Photograph by Kate Stanworth, Story by James Young
First came the man who built the room. The man who takes money from others to let them live in it. The man who thinks he owns it. But how can someone own the room? The room is not bricks or wooden floorboards. It is not curtains or pictures on the wall. It is not furniture. Furniture, like people, comes and goes. Furniture ages, breaks and is replaced. The man too will one day be gone, while the room remains.
The girl has lived in the room for six months. Now her suitcase – small, with a long tear down one side – sits by the door. When she comes back from eating at the truck stop restaurant next door she has only to take her things off the wall – her high school graduation certificate, its ink already growing faint, the photo of the trip to the mountains she took when she was sixteen, the cross her grandmother gave her when she left home – and she will go.
There are no photos of the girl’s mother or father in the room, but the room does not pass judgement. It is not the room’s place to say what is right or wrong.
The room is air – the same air that lazes like a cat in the bleached sunlight outside the window. The only difference between the room and the world is the room is inside while the world is outside. The room is smells – of green onions frying and mud-brown beans bubbling in the restaurant kitchen, and of the thick blue smoke from the trucks that grind along the highway, thirty yards away, day and night. It is the bruise-coloured clouds from the girl’s cigarettes, drifting upwards to the ceiling, yellowing the paint. The room is a rainbow of smells.
The room is better than where the girl lived before, in a town far from here. A dark yawning space beneath the roof, divided into cubicles by thin wooden boards, one for each girl. Really it was just a place to sleep. The men did not come there. The girls took them to a motel, where all the rooms were the same, except for the numbers on their doors. When she finished work the girl would crawl into bed, exhausted, and listen to the sounds of the other girls, breathing and snoring and farting in their sleep. At least this room has a door she can lock, when she comes back from the motel where she goes with the men from the truck stop.
The room is noise – of the traffic, and the music that throbs from the other rooms in the narrow alley that runs alongside the restaurant. At night, in the intervals between the trucks, it is the drone of the cicadas in the scrub beyond the strip. The room is the dust churned up by the trucks, as red as blood on rusted metal, that covers the floor, the furniture, the girl’s clothes. Each day she wipes the dust away, but it always comes back.
The room has been here for thirty years, but in room years it is still a baby.
The girl scrapes up the last of her food and places her knife and fork beside each other on the plate, cleaved together like lovers. She gives her keys to the restaurant owner, who is also the man who thinks he owns the room. He says nothing. To him she is nothing special. There is already a sign in the restaurant window. Room to Rent, it says.
Back in the room she takes her things from the wall and puts them in a plastic bag. She picks up her suitcase and walks out the door, closing it behind her. She does not say goodbye to the room. She walks to the truck stop and talks to some of the men about hitching a ride to the city.
One agrees to take her, provided.
To take her, as long as.
To take her, in exchange for.
The girl agrees and climbs into the man’s truck.
The men think they own the girl. But how can they?
The girl is not bricks or wooden floorboards, or furniture to be bought and sold.
The room will not miss the girl. Its population is transient – some people stay only a month, some for years. But to each the room is home. Babies have been born in the room. People have died in the room – one man from a heart attack, another in his sleep, his breathing ceasing as suddenly as a stopped clock. A woman beaten to death by her lover. The room is full of ghosts.
But not only of the dead. The room is the things that people leave behind, too small to see, impossible to touch. It is the residue of their sweat, their tears, of dreams forgotten upon waking. Each person leaves their trace upon the room, adding to it, changing it, so it can never be the same again. The room is a palimpsest – it is stories overwritten by stories, memory layered upon memory.
The girl watches the place where she has lived shrink in the rear-view mirror. She thinks about what life in the city will be like. When she gets there she will look for another room to live in. But she will not stay there for long. She will get a job, save some money. Then she will rent an apartment with a kitchen and living room, perhaps a small balcony where she can grow plants. Not a single room that stinks of diesel smoke and frying onions.
Soon the room will fade from her memory, until it is like a tiny scar on her finger she barely notices, left by a cut she cannot remember.
After the girl has left no trucks pass on the highway for a long moment. In the room there is only silence – utter, complete. The room waits – at its heart an omission, a space that cannot be filled.
James Young is a writer, translator and journalist from Northern Ireland. His fiction has appeared in HCE Review, The Blizzard and Between The Lines and been long-listed for the Fish and Sean O'Faolain awards. He lived in Brazil between 2005 and 2017 and wrote about the country for Rolling Stone, The Independent, Sports Illustrated, Vice, The Guardian/Observer and other publications and sites. He is currently seeking representation for his recently completed literary crime novel set in the northeast of Brazil. His twitter is @seeadarkness
Kate Stanworth is a London-based photographer specialising in documentary and portrait photography. She has undertaken commissions and personal projects in the UK, Europe, South America and Africa. You can find her here www.katestanworth.com