House Museum

Several months after the plague began, I found myself living in a kind of dom-musei, like one of those preserved 19th Century writers’ homes that dot Russian tourist maps. Except this one was not open to the public. Laws designating what was open to the public changed from day to day, and the days ran together as monotonous as a docent’s voice, punctuated with forced enthusiasm meant to keep us shuffling forward. Toward what felt like the abyss. I had no idea how I’d gotten here.

Hardcover books and paper manuscripts were crammed into towering bookshelves and piled upon every possible and improbable surface. Leaky fountain pens, smudged reading glasses, carved pipes, and cheeky lighters from all corners of the globe colonized their peripheries. Goncharovas, Burliuks, Picassos, and icons adorned the walls like a patchwork quilt of fine art. Stale cigarette smoke permeated the peeling textured wallpaper and heavy drapes. The sofas and chairs were upholstered in crimson, like the Winter Palace stairs. The small kitchen housed a collection of Bialettis, cezves, a cafetiere, and a Nespresso machine. There was also a jar of instant and a large drip coffee pot, as if awaiting a roving band of plague players to arrive unannounced. The pantry encouraged a diet of kasha, tinned fish, tea, whiskey, and cookies. Precariously stacked back issues of the New York Review of Books lined the narrow halls. 

The writer, who also occupied the rooms, was an enthusiast of apophatic theology and mysticism and frequently spoke of God existing in “negative space.” Looking around, I wondered if there were space for Him here. I’d imagined that God, if there were one, existed in our hearts. The “apophatic” repercussions of this sent a chill down my spine. 

If there were one. If faith were possible in such times as ours… I rang a Catholic priest to interrogate him on the matter. He didn’t proselytize or protest. He explained that we needn’t forego the natural world or deny its suffering and responsibilities in order to make room in our lives for the supernatural. He insisted the whole matter wasn’t really about having faith so much as it was about putting out a welcome mat for it. Once God was invited in, he could get to work. “Like a vampire…” I thought. The priest didn’t say anything about how to get the supernatural to leave.

After we’d laid out the welcome mat for the virus ravaging China, Italy, and New York, I purchased a small notebook to document the pandemic, though it had yet to be declared one. I don’t usually keep a journal. Perhaps, I thought, if I were to objectively record each day’s facts and figures, a clearer picture of our current situation would emerge. Like stepping back from a pointillist painting. Perhaps, revisiting the entries in a few months, it would be evident that we’d overreacted. Perhaps in a few months we’d all be dead. It was anyone’s guess and even the experts were guessing. We lacked information. Most unnervingly, we lacked context where information could go to make sense. There was no cure for a cold because a cold couldn’t kill you. Yet morgues were overflowing. The Black Death predated modern medicine. We were psychologically prepared for nuclear war, climate change, and a zombie apocalypse. But not this. No one had told us this could happen. The last days of winter were uncanny. Like getting lost in your own home. The world looked the same, yet it felt entirely unfamiliar. And when we were ordered to remain in our homes, we innocently called it “quarantine” instead of “purgatory.”

“We are all in this together!” proclaimed the masses, though the law quite explicitly forbade us from being so. A friend sent an email chain letter, prompting me to share an inspirational poem that had helped me through difficult times and to invite others to do the same. I chose Tennyson’s Ulysses and forwarded this precious request to several of my acquaintances who were published poets. Most simply replied with personal emails, checking in, relaying their own news, inquiring of mine. My old university poetry professor replied with a poem, and to my surprise, requested a visit. I promised him I would do so once the quarantine was over. 

As the months passed, I struggled to maintain my notebook. My handwriting deteriorated beyond legibility. Daily epidemiological forecasts and ventilator capacity reports were replaced with brief, compulsory entries. “March 30. Why did no one tell us this could happen?” “April 12. What do the birds think of the fact that no one is outside anymore?” “April 25. I don’t know how many people died today.” “May 6. Another bad day.” My roommate moved to the country. My friends moved in with their parents. It was me and my aged cat and leftover takeout in an empty apartment. It was the third month of quarantine. It was nearly summer. “Yes, I can visit.”

It was just a visit, like Bonnie and Clyde were just bank robbers. Many may question my judgment, especially now that in-home visitors are almost forbidden. But at the end of May, people remained optimistic, or at least they still entertained ideas of returning to normal or having a future. Besides, we both lived alone, were in decent health, wore masks in public, and had no in-person contact with anyone else. The quarantine had not been lifted when I followed him into his apartment that night nor when I returned home three days later nor when he picked me up the following day nor when we fetched my cat nor when the movers came to take what was left in my apartment. I’d always wanted to run away from home and live in a museum.

Standing in a crowded rush-hour Moscow Metro car in the winter of 1995, a classmate asked me if I had ever been in love. “Yes. With my poetry professor.” “Your professor? No… That doesn’t count! I mean, really in love.” I knew that. I knew it didn’t count. Obviously. 

“Thank you, Professor,” the cleaning woman said as the writer paid for her services. When she left, I returned to the cool bedroom where the soft hum of the air conditioner filled my ears like cotton, like mild anesthesia. Unlike the eccentric chaos of the main apartment, the master bedroom suite was spare. Floor-to-ceiling gold drapes framed a picture window the entire length of the room. The sprawling king-size bed was dressed in silver sheets, a heavy burgundy duvet, and a faux fur blanket. A cedar chest carved with rosettes, bookcases of catalogues raisonnés, and a handful of Russian paintings in gold and burgundy frames accented the room. From the spacious, light-filled suite, I could hear Rachmaninoff or the sizzle of sausages. But mostly it was quiet. The click-clack of the old cat’s paws as he paced from room to room echoed throughout the house. 

The writer tenderly narrated the cat’s behavior. When the cat entered a room, the writer would proclaim, “Yavleniye kota narodu!” citing the appearance of Christ before his disciples. He called the cat’s early morning howls for breakfast “concertos.” “Give us a concerto!” When the cat refused to perform and curled up at his feet: “Ah! Look, he is content. Like a dog…” When the cat fell ill, which it was prone to do, he would nervously check on its whereabouts, and when the cat would recover, hobbling wide-eyed on the trail of the scent of sausages, he would rejoice. That cat gave it his all until the very end. But his end, like everyone’s, was inevitable. We drove to the vet, and the writer remained in the car while I did the unthinkable. Everything about the past six months had been unthinkable, which somehow made it easier.  

Without the click-clack of the old cat’s paws, a new silence filled the rooms. Not the anxiolytic silence of the nothingness and naps that filled the early summer days of the pandemic. A thick, sticky, dog day silence. The oppressive silence heard over the drone of cicadas. The choked silence of grief that has no words. The uncomfortable silence that hangs over the room where we wait for answers to the questions we’re too afraid to ask, for a prognosis, for good news, for a vaccine.

The dom-musei, which remains closed to the public, has two bedrooms and two baths. I only use the master bath located at the far end of a walk-through closet. The master suite is like a little apartment inside the main apartment. It is brightly lit, with white walls and blonde wood floors, and is spacious and tidy. The second bath and bed are located in the main apartment. The guest room is called “the little room.” It is not so small. But it lacks discipline, like a child.

The little room is the highlight of our tour, despite its lack of light. The windows are clad in dark, wooden interior shutters that cast film-noir shadows on the dark parquet floor. Several porcelain lamps in various states of disrepair don’t illuminate the room so much as they diffuse the gloom. An inexplicably deep recess in the wall, now storage for empty picture frames, is thought to have once been a bar. The room is lined with an old, Soviet-looking, metal card catalogue and towering black bookshelves that contain everything from ottoman romances and murder mysteries to samovars and nick-nacks, including a figurine of Dante’s tomb and a 3D postcard that looks like a skull from one angle and a face from another. A haphazardly curated collection of cubist paintings, nude drawings, Russian folk art, Japanese scrolls, icons, and religious talismans hang off-kilter on the walls. A sconce in the shape of a human hand is mounted off-center above the headboard of the guest bed. I once found a can of soup under the bed when I was sweeping. I was sweeping because my mother’s urn had fallen. I had accidentally knocked it over. Though between you and me, one minute I was walking into the room to get a light, and the next minute the urn was on the floor and open. The cat rolled around in it. The writer genuflected. My brother said don’t worry; he’d taken her ashes skydiving, and they’d flown into his mouth. 

Sitting in the Student Union coffee shop in the winter of 1996, my poetry professor asked me what I thought of St. Petersburg. “I prefer Moscow. Moscow is alive. Petersburg is lovely, but it’s like … a museum, you know?” “Like a mausoleum,” he corrected me, conspiratorially. 

About two weeks after the cat joined my mother in the afterlife, he joined her in the little room. One evening after dinner, unable to make it to the master bath at the other end of the apartment, I used the guest bathroom. I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular, as the pandemic had rendered thinking almost impossible, when I heard the distinct click-clack of my old cat’s paws. He had always done a bit of extra scraping around his litter box, which was in the little room. I sat in the bathroom paralyzed, unable to breathe, tears streaming down my face. Everyone reassured me it was all in my head, which didn’t reassure me at all. There’s a plague on which requires constant vigilance in the most mundane activities. I can’t start having hallucinations now. Later that evening I saw his shadow on the wall outside the little room. Why was he here? Perhaps travel to the afterlife is also restricted for Americans. Perhaps they have a backlog on account of the virus. We’ve all heard of the hospitals being overwhelmed. Imagine the lines outside the gates to Heaven and Hell. I would not force my cat into metaphysical homelessness. I decided he could stay. 

After that, I began to cry more about the cat, which I hadn’t done much. I slept in the guest bedroom to spare the writer my concertos of grief. On the first night in the little room, a soft draft swung the door open and closed, frequently waking me. I imagined the cat sitting on the floor, looking longingly, his sick body unable to jump onto the bed. Or I imagine I imagined it. On the second night in the little room, I was tormented by vivid dreams. I dreamt I was in the kitchen putting away dishes when I saw the cat in his usual spot on the rug under the dining table. I dared not pet him. His ears perked up as I whispered, “I miss you.” He began to turn his head toward me when I suddenly awoke. But I had been in the kitchen putting away dishes late that night… I went back to bed and awoke again with a startle to feel and glimpse a hand on my shoulder in the morning light. My mother’s. “Gah! Get out of here! What is wrong with you? Don’t ever do that again!” I sat up, begging her to let me sleep. It had been the eve of the 20th anniversary of her death. I remembered the time the writer told me that our mothers only appear in our dreams for the first 19 years after their deaths. Perhaps I had been a bit harsh with her. On the third night, I came into the room to discover the floor was flooded. The vintage heating and cooling units in the apartment were in constant need of repair. But I’d been sleeping with the windows and shutters open in the crisp autumn air. They said good ventilation deterred the spread of the virus.

“I won’t sleep in there anymore,” I informed the writer.

“You had visitations. From your mother and from your cat.”

“How did you know? Did you read my journal? I’m joking. I only use it for Covid.”  

Last week I was in the little room hunting for an earring back I’d dropped when a precariously stacked mountain of NYRBs and collapsed in a dramatic avalanche. It was bound to at some point. I’d even said so. Yesterday I went into the little room to fetch my backpack when the yoga mat I’d perched against the bar landed in the middle of the room with a loud thud. I shook my head, exasperated but unafraid.

Ghost stories want so badly to assume some unfinished business or an unwillingness to depart, as if the dead had any more agency than the living. But there isn’t much difference now between the supernatural and natural worlds, between haunting a house and being quarantined in a pandemic. We are confined to the same rooms for what seems an eternity. Our interactions with the outside world are unnerving, severed. We suffer sleepless nights and monotonous days. We mustn’t reveal our faces. Death created our situation, but peace eludes us. The earth spins, the days on the calendar progress in an orderly fashion, and the seasons change. But time stands still. Like in one of those writer’s house museums.