There is something in the glass house that she cannot see. With each night passing, she walks down the glistening sidewalk, between panes of grass, under the key-black sky, looks into the glass house, lit from within—the way some meditators must feel, or tell people how to feel, after they have become one with themselves, the universe, existence, the absence of such—and feels what she cannot see. It is a deep feeling that roves alongside feeling forgotten, love for her spouse, who has stood by her even when her hair became like feathers, when her nails turned brittle and yellow as the leaves of autumn, that coincides with those feelings of despair that arose on her twenty-first birthday, when she realized that there were no more “looking forward to” birthdays. The feeling needles at her sense of purpose, making her wonder if perhaps she cannot see because she was not meant to see, and then, who would be so privileged to see everything? Nobody, she thinks. There is not enough time.
At first, the glass house does not bother her; she accepts it as part of the landscape, like the trees, the sky, the lawn, but soon, she realizes it is a manufactured thing, not intended to belong in some wild plain foreign to man, where bees and prairie dogs and chipmunks roam. The desperation to forget the house drains her all at once, after a hard day of work, when her boss asked her to set the coffee on his desk, but she set it on his secretary’s desk instead, and he called her forgetful and uncaring, etc., and in that instant, she saw the glass ridges of the house ensconced in moonlight, its dark wooden floors, somewhere between the color of honey and molasses, the jagged roof, so sharp as to seemingly puncture the firmament.
The next night, she, who carries her paperwork in a dark messenger bag slung over her shoulder, who has traded her silver-limestone bracelet for a Fitbit, takes another route, looks upon the other buildings with square roofs and small windows, sees in them the faint outlines of fathers, mothers, aunts, grandparents, gathered around the television, the cesious glow on their faces, and the television’s muttering like the hoary chants of Gregorian monks, ambling between the abbey walls, their hands pressed together, and their faces shadowed. Everyone avoids their house, she thinks. This is just another way. She shifts her bag uncomfortably. To them, she would just be another reminder, something they probably want to avoid. There is no place for her there.
There soon comes a night when she returns to her normal path. It is a night when she is discontent with the same houses and the same televisions and the same lawns, each trimmed so neat, with the same box-shaped hedge beneath the same ground-level window, beside the same three cement steps leading to the same arched door. There is no originality. There is no surprise. It is all so predictable. She walks before the glass house, astonished by its majesty, terrified by its greatness. She wonders what goes on in the construction of such a house; why anyone would build it; if there is even a reason. She admires the stairways, the windows, the doors. There is a moment, she thinks, that she can see everything, even the expressions of its inhabitants, who pour water from the kitchen sink, who eat pears on the leather sofa, who draft songs about winter and memory and space on the attic credenza, amid a vintage lamp and jewel-toned throw pillows and floating dust that encapsulates lamplight, resembles something in the genus of stars. One resident sings the notes and another transcribes them; she can see the letters swirling, with the bends of a whisk swirling vanilla extract into albugineous dough, across the yellowed page. She can see into their hearts, almost, something deep and wistful, something hankering for something lost, but she cannot see what it is. Moreover, there is something greater in that house that she cannot see. She fears it is related, somehow.
She resumes her examination the next day, and the next. Sometimes, a crowd gathers, each with the same goal: to identify the thing that they cannot see. The crowd mumbles to itself about object permanence and neoclassical transcendentalism and quantum mechanics or even prescription lenses. The crowd is composed of doctors and businessmen and musicians and professors, among others, each with the same goal of seeing what they cannot see. One tenured faculty member suggests that seeing is relative, and that each of the viewers’ combined perspectives will unveil it. Another suggests that seeing is objective, and at least one viewer sees what seemingly eludes, but confirming this is impossible, and so, the viewers must content themselves with accepting what they cannot see. A third-chair trombonist for the local symphony orchestra, which has toured in Prague, Rome, and the Basque country, by the way, suggests that perhaps what cannot be seen is not meant to be seen, but be heard, such as in the transition of A-sharp to C-minor or through the repetition of a somber, yet necessary, coda. Perhaps that is what the inhabitants are doing, suggests the trombonist. Perhaps they are documenting what we cannot see through their song. People murmur in partial agreement, but no one seems to agree in whole. In any case, the crowd eventually tires of viewing the house, which seems not to care whether it is observed or not, and the crowd disperses, with deep uncertainty, leaving the house in its staggering starkness.
There comes a time when the work piles on and some states experience snow, but the air in the land of the house is too stifling, and the temperatures are too high, when she walks past the house with her sleeves rolled up and her hair in a bun. She is desperate, now, to see what is in the house, and in a thoughtless way. In fact, when she looks at the house, she so seems blinded by the want to see what she cannot that blurred are the faces of the inhabitants, the sprawling cursive of the music sheets, the glass stairways, the large, un-curtained windows of the ground and upper floors. Bright is the goal, splintering, like an axe through a woodpile. She has half a mind to go up to the house, knock on the door, and ask: What is it, in this house that I cannot see? But when she reaches the front door, she cannot even see a place to knock.
She solaces herself to stay home from work the next day, curls up with a glass of Captain Lieutenant Cocoa, who smiles at her lovingly from his gleaming plastic box. You don’t understand, Captain Lieutenant Cocoa, she thinks. You can never understand. Indeed, he cannot, smiling, continually unaware, eternally impervious to the plight of the house-watchers. His smile is briefly shrouded by the muscular hands of her husband, who picks up the box and sets it in the cupboard. Her husband moves with a swiftness like a boxcar racing down a marble hill. He stands with the grace of all the huntsmen, acclaimed by their fellow men for their accuracy with the longbow, their quickness with the dirk, their patience with the beasts that prowl, unknowing of anything but the hunt. He thinks, though, she thinks, with a sageness unparalleled by Harvard humanists or astrophysicists who work on particle colliders or even Plato, who once devised an allegory of men and caves, of discerning what projected shadows on a cavern wall. So sorrowful in her stewing, she asks him: “What is the point of it all?”
“The point is to be happy,” he says. “Though you don’t seem very happy.”
“Perhaps it is because that is not the point.”
“If that’s not the point, then I’m not sure what other point there may be.”
Any other point, she thinks, or no point. She does not say this because it would hurt. “I’m not sure.”
“I want to see what it is that upsets you so.”
She stirs uncomfortably. Her cup of Captain Lieutenant Cocoa seems almost to burn her hand. To divulge would be like a lion overturning its paw to reveal the thorn lodged in his flesh.
“No,” she says.
“Please,” he asks. “I want to do this because I love you and because I want to make you happy.”
She is so morose that she somewhat acquiesces.
“It is not what you see,” she explains. “It is what you do not see.”
“So be it.”
Thus, it is agreed, and the following night, she meets her husband outside of her office building, and together they walk down the paths of the downtown, past the twentieth-century lanterns whose bulbs have dimmed to a faded orange, across the cobblestone streets, amid the embellished fonts of café windows, whose open signs seem to glow with worry (please come in; all is not lost if you buy a drink; we promise), whose scents seem like mere retellings of the scents before, each seemingly duller than the last (there is only one new thing, she thinks, and it is the house). Her husband drifts idly by, yammering brightly about the laundromat, the pizza delivery app, the plazas. She yammers, too, to delight him, even though she knows that the laundromat, the pizza delivery app, the plazas, are all frivolities in light of the house. She is nervous to show him; nervous of what may happen. She could not bear it if they were both transformed. It is one thing to bring this desolation on yourself; it is another to impose it on your husband.
As they near the house, the winds grow still, the sidewalks are empty of buildings, the moon is set in the wheel-black sky. Everywhere the grass is silent, not even an immense fracturing of earth could seem to rustle it, and this silence imposes itself over her and her husband, who walk silently, hand-in-hand, toward the glass house, which radiates tonight with no crowds before it, shining solely for itself, as she supposes it always had. There is something that feels like grass bending beneath a stone, or a cedar cracking in a gust.
When they stand before the house, which casts their shadows, long and far, and all the stars and moon seem to pale before it, she feels as though she stands on the edge of the world and staring into the next, only, she cannot see what that next world is, thereby leaving the acute feeling that she just imagines it, as one might imagine another life where they paint acrylics instead of file documents or how one might imagine one’s face at the age of fifty, seventy, perhaps even ninety. She asks: “Do you see what is in that house?”
“No,” says the husband.
“What is it that you do not see?”
The husband inhales sharply, and she can sense that she has upset him, shaken him to his core, which he has stretched and collapsed in coordination with jazzercise videos and which he has developed into a rippled, futile thing, like a surfboard that one hopes will overcome an ocean. There is no purpose here, regarding looking into the house, whose figures move with an almost sinking slowness, who flicker in the light of the glass house, like the silhouettes of papery curtains dancing before a flame, who grow and shrink as they reflect in the glass walls, dimming and emboldening as they move in and out of sight. She realizes this as she watches them drift from floor to floor, as she envisions herself among them, which she realizes yet cannot be. Part of her knows that they can see the thing because they are within it, and yet, she is a stranger to them and cannot look, nor can she invite herself in to look. She does not belong; she is not invited. Not yet, anyway. She is engulfed with an impenetrable sad feeling.
What is it that she cannot see, but only feel? What is this remarkable misery that consumes her? She turns to the house. She is almost ready. Her hand has become a fist, ready to knock, and this time, the door is visible. She can knock on its glassy face, feel it tremble beneath the ridges of her knuckles, see who greets her and asks what she wants.
But something anchors her to the sidewalk. It is something deep and true that she cannot name. She looks around eagerly, but in nothing, can she see it. She contents herself by examining her husband’s eyes, which are soft, like the wings of moths, and flutter like them, as well. She brushes his cheek, covered with the soft planes of stubble, his eyes’ wateriness gleaming like the silkworm-white moon. All the grasses are still as cement. All the sidewalk stretches into the dark road of sky. She finds it there, in the space between the moments; this other half of the coin that growls deep. There is a peace in the lawns and the doorways and the cement. Sometime, they will have the courage to greet the house, to wander its staircases, in its bold, foreboding light. Sometime, they will have the heart to see. There is a sadness in the agreement of it all. For now, she watches herself in her husband’s eye, staring into herself, staring, with all the subdued pigments of the sky. There is a moment; it carries the weight of every self-help book, it holds the praise of every mentor; a contentedness in knowing that she can see what they have lost.
E. Smith’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
5 Questions with E. Smith:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
ES: The idea for this story came from an exercise wherein I thought about abstract concepts (love, sadness, individuality, etc.) and different settings (kitchens, exercise rooms, etc.), and then tried to write the latter as a symbol for the former.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
ES: Recently, my greatest writing influence is probably Tolstoy.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
ES: My favorite place to write is the library because there I can access a ton of different works for stylistic references. For instance, if I want to write a character’s voice in the style of a guide to classical architecture, then I would have that reference available, or if I wanted to write a story in the form of a recipe, then I would also have that reference available.
TD: Favorite word?
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
ES: My favorite reading ritual is reading while taking notes on the writer’s syntax, diction, plot devices, character construction, and pacing.