Photograph by Nicolaia Rips.
When he walked into my bedroom for the first time, he pointed at the top right corner of the room. “What is that?”
The answer was a hole. Directly above my closet and several inches below the start of my ceiling is an obvious nook—a deep-set crawl space suspended inside my wall. If that weren’t fun enough—“fun” said through gritted teeth, like how the realtor said “Now, this is fun” when he showed me the nook—there’s another feature: a bolted door within the nook. A dusty, intrusive, and creaky wooden door that points up to the sky. Between the bolts that secure the door is a sliver of light, slim enough that you can’t see what’s on the other side.
My building is an old Boerum Hill brownstone with a criminal exterior renovation. Inside my bedroom, though, the floors slant and the ceiling droops. It’s a beautiful princess bedroom, if the princess never got saved and lived forever unmedicated in her virginal bedroom. It’s a room of illusions, and the nook is its most illusive element. The nook is the last thing I see every night before I go to sleep. Goodnight Moon, good night dollhouse room, good night nook.
He was the first person I dated after a catastrophic college relationship. He was sweet. He reminded me of a portrait of a medieval saint or a beautiful lesbian. He asked questions.
“What are your dreams for the future?” Don’t know. “What did you want to be when you were small?” Taller. “Where does the door in the nook go?” Not sure. “Have you ever opened it?” Never. “Never?” Never ever. From my bed he would stare at it, and the more I tried to ignore it, the more he pushed. “What if there’s something amazing up there?” And what if there isn’t. Here we are in my bed, I thought, no point in fantasy.
He believed doors were made to be opened. I believed, firmly, that some doors should not be. Locked basement doors, closed bedroom doors, the door to a safe, the attic door in a horror flick, a patio door on a burning summer day when the AC is on, the seventh door in Bluebeard’s Castle. He argued for letting in the elements; I, for the threat of a draft. I could unleash a spirit or an alien or a doll left up there imbued with the spirit of a child born during the Depression or of some creep who studied acting at an Ivy League. A ghost is like a pet or a child, and I’m not responsible enough to handle a poltergeist.
Unfortunately, my refusal to deal with the door rendered the whole nook a lost space. There, above my head, was a nook the size of a rich child’s tree house, and I was neglecting it. It was large enough that I imagined I could stand in it fairly comfortably. Being raised in Manhattan, I started to obsess about the nook. I could rent it out as a fourth bedroom. I could use it as off-season storage for several lumpy hand-knit sweaters I felt too guilty to get rid of. I could build a library in it for books I’d stolen and borrowed. In fact, he was upset that I’d never read any of the books he’d lent me. He noticed I was using his favorite book as a coffee coaster.
Our relationship, like most organically sweet things, rotted. When he dumped me, he said there was a disconnect. He said maybe we’d find our way back to each other, and I said we would not. A classic door-half-open divide: he tried to keep it open, but I bolted it shut.
A few days after we broke up, I propped a chair against the wall and scrambled upward. Halfway into the nook, my arm strength dissolved. I dangled, my tush protruding from the wall, wiggling stupidly. I considered shouting for my roommate. Then, I considered her laughing at me. Maybe, I thought, I should just allow myself to be stuck. It’s fine to be stuck. I continued up. There I crouched, panting, in the crawl space, jamming at that ungiving door. With a crack it broke.
From the waist up I stuck out through the ceiling. I could see over Brooklyn. Brooklyn could see over me—a ghoulish, dust-covered, and bizarrely grinning woman escaping from an attic. I wedged myself up further. Suddenly, I was on the tilted roof. The door was open and there was nothing to be scared of. When one door closes, God opens a trapdoor.
Nicolaia Rips is the author of the memoir Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel.
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