It's one of those nights when I can't fall asleep, which occur with a dismal regularity these days. I turn a light on and think maybe I should try to read myself to sleep.
But somehow I can't. I pick up a notebook or a glass, and it's transformed, as if it is a simulacrum of the original object. There is something there, something in the way the lamplight casts across the room, something in the angles of the shadows that come in off the street, something in the dull reflection off the cheap leatherette sofa that came with the apartment. I don't know where I am. Suddenly I am transported. On one hand, I know I'm in my room, those are undoubtedly my books on the shelf, that's my handwriting on the grocery list on the counter. But something else has slipped in, and I'm seeing my room as through a veil.
I've been here before. I know it. Maybe you could call it déjà vu, but it's more complex than that. I could tell you everything about this place: the stacks of worn-down cardboard boxes mouldering under the stairs, the cerulean-colored industrial carpeting, the walls of exposed cinder block painted semi-gloss off-white, the 1970s encyclopedias with faux-gilt-edged pages. the rows of books on dark metal shelves, cloth-bound in bright colors with codes of letters and numbers tamped on their spines in white ink. And somewhere, on the other side of a cool, shadowed room, is a plate glass window that faces a little sculpture garden on a vast lawn that runs down to a wide road with traffic shuttling back and forth. Even on a muggy tropical night, its cool, dry climate control chills my arms.
But I don't know whether or not it is a real place. What I know is that inside my head, this room exists, an imaginary library made up of countless other libraries, countless other rooms that I may have once set foot in. The memories have coalesced into a cogent place that I call the library. It needs no further definition.
And it is one of countless spaces that lie embedded in my mind. There is the library. There is the museum, and the billiard room with red wallpaper, the basement, the cabin in mid-winter, the white room and the black room that sit next to each other on a darkened hallway, the sunny terrace by the sea, and so on. These are the spaces I revisit again and again, as familiar as my childhood home. I know them in my earliest memories, in my dreams, on long walks, and on fitful nights when I'm in an odd mood and can't sleep and have nothing else to do but to cycle through the vaguer parts of conscious thought.
Someone like Freud or Jung might try to ascribe meaning to these places, to connect them to specific memories, to complexes, to a mythology of archetypes, to the structure of id, ego, and superego. But I'm not so sure how valid those ideas are.
And there are the various schools of cognitive science that suggest that we have certain evolved capacities that lead to certain aesthetic sensibilities, or at the very least, that our brains have evolved to process information is fairly specific ways. And I find these ideas just as groundless and speculative as those of the analysts.
So I am left with a set of lonely rooms, with their variations in color and light and shadow, inscrutable and omnipresent. I don't know where they come from, but I see their manifestations everywhere, in a fanlight, in a chess set.
Consequently, when I wander around the city, I am also wandering around in my own psyche. Even when I walk down a completely new street, it's already all silted up with nostalgia.
Our lives are couched in an invisible network of signs and cryptic meanings. The curvilinear font of a street sign, the gingerbread on the eaves of an old house, the angle of a roofline, a cluster of casuarina trees, each of them is imbued with a million narratives.
And, every once in a while, the vague, flickering images we carry in our minds harmonize with the stories of our built environment. We look up, and we are, for a few seconds, transported.
But it's only for a brief moment. I am in my library, my museum, my sunny terrace by the sea for only five seconds, and then it dissipates. Maybe it comes to me in waves, but each wave is only momentary, before they subside entirely, and I am again alone on a quiet street.