A robin has laid an egg in a hanging plant on the porch, and the wife doesn’t wish to disturb it. So she locks the front door and asks the husband to avoid passing through. Instead, he should use the side door, the one that leads through the mud room and into the kitchen, whenever he wishes to enter or exit the house. In addition, there is a smell, the smell of mildew, emanating from the bathroom sink, and it bothers the wife, so she asks the husband to please keep the bathroom door closed, even when he isn’t in there. He would like to honor her requests, and tries to, sort of. But he doesn’t care about the bird and doesn’t notice the smell, and as a result he forgets to use the side door to the house and to close the bathroom door behind him. And there is some unreasonable, hostile part of him that wishes to ignore her requests about the doors entirely, as a protest against what he sees as her excessive sensitivities, her unreasonableness. And this causes him to ignore, several times, her requests.
For the wife, the house is a series of spaces that must be controlled, the boundaries between which must be monitored. She is concerned, on hot summer days, about managing the temperature of rooms. She would like the day’s heat to be kept out, and the night’s cool to be kept in. She opens doors and windows at night to allow cool air to pass through the house, and closes them in the late morning, when the temperature outside exceeds the temperature inside. This regimen can, at times, be interrupted by sounds. If, for instance, a construction machine or chainsaw is in operation outside, the doors and windows must be shut against it, even if it also means shutting out cool air. If, however, frogs are active in the pond down the road, she will open the doors and windows to hear them, even if it’s hot outside. Smells also may affect the pattern of open and closed doors. If part of the house smells musty, or of mice, or, as today, of mildew, that part of the house must be aired out, or shut off from other parts of the house. Cooking odors that are delicious before dinner, and should reach, ideally, into the far corners of the house, become bothersome after dinner, and should now be sealed away and dissipated.
The husband is annoyed by these machinations, even when he ostensibly benefits from them. For him, doors are an impediment. Walking through the house, in the throes of one project or another, he would like all doors to fly open before him so that he doesn’t have to slow down passing from room to room. His mind is on his goal, whether it is a box of nails or an apple or a book, and he can’t keep track of which doors are supposed to be open and which are supposed to be closed. When the wife asks him, for the third or fourth time, to please leave a particular door open or closed, he is irritated both with himself for forgetting, and with her for caring. Ultimately he would like the status of doors not to be an issue in their marriage, and this desire sometimes takes the form of a rigid code of conduct that directly contradicts his best interests. If, for instance, they are enjoying an intimate moment together, and she gets up off the bed to close the door, he is annoyed, even though he doesn’t want the children to walk in on them any more than she does. There is a part of him that would rather be hot all night, suffering, than bother with all the opening and closing of doors. There is a part of him that would rather just listen to the sound of a chainsaw or road grader than close the door against it, and sometimes, when an unpleasant sound or smell or temperature intrudes upon their lives, he begins to get angry with her for her opening or closing of doors, even if she hasn’t opened or closed them yet, even if she isn’t home.
When the husband was a boy, his mother kept all doors to the outside closed at all times. She liked to be sequestered from the world. However, she preferred that interior doors remain open, particularly when her son was behind one. If he was in his bedroom, reading with the door closed, and she passed by, she would wordlessly open the door. If he locked the door, she would jiggle the knob and say, “Unlock this door.” If he didn’t unlock the door, she became angry. She often walked in on him when he was dressing or undressing. She went into his room when he was out playing or at school, and moved things around, cleaned them up. If things in his room looked like trash to her – notes written on scraps of paper, electronic parts, game pieces – she threw them away. He would come home to find his bedroom door open and his things moved or missing. The older he got, the more this angered him. When he finally moved out and went to college, he valued his privacy above all else, and hated the open, unboundaried nature of life in a dormitory. Friends learned to leave him alone, never to knock on his closed door.
But by the time he met the wife, he had changed. He had recognized, in himself, this reactionary trait, and had striven to eradicate it. In fact, he had overcompensated. Now he strode around the house naked, horrifying his children and surprising, on more than one occasion, some unsuspecting friend of his wife’s who had stopped by for coffee. Now he played loud musical instruments or operated power tools without closing the door behind him and filled the house with noise. Now he showered and used the toilet with the bathroom door open.
His anger at his wife for her careful control of the doors is, in a sense, anger at his controlling mother, even though his wife and mother are concerned with different types of control. But it is also anger at the former version of himself that allowed his mother to shape his personality.
The sound of a chainsaw outside, or the gradual heating of the interior of the house on a summer day, don’t merely irritate her; rather, they inspire in her a feeling of panic, a sense that nothing can be contained or controlled at all.”
For her part, the wife is well aware that her obsession with the opening and closing of doors mirrors a desire for other, less tangible, kinds of containment and control. Her mind is a house full of doors that won’t open and doors that won’t stay closed. There are things she would like to do in her life that require access to certain areas of her mind, areas that, during childhood and early adulthood, were so easily accessed that they didn’t even seem like separate spaces. Now they have turned out to be rooms with doors, and the doors are closed, locked, painted shut, and she cannot figure out how to open them again. Conversely, there are things that never worried her when she was younger, regions of anxiety she didn’t realize existed, that have now taken control of her mind, and against which doors cannot be shut. She feels, at times, as though her mind has been ruined by adulthood. It is the children, in part, the existence of the children that has made her this way, and it is also the husband, with his inexhaustible impulses and desires, many of which involve her or demand her attention. But mostly it is she who is to blame, and her susceptibility to these forces – the way she has allowed them to change her. As a young woman, it never occurred to her that this could happen to her mind. She is the same person, she is made of the same parts, but they have been reorganized. The sound of a chainsaw outside, or the gradual heating of the interior of the house on a summer day, don’t merely irritate her; rather, they inspire in her a feeling of panic, a sense that nothing can be contained or controlled at all, neither out in the world, nor in the house nor in her mind. When she was a child, she would dream of finding secret rooms filled with mysterious and interesting objects: dreams of inspiration, of discovery. Now she dreams of rooms that fill with water, with fire – danger that enters through open doors, that cannot be expelled through doors that won’t open.
The husband is angry. Not at the wife, not yet, but at something else – a colleague, a failed project at work. He is angry and he wants to go out in the yard and stalk around with his hands in his pockets and his head down. But the front door is locked, because of the robin in the hanging plant. He is angry at what he’s angry at, and now he is angry at the wife as well, for caring about the robin, and he is angry at the robin, and at himself for getting angry at the robin, the wife, and the thing he’s angry at. He shouts an oath, unlocks the door and flings it open, stomps across the porch and down the steps. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the startled robin fly away.
The wife, inside, in another room with the door closed, doesn’t hear the husband. But she is thinking about the robin, wondering why she cares about the robin or its egg. It’s just a bird, after all; there are plenty more where this one came from, and the others, the ones whose nests she can’t see, are the smart ones, laying their eggs far away from human habitation. Indeed, perhaps this is the same damned robin that flung itself against the closed living room window all through spring, defending its poorly chosen home against its own reflection. The wife is trying to make herself not care about the robin, to stop worrying about the children, to stop being bothered by the husband. In her mind, doors are flying open and slamming closed.
The robin, for whom there are no doors, whose mind cannot conceive of, nor would have any reason to conceive of, such a thing, perches high in a tree overlooking the house, wanting the egg: she wants to fly to it, settle on it, warm it. She wants to feel it beneath her. But there is a part of her that already knows it’s too late. The nesting spot was no good. She has been frightened away from it too many times; the chick inside the egg is dead. The robin experiences her separation from the dead egg as a hollowness, a pain, in her breast. But already that pain is fading, her desire to return to the nest is fading, her fear of the man pacing in circles in the yard and the woman who opens and closes doors is fading. Everything below her, in fact, is fading, everything that is not the sky and the branch she feels, reassuringly, and with some small inalienable joy, beneath the claws that were made to do this very precise and important thing.
J. Robert Lennon lives in Ithaca, New York, and teaches writing at Cornell University. He is the author of seven novels and the collection Pieces for the Left Hand, stories from which have appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Granta, Harper’s and Playboy. His latest novel, Familiar, a haunting psychological thriller about parenting and memory, is published by Serpent’s Tail. Read more.