Liminal Spaces

I’ve been a delivery driver for one company or another for about four years now. Two incidents stick out in my mind as an illustration of liminal spaces. Here is one of them.

It was a pizza delivery to a nursing home. It was a warm and cloudless summer evening, and the sun was setting slowly. The nursing home itself was in one of the more affluent areas of town, and had regal but tacky carpet, walls painted in southwestern patterns—lots of angles and pastels—paintings of a West that never seemed to be real. The air was pleasant, smelled faintly like old people and expensive-but-not-overpowering air freshener, and a little cool inside, and the windows at the entrance filled the lobby with light. It was a soft, orange, pink, red, pastel blue, sandy tan, inner world. It didn’t even use florescent lights, instead using yellow bulbs. There was no harshness to this place.
My delivery was uneventful. I signed in at the front desk, took an elevator to the customer’s floor, got my tip, and went back to the elevator. I pressed the button and waited. The door closed. It went down one floor. It stopped.
I was on the third floor.
The lobby was on the first.
What I didn’t notice when I got inside was that the elevator had two doors, one in front, and one behind. I didn’t register it because there was only one floor panel in the elevator, situated on the right side of the outer door.
But, for some reason, I went down one floor, and the door behind me opened.
You understand that the world exists. Knowing that means some truths exist alongside one another in uneasy but necessary ways. Instinctually, I understood why I saw what I saw, but it was something that I could comfortably push to the side, file it away, pretend that it wasn’t there, that it didn’t exist in the same space I occupied, sort of like a perceptual object permanence. I could admit the reality of it, but not the realness of it, relegate it to a queasy nightmare.
It felt like the door stayed open for much longer it was, but I was frozen—in space and in time, as if to emphasize the importance and horror of what I was seeing.
Smells reached me before I registered it visually. Unmistakably antiseptic. Denatured alcohol, sterile chemicals, astringents used for disinfecting, the sharp tang of soap that disregarded pretenses of freshness and instead emphasized its total cleanliness. The smells of overwhelming and uncomfortable closeness, for those overwhelming and uncomfortable moments. Along the bottom, the faintest hints of bodily functions. Smells of work almost stamping out the smells of humanity.
I was staring down a long hallway, stretching for what seemed like the length of the building. On the other floors, the space had turned off at a right angle after a short distance. Evening was still in full swing, that much I knew, but that comforting dusk wasn’t going to reach me. There were no windows here, only a long string of florescent bulbs running down the center of the ceiling, covered to diffuse their harsh light. The floors were linoleum, slightly dull—hadn’t waxed recently. There were rooms, some with doors, some without. Gurneys and beds were arranged along the length of the hallway, a few monitors attached to the bigger beds. The walls were the same soft pastel blue as outside, but the lights turned them into a sickly teal, with the lightest touch of green.
There were no sounds, save the hum of the air conditioning. No shuffling feet, no idle chat, no moans or groans, no beeps, no pumping of respirators or the crosstalk of an emergency. I was apparently alone, the world of the objectively alive on the other side of the closed door at my back.
I was cold here, colder than I should be on a night in the middle of the summer in Texas.
And then the door closed on its own, and continued down to the first floor. The door opened into the lobby. I signed out and walked outside, returning to the world. I savored the slowly fading dusk in its comforting hues, breathed deep the humid thickness of the air, felt its heat. Even at this hour, it was warm enough to make sweat bead on my forehead, which comforted me.
Knowing something exists is one thing—we can all know that, push it out from even the farthest corners of our vision. But it is another thing entirely to see it, to feel it, to absorb its sensory information, to have its imprint on your mind. Knowing that a place so beautiful and comforting holds in its walls something that feels so sad, so thick with potential mourning and grief—I don’t know how it made me feel. More aware of the reality of things, certainly, but that was down to ignorance. No, there was something deeper, more fundamental, an emotion that reached into the walls.
I really felt a mournfulness, a sorrow for those that might have passed on in that place, plucked from their rooms for whatever reason, and placed here because of an unforeseen complication, a random occurrence that sealed their fate.
I didn’t make any deliveries there again.

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