse time, and here’s the part that hadn’t yet registered with me, anything consumed into one will experience that compression and rebound as if they’re occurring with great speed. That is, we see in slow motion what feels rapid from within. I wanted to write about old friends trapped by a snowstorm, but came up with this instead. I keep looking up from writing to find Socrates, but he’s gone back to Long Island with his mom.

About the Author

Michael Sarinsky is a graduate of the NYU MFA program and an Assistant Editor at Conjunctions, with work forthcoming in Passages North and Redivider.

This story appeared in Issue Fifty-Nine of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Fifty-Nine

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