Into thin air
Sensory deprivation and the pornography of new construction
After I left my position as a professor, I took a part-time job cleaning new construction. We turn up when houses, apartments, and dentist’s offices are mostly complete, but powdered in drywall gypsum and grimed with contractor fingerprints. In late January, we were at work at an apartment complex in Rochester, New Hampshire. There were still builders at one end of it, and a weird foreman who would wander aimlessly into and then out of the unit where I was working alone. He was silent, vague, walking thirty percent slower than the slowest pace you’d think reasonable for a person. I didn’t wear a mask because no one did and I was not, at that time, capable of bearing even light mockery for my choices. In the evening after a day of cleaning, I assumed my inflamed sinuses were reacting to the snoutful of pulverized Sheetrock I’d inhaled.
The places we cleaned were spooky. Dust hung in the sunbeams, but not the organic human dust of sloughed skin cells. No one had ever lived in these apartments, no genuine human activity had occurred there. It felt the opposite of haunted, or like I was pre-haunting it, cleaning it for people who would eventually live here and patina these surfaces and never know me, who had touched every one of them.
The uniform dust, the absence of life in a container built to hold life felt stagey, somehow pornographic—it was all cheat out and finishes that had visual form but no other sensory aspect. Next door to this new building was a very old one. Brick, with pocked and pitted and sometimes missing metal shutters alongside the windows. Graffiti on the wall read “Megadeth” “I heart Jen” and “Fuck off.” Bedsheets hung inside many of the windows, and stuffed animals were wedged against them. There was a woman with pink hair who lived in there who sometimes flung paint from buckets out her window and it would streak the siding of the new building and the contractors would replace the section of ruined siding. She threw other trash out her window too, and we came to call the space between the buildings “Tampon Alley.” Looking across while I cleaned windows in the new building, I had no illusions that life in that brick building was easy, but I liked knowing the paint bandit existed there. Her chaotic energy gave the place some life.
Lying in bed the morning after I’d chalked up my stuffy nose and tight chest to the drywall dust, I leaned my face into my partner’s neck and found a blank. I could not smell him. His skin was like a plastic nothing, a white space. I went downstairs and tested myself for COVID and the positive line fairly glowed pink. I walked around sniffing things even though I knew my sense of smell was gone, just for the gee whiz trick of it: nose in the bag of coffee beans, crush a handful of basil, open the fridge door to inhale deeply what I had noted yesterday smelled like spoiled greens. Nothing. I watched my partner cooking up a pan of garlic and onions and cabbage and the steam cloud roiling up out of it smelled like nothing. It looked like a trick. It looked like plastic food and fog machine illusion. I was astonished and fascinated. It was not like the muted sense of smell of a cold, where the stuffed up nasal passages merely dampen things. I was breathing freely, with no congestion. The air flowed clear and direct into my nose and mouth, but it was emptied, sterile. My own saliva tasted like nothing, like distilled water, flat.
In an effort to keep the rest of my family from contracting the virus, I isolated myself in the bedroom, and when I did come down to where anyone was, I wore a mask. My world narrowed mostly to the one room. I chewed chocolate chips that tasted like wax nuggets. I read a book. I failed to respond to any emails because the world outside the room seemed to have ceased to exist.
The first morning of isolation, I sat on the bed to do my daily meditation. Eyes closed, vision and smell both cut off, the world outside me fell away completely. I could still hear the cars outside, the dim noises from downstairs, but those anchors were insufficient for me to locate myself. I lost any sense of being indoors or out, or what room I was in, what shape it was, how high the ceiling, how close the walls. The feeling spooked me, like waking up in pitch darkness and being unable to tell the difference between your eyes open, and your eyes closed, when the black seems to pressurize against your corneas like a second set of eyelids. The loss of smell did something like the opposite of that pressure; all space was equal, all space had dilated endlessly, all space was like outer space. I could feel the bed under me, but felt like the bed was floating, like my umbilical cord to the world was severed. I could not have said what the room usually smells like because usually I register the room as having no smell. But now that it truly did not have one, there was something like texture missing. The air felt thinned out, rare, nothing like the broth the house usually, apparently, brims with.
My sense of smell returned after a day and a half or so. I cleared the virus quickly, testing negative within three days and emerging from isolation. I went back to cleaning new construction. The apartment building is disorienting. The units don’t have doors yet, but I have no landmarks since the spaces within all look the same. I can’t tell whether I’m on the fourth floor or the first, the left side of the building or the right, from the hallway. These places don’t feel like places. On the higher floors, I feel like I am floating in free air, in the space that the building now occupies that used to be empty enough for the pigeons to fly through. It feels like a hologram. It feels like porn — like sex you watch and hear but cannot touch or taste or smell, an ancient, swampy act cleaned up and studio lit until it vibrates in only a tinny register.
At the end of my work days, I take a shower to rinse away the gray dust stuck in a film of my own sweat, but sometimes, what I really crave, after hours in these nowhere places is to roll, like a dog, in something real, to cloak myself in filth and come alive again.