He is above her, his eyes searching for any sign of expression. Her fingers tear into his back, drawing blood, skin accumulating under each nail. Each pant reverberates and echoes. Again, he looks for her eyes and only finds mist. In the dark room, their bodies are white enough to almost glow; ghosts who draw breath. As it reaches a conclusion he gasps but the sound is muffled and unreal. He presses harder and the tips of the gasmasks brush together. The friction of the rubber material colliding brings it all to an end.
For a second, the two lay next to each other, one synthetic breath following another. He looks to the ceiling and waits for the mist before the eyes to dissipate and clear. It feels, in those few moments, as if the room is another world; a swamp, a place shrouded in mystery and unknowable. A place, he realises, where they could feel safe. The fog clears and the single light-bulb comes into focus. The world returns and the idea of it make the heart sigh. He climbs off the bed, the body suddenly heavy and sluggish and stumbles to the bathroom. At the doorway, he glances back, only to see her still staring at the ceiling, the mist still in her mask, her dream-world not yet broken. The pang of envy he feels makes him grip the steel frame; the hatred that follows, watching her still so at peace, makes him turn away to the sink.
The procedure they’ve agreed on is a single candle. It is lit and he goes about his business. He carefully un-straps the mask, looking away from the mirror at all times. When it is free, he sets it in the small dish by the side of the sink. With eyes closed, he brushes teeth and follows this by stepping into the shower, lids not opening until the water sprays onto the naked face.
In the near darkness, he goes about these necessary duties, concentrating on the structure of each task in order to offset the panic he feels without the protection of the mask. The face itself feels not so much at risk as weightless. The ears feel glaringly exposed to every small sound in the room; her sighing, toes on the steel floor, even the friction of the body parts in motion. The eyes remained half-lidded in order to sustain the darkness but even they feel widened, at threat from any spark of light. The most unnerving, though, is the mouth. Even gritted tight, he is aware of every molecule of dust and dirt slipping freely through the clamped jaws and filtering down into the bodily system. Though he is momentarily free of the weight of the mask, the filth that enters makes him feel both bloated and clotted.
Finished, he slips the mask back on and tightens the straps, pulling them tighter than ever before. There is no question of it hurting the scalp, or drawing a gasp of pain from the mouth; the extra pressure is a welcome gift against the skull. In a flash, all the unregulated sounds of the room are removed from the senses. In its place, the controlled breathing, the filtered sounds, the faintly waxy quality of image returns. As he steps out of the small enclosed space, the candlelight trembles but does not extinguish. The woman rises, strips the sheet and walks straight past him. He sits on the edge of the bed, making sure no part of her face is visible to him as he hears the straps loosening in-between her fingers.
He looks around basement enclosure; nothing is on the walls, nothing adorns the ceiling save the bulb. On the floor there is no clutter or detritus but only the cool, clean surface of the floor. Even the bed where he sits is simply a mattress and nothing more, shorn of its single, thin sheet. There are no pillows or blankets. Somewhere, wired into the wall, is a temperature gauge that maintains the room at a level that is neither warm nor cool. It is a self styled Room of Nothing, save for themselves.
It is his favourite place in the world.
He slips back down onto the mattress and looks back up at the ceiling. Somewhere, seemingly far away, the woman goes about her duties. It is the place they come together and pull each other apart. Afterwards they remove all traces, the skin build up under the nails and the blood from each other’s lips. All of it is erased by candlelight in that small space, until nothing remains but the scars on the skin. If not for those blemishes, it would be as if it had never happened at all.
The sound of the straps brings him back and the woman pads back into the room, the water still drying on her skin. She waits until the body is almost dried and then lies on one side of the bed. A thin, invisible line divides them. She adopts a familiar pose, hands knitted together just below her chest, while his arms lay straight, each finishing just below the hips. Their breathing gathers speed and pace, until the noise almost fills the room with its volume. The panting swells until it is ragged and uneven. It is the sound of animals gone unchecked. The delirium engulfs the man; inside the body, he is aware of the heart setting to rupture. The briefest of flickers from the other side of the bed, tells him the woman is experiencing the same sense of total, furious panicking. He swallows hard and braces himself.
“It’s time,” he says, the voice metallic through the filters of the mask. It is a distorted, raging voice that is disturbed and one he recognises entirely as his own.
“But…” the woman’s voice pleads. A hand comes across the bed and a single nail almost brushes against the hairs of his wrist. He flinches.
“It’s over,” he says, trying to keep any trace of need or want out of the throat. He knows there will be a time when he will be the one to beg and he wonders if the woman will be strong enough to control the situation. Without waiting for another response, he rises. As he pads to the far door, her footsteps follow.
At the heavy door, he reaches for the steel handle and grips it. The woman takes his free hand and he squeezes it just as tight. It is always a moment of truly feeling alive and he savours it. In the next, he opens the door and draws her up to the stairs and the darkness. The door closes automatically, the system codes enabled. As the led lights disappear with the snap of the lock, he begins to lead her up the stairs, counting each one off inside the dark.
At the second door, she rests her head against his shoulder. The cool rubber surface of the mask chafes against his skin but it is a sensation he has always enjoyed. Aware that time is running out, he does not dwell on sentiment this time and instead, forcefully pushes the door open. The light bursts in and fills their masks until they are blind. As always, they stagger and then recover and before they can turn and run, the second door closes behind them.
The two of them walk through the living room and over to the staircase. The curtains are drawn, but the pre-dawn light is still strong. The dust of the TV screen is evident and the magazines on the table have somehow become spread out and messy. As they reach the stairwell, the postman’s letters slip through the letterbox, making them both jump. As they walk upstairs, a neighbour’s dog barks once.
In the bedroom, he pulls the suitcase from underneath the bed and sets it down. He opens it and begins to prise the mask from his skin. The suffocating heat of the room hits him as soon as his face is freed and he fights the urge to sneeze. He looks over to his wife and sees her hair has matted with the force of the straps. She tightened them like me, he thinks with a pang of sadness. She hands it over with a weak smile and then walks to the bathroom to straighten her hair. He holds the masks in each hand and looks at them, before carefully setting them back in the case. Outside, the first car engine ignites and begins its journey to work.
He straightens the tie as they approach the door and she flicks off a white speck from the jacket. As he steps outside into the sunlight, the two of them do not kiss. Instead, she waves from the door as he walks down the driveway to the car. As he adjusts the seat and turns the ignition, she waves once more and then disappears behind the door. The man looks up into the mirror and adjusts it. The glass is still foggy with early morning heat and for a moment, offers him a moment of memory: the true vision he felt behind the safety of the mask. He wipes it away with his thumb, smudging it. The memory lingers, though and he drifts into the muddle of the daily commute with a smile.